Perhaps there should be a rule that Historically Important Works of Art should be nice and short.
Mozart knew this when he was writing dinky little tunes for tight-wearing Austrians with miniature attention spans. Alfred Hitchcock knew it too, famously quipping that no film should last longer than the capacity of a human bladder.
Richard Wagner, however, was having none of this. He was a man of the passionate belief that operas should be long, they should have fewer tunes, and way more helmets.
Nowhere was his fetishisation of the frickin’ enormous more evident than his notorious Ring Cycle. It’s a corpulent tale of magic, gods and goddesses, heroes, dwarves and helmets. It’s so long and German you could fry it in cooking oil and call it a sausage. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan. But seriously dude, enough with the notes.
The trouble is, it’s also a stunningly important work of art and therefore history. It gives vast insight into 19th century culture and Romanticism. Wagner himself was a complex individual. He was almost certainly both anti-semitic and anti-capitalist (I know. Mind blown.). He named his first son after one of his characters borne of incest. Depending on your perspective he’s either one of the greatest ever artistic geniuses, or the man who ruined classical music forever. He’s also indirectly responsible for the single greatest book title in musicological history.
But, fellow historians, fear not. For the good of humanity, and because some of us have time commitments, I’ve put together a Completely Helpful guide to this crucial piece of art.
Because Wagner’s great, but there’s an awful lot of it.
Everything starts off well. The Rhine is a-flowing, the sun is a-rising, and – somewhere extremely Teutonic – three beautiful maidens are having a sing. For about five minutes all is good and pretty. Alas, though, the bliss is promptly shattered by Alberich, who’s an arsehole.
He’s got the ambition of Jeremy Hunt but without the people skills. He’s also, unfortunately, got a face like a half-eaten Cornish pasty, and is thus roundly mocked by the Rhinemeangirls. But, lo!, he then spies a big stash of gold they’ve been looking after for a mate. They tell him he can have it, but only if he renounces love. Because he’s a total asshammer, he agrees, thus permanently ruining the universe. Git.
Wotan, meanwhile, has had a new shiny castle built, and he wants to show it off. Unfortunately, he paid a price. He got a couple of giants, Fasolt and Fafner, to do the building work, and they did that builder thing where they suck in their breath, say ‘we can do it, but it’ll cost’, and then demand your sister-in-law as payment.
This is quite a bummer for Wotan, not least because Freia (for it is she) is being defended by Froh (the god of yoghurt) and Donner (the god of kebab). So, in an orchestral interlude which is strangely evocative of the escalators to the Victoria Line, he and his son Loge descend down to Nibelheim, a colossal shithole. Here Alberich, having forged the gold into a ring, has enslaved a load of dwarves and forced them to repeatedly bang anvils. Git.
Fortunately, Loge (as shown in the documentary film Thor) is clever, and – in the kind of plot twist you normally only see in Hollyoaks – he tricks Alberich into changing himself into a toad, using a magic helmet. Captured, Alberich trades the ring for freedom, but not before putting a curse on it that means that everyone who wears it will die horribly. Git.
Finally, there’s an extremely large amount of God-squabbling, in which Wotan thinks about trying to keep the ring, but is persuaded against this by the Earth Goddess, who has randomly just returned from Wholefoods. So he gives it to the giants in return for his sister-in-law, and watches Fafner promptly club Fasolt to death. But, it’s getting late and the cheap housewarming Cava is going flat, so they all go into his new castle (he calls it Valhalla) and dance away the evening to a Liszt orchestral tone-poem.
There is a storm (this bit is really cool. Seriously, if you don’t know it, have a listen). A chap called Siegmund goes for shelter in a house, which belongs to Hunding. By an Astonishing Coincidence, it turns out that not only has Hunding been chasing Siegmund, but also that Hunding’s wife is Siegmund’s sister, Sieglinde (srsly). Somewhat surprisingly, Siegmund thus tries to kill Hunding and marry his own sister. This is, after all, the Nineteenth Century.
Wotan, meanwhile, concerned that things were just not complicated enough, has randomly shagged the Earth Goddess and given birth to Brunnhilde, a Valkyrie. She tries to protect Siegmund, but is overruled by Wotan who then also kills Hunding just because he looked at him funny. Brunnhilde decides instead to leg it with Sieglinde, who is now pregnant by her brother. Yay.
Meanwhile, a bunch of Valkyries (who are supposed to collect the souls of dead warriors) go for a ride, napalming some shit and checking the prowess of the Vietnamese surfing team, before coming to rest on a mountain. Brunnhilde then turns up with a live woman, Sieglinde, which is a flagrant breach of the Rules of Valkyrieing, and thus a mightily-pissed-off Wotan punishes Brunnhilde by making her mortal (note: not in the Geordie Shore sense). But, he also agrees to let her have a snooze on a mountain top protected by magic fire. This can only be crossed by someone who knows no fear, or the Ocado delivery man.
Alberich has a brother, Mime, who’s also a colossal shithead. By another staggering coincidence, he’s raising a young boy called Siegfried who’s not only the child of Siegmund and Sieglinde, but also knows no fear. He’s being trained by Mime to kill Fafner who’s randomly turned himself into a dragon because why not. Siegfried goes into the forest, pretends to be a bird, luring Fafner out of his cave, and kills him.
Siegfried then takes the ring and the magic helmet, which we’ve all been missing a lot. A woodbird sings about a woman asleep on a mountain, so Siegfried decides to go and check her out. He passes through the magic fire, Brunnhilde wakes up and sings him a mindblowingly good tune which – in problematic moment for those of us who argue Wagner wasn’t a Nazi – begins with the word ‘Heil’.
Siegfried and Brunnhilde awake and share an awkward breakfast; he fries her a couple of eggs on the Magic Fire, leaves her the ring of power, and sets off on her horse, thus avoiding having to do the Walk of Shame. Arriving at the Rhine, and because it’s been at least ten minutes since we were last introduced to a new mythical kingdom, Siegfried enters the hall of the Gibichungs. Here, in a series of plot twists that wouldn’t disgrace the Shadow Cabinet, someone called Gutrune drugs Siegfried with a love potion, making him fall in love with her, meanwhile he also promises to Gunther (Gutrune’s brother) that he will help her win Brunnhilde. Siegfried then visits Brunnhilde, violently claims her as his wife and snatches the ring, all the while using the magic helmet to disguise himself as Gunther. He then returns to the Rhine, leaving Brunnhilde on a boat with Actual Gunther. Brunnhilde, understandably, is less than pleased and not improbably also quite confused.
Meanwhile, as if to make things worse, Gunther’s right-hand man is a guy called Hagen, who is also Alberich’s son, and who now swears to kill Siegfried. Looks like our hero picked the wrong day to quit sniffing glue.
A wedding feast is called, and like all good weddings, it ends in a series of violent deaths. Siegfried is taken off to the forest and stabbed by Hagen; Hagen then stabs Gunther, and Gutrune dies of grief. Brunnhilde, who has put on some weight, returns, decides the best way forward is to have a little singsong and BURN SOME SHIT. She rides her horse into the flames, killing herself and leaving an angry Wotan to pay the ceilidh band. The Rhine bursts its banks and the Rhinemeanies drown Hagen. The ring falls back into the river, and just while Wotan is calling his insurance company, he realises he’s left the toaster on in Valhalla, which promptly disappears in flames, the curtain falls, and a crowd of opera-goers quickly hurry out to the loo.
Epilogue. You’re probably wondering, after all this, what happened to Alberich. Amazingly, we don’t really know. Perhaps Wagner wanted this to represent the continuation of evil, but some believe that after writing hours upon hours of libretto, music, and helmet specifications, he simply forgot. If the latter, I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when, years later, he realised his mistake. Sheeeeeeeeiiiiiiiissssssseeeeeeeeeee!