Benjamin Poore reviews The Ring of the Nibelung by Richard Wagner

Translated from the German by John Deathridge (Penguin, 2018)

The curtain rises. Part of a rock cave is in the foreground, stretching on the left further into the background, but on the right it takes up roughly three-quarters of the stage. Two naturally formed entrances open out into the forest . . . A large forge, formed naturally out of pieces of rock, stands against the back wall toward the left; only the large bellows is man-made. The crude chimney-pipe—likewise naturally formed—passes upwards through the roof of the rock. An extremely large anvil and other forging appliances.
Wagner, Siegfried, Act One, Prelude and First Scene. (trans. John Deathridge)

Siegfried, the third instalment of Wagner’s sixteen-hour, four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen, is an opera whose titular hero is the redemptive emblem of the natural, the primal, the authentic; his music—a leaping horn call in F major, the cleanest and clearest of musical keys—promising something ebullient and free. He is a hero who is close to the earth and to a nature that was corrupted before he was even conceived.

His love for Brünnhilde, daughter of Wotan, the king of the gods, will redeem a world that has given up on love in favor of power, and Siegfried’s love for her—so exulting in the ravishing music of Act Three of Siegfried—is exemplary because, like him, it emanates from the natural world itself. Siegfried, when we first meet him, is friend to the birds and the beasts: he returns to scold his appalling adoptive father Mime with his bear-friend Brün.

This is one reading of what Siegfried, a totemic figure in this opera, might represent, and one of which we might be cautious. It appeals to his purity, and to a Blut und Ehre Romanticism that leads somewhere ideologically toxic: the betrayed hero, born of the forest, whose death underscores the corruption of the current order and demands its conflagration in the revolutionary arson with which Götterdämmerung climaxes. Nature had been corrupted by the politicians, and even Siegfried couldn’t save it: so much the better to burn the world down. It’s a bitter pill for lefty British Wagner lovers to swallow that the Michaels of Brexit—Gove and Portillo—are card-carrying Wagnerians.

That the Ring provides a meticulous study of the psychology of politics and power is beyond question, but we might be wary of its implications for our own political cynicism and the kinds of heroes we might think will save us.

A closer look at the text makes a nonsense of such a straightforward reading. Siegfried begins in a cave in the darkest of forests—so far, so Freischütz—but Wagner’s description of the scene is a metaphysical mess. The magic word is “naturally” (natürlich): the entrances to the cave are “naturally formed,” we read; so too, strangely, is the “forge” in which Siegfried will remake “Nothung,” the sword expressing his newfound individuality; the chimney for this most industrial of things is also “likewise naturally formed” (ebenfalls natürlich).

We seem to be caught between nature and culture, where forges rise up spontaneously out of the ground, as if by magic. Siegfried is brought up by Mime, who is not his father, and the gross fake of their dysfunctional family romance is rumbled in the course of Act One, all despite Mime’s best efforts to explain away his and Siegfried’s striking lack of resemblance. (Indeed, they are both tenor roles, though utterly different in timbre and mood.) Natürlich, Siegfried is having none of it and notes that offspring look like their parents. Siegfried’s journey involves discovering who he is, which entails both a return to something more primal and “real,” as he learns to commune with nature, and the creation of something new in the forging of the sword Nothung.

The symbolic register of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen has an unavoidable resonance for translators and for readers of literature in a different language (pretty much the default position for opera lovers). It’s a story that explores the corruption of origins, the possibility of redemption or purification in the natural and authentic, or the idea that redemption might be found in ciphers, like Siegfried, for something untainted. Translation always demands compromises, a degree of flexibility and errancy; such choices invariably reflect some dimension of power and ideology. In the Ring, the messiness of politicking causes a lot of bother. And it’s doubtful a translator of Wagner could live up to the apparent heroic purity of Siegfried or Brünnhilde.

There are more straightforwardly practical problems with the Ring though. As translator John Deathridge points out in this new version, “the whole idea of an ironclad authentic version of the Ring is moot.” By the time of the first performance of the Ring in Bayreuth in 1876, Wagner had made countless emendations to the text, which ranged from an “idiosyncratic” handling of punctuation, to wholesale changes to the alliterative schemes that structure the verse, to the deletion or addition of lengthy scenic descriptions and stage directions.

For Deathridge no version of the text can be “authentic in every detail,” partly because so much of what Wagner fussed over putting in the printed score didn’t end up being “sacrosanct when it came to performance.” Detailed records of Wagner’s direction (what we would now call Personregie) of the first 1876 Ring are included in Deathridge’s version (hugely illuminating in and of themselves). These notes are “continuously inventive and surprising,” often subverting or supplementing what one finds on the pages of the published score(s). 

And on top of this, there is the question of what it means to translate a text best known sung and perhaps unimaginable without the music that supports it. Unlike Andrew Porter’s version for English National Opera in the 1970s (conducted by Reginald Goodall in a truly titanic recording), or Jeremy Sams’s 2002 version for the same company, Deathridge’s is not a “singing” translation. There are moments that gel nicely with the music, but you’ll have little luck singing along. Sams and Porter found themselves constricted by the considerable challenge of writing a translation that fits Wagner’s exacting musical contours: easier with German than Italian operas, but still no mean feat.

Deathridge’s version, then, to be blunt, is unfaithful to the theatrical and musical context which constitutes the Ring as a dramatic whole: the very concept of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art” in which artistic disciplines are synthesised, means that the text of the Ring cannot—and should not—be imagined without the utterly breathtaking music to which it is set.

But so much the better. Edward Said was wise when he valorised being unfaithful to Wagner in the London Review of Books some years ago. Deathridge’s trade-off is a canny one, as his translation, flexibly and vividly conceived, shines a special light into the literary and psychological depths of the Ring—provided you don’t, as a Wagnerian, think a translation’s singability is the only game in town.

In a letter of 1877 Wagner was clear that he wanted his works performed in English, as “only in this way can they be intimately understood by an English-speaking audience.” But his own contradictory views on translation don’t make translating his work a straightforward task. In 1851’s Opera and Drama he is scathing about translations of French and Italian into German: “Neither a poetic, nor a musical intelligence has ever been set in motion for these translations.” And he found the business of translation rather onerous. Discussing bringing a French version of his Tannhäuser to the Paris stage in 1860, he claims to have endured “the most harassing torments” with his translators.

What Wagner finds most vexing is the effect of the translation of Italian and French opera on German singers, claiming these poor renderings make them utterly indifferent to the text being sung and consequently empty it of dramatic meaning altogether. For Wagner bad translations stultified the core relationship of opera, that of text and music. Singers relinquish “the useless trouble of pronouncing the vowels and consonants,” and text becomes a “mere hindrance and difficulty to the singing voice . . . now employed as a musical instrument pure and simple.”

It is to this problem that Wagner responds in Opera and Drama, one of four key treatises he wrote between 1849 and 1852, just after beginning work on the scenario for the Ring. Whilst The Artwork of the Future is perhaps his best-known essay because of its formulation of the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, it is in Opera and Drama that his approach to text becomes so distinctive.

Wagner’s concern is with the function of end rhyme in libretti. For him it punctuates the dramatic rhythm of opera in a way that distends and distorts the text, offering great scope for melismatic, virtuoso digression that distorts meaning and psychology: composers see lines as the pretext for solo or ensemble musical exploration, indifferently jamming text into preordained musical forms (the revenge trio, the cabaletta aria, the patter song). Ideas and feelings sketched in the text become an indistinct background racket.

For the same reason, he is skeptical of ensemble itself: singers delivering different lines at the same time obscure the meaning and weight of those lines, and quintets or trios are just so much musical variety designed to entertain the audience. This is why the Ring (and subsequently Parsifal and most of Tristan und Isolde) has everyone take their turn when it comes to singing. Text, in the nineteenth-century bel canto repertoire of Meyerbeer and Rossini, is a pretext only for music; opera becomes a static set of numbers, aria and recitative, rather than an immediate and unfolding theatrical continuum.

Alliteration is Wagner’s solution. Stabreim gives lines of text—two or three containing an individual thought or gesture—an internal consistency that directs attention to meaning and significance, rather than spun-out phrases that display virtuosity and purely “musical” inventiveness. Alliteration provides Wagner’s poetry with enough glue to hold its ideas in suspension and creates the drama’s curiously open-ended, processual feel (in bad performances this becomes mere ponderousness).

His fascination with alliteration also connects him and his audience to a tradition of medieval epic poetry: in Wagner’s field of vision were the Old Norse poetic Edda, the Old High German Hildebrandslied, and the later Nibelungenlied. One aspect of this poetry’s appeal is clear: a bardic culture evoking a (now lapsed) unity of artist, text, and music toward which his idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk aspires. The cultural politics of this gesture are easy enough to parse: an archaic verse form and earthy subject matter inaugurate the kind of national epic and cultural community Wagner imagined himself creating in the Ring. It has all the mythic cachet that emergent nineteenth-century nationalisms might want for their imagined communities; and Deathridge draws a keen comparison in his introduction between the folk fairytales of the Brothers Grimm and Wagner’s own project.

There’s another paradigm shift that Wagner tries to stimulate in his writing of the text of the Ring. Opera libretti rarely have the level of literary finish that would make them interesting texts on their own terms (with the clear exceptions of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s collaborations with Mozart and Verdi’s work with Arrigo Boito), and librettists were traditionally of lower status than their composer counterparts, efficiently and effectively churning out verse easily accommodated to a highly programmatic situation.

Wagner instead refers to the Ring as “Dichtung,” poetry, appropriating for himself the place of inspired literary genius over competent theatrical artisan, and elevates the creative importance of text in opera to the level of literature and poetry in its own right. As composer of text and music, Wagner may too be gesturing to the medieval lyric tradition of the Meisterlied or “Mastersong,” the most famous historical exponent of which was the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, who would become the hero of Wagner’s 1868 Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

The translator’s task when it comes to the Ring is made especially onerous by this vaulting ambition, and it is redoubled when we consider the operas in performance. Wagner’s revolutionary gesture of turning the house lights down at the beginning of Das Rheingold meant that patrons would be unable to read the libretto as the action unfolded, until then standard practice. The text itself is swallowed up by a deeper and wider aesthetic experience: for Deathridge this means that Wagner requires the audience to go “beyond reading,” the text becoming “an entrance ticket to a utopia of pure human feeling, an immersion in vision and sound in a darkened space.” This means the end of literature as literature, its absorption into the totality of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Though, as Deathridge points out, this can, paradoxically, only be achieved by creating a “literature of no mean order” itself.

It’s this kind of entanglement in pure sensation Deathridge describes that drives Wagner fans so crazy, and which other people tend to find so invasive or unpleasant. (A friend of mine once described Tristan as “like being in a car crash, but in a good way.”) Nicholas Spice, asking whether Wagner is “bad for us” in the LRB, describes the inexorable, invasive aspect of Wagner’s unique combination of text and music, asking “whether it’s really possible to keep Wagner at a distance without losing something essential in our experience of his work.”

This overwhelming immediacy and rush of sensation are key parts of Wagner’s poetic procedure, and again they pose special problems for translators. It’s a text that sometimes prefers to make sensation rather than sense. We might look, for instance, at the opening lines of Das Rheingold, sung by Woglinde, one of the three Rhine maidens:

Weia! Waga! Woge, du Welle,
walle zur Wiege! wagala weia!
wallala, weiala weia!

This poetry teeters on the edge of noisome nonsense. (As Anna Russell observes in her hilarious introduction to the Ring, “it doesn’t mean A THING.”) The first two words are an aqueous exclamation whose elemental force starts to approach sense in “Woge, du Welle”: “Wandering waters” in Porter’s translation; “Swell up, you waters” in Deathridge’s. The considerable gulf between these two interpretations should indicate just how slippery the semantics are here (Jeremy Sams goes for the rather disengaged “Beautiful water / Swirling around us”). Deathridge’s version holds onto the metre more percussively than Porter’s, and its imperative chimes with the prehistoric drive of Woglinde’s incantation.

But semantic order—subject, verb, object—only makes its way precariously. Sense doesn’t take charge from sensation for long, and the currents drag us back the other way: “wagala weia! / wallala, weiala weia!”

These opening lines really are a torrent of sound, containing all the major vowels on which music is sung. Wagner’s employment of his Stabreim is so insistent that sense never really had much of a chance compared to sound. At one of the first musical climaxes of the opening scene, Wagner drops narration in favour of more noise, as the Rhine Maidens swim around the gold:

Heia jaheia! heia jaheia!
wallala la la la leia jahei!
Rheingold! Rheingold! Leuchtende Lust,
wie lach’st du so hell und hehr!

The music of the verse takes flight, the rhythm beaten out in the w’s and h’s, and the pitch undulating with the vowels. It’s hard not to hear in the background of the alliteration employed throughout the Ring a more primordial music, one more in love with its sound and texture than its sense and meaning, even when Wagner engages in his densest political and philosophical adventures.

Nietzsche, whom Deathridge cites in his introduction, praises this in Wagner’s poetry: “Earthiness of expression, reckless terseness, control and rhythmic diversity, an extraordinary richness of powerful and significant words, the simplification of syntactical constructions, an almost unique inventiveness in the language of surging feeling and presentiment.” It’s an approach to poetic language that instantiates a kind of chaotic freedom, represented in the opera by characters who are not just the most elemental but crucially the ones able to forge their own destinies. Siegfried rushes into Act One of his eponymous opera shouting the untranslatable epithet “Hoiho!” and laughing wildly all the way up to a larynx-shredding top C; Siegfried and Götterdammerung are frequently punctuated by his joyful hooting and howling. We later learn that it’s not through speech that he communes with the natural world but rather through his horn: another non-linguistic form of relation to the primeval.

When Siegfried tastes the magical blood of the dragon Fafner, he is endowed with the ability to understand the birds with whom he has been trying (and failing, in one of the work’s comic touches) to communicate. In turn it is the character of Woodbird who gives meaningful voice to what were previously purely instrumental musical gestures, then pointing Siegfried toward his destiny: to pass through the magic fire and awaken Brünnhilde, shattering the power of the old order in the process. Indeed, noise often equals freedom (political and personal) in the Ring. The Valkyrie Brünnhilde, who ends up cleansing the Ring’s broken world in Götterdämmerung, bursts onto the stage in Act Two of Die Walküre with a stream of iconic and virtuosic nonsense: “Hojotoho! hojotoho! heiaha! heiaha!” The textured musicality of Wagner’s Stabreim points to a kind of fallen world of pure sensation, and the poetry of the Ring evokes incommensurability between sensible language and language as sensation, inscribing something alive but untranslatable and strangely distant at its heart.

Vividness, valorised by Wagner himself, is the watchword of Deathridge’s translation. He’s therefore keen to ditch Wagner’s archaisms, preferring what’s down to earth. There are many illustrative examples one could turn to throughout the text, but Wotan’s extraordinary exchange with Fricka in Act Two of Die Walküre is an excellent one.

In this scene, Fricka, Wotan’s wife and the goddess of marriage, takes him to task for, well, almost everything. First, his serial infidelity whilst disguised as the mortal Wälse, as whom he sires the incestuous twins Siegmund and Sieglinde. Second, his fathering nine Valkyries with the goddess Erda. And third, his shady attempts to use the “free” hero Siegmund—who he has really raised as a kind of sleeper agent—to win back the ring of power claimed by the giant Fafner as payment for building Valhalla (safe to say Wotan was already in Fricka’s bad books after he originally promised her sister Freia as payment for it instead.)

Here Wotan speaks in dissembling riddles: “ . . . what I’m striving to grasp / has never happened . . . This impasse requires a hero . . . independent of their laws; only he is capable of taking the action / that the gods need . . . but which this god is forbidden to take.”

The last line is delivered “with momentous expression and somewhat dignified,” according to Wagner’s rehearsal notes, which Deathridge includes here. But Wotan’s dignity and “momentous expression” are a sham and Fricka knows it: “You’re misleading me / with profundity.” The hint of an end rhyme in those lines, not something in found Wagner’s German (“Mit tiefem Sinne / willst du much täuschen”), maybe hints at Fricka’s concern to cleave to convention: “Routine,” says Wotan, “is all you understand,” and for Deathridge it’s poetic as well as moral.

But Fricka’s bluntness and plain-spoken nature are what Deathridge’s translation underlines. “Who gave stupidity insight?” (“Wer hellte den Blöden den Blick?”), she remarks, in a brilliant send-up of Wotan’s own tortured rhetoric, before getting idiomatically to the point: “You want to pull the wool over my eyes with new trickery.” The former line is much closer to Wagner’s German, in its translation of Blöden as “stupidity,” than Sams’s 2002 version: “Who kindled the fire in their eyes?” which, although evocatively Promethean and retaining the verb “hellte” from the German, conceals Fricka’s condescension toward the Wälsung twins and her godly superiority.

Fricka and Wotan’s dialogue is an object lesson in the way Deathridge’s translation intersects the two axes of the mythic and the domestic in this Ring. Deathridge gives many moments a homely feel (if nothing else the Ring is the story of a group of deeply dysfunctional families). Fricka speaks of having to “put up” with Wotan’s infidelities, and Deathridge includes the disarmingly intimate rehearsal note “Really close to Wotan and very softly (as if she wants no one else to be able to hear)” in their exchange; later he renders täuschen—illusion or deception—as “Are you playing fast and loose with me?”

The everyday or mundane dimensions of the action return throughout the text of all four operas: the first act of Siegfried begins with Mime exclaiming, “Slaving, slogging! / No end to the grind!”, which we might contrast with Andrew Porter’s more elevated “Wearisome labour! / Work ’till I drop!” or Sams’s more existential “Torment on torment, / When will it end?”

Wotan’s response to Fricka’s invective is ergriffen, which Deathridge renders as “deeply affected,” a phrase holding open the question whether Wotan’s ideas about Siegmund’s freedom are calculatedly deceptive or tragically self-deceiving. Deathridge’s assonance and internal rhyme describe the trap of Siegmund’s fake freedom: “He’s defiant, but reliant on you alone.” Siegmund’s disdain for the laws and customs of men and gods is meaningless; his non-conformity is utterly in the service of Wotan’s ambitions. It’s a great illustration, in translation, of the Stabreim principle that undergirds Wagner’s poetry, where vivid alliteration pins together complex clusters of thought.

Deathridge’s Fricka is more aggressive and aggrieved than in other versions: her keen understanding of Wotan’s deceitfulness is sharpened and she attains a ferocious ethical clarity at points, skewering Wotan with her deadpan delivery. (It’s hard not to think of Dame Sarah Connolly’s steely performances of this role when reading the scene.) Though Deathridge also captures Fricka’s vanity and self-importance: she is “erupting in high dudgeon” earlier in the scene, and she moralises about “your perfidy’s licentious fruit,” a line which smacks deliciously of eighteenth-century opera seria

Deathridge ditches most of Wagner’s calculated archaisms, although the effect is not to make characterisation monochromatic through too much demotic. It’s not dissimilar to Seamus Heaney’s lauded translation of that other alliterative masterpiece, Beowulf, or indeed Simon Armitage’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Deathridge’s plainspoken approach imbues the text with a cool, abstract modernity, imprinting the characterisation more boldly and cleanly than the ornate blackletter of Wagner’s original style.

Stripping Wagner of his affected archaism is a good way of defusing the more reactive strivings of the project’s cultural nationalism; the kind of mythic naturalism in the text is also utterly out of step with the way Wagner is staged and performed now. Deathridge’s translation sharpens the psychological realism of the text whilst turning down the mythic mood-music.

This approach is not without precedent. A lot has been gained, politically and artistically, by being unfaithful to Wagner today. Adorno’s later rapprochement with him was contingent on Wagner’s work being staged in such a way that its discontinuities and contradictions are articulated. A whole tradition of Wagner stagings in Europe has attempted to confront the tainted cultural politics of Wagner himself, beginning with Patrice Chéreau’s 1976 Marxist reading of the opera, and continuing today with Barrie Kosky’s “Nuremberg Trial” Meistersinger, Kasper Holten’s feminist Ring for the Royal Danish Opera, or Stefan Herheim’s astonishing Parsifal, which reads the action of the opera back into German history and the Bayreuth festival itself.

This confrontational approach to the work is enormously fruitful, as we can see here, when it comes to translating the text too. Deathridge is highly critical of Alfred Forman’s first-ever English translation of the text, which “replicates Wagner’s alliteration and German word order far too exactly,” and whose exactitude paradoxically “dooms” the words to “virtual meaninglessness.” It’s all the more damning that, as Deathridge reports, Wagner thought highly of Forman’s attempts himself: an excellent reminder that, as with Siegfried, throwing off the laws of the old gods may be no bad thing.