Donner’s Party: Wagner’s Das Rheingold on the Ring of Fire

From the current Seattle Opera production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold (Photo Philip Newton).

Near the close of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the first of the four operas that make up his epic Ring of the Nibelung cycle, Donner the God of Thunder delivers a depressing weather report—literally so, since a low pressure system hangs over him and his fellow not-so-immortal gods as they ready themselves to cross the Rainbow Bridge into their newly finished mountain palace, Valhalla.

Even without professional training or access to the latest weather metrics and models provided by advanced meteorology and climate science, Donner knows whereof he sings (in antiqued German): “A muggy haze hangs in the air; how oppressive is this gloomy pressure. The looming clouds threaten thunder.” A proponent and practitioner of geo-engineering, Donner boasts that he’ll simply swing his hammer and release the pent-up anger of the heavens in flashes of lightning and volleys of thunder. Like a cavalry bugle call, the motif he sings leaps fearlessly between the pillars of a B-flat major triad whose elements foreshadow that most famous set-piece of the Ring—the windy, high-altitude Ride of the Valkyries:

As emitted by the booming baritone of Matthew Chioldi on this opening night of Seattle Opera’s 60th season, Donner’s climatic lines rang out to the last rows of cavernous McCaw Hall, its 3,000 seats nearly full of Wagner devotees. But these buffeting strains could have—should have—echoed across the Pacific Northwest, the rest of the country, and the world.

In the theaters of ecological war extreme weather was presenting its own hyper-realistic dramas to much larger audiences: across the land swept tornados that would have ripped the hammer from Donner’s brawny hand; triple digit temperatures seared the American West; winds and torrents wrecked the Atlantic coast; apocalyptic island conflagrations savaged the farthest shores of Empire. Other portents seem slower to emerge but are coming essentially as fast when gauged by geologic time. The Ring of Fire mountains encircling Seattle were once snowy even in summer. These peaks now shed their icy mantles faster than Donner can sing “Heda! Heda! Hedo!”—the fearsome Eco-Echoes that presage the air-clearing blow from his glinting hammer.

Saturday was a perfect evening in Seattle—mild, clear, and calm. This made Donner’s weather worries all the more unsettling.

What Donner and his admiring Seattle ecotopians have so badly misunderstood is that not everything can be fixed. Technology is not the answer, except for one failsafe implement: a moral compass.

Donner wants to purify the heavens not just of extreme weather but of Wotan’s self-deceit and sin. This chief of the gods maintains his hold on power and feeds his taste for luxury through theft and lies, while blithely explaining away the disastrous consequences that ensue from his dealings. Wotan’s head is in the sand and, by the end of the epic, will be underwater too. Sung in Seattle with a magnificent mix of austerity and grandeur by the towering Wagnerian Greer Grimsley, Wotan is a self-rationalizing narcissist whose schemes will spell the end of the gods. Like them, their billionaire descendants of the present age rape and pillage and build their doomsday-bunker Valhallas. Now the Earth kicks up a fuss that even gods and engineers won’t be able quell.

The opera ain’t over until Erda sings, and when she did in the person of Denyce Graves her voice rose up, frayed and cracked. Whether this was by design or overuse didn’t matter: her message was all the more meaningful. Sheathed in glimmering green corset, her head haloed by organic vines (costume designer Matthew LeFebvre’s work running from eco-green to Nordic grunge), Graves’ performance was both poised and enraged, wounded and weaponized.

No one could hear Erda through the walls of the opera house, and even if they could, they wouldn’t have listened. Yet her voice rang out the apocalyptic truth from coasts to coast and beyond.

From my aerie with armrest (sadly without drink holder) tucked in the rafters of McCaw Hall and flanked by my Wagnerian patron and college roommate, I could observe the whole theater of the theater, the feedback loop of actors and audience: the big hair and proud brows of all those wannabe Valkyries out in the auditorium; Mextly Couzin’s raking lighting effects playing off thousands of enraptured faces; the guy in gold lamé who’d cut a glittering figure in the cathedral-ceilinged foyer, dazzling in the long light of late summer in these northern latitudes shared, half a world away, with the Rhine as it descends from the Alps, gathering up its tributaries.

Washington has its own Rhine. The once mighty Columbia has also been plundered, the river dammed and dying, the salmon damned and all but disappeared. The Pink Gold is gone. (Patrice Chéreau’s centennial Bayreuth production of 1976, conducted by Pierre Boulez, set the cycle in a hydroelectric dam, and I yearned for a similarly local approach to this Rheingold.) In the megacity of Seattle, the Amazonian demi-gods flit about in their Teslas, unable to outrun the brute fact that the fire is coming, just as it is does at the end of the Ring.

As in the real world up to which the theater is meant to hold a mirror (or do I mean solar panel?), the weather over Valhalla results from grave ecological injustices. At the start of the proceedings a greedy dwarf called Alberich snatches the Rhine’s gold from the three slippery Rhinemaidens (the fabulously flirty, then outraged Sarah Larsen, Jacqueline Piccolino, and Shelly Traverse) he lusts after. If he can’t have sex, he’ll take the money and run.

Alberich’s robbery starts the yarns of fate entwining, for from these rare earths the all-powerful ring will be fabricated. In Seattle the role of Alberich was taken by the goggled and glorious baritone Michael Mayes. He hails from the Cut and Shoot, Texas, a violently named town worthy of Wagner and a lot of other high-mortality-rate opera too. Mayes pursued the malevolent homuncular part with an obsessive eagerness for each melodic turn of irresistible greed and exploitation. Mayes stole the gold and the show.

It’s no coincidence that it was during the mid-nineteenth century that Wagner indulged his fantastical regression to a Gothic epoch of blonde gods and heroes and dark, deformed villains scuttling about the rivers, forests, castles, caverns, and huts of Olde Germany. During Wagner’s day, the Rhine was being poisoned by progress, the sacred forests felled, the mysteries of yore demystified on an industrial scale.

Het up with nature-lust, Wagner invented musical Deep Ecology, and it makes a certain sense that his music dramas should have flourished in the Evergreen State. His Ring has been crucial to the Seattle Opera brand over these six decades, a span that has birthed three memorable cycles. The last of these was the so-called Green Ring, directed by Stephen Wadsworth, presented over the first decade of this anthropocenic millennium and set in the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. That production was retired ten years ago, but out in what’s left of the real forests, the few remaining cedar, spruce, and fir giants face up to eco-Armageddon with stern resolve. The lesser two-legged giants Fasolt and Fafner of the present Rheingold—a mash-up of high-tech circuity and garden-variety Gothic—were more demonstrative but no less doomed. In Seattle these heavy lifters of the stones for Valhalla were sung with hair-raising, slow-burn menace by Peixin Chen and Kenneth Kellogg.

At the start of Saturday’s show the curtain went up to reveal the oversized Wagnerian orchestra filling the stage—a quartet of ship-like harps in a sea of strings and winds. From out in the house came tepid applause, more conditioned response than real enthusiasm for this underpowered array, one economical rather than aesthetic. The production had already been mounted on the cheap in Minnesota and trundled out West.

Wagner laid out his own theater in Bayreuth, still in use to this day; a performance is underway there as I write. (This summer in Bayreuth it’s Parsifal with Augmented Reality, AR-headset fittings in the foyer—an immersive experience that Wagner might well have approved of). In order to avoid distracting attention away from the drama on stage, Wagner put his orchestra in a deep pit completely hidden from audience view. This subterranean position is akin to that of the exploited Nibelung who forge the gold in the bosom of the earth. Spreading out the instrumentalists across the stage was either a big middle finger at, or a thumb in the eye of Wagner. Maybe he deserves both.

In spite of Wagner’s certain posthumous disgust at this Seattle set-up, it seemed paradoxically right to see instrumentalists raised from their own proletarian depths, strings sawing away and winds blowing their portentous and ponderous motifs. Rendered invisible by Wagner’s innovations, their labor was now brought out into full view. This might serve the musicians union well when it comes time to renegotiate their contract. Given the pared-down production values, one fears that tough times are ahead. Planting the orchestra in the middle of the proceedings conveniently prevented scene changes, thus reducing costs.

With the stage occupied by the orchestra, there was little room for the gods, dwarves, nymphs, and giants to do their business. Conductor Ludovic Morlot was set on a podium center stage. To one side of him ran an alley angled through the orchestra and through which the singers could move between the two zones of action. The orchestra pit became the apron of the stage, which served as the wading pool of the Rhinemaidens and as Nibelheim—the mine-shaft dungeon of the Nibelung. Spanning the stage above the orchestra was an industrial metal gangway along which the gods paced and panicked.

In order to enliven and expand these cramped spaces came video projections and an on-stage camera that beamed the threatening visages of the giants up to the screen at the back of the stage. These video designs began as interlocking gears during the long prelude—an inexorably crescendoing E-flat-major chord from which Donner’s motif, and myriad others in the Ring, ultimately derive. These spinning cogs updated the yarns of fate woven by the Norns, the daughters of Erda, in the last opera of the cycle, Götterdämmerung. These engines of early industry soon gave way on video to the modern circuits of the digital revolution still, as it were, gathering steam and vital to Seattle’s ongoing economic boom and ecological degradation. In other words, semiconductors beat time above the maxi-conductor, Morlot determined to draw lush sonorities into this de-natured scene, especially from the noble Seattle brass.

Wagner wrote the music and the texts for the Ring and molded the stage production in every way. A costume fetishist, he was keen on fantastically naturalistic sets. He dubbed this monomaniacal aesthetic and sensual experience the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art conceived and executed by one Artist—him. While composing, Wagner wore women’s stockings, ran his fingers through satin and velour, and spritzed the air with the finest Parisian perfume. Thus he engaged every sense in the act of composition—total art indeed. In a sweltering 19th-century theater with audience members clad in full Wilhelminian rig, many nostrils would likely have been challenged. McCaw is climate controlled.

During this Rheingold, Seattle appears safe from the elements. This run of performances comes a few years shy of the 150th anniversary of that first Ring mounted back in Bayreuth in 1876, a month or so after the Battle of Little Bighorn. Amidst angry weather everywhere, Seattle’s Wagnerian project seems to be running out of gas. Here’s betting that no amount of clean energy will resurrect it.

Mother Earth has the hammer now.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com