Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Ring of the Nibelung - Stewart Robb Translation

Just finished reading the 1960 Stewart Robb translation of Richard Wagner's libretto for the "Ring Cycle" operas. Although not considered a standard text among English translations, Robb's edition is highly readable (as far as librettos go) and one of the more clearly understandable renditions (as far as Wagner goes).

I have to say that I've never been a big fan of opera, finding it ridiculously contrived as a theatrical medium and hopelessly outdated as a style of music (as with most of classical music), but this whopping monster is really something else altogether. Conceived originally in 1848, Wagner first captured his ideas of composing an opera based on Norse mythology in The Nibelung Myth as Sketch for a Drama, a short rough draft in prose form (click the link to read or download). The final work took some twenty-six years to complete (in spurts amidst political revolutions and exile), being performed in its entirety for the first time in 1876.

Based primarily on sections the Elder Edda and The Volsunga Saga, with additional segments from the 13th century Germanic varation, The Nibelungenlied, Wagner's masterwork (commonly dubbed "The Ring Cycle") spans four complete operas - The Rhinegold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried, and The Twilight of the Gods - requiring 15 hours of stage time to perform. I've never managed to make it through an entire production on video, finding it intolerably tedious as stage drama, but during the writing of The Saga of Beowulf I listened to it quite extensively, often playing it for days on end while working on specific passages (the battle scenes in general, and the final funeral procession in particular - this is, in fact, where I took the inspiration for Haereth's immolation, as envisioned here in Robb's cover art). Having come to know the score so well, and having read all of Wagner's source material - but not knowing German - I've wanted for some time to read an English translation of the libretto.

The main thing that struck me was how much Wagner added to the story, inventing entire passages, and changing characters to meet the needs of his theme and plot, while drawing what he needed from these varied sources to produce a complete, cohesive whole, which in many ways is far more powerful than any one alone. For example, the scene in The Valkyrie in which Odin strips his daughter Brunhilde of her immortality and sends her into exile among the humans contains one of the most poignant and passionate appeals I've ever read. That said, I feel that Wagner also missed some key opportunities to develop some underlying concepts further. Of these, the conflict and contrast between the mortal lives of men and that of the immortal Gods is foremost: this could (and should) have been made much stronger in the final sections of The Twilight of the Gods, where we hardly see the Gods at all. And here I was also astounded by the fact that Wagner chose not to include the traditional apocalyptic Nordic myth of Ragnarök, the final battle of the Gods that is pre-destined to bring about their end. But perhaps this was just too much, and would have drawn away the focus from the human characters. Still, I was disappointed not to see the Fenris wolf take down Odin.

As for Robb's translation, I can only say that it was clean and fairly easy to follow for such a convoluted plot and so contrived a medium as operatic poetry. His vocabulary is essentially modern, without the "thous" and "thees" I've seen in glancing at other translations. In addition, the syntax of his lines is straightforward and relatively unencumbered, having the feel of an Old English style, much akin to Howell Chickering's translation of Beowulf. I intend to read some others soon for comparison, among them those of Jameson and Spencer. I'll let you know how that goes.