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Wagner Goes West

Der Ring des Nibelungen

by Richard Wagner. produced by the San Francisco Opera, June 1985

Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung

by Nicholas John
Riverrun Press, no. 31, 128 pp., $5.95 each volume (paper)

   Accursed Hagen,
for you counselled me on the venom
which bewitched him from his wife! Ah sorrow!
Suddenly I understand—
Brünnhilde was the true love
whom through the drink he forgot!

Gutrune, before she sings these lines near the end of the Ring, has waited in trepidation for Siegfried’s return. She screamed and swooned when Hagen brought in Siegfried’s corpse, and lamented while Gunther tried to comfort her. She confronts Brünnhilde, only to learn that the husband she is lamenting was a bigamist. Now, in her final words Gutrune blames Hagen, but she also blames herself. If she only had a little more time, understood a little more, she would take responsibility for the murder as well as the magic potion that caused Siegfried to fall in love with her and forget Brünnhilde entirely.

What makes us read so much into these few lines? Gutrune sings for the first time against (i.e., comprehends) that weirdest of all Ring motifs, the alternating chords of Das Rheingold‘s Magic Helm, which are transformed in Götterdämmerung so as to indicate the deception engendered by the magic potion. Then Gutrune’s own weak, pretty motif is painfully bent, forced together with the Magic Deception chords, and finally liquidated into the motif of Destiny. It is a perfect little example of Wagner’s virtuosity at manipulating his motifs in the service of the precise and moving depiction of human feeling.

This speech of Gutrune’s he set in place with the greatest craft. The next speaker, Brünnhilde, also suddenly understands—and in ways that count to Wagner, she understands a great deal more than Gutrune; “Alles, alles, alles weiss ich,” Brünnhilde sings in one of her greatest (and lowest) lines of the entire drama. On the basis of this higher understanding, Wagner contrasts her superhuman, urhuman, or inhuman response to the death of Siegfried with the all-too-human response of Gutrune. From the start of Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene, it is clear that there will be nothing here for tears.

First she orders the vassals to build the funeral pyre—a fine imaginative example of Wagner’s notorious literal-mindedness: for whereas earlier in Götterdämmerung we have twice heard of the felled World Ash piled up in logs in Valhalla, waiting for the end, only now do we see them echoed in the equally doomed Gibichung’s hall. A staggeringly beautiful, drawn-out modulation changes Brünnhilde’s mood from the hortatory to the elegiac. The modulation prepares a simple but very persuasive passage built out of her and Siegfried’s love music.

Less persuasive, however, is Brünnhilde’s rhetoric in this passage. Many strands from earlier in the Ring are obsessively pulled together in the Immolation Scene, but one that is not is Brünnhilde’s action in securing Siegfried’s murder by Hagen—a violent enough action that is vividly in our minds from the last time we have seen and heard her on the stage. Brünnhilde never refers to it, dilating instead on the paradox of Siegfried, the truest of lovers, who honored his oath of Gunther and yet “betrayed” her by marrying Gunther’s sister. Brünnhilde is of course speaking figuratively when she uses and reuses this word, for she now knows about Gutrune’s magic potion, and Siegfried drugged is Siegfried blameless. Though Brünnhilde has ostensibly been transformed from a Valkyrie into a loving human being, her humanity does not extend as far as accepting any responsibility for her betrayal of Siegfried, when she revealed that he was vulnerable only to a spear thrust in his back.

Incidentally, it seems less than human of Brünnhilde to condone the humiliation, brutalization, and robbery (if not the rape) of a helpless woman on the grounds that the hero was honoring his oath and didn’t know that the woman was her. An attitude more acceptable to votaries of the eternal feminine, no doubt, than to those of eternal feminism.

Next Brünnhilde addresses Wotan:

Hear my accusation (Klage), great god! Through his most valiant deed, so deeply wished by you, you ordained him to endure the curse that you incurred; he, the truest of all, had to betray me, so that a woman might grow wise!

Her drift seems to be that it was only by killing Siegfried that the gods could shock her into performing the act they desire, the return of the ring to the Rhine. Now, while Wotan has a great deal to answer for in the Ring, he is not responsible for Siegfried’s doom. To judge from the poem, this begins with Siegfried himself, who pushes his way into the ‘Gibichungs’ lives, insisting that they fight him or befriend him (more heroism) and then quite consciously throwing his lot in with theirs. We are asked to find something admirable in Siegfried’s inability to conceive of treachery in complete strangers, even though he had encountered it before—and rewarded it—in his foster parent Mime.

To judge from the music, a shattering appearance of the Curse theme just before Siegfried enters the Gibichungs’ hall works to shift the responsibility away from Siegfried’s mindless “heroism” to Alberich’s original curse, as transmitted by his son Hagen. Wotan has indeed been guilty of passing this curse along, but after the curse kills Siegmund, he has been careful to remain both technically and emotionally uncommitted to the latter’s son and successor Siegfried, who would never have been born at all save for the disobedient intervention of Brünnhilde.

Brünnhilde does not accept responsibility for this act either; instead, she makes it clear that according to her new understanding her task is to torch Valhalla along with the funeral pyre. Whatever the inclination of Wotan’s much-discussed “will,” his most recent wish was for Brünnhilde to save him and the world by giving up the ring. The tenderness of the superb cadence with which she promises Wotan his rest (“Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!“) clashes with her lethal action, just as in the parallel situation at the end of Die Walküre, Wotan’s passionate farewell to Brünnhilde had clashed with his gratuitous action in consigning her to rape.

Emotion contradicted or unsupported by dramatic action becomes more and more sentimental the more the dramatist pours it on. Sentimental, too, is Wagner’s treatment of Brünnhilde’s final speech. After first demanding the complicity of her horse Grane (“in the teeth of the cult of the prevention of cruelty to animals,” Adorno remarked, “she even insists that her horse should neigh with joy as it leaps into the flames”), Brünnhilde works herself into a state of ecstasy prior to her immolation. This is done with fairly extended sequences on a theme that has, quite exceptionally, never been alluded to in the drama since it was first heard in an unusually short passage in Die Walküre. It is sung by Sieglinde when, in despair after the death of Siegmund, she suddenly takes a new lease on life on learning she is with child.

The actual words Sieglinde sings express gratitude to Brünnhilde for telling her and saving her, so the associations of the theme include the traditional redemption by love, the origins of Siegfried, the community of womanhood, and doubtless the eternal feminine. But precisely because the theme does not recur until the end of the cycle, it recalls the scene itself much more than any concatenation of ideas. The scene makes short work of Sieglinde. She is indeed electrified to hear that she is to bear a child, but what really moves her is not that prospect, or even the prospect of bearing Siegmund’s child. No Siegmund motifs are heard; what stirs her to song is Brünnhilde’s information that the child will be the greatest of heroes, the Siegfried who will forge the sword and whom Sieglinde somewhat obscurely bequcaths to her benefactress. Wagner himself labeled the theme accurately as “the glorification of Brünnhilde.”

He needed a theme to use later and had no hesitation in upstaging Sieglinde crudely to get it. As for that later use in Götterdämmerung, the classic criticism is by George Bernard Shaw in The Perfect Wagnerite:

There is no dramatic logic whatever in the recurrence of this theme to express the transport in which Brynhild immolates herself. There is of course an excuse for it, inasmuch as both women have an impulse of selfsacrifice for the sake of Siegfried; but this is really hardly more than an excuse; since the Valhalla theme might be attached to Alberic on the no worse ground that both he and Wotan are inspired by ambition, and that the ambition has the same object, the possession of the ring.

Shaw knew that this argument could be turned back on him, as surely as he knew that early in Das Rheingold the Valhalla theme is gradually derived from the Ring theme before our very ears. He knew, in short, that there will always be someone who will seize on what he called an “excuse” and cherish it as a deeper reality, and that there will never be anything to say to that person. He would also not be surprised, if he came back to check out how true this still is, to find that at a time when his prestige as a music critic has never been higher, his strictly musical judgments are seldom taken seriously:

This particular theme of Sieglinda’s is, in truth, of no great musical merit: it might easily be the pet climax of a popular sentimental ballad: in fact, the gushing effect which is its sole valuable quality is so cheaply attained that it is hardly going too far to call it the most trumpery phrase in the entire tetralogy. Yet, since it undoubtedly does gush very emphatically, Wagner chose, for convenience’ sake, to work up this final scene with it rather than with the more distinguished, elaborate and beautiful themes connected with the love of Brynhild and Siegfried.

Jerome Kern comes to mind. Wagner’s music, like his dramaturgy, is sometimes marvelously rich, sometimes (often, in the Ring) crude.

As to the coyer subtleties of the score,” wrote Shaw, “their discovery provides fresh interest for repeated hearings, giving The Ring a Beethovenian inexhaustibility and toughness of wear.” Representative recent discoveries can be sampled in the Opera Guides series issued by Riverrun Press in association with the English National and Royal operas. The short but packed volumes contain a libretto, together with Andrew Porter’s fine English translation (which is used at the ENO, Seattle, and elsewhere), miscellaneous essays, many illustrations, discographies, and so on. What is impressive about many of the essays—those by Robin Holloway, Anthony Newcomb, Derrick Puffett, and Christopher Wintle—is the subtlety with which the authors trace Wagner’s fusion of musical and dramatic effects. What is disturbing about them is a tendency to accept any musical effect that can be pinpointed or analyzed as privileged for purposes of interpretation, regardless of its aesthetic quality. Some of the authors do not even seem to find that certain of Wagner’s themes are crude and blatant. Other authors seem to, but do not seem to mind.

For Shaw, Wagner’s emphatic use of “Sieglinda’s theme” at the end of the Ring was one more indication of the work’s artistic failure. For me, in addition, the blatant old themes that Wagner wrote when he started the cycle in the 1850s, and then had to keep when he completed it in the 1870s, mercilessly drag down the magnificent new music of which he was then capable. Meeting up again with the Siegfried or the Treaty or the Valkyrie themes in the middle of the Immolation Scene is rather like finding bits of yesterday’s double anchovy pizza in the middle of a Chez Panisse dinner. And these blatant themes have been grating for a long time—since much earlier, I think, than the point in the middle of Siegfried to which Shaw traced his own reluctant disillusionment. Das Rheingold, as is often observed, is by Wagner’s standards a work of almost classical consistency. Things start grating at the latest during Wotan’s farewell at the end of Die Walküre.

No one has ever accused Wagner of good taste—and so these days, at the least sign of fastidiousness, a critic can expect a challenge for cause and then excuse from any jury panel for Der Ring des Nibelungen. But I am in fact uniquely qualified to serve, for my position is that what goes wrong aesthetically in the Ring does not go wrong in any of the other mature Wagner operas. In Die Meister-singer and Parsifal the trumpery themes are associated with things we can laugh at or love to hate. In Tristan und Isolde there aren’t any.

This review started with a word of appreciation for the humanity of Gutrune; I was sorry, then, to see her represented in the recent San Francisco production of the Ring cycle as a loopy nymphomaniac who caresses both Gunther and Hagen, drifts around the stage striking Theda Bara poses, and parks her drink glass on the plinths of big Robert Arnesontype busts that decorate the Gibichungs’ hall.

Theirs is the most eccentric image, and hers the most eccentric behavior in a strong-minded production by the German director Nikolaus Lehnhoff—strongminded and overintellectual: the “perverted incest” of the Gibichung balances the “idealistic incest” of the Wälsungs. Put on under “festival” conditions, and at considerable expense, this Ring was carefully thought out, well rehearsed, and skillfully executed; according to Alan Rich in Newsweek, “All told, it was a ‘Ring’ more for the eye than the ear,” which is a fair enough characterization of a strikingly handsome, lavish production in an era that is not rich in Wagner performers. (But the Wotan of James Morris—his first—started people dreaming of a new golden age.)

The production itself is distinguished more for stage pictures than for stage movement. Lehnhoff has strong directorial ideas; he does not impress by a strong natural sense of the stage. His work is well exemplified by his staging of Wotan’s monologue in Die Walküre—a staging that is patently a criticism of the famous 1976 Bayreuth production by Patrice Chéreau. No one who saw the film of the Chéreau production on public television will have forgotten the great pendulum that swings hypnotically round and round until Wotan reaches the climax of his complaints, foresees “das Ende, das Ende!“—and suddenly stops it dead. Lehnhoff replaces the pendulum with a large smoking urn or brazier, which Wotan tamps down by throwing his cloak over it.

Visually, this is much weaker. The brazier was never a very striking element in the scene and the audience has by now forgotten it; Wotan’s action feels arbitrary and looks undignified. Whereas that pendulum had been growing more and more ominous—someone had to stop it. Wotan’s action looks powerful and feels like a relief. Intellectually, on the other hand, Lehnhoff is elegant and right where Chéreau was arbitrary. What Wotan “ends” is fire, the work of Loge—and of course nothing ends, for the smoke starts up again when the cloak is removed.

The San Francisco Opera general director, Terence McEwen, promised a Ring production that would be “a return to romanticism”—in the broadest terms, then, a criticism of Chéreau—and so it was. But Lehnhoff’s view of Wagner’s romanticism is probably more clouded than McEwen’s. The long period of the Ring‘s gestation, extending from the time of the 1848 revolutions to the Franco-Prussian War; the corresponding shift in Wagner’s philosophical interests from Feuerbach to Schopenhauer; the cooling of his political passions (as Shaw stressed) from a fling with Bakunin to a flirtation with Bismarck—all this dramatizes a tension widely recognized in Wagner’s art. It is a tension between “naive” and “sentimental” romanticism, between the pure and the corrupt, between the truly romantic and what Jacques Barzun calls the mechanist, Carl Dahlhaus the realist, and Theodor Adorno the phantasmagorical aspect of Wagner’s art. This tension Lehnhoff was determined to project in his Ring production, first of all by means of a series of sharply contrasted stage pictures.

They are all freely quoted from the landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich and the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. They stand or fall on their own merits, for they have little force as quotations since, in spite of the attention that has been paid to these artists in recent years, neither can be said to be very well known outside his native Germany. (Schinkel is known to musicians for his designs for The Magic Flute. Like Wagner, he was one of those nineteenth-century artists taken up by the Nazis.) While bad taste comes through clearly enough in the Schinkel interiors and the architectural capriccio of Valhalla, the vaguer motifs of German early nineteenth-century neoclassicism are hard to “read” for those who have not taken the right art-history courses. And most of the Ring‘s natural settings are replaced by architectural ones; a columned terrace derived from Friedrich, for example, is used several times in increasing stages of ruin. In addition, tall neoclassical portals, somewhat overgrown by vines, appear as tormenters at the sides of every scene in the cycle. This is to insist on the corruption theme with a vengeance, and it is also to frame the work of art—and distance oneself from it—in an emphatic way.

The natural scenes, which were designed by John Conklin and lit by Thomas J. Munn, are apt and sometimes very beautiful. Lehnhoff’s penultimate coup de théâtre after the conflagration and flood which end Götterdämmerung is especially striking. As the flames die down on Valhalla, a frozen Rhine rises up to assume the form of one of Friedrich’s major paintings, variously known as “The Sea of Ice” and “The Wreck of The Hope,” in which a shipwreck is barely visible in a menacing protocubist assemblage of huge ice floes. It is a form we have seen before in the Rhinemaidens’ crepuscular rock at the beginning of Das Rheingold.

Lehnhoff’s final image tries to suggest another frame for the Ring, another intellectual attempt to distance the work firmly in the nineteenth century. Loge, disconcertingly costumed in Victorian style, just as he was throughout Das Rheingold, returns to survey the wreckage which he had been the first to predict. Presumably, too, Loge the trickster stands for Wagner the artistartificer doing a post-mortem on his huge and hugely problematic artwork (or—so it seemed to one viewer—a satisfied Caspar David Friedrich contemplating his).

I did not mind a Victorian Loge walking through music that does not persuade me at the end of Götterdämmerung, but I was irritated by him in Das Rheingold. Putting a single nineteenth-century costume (accessorized by a copy of the Wall Street Journal) in among a lot of ancient or fantastic ones does more than put distance between the spectator and the dramatic action; it plays havoc with the basic dramatic illusion. It makes Wagner hokey, silly, and laughable. Three nights later, one understood that there was an “idea” behind it; but the only bearable “ideas” in dramatic productions are those that work for the show consistently, not those that make a striking point in one scene and confuse or wreck others. (Often these ideas are, indeed, those of the original dramatist.) Likewise Gutrune’s eccentric characterization in her first scene seemed to me less objectionable than the fact that it was simply dropped in her later ones, where of course it no longer fitted as an “interpretation.”

Andrew Porter in the San Francisco program book continues his campaign to have operas produced in ways consonant with their authors’ intentions. Another equally elementary point is worth making—is, in fact, important to make: when directors take strong new initiatives beyond what authors have called for, they should at least be held accountable for them throughout the drama.

It remains to say that this was the first Ring ever with “supertitles,” and so was doubtless the first in this country at which the audience could often be heard chuckling at Wagner’s rather heavy wit.

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