Monday, July 7, 2014

Wagner's Women

Each of us, in his or her own ears, knows how the Wagner voices should sound.  The heroic voices probably capture us in our beginning fascination with the operas. In our heads we have a tone that matches the sound we expect from the heldentenor.  We sometimes forget that Siegmund does not sound exactly the same as Siegfried and Tannhauser is certainly different from Walther Von Stolzing. Still we know how we want the voices of these characters to sound.  We also have an "aural vision" of the heroic female voice--forgive my synesthesia.  Brunhilde, whether we hear Flagstad or Nilsson in the part, has a sound that we expect and love.  For many of us, these are the Wagner voices.

However, the operas are replete with other voices demanding our attention, especially in the women's roles.  Wagner presents us with characters whose voices act almost as foils for the strident, heroic voices of Brunhilde or Fricka. Perhaps the most difficult role in the Wagner panoply of characters is that of Brunhilde as she must transition from the strident warrior maiden of Die Walkure to the defenseless human maiden of Siegfried.  With the hero's kiss she awakens in full memory of her godhead, but then must realize her vulnerability and softness.  When we go to Gotterdammerung, the role changes once more as the character transitions from the vulnerable woman into the heroic, redeemer.  This must be an incredible challenge for any performer.

Wagner's other women, save Isolde, do not face such a great transformative challenge.  The composer sets before us a group of characters who share common traits, yet are certainly not carbon copies of each other.  While Elisabeth in Tannhauser must project the innocence and purity of this group of characters, she must at once be a foil to Venus but still have enough "grit and texture" to be a worthy adversary.  "Dich teure halle" requires both the pure, ethereal voice of the Virgin Elisabeth and the gritty jubilance of Venus' opposite.
 Consider the role of Sieglinde.  Wagner gave her the impossible job of being the gentle, but abused wife of Hunding who must sing note for note against the heroic Siegmund and then become the contrast to the heroic Brunhilde. For those of us old enough, we still hear the voice of Lotte Lehman, then of Regine Crespin.  To my ear, the voice that captures the essence of Sieglinde is Claire Watson.
The voice is sweet and reflects the passion of the character without trying to be the heroic voice of Brunhilde.  A similar character is Gutrune in whom Wagner mixes corruption with innocence; yet Gutrune is nearly the same voice--the voice of the other Wagner woman.  Anyone who has heard the Culshaw/Solti Gotterdammerung must relish Watson's performance coming as it does among the evil blackness of Frick's Hagen, Windgassen's strident Siegfried, and Fischer-Dieskau's treacherous Gunther.

The character who best exemplifies simple purity is Lohengrin's Elsa.  Wagner has her constantly sing in contrast to the other characters--the evil Ortrud, the faithless Telramund, and the heroic Lohengrin.  Even in her confusion and fear of the last act, she is the crystal clear voice of purity. Walter Pater described aesthetic beauty as a "cool, gemlike flame." That is a perfect description of Elsa's voice.

The excerpt presents the corruption of Ortrud in contrast with the innocence of Elsa. Gwyneth Jones is at her very worst (she was experiencing vocal problems at this time in the 1970s), but she does sound like a witch and, as a result, emphasizes the purity and beauty of Janowitz' Elsa.
Here is Janowitz again--this is the epitome of that other Wagner voice.
We hear the voice in Senta, Elizabeth, and Elsa. It is as haunting as the strident notes of Brunhilde, but it is the side of Wagner that many overlook.

That leaves two characters who combine all of Wagner's female voices. The first is Isolde, who begins the opera as the heroic, defiant woman bent on revenge and ends as the gentle lover extolling her feelings for her lost love.  The other is Kundry who must be the humble servant, the wild wood woman, the temptress, and the humble penitent. As we can see both roles require the performer to project both Wagner voices--the wild, heroic voice and the gentle, penitent or innocent voice.  The task is huge, and the performance is aided by a singer who can act.  In the 1940s and 50s, the conducting platforms of America were occupied by and large by Hungarian conductors who claimed that conducting was done as much with the eyes as with the baton.  The auditory art has a visual presence.  There is one particular singer who sings as much with her eyes as she does her voice and the skill she brings to these two roles allows us to understand the range that Wagner gave his female roles--there is more here than the heroic battle cry of the Walkure.
First, Isolde, but while listening, watch how the eyes speak to us.
Finally, Kundry--her voice speaks loudly although she need not sing a word.  Waltraude Meier's face, eyes, and gestures let us hear her perfectly.

Those who cannot hear the other voices of Wagner will still enjoy the operas, but oh what they miss, even when the voices are silent, but still singing.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Wagner, Reverse Composition


Wagner seems to have a penchant for writing the sequel before writing the original.  Remember his struggle as he worked backward from Siegfried's Tod to create the entire Ring.  His fifth or third opera (depending on whether one counts his earliest works) was an effort to write a German opera using the German folklore and the writings of Wolfram von Eshenbach.  Perhaps the character study that Wagner made of Wolfram as the composer drew the story of Tannhauser together inspired him to pursue the myths further.  The significance of the swan as the symbol of Lohengrin seems to have fascinated the composer as much as it apparently did Wolfram.

The motif of the swan seemed to inspire Wagner's music to a crystal purity--idealistic, shimmering, jewel-like:


Only as he approached the end of his life did Wagner feel impelled to amplify the meaning of the so called Grail Narrative and the source of the swan motif.

I have purposely mixed a new voice with a familiar one here to illustrate the continuity of fine singing that the swan ideal inspires.  The point, however, is that once again Wagner finds himself called upon to provide a source after the original point has been made.  In this case many years later and with a different philosophical view of the world.

Lohengrin is unique among the Wagner operas in that no one illustrates the Positive Romantic train of sacrificing his/her ego (and life) for another or for the good of the world.  At the end of the Opera, Brabant has its rightful ruler restored (too young to rule), Ortud is banished taking her evil with her, and Elsa is dead (perhaps her sacrifice is not for Lohengrin, but for her brother).  Lohengrin, true to his knightly oath, sails away--hardly the catharsis we might ask for--yes, I know--it is more an epic or romance than a classic tragedy.

Mein Vater Parsifal--would, of course, become the subject of Wagner's last opera.  The germ for the idea of this opera was not what we might at first think.  Much has been written about Wagner playing with ideas for an opera with Hindu ties and Schopenhauerian overtones, perhaps incorporating Jesus. Fortunately what we received was the unique composition that not only embodied the Schopenhauer ideals, but made use of a variety of pre made images and symbols that assisted with characterization. Gurnemanz as John the Baptist and Kundry and Mary Magdaline anointing the chosen one whose sacrifice in the wilderness has redeemed the Grail realm.  His sin began with the killing of the swan--an innocent sacrificing an innocent. This is the source of the identification of the knights of the Grail with the swan.   The recovery of the spear reinvigorates the Grail--masculine to feminine--and the sacred realm is redeemed.  The answers to the many questions Lohengrin leaves us with are answered.

Notice the continuity as we hear the same voices extolling the redeeming speer.

Finally, Wagner's music shows us how the ideas complement each other as the final opera resolves the problems with the first.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

In Anticipation of Independence Day

After almost 80 years I am perpetually amazed by the ways my country reshapes itself and how it is viewed by those outside its borders.  Just when I assume that I have a clear understanding of the essence of the American psyche, an event occurs that mystifies me.  For example, in 1962 John F. Kennedy was an embattled President who was feared and disliked by as many people as he had supporters.  His assassination removed almost all of the opposition to his ideas and programs (guided to successful passage through the American legislature by his dark and sinister successor) and turned him into the most popular President of the twentieth century—even a rung or two above Franklin Roosevelt on the popularity ladder.  To further complicate the situation, those who had been the most concerned with Kennedy’s personality and programs became the very ones who sought to place blame for his death through the multiple conspiracy theories, which have essentially mythologized a man of ideals who in actuality accomplished little.  To protect this new image of Kennedy, we have the new trend of how he was betrayed and what a different world it would have been had he lived—he would have gotten America out of Viet-Nam, he would have made peace with the Soviet Union, he would have inspired an American Renaissance in the arts….  No wonder why there is a “dumbing down” in this country; we cannot put our finger on what was, only on what might have been the case.

I do not own a fire arm—I do not want to own one—I never have—in fact, I would probably be more of a danger to myself than to others if I possessed one. I am not the only American who feels this way.  But no one should be surprised by the number of Americans who hold on to their guns as adamantly as they do their bibles.  Bearing arms is ingrained in the American psyche.  The country was born as the result of an armed revolution against an established power.  Something that could never have happened with governmental gun control.   The country just beyond the civilized city limits of New York, Boston, or Philadelphia was a wilderness.  Crops needed to be supplemented with meat that had to be hunted for and then killed with firearms.  Also, since the settlers were stealing the land from those who had lived on it for hundreds of years, but had never done anything with it, so obviously it was not theirs, the settlers had to protect themselves and their new holdings with firearms (I hope the bitter sarcasm is obvious there).  Additionally, the basis for that revolutionary government came from the Enlightenment thinkers who had the idea that the governed had the right to remove a nonresponsive governing body by whatever means necessary.  The Declaration of Independence stakes out approximately 25 charges against George IIII as reason for armed rebellion.  Ironically, 85 years later when the Southern States sought to leave the Union because they saw a government that no longer represented their interests, the rights of the governed did not seem as important as “preserving the Union.”  Lincoln picked and chose the parts of the Declaration of Independence that he wished to follow.  He wisely turned the war between the states into a war to ensure that since all men were created equal (notice the last word is an adjective, not an adverb), they should enjoy the same rights—hence, the Civil War actually became a war to end slavery.  That way, the North could fight without being hypocritical.  Once again, an assassination turned an unpopular President into the “greatest American President” and with the help of the poet Walt Whitman (Captain, Oh My Captain) attained in death a level of esteem that he could probably never have achieved in living and facing the combative Republican members of Congress who like the assembled leaders at Versailles fifty-some years later wanted to punish their enemy (not quite to the extent of Rome salting the soil of Carthage, but nearly so). 

The twists and turns of American history are astounding.  We might consider that the firing on Fort Sumter was not really the cause of the Civil War.  Instead, we might consider the start to be the action of the abolitionist John Brown to capture the armory at Harpers Ferry, to take the weapons, and to arm the Southern slaves for an “armed” rebellion as the start—it certainly put the fear of death in the hearts of Southern slave owners.  Here again, the inheritance of the right to bear arms plays a major role in events.  The concept became even more engrained as “civilization” moved westward across the continent.  The manifest destiny to take control of the continent (never mind that the land belonged to others) spread settlers, ranchers, miners, and trappers across vast areas with very few towns (those that were there were tiny) to serve them.  Law enforcement was nearly nonexistent.  Just as hackers and phishers take advantage of our modern world, so rustlers, poachers, and other assorted villains sought to profit from the labor of others.  As a result, even a “sodbuster” (farmer) needed to own and know how to use a firearm. Colt’s revolver was named the “peacemaker” for a reason. This was a world of “rugged individualism,” and the individual needed all the tools (including a firearm) to ensure his success.  Besides, he would say, the Constitution protects it.  Ironically, the “Constitution” itself has no such provision.  The Second Amendment to the Constitution is the source of this idea and is the result of the objections of the great American Enlightenment thinkers (including Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration of Independence) who would not support the adoption of the Constitution without a “Bill of Rights” as a part of it.

As I look at the country today, I am appalled at the intense polarization of the population.  I am momentarily stunned by the depth of the divide that separates the two extremes. While the present situation has produced acrimony and deadlock, the split is nothing new and nothing that should be surprising when one remembers the history of the country, history extending back beyond the founding of the nation.  The American colonies were unique, each had a different reason for existing.  The first colony that survived was purely an economic enterprise—men came to make their fortune (unfortunately the was no gold to pick up off of the Virginia coast). The second colony came about not so much as a search for freedom of religion as freedom from the state religion. Spending my early life as a Congregationalist and being a member of the Pilgrim Fellowship organizations within the Church, I soon learned enough to know that if people could find a way to be ashamed of themselves for any of life’s pleasures, great or simple, the members of this church could do it. Bradford’s Diaries provide great insight into the founding of the New Jerusalem at Plymouth. I am always disturbed by his diction, which consistently mixes religion and business—when a person escaped death, Bradford tells us that it was God’s timely intervention, which was good because inevitably that person proved a “profit” to the community.  Americans hold this group of people in such high esteem that I always feel like the worst of iconoclasts when I suggest to students that the Pilgrims were the sixteenth and seventeenth century equivalent of the Taliban and that the people of England were happy to see them leave. 

The split between the motives for the colonies continues in American society today.  Each colony was founded for a reason. Pennsylvania and Maryland provide sanctuary for Quakers and Catholics. North and South Carolina were economic opportunities. Georgia was the early Australia—a prison colony.  New York and Delaware were spoils of war. New Jersey was the bridge to maintain trade and economic prosperity between the Northern and Southern colonies.  Interestingly enough, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Connecticut were also founded as an attempt to flee the state religion, only this time the Church of England was not the power being fled, but the Puritan Church that had taken control of Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The polarization of the land is obvious from its very beginning and is epitomized during the early history of the nation as the split between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  Unlike today, however, Adams and Jefferson were able to see past their philosophical differences and maintain a relationship that is inconceivable in today’s harsh, and vindictive climate.  We have simply carried the past into the present: business interests versus workers’ needs, agrarian versus commercial interests, religious and racial superiority issues, individual versus communal issues…all of these have always been present in America.  Why should they surprise me today?

Those of us who can remember often wonder what the world would have been like had certain events not occurred. General Grant, according to the “laws of war” had had every right to arrest General Lee as a war criminal at Appammatox Court House, when the latter surrendered.  Instead, Grant set the tone that was to be Lincoln’s means of “binding up the wounds” of the nation by sending Lee back to his troops and allowing the Confederate soldiers to keep their weapons and horses in order to return home and carry on with their lives.  Lee is reported to have feared that he would be hanged on the spot once the surrender was complete; Grant never had such an intention. He was listening to Lincoln’s “Angels of our better nature.”  Sadly, when Lincoln was shot, all of this changed. The South was shown no mercy, and in return, the South reinforced its prejudices and anger that lasted into the 1970s. Sadly it took another President’s death to begin to change this. 

What if Archduke Ferdinand had not been killed?  What if World War I had not been precipitated—I know that many feel that the War was inevitable, but what if? The U.S. would have maintained its isolation and resisted becoming a world military power. Instead, it would have become an economic leader competing with the world to make life better for everyone.  Without the Kaiser’s assistance Lenin would not have returned to Russia; there would have been no Soviet Union, no cold war, and no lingering suspicions between East and West. Without Versailles, Germany might have escaped the collapse of the 1920s and avoided the polarization of left and right that ended in another War.  For the US it would have meant no Red Scare, no McCarthyism.  On the other hand it would have meant no GI bill, which provided housing loans for Veterans who would otherwise have been unable to purchase property and tuition assistance that allowed for thousands of Veterans to lift themselves intellectually and open economic doors long closed to most of them and their parents.   Obviously we must take both the good with the bad.

For most of us who lived through that time the 1930s and 1940s were nightmares, nightmares that cloud and conceal the great things that happened during that time. The American Art scene enjoyed its greatest boost as refugees in the arts fled Europe ahead of the Nazi purges; scientists and philosophers crowded American Universities.  But for many the 1930s meant small pleasures, dislocation, and inconvenience--Inconvenience that was only made worse by the rationing and sacrifice of the 1940s.  It may seem na├»ve to speak about loss during World War II, when others in other parts of the world certainly suffered far more greatly, but perspective is everything, and to a youth whose father went off to war, whose mother went off to work, and whose supply of day-to-day necessities dwindled to nearly nothing, it seemed like a great sacrifice.

As a result, for most Americans, the 1950s seemed as if the nightmare had ended.  Instead we should have considered it a pleasant dream.  For most of us, there was prosperity and plenty.  But there was the rub—it was that only for those who conformed to the model.  As those of us who entered the decade as youths and aged to young adults, we slowly awoke from the dream, recognized the continued suffering of those who could not or were not allowed to conform.  Suddenly that pioneer trait of the individual reappeared.  A new call to freedom went forth, and many of us answered it.  President Kennedy was trying slowly to redeem the goals of President Lincoln from 100 years before.  Many of us were not willing to wait.  We rallied to the cause of Rights and Freedoms (darn that Jefferson and his Bill of Rights); we rallied to the call of Dr. King.  Our one goal was to remove the blindfold that masked reality as a pleasant dream and to allow everyone to see the remaining want and injustice that still existed in a land of plenty.  Not being good historians, we sought to change 350 years of American history in one short decade.


As I look back at the past and out on the present, I am neither disillusioned nor delighted.  But I live in a place where, despite the Patriot Act, I can still speak my mind, my beliefs that do not impact someone else’s are not forbidden, and no one forces me to attend those Fellowship meetings.  I worry about the attitudes of those around me—especially those who not only go to those Fellowship meetings but want to interpret every event and action through what they are told at those meetings—and about the loss of intellectual  rigor and artistic value that surrounds me.  Perhaps one of the saddest days in my life was when I realized that little stick figures had replaced the words Walk/Don’t Walk on the traffic signals.  I fear that intellectually my country has fallen and may not be able to get up.  However, resilience is in my nation’s character.  I have hope. Wherever you are, enjoy July 4 and share a toast with me.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Plum Role in the Ring

Wagnerians know that the Ring is rife with exquisite music.  The orchestra is called upon throughout the lengthy work to produce the grandeur not only of Siegfried's Rhine Journey or the Funeral March, but also the overwhelming subtle moods of the Forest Murmers and the mystery of the Magic Fire Music.  Rheingold challenges the orchestra to descend to the bottom of the Rhine and to Niebelheim, then ascend to the Heavens and bridge the path to Valhalla.  Within the operas, there are moments in which the music transfixes the listeners, so here is a key role in the productions. But opera is about singing.

Who is not enthralled by Siegmund in the first act of Walkure, and Sieglinde must sing note for note with him.  If done even with a modicum of talent, the singers of these roles leave the audiences' hearts palpitating with intense emotion as the twins run off into the night.  By the middle of Act iI, both characters are gone, like candles in a flame their roles have burned out and the glory of that first act is a distant memory by the end of Siegfried.  Siegfried has his moments--the forging scene, his confrontation with Wotan, the dawn of Gotterdammerung, the bludbrudershaft duet, and of course the Brunhilde awakening scene, which is the pinnacle of the third opera.  Unfortunately, unless one is listening to a studio recording, he or she does not really to experience Siegfried's role here.  In a live performance, the poor tenor has had to sing long and hard against the deeper voices of those who seek to use him for their own ends.  By the time the hero arrives at Brunhilde's rock, his voice is tired and he has to sing with a fresh-voiced Wagnerian soprano such as Flagstadt or Nilsson.  Even more telling is that this portion of the opera was written well after the rest of the opera.  Remember Wagner became discouraged when he got Siegfried to the forest scene.  The composer put the manuscript aside and wrote Tristan and Die Meistersingers, as well as the Paris version of Tannhauser before her returned to Siegfried. Needless to say, he had by that time become a more adventurous composer with a changed style.  The Awakening Scene is the first time in the Ring that a male voice and female voice have sung a true duet, their voice joined in melody.  Up until this time, the composition has featured dialogue written beautifully and skillfully, as we hear in the final scenes of Walkure. A fresh voice singing a duet with a tired one--how can the tired voice shine (unless it is a leather-lunged Melchior).  Siegfried may be a title role and protagonist, but his music is often entrusted to those without the vocal talent to carry the role off and the disadvantages that Wagner wrote into the operas make the role less than what one would expect.

Brunhilde and Wotan carry the burden of the operas, yet their roles, though emotional, tragic, hopeful, and disillusioned require an investment by the listener that most of us are not always willing to make.  Brunhilde goes from god to mortal maid to betrayed wife to savior of the new world, but these shifts require the performer to do more than just sing the notes (which is hard enough).  Plus the shifts are so subtle that many listeners do not appreciate them, hearing only "the fat lady" sing, signaling the end of the operas (oh, how I wish that phrase had never gained popularity).  Wotan's role has great possibility as a plum role, but too often its performer is much too concerned with producing the big voice of a god and forgetting the emotional voice of a father, a plotter, and a tragic hero. To my old memory Fredrich Schorr comes the closest to filling all of the roles.  He sings with control, with nuance, with appropriate power, and with tonal control.  Hotter became the model Wotan in the middle of the last century, and his ghost still seems to hold the role hostage.  Unfortunately there are not many Hotters among today's singers.  To my ear, the verdict is still out on Bryn Terfel's Wotan.  Thus, the role that deserves to be the "plum" role presents a difficult path for its performer.

If we listen to the operas for pure musical pleasure, indulgence if you will, then the role that is the plum belongs to Alberich.  He appears in three of the operas, he is a key character in the ebb and flow of the plot, and he is totally emotional.  He first appears on the stage full of sexual lust.  When that emotion is thwarted, it shifts to a lust for power.  When he reappears, he has that power over which he exalts. When the power is ripped from him, the emotion changes to venomous hatred, which provides the motivation for the curse, which in turn becomes the key plot element of the Ring.  Since he is not carrying any of the baggage of the plot, the character is free to be totally emotional, totally emoting his feelings. To my ear, he is the star of Rheingold, and Wagner provided him with the opportunities to be just that throughout the Ring.  The music to which he sings after that first watery sneeze until he confronts his son keeping watch on the Rhine becomes a vehicle of emotional versatility that allows the performer to sing full voice in the passionate scenes to whispery voice in the conspiratorial scene with Hagen.  In Rheingold, whether we hear Lechner from the 40s, Kelemen from the 60s, Ekkehard Wlaschiha from the 90s, or this century's Eric Owens, we get to hear voices drenched with the deepest feelings, echoing refulgently across the emotional spectrum. The secret to the role is how Wagner later came to describe Wotan.  If our villain is Schwarz Alberich (Black Alberich), the god is white Alberich.  Both have the same motivations, but the villain does not have the limitations of conscience and foreboding that bind Wotan (except for the one fatal act of stealing from a thief).   Thus the performer of Alberich is able to sing the role without constraint, providing a constant contrast to he others with whom he interacts.  It is the plum role.


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Deepening of the Wagner Conundrum

Most serious Wagnerians know that the germinal seed for what became The Ring was the story Wagner called The Death of Siegfried.  After laboring for months over the story, Wagner realized that in order for Siegfried’s Tod to do justice to his inspiration, the opera would be overburdened with narratives needed to supply necessary background. Therefore, he decided to expand the original concept with what we now call a prequel.   The working title for this opera was (Das) Junge Siegfried.  Ernest Newman in The Wagner Operas provides a far better history of the prolonged adding to the original idea as it became four operas than I can give here  (see pages 420 – 450. First American Edition).  

If we examine the original plan for Young Siegfried, several difficulties present themselves.—all adding to the conundrum.  The first revelation is that as Wagner tries to write a work about Siegfried, the composer becomes aware as he is supplying background that his story is really about Wotan—Wotan’s sin, Wotan’s weakness, Wotan’s tragic flaw.  The further Wagner goes in his efforts to supply background, the more the story shifts focus from the original protagonist to the new one. Ultimately when the Ring is completed, the opera that was to be called Siegfried’s Tod has become Gotterdamerung or The Twilight of the Gods (really the Death of the Gods).  Wotan does not appear in the opera except in Waltraute’s plea to Brunhilde, but he, not Siegfried, is the title character.  We can see this shift in Wagner’s perspective in the preliminaries for Young Siegfried.  All of us are familiar with Wotan’s first two appearances in the final version of Siegfried.  He has become the Wanderer trying to hold things together as he observes and attempts to supervise the events.  He appears in this guise with Mime as they play their game of riddles.  Wotan appears to know all of the answers, but as we see later, he has not yet reached the right conclusion.  The second appearance is his confrontation with Alberich.  For the first sketches of this scene Wagner wrote an extended dialogue between the two, with Alberich giving as good as he gets.  In fact, the Wanderer’s responses often become excuses as he attempts to justify what he did.  Wagner shortened this dialogue in the final draft, but the extended dialogue  may have been what allowed him to see the shift of focus that he ultimately made as the Ring and the god eventually overshadow the hero of the original concept. 

The third opera of the Ring presents us with other difficulties.  Consider the difficulty we have trying to figure out Siegfried’s age.  Wagner originally called his work Young Siegfried.  How young is young?  In the final version of the opera, Siegfried behaves as a very young teenager—14 or 15 at most.  He frollicks in the forest, behaves with childish hatred toward Mime, shows the teenage mood shifts of early adolescence.  In the second act he seems to have become 16 or 17 as he begins to ponder about life and relationships in a more serious way.  By act three, he seems to be 18-20 physically, but 15 -16 in innocence.  When we get to the first Act of Gotterdammerung, we take him for 20-25 as he seems to have gained a great deal of maturity after spending the night with Brunhilde.  Wagner tries to have all of these at once.  When the opera stands alone, the hero’s age is not too much of a problem; the problem occurs when the opera is put in context between Die Walkure and Gotterdammerung.  In Act 2 of Walkure Wotan tells Brunhilde that “the dwarf had mastered a woman, whose favours he gained by gold. A woman is carrying the fruit of hate; the force of envy stirs in her womb.”  Forgive my weak translation, but I am sure that I have the tense correct.  If so, the consequences are clear: Siegfried and Hagan are the same age. When these two meet in the opening of Gotterdammerung, the conundrum is clear—How many years did Siegfried spend with Brunhilde on the mountain top before his Rhine journey?  If it were not years, then how can the wizened, evil Hagan seem early middle-aged? Anyone with teenagers in the house knows all s/he needs to know about “drama,” but the day-to-day experiences of teenagers hardly matches the intense emotional betrayals and vengeance of Acts II and III of Gotterdamerung. This kind of mayhem requires adults.



Finally, as we seek to understand the architecture of The Ring, Wagner presents us with another conundrum.  I have already suggested that the structural climax of The Ring occurs in Rheingold when Wotan steals the Ring, puts it on his finger, and falls victim to its power.  That is when he falls.  Everything that follows is just a working out of the collapse.  If one disagrees, then he or she in the classical tradition of literary structure would look for the climax somewhere near the middle of the work (the Ring)—in this case in Siegfried.  Certainly the confrontation between Wotan and Siegfried on the mountainside would serve.  Siegfried has reforged the sword in order to take vengeance on the one who killed his father.  Newman points out that in one of the early versions of Wagner’s poem, Siegfried does kill Hagan and that Wagner forgot to adapt the Gotterdammerung libretto where Siegfried avows vengeance on the killer after revising his early format.  However, when Nothung shatters Wotan’s spear, vengeance has been carried out—the god’s fate is now sealed and in reality, he is the one who killed Siegmund.  I would suggest that this is not the climax of The Ring; rather it is the denoument.  The massive Gotterdammerung, the story for which the rest of the Ring was to supply background is a coda, embellishing the fall of the gods, the appearance of a new world, and washing away Wotan’s error.

Even though Wagner presents us with one conundrum after another, the majesty and grandeur of the work is not lost.  Perhaps the conundrums make the total even more enchanting and interesting.  They certainly challenge us; they make us look more deeply into the work, and as we seek to answer the conundrums, we find more elements to enjoy, to think about, and to argue.  As another critic pointed out, “I have seen the world end.”


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Wagner's Conundrum Act II

The essential organizational construct in literary architecture is the tipping point that we recognize as the climax, which is rally the apex of the plot arch.  The events, emotions, actions on the ascending side of the arch constitute the complications that build conflict.  The climax then is that point in the story at which the conflict is either resolved or overwhelms the protagonist, so that the action(s) of the other side of the arch reveals the consequences and allows the actions resulting from the climax  to work themselves out and resolve the tension established on the front of the arch until the denoument occurs and the reader/listener/observer is at peace.

From a structural point of view the uniqueness of Wagner's dilemma with the Ring is a study of a mind so active, so complex, and so philosophical that we can understand his despair of ever finishing it (especially when he had few expectations that it would ever be performed).  Wagner, the adherent of Schopenhauer and the portrayer of positive romanticism (see Morse Peckham, "Toward a Theory of Romanticism," PMLA 1951) understood and fervently believed in the concept of Sacrifice--sacrifice of the ego to the forces of the noumenal world in order to make the universe or just the world better.  The theme is omnipresent in his works from Senta's sacrifice for the Dutchman, Elizabeth's sacrifice for Tannhauser, Sach's sacrifice for Eva, or Parsifal's sacrifice for the suffering Amfortas and the Grail Realm.  With such a philosophical mindset, Wagner had no choice but to expand the germinal idea that became the Ring from his nascent plan for Siegfried's Tod. Numerous scholars have recited the dilemma that the composer faced as he thought through how Siegfried's sacrifice needed to have background and motivation; hence, the expansion of the concept to provide Siegfried's background.  A thought occurred to Wagner as he developed the plan for the second opera--that his original concept was too limited--his true idea was not about Siegfried's sacrifice; it was about a much larger sacrifice: that of Wotan.  With that realization, Wagner understood that he needed to compose another story that would reveal Wotan's connections to Siegfried; the result, of course, is Die Walkure. All of us know what happened next: Wagner had to explain the source of the Ring and why Wotan sought to establish the mortal means of expiating his own sin.  Wagner had to compose Das Rheingold.

We can now realize the conundrum into which Wagner had written himself.  The big three operas of the Ring needed self realization while still being part of a whole, a whole which was guided and given ultimate meaning by the prologue opera. Only someone of supreme genius could resolve the conundrum.  Somehow Wagner gives each opera a finite existence that allows it to stand alone while still providing the overwhelming concept of The Ring.  He provided each work with its own climax, its own set of sacrifices, but the overall concept of The Ring holds them together so that we get something "that is greater than the sum of its parts."

Oddly enough, the climax of The Ring occurs in Rheingold, when Wotan steals from a thief, puts the Ring on his finger, and for the moment is entranced by the power he holds.  Everything that occurs from that point onward has been determined by that act.  On a larger scale, we might suggest that the climax occurs in Siegfried when the boy defeats the grandfather and the sword breaks the lance.  At that point, Wotan's fears and his sacrifice are clear.  However, this point, while the climax of Siegfried, is a part of the "falling action" of The Ring.  It is a natural result of Wotan's egotistical act in Rheingold.

Die Walkure is said to be the most popular of the three long operas.  The point is certainly understandable, since this is the opera in which Wotan begins to realize his limitations and suspect his doom.  It is in this opera that the god sacrifices his own children as he struggles to keep his dream alive while also realizing that the world must change--that will be his ultimate sacrifice.  This is also the opera that speaks most clearly to most audiences on a personal level.  Yes, Gotterdamerung has heavenly music, but most of us have not been involved in the extra-marital plots or the mind games to explain them.  Most of us have, however, fallen in love and had fantasies about running off with our lover (true, that lover probably is not our twin brother or sister).  The passion of Act I in a good performance is spellbinding and intensifies the three sacrifices of Wotan that occur by and in Act III--he must kill his son, doom his daughter, and realize that his egotistical plan for saving himself is in danger.  Whether we listen to Melchior and Lehman, King and Rysanek, or Gary Lakes and Jessye Norman; Act I is pulse pounding and spell binding.






The other scene that cements this opera in the hearts of listeners is when Wotan must punish his favorite daughter for disobeying him by doing what he really wanted.  This is a conundrum that fathers everywhere have faced.  Here it means even more because the god is only beginning to realize the depth of the sacrifices he must make and the fate he must assign to those he tries to manipulate.  No father can watch this farewell without tears.  Wagner makes mythology have a human heart, human emotions, human feelings.


Here are three very different performances of Wotan's farewell in three very different styles.  Notice the tenderness that permeates each performance. Even the big voice of Hotter reflects the emotional qualities of the scene.  Wagner's score reverberates through the listener; maybe to the point that we forget that Wotan is not just singing farewell to his favorite daughter, but also to his hopes and ultimately to the world he had helped create.  The death of Siegmund turns this opera, but this scene foreshadows Wotan's despair--a despair that Waltraute will later explain to the awakened, mortal Brunhilde.