Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Ring, Week Two

Ok, I'm way behind on my Ring posts. Last week was totally crazy and I didn't have a chance to post. I'll try to make it up to you this week.

Practically everybody knows Die Walkure at least a little bit, if for no other reason than that it includes the Ride of the Valkyries, which has been all over popular culture for the last, oh, pretty much since it was written. You know, that music that Robert Duvall plays when his Hueys drop napalm in Apocalypse Now. You know - the tune Elmer Fudd uses to sing "Kill the Wabbit."

Well, here's where it showed up first: in the second installment of Wagner's Ring, to herald the arrival of the Valkyries, warrior goddesses who transport fallen heroes to Valhalla.

It's an amazing piece, and once again, we had a great experience. We introduced ourselves to our box-mates: Christian, a student of Epic Poetry at Bard who'll be going to grad school at USC this fall; and Mark, who was much less chatty, but brought along his own copy of the score - he claimed that he is not a musician or a conductor, so at this point I just think of him as a serious music fan.

This week was special because it was supposed to have Christine Brewer in her first Brunnhilde at the Met.

But Ms. Brewer couldn't do the cycle for undisclosed reasons, so instead we got Irene Theorin looking and sounding great in the role.

Anyway, I thought she was great. Some of the press and fan-reaction has been less than rapturous. And it was disappointing not to hear the more famous voice. But her acting (which I'm better equipped to assess than her voice) was as good as anyone's up there. And this was her first appearance at the Met, and I think her first time singing in the U.S., so that's exciting.

Also very exciting (at least for me) was the last-minute appearance of Gary Lehman, who was covering the role of Siegmund (his first time in this role at the Met, too!) I usually get geared up by performances that include understudies/covers, because they tweak everybody's attention to a higher pitch, and just add some energy to the air. The Times had an article about this phenomenon in opera last week too, by coincidence as far as I know.

This is the Ring opera that I am most familiar with, having seen it before, and listened to recordings several times over the years. It has to be the kinkiest of the four: we have the handsome and virile stranger whose name is Siegmund but who goes by the name of Woe showing up at the door, to be tended to by the kind woman whose name is Sieglinde and who is clearly cowed by her husband; she puts sleeping potion into the husband's drink and comes out to visit the stranger in the middle of the night and show him the magic sword hidden in the ash tree in their living room (they have a tree in the middle of their living room.) They fall in love. Then they discover that they are twins... so they have sex. True holy love, you see, triumphs over ALL: morals, ethics, laws, plain healthy good sense, the whole kit and kaboodle.

But this forbidden incestuous love is the one thing that might save mighty Wotan and his league of immortals: for, as his in-the-right-and-many-times-cuckolded-but-palpably-shrewish wife Fricka reminds him (after they rehash pretty much the whole plot of Das Rheingold), he is Guardian of Laws and Treaties, and he can't help his children (did I mention that Siegmund and Sieglinde are his children from an adulterous affair with a mortal?) either in battle or in the quest to regain the Ring, because that hero must be someone unaided by Wotan and the Gods. So he has to have the Valkyrie Brunnhilde (one of his other children, from a totally different adulterous affair - this one with Erde, Goddess of Nature) go disrupt the impending fight between Siegmund and Sieglinde's husband Hunding (they are planning to fight to the death over something having nothing to do with the adulterous, incestuous affair. Naturally.) take away his magic sword Nothung, and bring him to Valhalla to live with the Heroes. So she goes to do it, but she's charmed by his valor and sees through Wotan's law-abiding instructions to his true wishes to help his son and so leaves him to win the fight. Happy ending, right?

OF COURSE NOT! Wotan shows up at the fight himself, shatters Nothung with a wave of his spear, and leaves Siegmund, defenseless, to be killed by Hunding. Wotan then kills Hunding. Naturally.

After all of this has happened, we finally get to hear the Ride of the Valkyries as Brunnhilde meets her sister Valkyries, but bringing Sieglinde instead of Siegmund. She (Sieglinde) is so distraught over the death of her warrior brother/lover that she wants to despair and die until Brunnhilde tells her that she is carrying Siegmund's child. [On a side note, I like to think that when Mel Blanc and Carl Stalling were putting together 'What's Opera Doc' and such, they were thinking of this couple and the expression 'the rabbit died' when they decided to use the Ride of the Valkyries as the theme of 'Kill the Wabbit'] Sieglinde runs off to hide and have her baby, and Wotan shows up enraged with both his daughters. Brunnhilde knows she has to be punished, but talks Wotan down to a punishment of being put to sleep behind a circle of fire that can only be penetrated by a warrior who knows no fear. Awesome.

Speaking of fire, I wanted to make mention of this last week, but forgot: Loge, God of Fire, is one of the most vibrant characters in this piece. He loomed large in Das Rheingold, helping Wotan, Odysseus-like, outwit the Niebelungs. He is also the one responsible for building the Ring of Fire surrounding Brunnhilde. I was hoping to find a good image of him to post here, but I guess he's not a big enough character to warrant a good photo-op. Instead, have a look at his doppelganger:

That's right, he looks just like that icon of more recent popular culture, the Heat Miser. I was hoping to show the two of them next to each other, but you'll just have to take my word for it.

So what do we make of this bundle of confusion? One question that seems to come up a lot when I talk to people about this story is "SO - the twins: did they know they were twins when they did it, or did they find out after the, um, fact?" Oh, they know. They share backstories and real names and put two and two together. As it happens, they look at the consummation of their love as twins and lovers as something right, true and inevitable. A common follow-up question is something along the lines of "What the fuck?"

I don't know. I'm not a Wagner scholar. I've done a little bit of the reading and a little bit of the listening, but I don't know too many of the answers. But I think it has something to do with bringing up some of the tough questions that don't come up all that often. Is there something more important than Law and Morality? Something that triumphs over even Nature? Something beyond what people want and need? Maybe you believe there is such a thing, maybe you don't, but I'll bet you know someone who does. What would you call that thing? God? An Ideal? A nation? Who gets to decide? A Priest? A Judge? An Artist? An Ubermensch? What if, as some people say, "God is Love?" What if, on the other hand, "God is Law?" What in each case would be the repercussions? What would Oedipus have to say about it? What would some of the people Wagner was reading (Nietzsche, Engels, Schopenhauer) have to say? What would Woody Allen?

And, most importantly, let's not forget that the text (all written by Wagner himself; no outside librettist for Richard) is only a fraction of this work. The music does most of the heavy lifting. And it does so right from the top: the Prologue to this piece shimmers, it's thrilling, maybe even more so than Ride of the Valkyries. The music grabs hold of you before the curtain opens and doesn't let you go until well after it's closed up again. Die Walkure weighs in at well over 5 hours when you factor in the breaks at intermissions, and while it wouldn't be accurate to say it's over before you know it, it flies by more than you think, and feels a lot shorter than the timing would suggest. The leitmotifs that are introduced in Rheingold are developed in this piece and inform the argument, the drama, the characters, the themes. But that's another box of wine: I'll discuss the music in a some more detail in my next post, but I want to get this one out, as it's so late already (and I sense that I'm already at risk of going on too long...)

Meanwhile, did you notice all the holidays this week? Patriots' Day on Monday, Earth Day today, and (because it's especially important this year) the Founding Date of Rome yesterday.

1 comment:

Lori said...

Thank GOD you posted again. I was sick of looking at Bob Dylan. Although I'll tell you what...that picture helped me notice some pretty killer blue eyes!