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the ring of polykrates

12 february 2018

The Ring of Polykrates is a short narrative poem by German Romantic icon Friedrich Schiller. It's a take on the old story of the appointment in Samarra – the theme being, you can't outrun your fate.

I wouldn't be writing about Schiller's poem if I hadn't just seen Erich Korngold's opera by the same name, composed in 1914 when its author was 17, first seen in 1916. The Ring of Polykrates is not very frequently performed – Operabase suggests that in recent years it's been tied for 741st among the world's most frequently staged operas – but it's a pleasant hour-and-change in the theater. The production in Dallas in the winter of 2018 featured a brisk orchestra and some singers who found a way to be silly without constantly mugging. Even at that, many of the attendees around us spent the opera's one act laughing hysterically. Maybe after a few margaritas anything'll get you.

Schiller's Ring of Polykrates is an ominous little ballad. The title king seems blessed with an unbeatable string of dumb luck. His pal, the King of Egypt, warns him that he's riding for a fall. You can't pitch a perfect game, in life, says the King of Egypt; at least I'm sure he would have chosen that metaphor if he or Schiller had known about baseball. You've got to give something to get something – preferably, you've got to give something you really set store by, to avert the eye of Fate.

Polykrates promptly throws a precious ring into the sea. But the next day a fisherman brings him the most awesome fish, who happens to have swallowed the ring. The King of Egypt gets the hell out of town, fearing the worst. The moral of the story is that if you can't lose, you're never going to win.

Schiller's poem stands as an uneasy point of reference in Leo Feld's libretto for Korngold's opera. The setting is Austria (maybe the 18th century originally; the Dallas Opera set the show in the early 20th). A tenor named Wilhelm stands for Polykrates. Wilhelm has everything: he's recently married, he's newly rich, he's just gotten a promotion at work. Then a bass named Vogel shows up and reminds him of the Schiller poem. You've got to give something up, says Vogel, so he suggests that Wilhelm ask his soprano wife Laura the Schicksalsfrage, the doomsday question: had she loved anyone before Wilhelm? Well, she had: Vogel himself, as Vogel well knows.

This could get sinister in a hurry, but fortunately the couple has a pair of servants who copy whatever they do, and the servants conduct some comic imitation of Wilhelm and Laura's sparring over the Schicksalsfrage. The masters see this burlesque and realize how well they're off. They agree that they must still make a sacrifice to keep their happiness intact: the sacrifice will be Vogel, who gets turned out of doors. The other shoe might still seem ready to drop; but a quick curtain solves all problems.

Schiller, Friedrich. The Ring of Polykrates. [Der Ring des Polykrates, 1797.]