Even Wagnerites don't always take Das Rheingold as seriously as the three massive operas which follow it in the Ring tetralogy: Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Goetterdaemerrung. First of all, unlike the others which tend to run towards four or even more than five hours (some productions come close to six), the first opera of the four runs barely over 2 1/12 hours. Of course, it's four scenes are now often performed without intermission, so it does become its own kind of challenge.
But this opera has lots of exposition, more story than sustained singing--no major songs, no Ride of the Valkyries. But tonight at Kennedy Center, we saw it as the first in the second Ring cycle that Washington National Opera is presenting over a three-week span. And the staging, the orchestra, and the singers were absolutely magnificent.
Wagner's music is the supreme ingredient--exciting, compelling, even at times subdued and enticingly seductive. Conductor Philippe Auguin deserved the rave reviews he and the orchestra received for the first cycle. This opera introduces all the leitmotifs--the musical themes that Wagner associates with ideas as well as characters. There's one for the Rhine, for Valhalla, for each of the main characters, and this time, I couldn't help noticing the strains of the fire music that will end Die Walkure but which is associated with Loge, who is a principal character only in Das Rheingold, and is the god of fire summoned by Wotan near the end of Act III tomorrow night,
Loge, here a demigod who does not share the heedlessness of the privileged gods, provides the element of trickery that Wotan requires to recover the Rhine gold from the dwarf Alberich. His status was higher in the Norse version of the same Germanic legends Wagner drew on: he always appears as a tricky character, rarely to be trusted. Here he saves the gods' bacon and you end up respecting him more than them.
Wotan also receives his first prophecy from Erda, the earth goddess, who warns him about wanting to hold on to the ring. We will see, of course, that his grand plan comes undone, at times by his own limitations of imagination. The gods in Wagner are far from being omnipotent nor omniscient in these operas.
This was a wonderful opening and I'm looking forward to the three longer but fuller evenings, beginning with tomorrow's Die Walkure, with its three acts that get progressively better and each contains so many marvelous musical moments.