Two exciting things are happening this Sunday, 13th November. In London, Regents Opera open their brand new, pared-down orchestration of Wagner’s Das Rheingold at Freemasons Hall, Covent Garden, the start of a new Ring Cycle (details here). And on the same day, Yellowstone Season 5 airs on Paramount in its native US (arriving in the UK 24 hours later).
You may think these two events are not connected, fortuitously or otherwise. But more and more, I’ve been struck by Yellowstone’s startling depth of resonance with Wagner’s Ring. It’s not just that they both offer the discerning audience member literally hours of sumptuous entertainment, mixing us a long, addictive cocktail of trauma, angst-ridden decisions, and violence (set in a glorious landscape, and occasionally seasoned with bitterly dark humour). From its key emotional axis, a passionate and tempestuous father-daughter relationship, to its sheer scale of artistic ambition, Yellowstone has much to offer the Wagner aficionado: to enjoy, but also to ponder. And it was Ben Woodward’s last Ring, in his company’s previous incarnation as Fulham Opera, which first showed me how well the Ring works in a Western setting (for interest, see my previous reviews here and here on Bachtrack; Regent Opera’s upcoming Das Rheingold promises the start to a similarly exciting cycle). What I never expected to find in the world, however, was a Western which could function, on any level, as a Ring.
I used to describe Yellowstone to my friends as “Wuthering Heights meets The Godfather in Montana.” And while those clues remain useful, it soon becomes clear that it’s really a Ring for modern-day rural America. And where will it end? The destruction of the Dutton dream seems implicit from the beginning, but as Season 5 approaches, they’re still desperately fighting fate; yet the parallels with Wagner’s masterwork only grow, often with tragic poignancy, as Yellowstone’s seasons unfold. The intriguing thing is: this may all be completely unintentional, a sheer cosmic parallel. Has anyone ever seen Taylor Sheridan near an opera house? Does he play Die Walküre Act 3, Scene 3 on loop in his pickup? [I am beginning to think, as you watch John and Beth Dutton, that, surely, he must…]
Like Wagner, Taylor Sheridan maintains total control over his work: Sheridan both writes and directs Yellowstone, just as Wagner refused to work with a librettist, and conducted the Ring premiere himself, also controlling all aspects of staging (in modern terms, Wagner was ultimately his own writer, producer and director, and even laid down staging instructions which few dared to deviate from for years afterwards). Wagner built Bayreuth; Sheridan has now (in January 2022) bought the Four Sixes ranch in Texas, which will provide both fictional setting and real-life filming location for his upcoming series 6666. [One key difference here, of course, is that while Wagner was perennially broke, Sheridan has managed to accrue significant cash, though both did experience significant failures and frustrations early in their careers.] But aside from their magnificent insistence on full control over their artworks, which led Wagner to bargain with kings, and Sheridan presumably to win some tough negotiations with the kingmakers at Paramount, it’s the mountainous scale of their artistic ambitions that really unites Sheridan and Wagner.
In the Ring, Wagner reinvents opera: what it can do, what it is for, and who it is for. Opera, and indeed Western theatre, has never been the same since Wagner, and nowhere do we find his vision more brilliantly executed than in his mysterious, beautiful and lifechanging Ring. Wagner, in the nineteenth century, was keen to open the reach of opera to humanity as a whole, to create an art form which spoke directly to the Volk, the people, and not just the privileged (though he did, of course, expect the privileged to pay for it). He destroyed and remade opera’s physical forms and conventions to forge a new way for music to speak truth to an audience, and for a narrative to flow unhaltingly through music. Sheridan’s vision for his reinvention of a genre – in this case, the Western (both historical, in 1883 and the upcoming 1923, and contemporary, in Yellowstone and 6666) – is no less ambitious or profound. He also finds an opportunity to embody his own philosophical questions in his work, fleshing out a complex and, at times, contradictory moral universe which alternately inspires and traps his characters in terms of action – just as we see in the Ring. The Duttons are both part of the modern world, and gloriously beyond it, just as Wagner’s gods are immortal and yet intimately connected to the fate of their world; the Yellowstone ranch, like Valhalla, is both a blessing and a curse, destiny and doom, just as Wotan’s first bargain with the Giants is merely the first step towards the total destruction of the world order, himself included (Götterdammerung). Sheridan also enhances the voice and agency of Native Americans in his reinvention of the Western genre, a key theme which runs deep throughout his career (cf. earlier films like 2017’s unsettling Wind River): the Indian Reservation looms, like Nibelheim, on the edge of the Duttons’ consciousness, a sad place from which greedy eyes gaze on the ranch with a sense of long-held (and not unjustified) grievance.
*Please be aware – Yellowstone plot spoilers do follow, particularly if you know the Ring well!*
The Yellowstone ranch, like Valhalla, is the result of a bargain: we actually see the bargain made, at the end of 1883, between James Dutton (John Dutton’s pioneering ancestor) and the leader of the Crow tribe, who gives Paradise Valley to the Dutton family on the basis that his people will want the land back in seven generations, a condition to which James Dutton freely and openly agrees. But, like Wotan’s attempt to cheat the Giants of their fee for building Valhalla, this bargain sets up the key tension for the future: seven generations later, the Duttons aren’t willing to give the land back; not to a local tribe, nor indeed, to anyone. Instead, they choose to fight all comers, which brings about destruction and pain all over the shop, just as Wotan’s ill-fated decision to pursue the Ring (to which he has no true right) ultimately destroys the world.
Kevin Costner’s brooding John Dutton channels both Wotan and the Wanderer, Wotan’s wilder incarnation in Siegfried, by turns. As Wotan, Dutton exerts and exudes power across the state of Montana, calling in favours, creating alliances and accruing power, to himself and to members of his family, wherever possible. Dutton wields state offices, like the oaths carved on Wotan’s staff, to block and frustrate his enemies; but gradually, his freedom to obey his own will, just like Wotan’s, becomes constrained by his own power. Dutton longs for the simpler life on his ranch, where he can feel free and in control of his creation; but the more he values that, the more he has to protect it by ultimately doing things that take him further away from it. From time to time, he goes into ‘Wälsung-mode’ and indulges himself secretly in violence (by order, or in person) to solve a problem; but the problems just multiply, hydra-like, in response. Slowly, like the Wanderer, he begins to step back from his existence, to re-evaluate it, helped by the occasional reminder of his own mortality. And then Sheridan gives him yet another problem to deal with.
John Dutton often turns to his daughter Beth for help with these problems: a natural born Brünnhilde if ever there was one. Obsessively loyal to her father, Beth sees herself as an extension of his will in the world, put on earth to execute his every wish, just as Brünnhilde does for Wotan. She fights his enemies, solves his problems, even tries to make him eat healthily; there is no part of John’s life that Beth does not feel she has a part in, just as Brünnhilde feels there is no division between herself and Wotan until their terrible opposition on the battlefield over Siegmund’s corpse in Die Walküre, Act 2, Scene 5. The horrendous pain, misunderstanding and mutual recriminations of Die Walküre Act 3, Scene 3 is all replayed in detail in Yellowstone Season 4, episode 9, when John Dutton castigates Beth Dutton for her role in the downfall of activist Summer’s arrest: Beth’s shock and angst was so fierce, it nearly melted my television. Their father-daughter relationship as a whole reverberates consistently on a Wotan-Brünnhilde axis, sometimes blissful, sometimes brutal, and always obsessed with one another to the exclusion of all others.
Beth Dutton has a second Ring role to play in Yellowstone: she’s a fierce and tender Sieglinde to Rip Wheeler’s heartstopping alpha male Siegmund. Brought up in quasi-fraternal closeness, the two begin a passionate clandestine relationship, united by mutual trauma (each feeling guilt, in different ways, for the deaths of their respective mothers). It is hard to imagine two modern-day characters more like Wälsungs: Beth, a bringer of violence both inside and outside the boardroom, and Rip, an indentured killer who worships John Dutton from a distance as a father-like benefactor, yet never feels securely part of his family, even when invited to live in the house. Like Siegmund and Sieglinde, their love may perhaps one day be fatal, but it is also the most glorious and transcendent of passions – and begins on a forbidden basis.
The only member of the Dutton family who could possibly be described as naive, Kayce makes a natural Siegfried. A ferocious and respected soldier, he is easily intoxicated and confused by love (and women). He is also easily manipulated by those around him, and cannot believe ill of his own family, even when it becomes really quite hard to ignore. He is powerful in his defence of Yellowstone, but one can’t help feeling that ultimately, it will be Beth who finds a way to save the ranch, if anyone can; just as, ultimately, Brünnhilde alone will be only person who can save the world by immolating herself and the accursed Ring in the final scenes of Götterdammerung.
Although many enemies turn up as pseudo-Alberichs throughout the series, the principal and earliest Alberich is Chief Rainwater. He’s running the reservation, he’s been to a serious university, and he wants the land back for his people; and he’s ready to raise billions to get it, by fair means or foul. As the seasons go on, Chief Rainwater and John Dutton even form an occasional and uneasy alliance, just as the Wanderer and Alberich coexist for a moment in armed neutrality outside Fafner’s cave in Siegfried, Act 2, Scene 1. But eventually the real Alberich of the piece is revealed as the poisonous, wheedling criminal Garrett Randall, with Jamie Dutton an unwilling and psychologically tormented Hagen.
The fifth season of Yellowstone may, or may not, turn more Wagnerian wheels in the audience’s mind. Who knows what Sheridan has in store. And Regents Opera’s new Ring is, perhaps, unlikely to involve Stetsons this time around. But from the ravening wolves and ravens of Montana, to the formidable cast about to assemble on the Freemasons Hall stage in London, this is another exciting moment for the Ring, as it finds yet more new and bewitching forms – through history, across the world, and into our subconscious.