My latest self-improvement project has been to increase my familiarity with Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. After a preliminary fortification with a stack of learned studies, I deemed myself ready to experience a performance of Das Rheingold on DVD.
My flight of discovery crashed and burned within minutes. No matter how toney the Jungian analysis or erudite the commentary, sooner or later the curtain must come up, at which point the honeymoon is over. Wagner’s epochal masterpiece is revealed as: 1) three fish-costumed women pantomiming swimming, 2) a porcine fellow in a frog suit clambering over a stack of papier-maché rocks, and 3) a tasteless quarter-hour watching the frog-fellow putting the make (unsuccessfully) on the fish-ladies.
Life offers few letdowns to match this, excepting those sorry revelations concerning Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. And it gets worse. Neither the fish-ladies nor the frog-fellow are allowed even a minimal dignity as silent archetypes. No: they are required to spout distressingly puerile dialogue. Frog-fellow Alberich attempts to pick up fish-lady Wellgunde as follows: “Those lovely arms come twine round my neck, so I can touch you and play with your tresses, and fondle your breasts in my passionate, burning embraces!” Wellgunde replies with all the elegance of a trailer-trash floozy on Saturday night: “You hairy old hideous imp! Scaly, spotted and sulphurous dwarf! Look for a sweetheart black as yourself!” In plainer language, Alberich says: Let me feel your tits. Wellgunde says: Go fuck yourself, geek.
Perhaps the glutinous German language—which Lady Bracknell dubbed “eminently respectable”—pastes a fig-leaf over this tacky potboiler. However, Wagner’s criminally nasty alliteration immediately dissolves any starch clinging to the Teutonic stuffed shirt. Andrew Porter’s translation, quoted above, reduplicates the offense, which is why Alberich is “scaly, spotted, and sulphurous.” Shakespeare, a vastly superior poet to Wagner, skewered such chintzy doggerel in the “Pyramus and Thisbe” section of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Everybody’s favorite poetaster Bottom bawls out:
Whereat with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely broach’d his boiling bloody breast;
And Thisbe, tarrying in mulberry shade,
His dagger drew, and died.
Shakespeare’s lampoon always gets a laugh, but any properly indoctrinated Wagner audience will receive the absurd Schwarzes, schweiliges Schwefelgezwerg with hushed reverence. But they really ought to be rolling in the aisles.