Wagner’s Wotan Clan: An Archetypal Operatic Goldrush for the Ages

LA Phil and its Music & Art Director, Gustavo Dudamel, are taking Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold out of the opera house and into the concert hall to present Das Rheingold, the first of the ambitious librettist/composer’s mammoth, marathon 17-hour, musical/ theatrical, four-opera extravaganza known as The Ring Cycle or Der Ring des Nibelungen. Das Rheingold – which refers to the gold of the Rhine River, not to the official beer of the N.Y. Mets – is set in primeval Germany, its characters and story  derived from Northern European mythology.

Wagner’s magisterial, majestic, moody music is perfect for evoking these mythic gods, giants, dwarves, trolls, nymphs, Valkyries and other figures, plus tales, from lore that existed centuries before Christianity spread to Europe and Wagner wrought his “Bühnenfestspiel” (stage festival play) about the epic quest and struggle for a magical golden ring that endows its bearer with omnipotent powers.  

Upon entering Walt Disney Concert Hall, from on high in my eagle’s nest seated in the front terrace, I had a splendid overview of the space. I couldn’t help wonder where the performers would hold forth from, as the 60-or-so musicians (including up to seven harps, as well as anvils!) in the orchestral pit dominated the front of the hall, with five gigantic white swathes of fabric hanging from the ceiling behind the players. But after that Venezuelan virtuoso Dudamel rose in an unassumed way, without pomp or ceremony seemingly from amidst the instrumentalists, and wielded his baton to conduct, the mystical mise-en-scène became clear.

Directed by Alberto Arvelo, the action took place on different layers of the multi-level hall, mostly behind the orchestra. But some of the movement occurred on a narrow sort of walkway ringing the pit that separated the musicians from the ticket buyers ensconced in the front orchestra seats. The scenic design was rendered by Frank Gehry, the architect who’d designed the iconoclastic Disney Concert Hall, which is currently observing its 20th anniversary, and this Das Rheingold production celebrates Gehry, who turns 95 this month. Lighting designer Rodrigo Prieto provided mood-altering illuminations. Video – of a river, rainbow, gold ring, etc. – created by a team of four was projected onto the aforementioned fabrics-cum-screens, as were English supertitles translating Wagner’s German lyrics (which were not easy to read and often moved too quickly to follow).

After a mood-setting musical prelude, the drama unfolds, as three Rhine-maidens (sopranos Ann Toomey and Alexandria Shiner, mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven) cavort at the bottom of the fabled river. There, Alberich (played by baritone Jochen Schmeckenbecher, who is not a misshapen dwarf as the character is intended to be) stumbles upon and becomes entranced by the nubile pneumatic nymphs, but his lust for them is thwarted. Alberich also learns of and steals the invaluable Rhine gold the young women have been guarding, opening up the floodgates for this auric odyssey that involves the gods.

From atop their resplendent mountaintop palace named Valhalla, bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green as Wotan (Odin in Norse tradition), king of the pagan panoply of Northern Europe’s deities, and Loge (Loki in Norse religion), the trickster and god of fire, performed by tenor Simon O’Neill in droll golden lamé garb fashioned by costume designer Cindy Figueroa), become embroiled in the search for the gold that a magical ring can be produced out of. Much Wagnerian Sturm und Drang ensues. 

There is much overlap between the Scandinavian and Germanic heathen legends, and in the fourth scene Donner (bass-baritone Kyle Albertson) and his mighty hammer appear to summon a mighty storm to save the day. Of course, the Norse knew Donner as Thor, god of thunder. I’m going to take a wild guess that Santa’s reindeers, Donner and Blitzen (Dutch for “Thunder” and “Lightning”), derive their names from this legendary character. (Call it “Eddie-mology.”)

Having crossed Europe last May aboard a Viking River Cruise largely on the Rhine, Das Rheingold was particularly resonant for me. But after all is said and done about Wagner’s masterpiece, what does this two-and-a-half hour (with no intermissions or readmissions, BTW) all mean? For one thing, the Rhine-maidens’ spurning of Alberich is a source of deep sexual frustration (which is always sure to cause your Sturm to Drang). Possession of the golden ring may empower the wearer with cosmic abilities, but he/she must renounce love in order to put this piece of glowing jewelry on his his/her finger.

LA Phil’s program notes correctly point out that when Wagner was about 35, he was “a leftist revolutionary” who “first imagined [the Ring Cycle] as a parable of contemporary political cataclysm in Europe circa 1848,” a year when revolution swept European countries. Indeed, Marx and Engels co-wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848, and for his political activism on the side of the working class, Wagner was actually exiled from Germany and lived in exile at Zurich and Luzern, Switzerland for years. (See:

With the plot’s emphasis on insatiable greed and craving for unlimited power, there may be something to this.

These ancient legends and Wagner’s dramatization of them onstage and aurally are arguably the archetypal, Ur-source material for some of contemporary society’s most beloved, in-demand pop culture. Fritz Lang’s 1924 silent film Siegfried; J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy; Marvel’s comics and “Multiverse;” and Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger all derive elements of their sagas from this Germanic treasure trove. (By the way, this production’s cast members aren’t all Aryans, the performers are multi-culti.)

Be that as it may, hearing Wagner’s score performed by a live orchestra and his lyrics sung by 14-ish vocalists garbed as gods in nondescript costumes is a culturally thrilling experience for the ages, not to be missed by lovers of classical music. Under the baton of Maestro Dudamel, that Wotan of sound, the LA Philharmonic rapturously, admirably acquits itself with a sonorous production that’s nothing less than a musical goldrush. Working their inimitable magic, along with Frank Gehry, these artistes have transformed the Disney Concert Hall into another “Magic Kingdom,” a reasonable facsimile of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, Germany where Der Ring originally premiered in 1876 – right here in Downtown L.A. in 2024. 

Das Rheingold will be performed Saturday, Jan. 20 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 21 at 2:00 p.m. at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012. See:


Rheingold Images; Credit Timothy Norris