Has anyone seen the Ring end this way?
VASSALS AND WOMEN TOGETHER: Wotan! Wotan! Ruling god! Wotan, bless the pyre! Burn hero and bride, Burn the faithful steed: So that free of wounds and pure, All-father’s free companions, Valhalla can greet them United in eternal bliss!
(The flames come together high over the victims so that the disappear completely from view. In the darkest foreground Alberich appears behind Hagen.)
ALBERICH: My avenger, Hagen, my son! Save it, save the ring!
(Hagen turns quickly and throws aside spear and shield in readiness to leap into the flames. Suddenly there comes from the fire a blindingly bright light: On a bank of clouds (as from the ashes of a doused wood fire) there appears the light in which one can see Brünnhilde, as she — in helmet, radient armor, and on a brilliant steed, as a Valkyrie — leads Siegfried by the hand through the air. At the same time as the cloud lifts, the waves along the Rhine’s bank swell up to the hall and the three waterwomen, lighted by the brightest moonlight, carry away the ring and the Tarnhelm: Hagen throws himself at them like a madman in an attempt to wrest the ring from them: The women seize him and drag him into the depths. Alberich sits down with a lamenting gesture.)
Neither has anyone else. This is the ending of Siegfried’s Tod, the first “poem” that Wagner wrote to set to music for the project of the Niebelungen’s Ring. The scene went through many alterations — what scholars call the “Feurbach Ending” (“Not wealth, not gold, nor godly pomp.. blessed in joy and sorrow love alone can be”) and the “Schopenhauer Ending” (“Grieving love’s profoundest suffering opened my eyes for me: I saw the world end”). As Bryan Magee put it, Wagner “radically reinterpreted his own work while still engaged on it.” (The Tristan Chord, Henry Holt 2001, at p. 126)
Yet always, always, the “Vassals and Women” were understood to remain onstage at the end. The author describes the last moments of Götterdämmerung as follows:
Through the cloudbank, which has settled on the horizon, a red glow breaks out with increasing bightness. By its light, the three Rhinemaidens are seen, swimming in circles, merrily playing with the ring on the calmer waters of the Rhine, which has gradually returned to its bed. From the ruins of the fallen hall, the men and women, in great agitation, watch the growing fire-light in the heavens. When this reaches its greatest brightness, the hall of Walhall is seen, in which gods and heros sit assembled, just as Waltraute described them in the first act. Bright flames seize on the hall of the gods. When the gods are entirely hidden by the flames, the curtain falls.
All of this is witnessed by the masses assembled. What they are doing there is open to interpretation. Stewart Spencer observes, in his translation of the Ring (Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung: A Companion, Thames and Hudson 1993) that the published poem (1907) says that the crowd watches in sprachloser Erschütterung (in speechless dismay) whereas the score says that they react in höchster Ergriffenheit (moved to the very depths of their being), suggesting some subtlety of intended purpose perhaps. Paul Bekker (Richard Wagner, Norton 1924) refers to them as “mourners” (at p. 448). But they are clearly there. Brünnhilde talks to them, tells them to build a pyre, uses them as audience for her peroration. Nowhere does it say they are swept away by the river, or burnt up by the pyre, or slink away because they remember that they have better things to do elsewhere.
Why, then, is Götterdämmerung so seldom staged with the people onstage to witness the final action? Wolfgang Wagner and Herbert von Karajan ended their cycle with the formation of a ring on an empty stage. Otto Schenk was so enamored of crashing down his massive pieces of styrofoam that all onstage had to flee for their lives and re-entered only cautiously and only in the last very few bars. Many stage directors — including Robert Lepage in the new Met Ring — revert to a “poetic” device of bringing back the first scene of the Cycle, below the Rhine, suggesting presumably that the story is a kind of ever-repeating “Groundhog Day.” Some suggest eternal void and the absence of all things — the end of the world. But it is nothing of the sort.
Stage directors who confront the author’s perfectly clear stage directions, and mount the show as written, often yield stunning results. Patrice Chereau’s crowd watched awed, then confused, then panicked, but finally centered and prepared for the future; and at last they turned to the audience as if to ask whether it was, too. Harry Kupfer read his 1848 as well as his 1876 Wagner, and had Alberich witness the apocalypse along with everyone else. In one Kupfer version Alberich grasped the ring, but it crumbled in his fist; in another, he bided his time by the stage apron while two children, finding their way with a flashlight, walked unsteadily in his direction, sensed his malignancy, and walked unsteadily in a new direction. Francesco Zambella had the common pioneers take back the natural world, standing tall and capable while a young girl planted the first of the next generation of Giant Sequoia in the fertile California earth.
Indeed, confronting the literal ending of the play seems to result in a surprising mutuality of perception among these theatrical interpreters: All of them feature children in some prominent way (such as Chereau’s costuming of one young girl in crisp white).
And it is impossibly moving, as the theme sounds that had not been heard since uttered by Sieglinde, at the moment her despair turned to ferocious struggle for the future of her unborn son. The kinder, the children, the future, the challenge to the youngest of us to do a better job, to redeem the sins of the gods and build a world based on human terms… these are the rhapsodic pictures that link together the final tableaux of Götterdämmerung that feature people, as the author so clearly envisaged. To quote Philip Kitcher and Richard Schacht (Finding an Ending, Oxford 2004): “[T]hough the world ends, the earth remains, still capable of renewal, still charged with this promise that we have come to know.” (at p. 201) Robert Donnington may have tripped across the purpose of the presence of the witnesses to the conflagration when he wrote that Wotan, in Walhalla, “waits quietly with his old order for whatever future the transforming fire may bring.” (Wagner’s Ring and Its Symbols, Faber & Faber 1963, at p. 273)
(By the way, if that last theme does not address, in its heart, the hopes we invest in our children, what does it mean?)
So fundamental is the role of the people in the final moment of the Ring that a production that fails to address it, to me, fails ultimately to address the moral core of the work. The crowd stands in testimony to the revolutionary question with which Wagner challenged us, and that V.I. Lenin so memorably threw at the 20th Century: You see what has happened in the past. Now, what is to be done?