Saturday, May 7, 2016

Wagner: The End of Gods

Wagner's two notable heroes, Siegfried and Parsifal, are both naive, straightforward and uneducated. But Siegfried, who seems more intelligent of the two, ends up duped and vanquished, while the dim-witted Parsifal learns to recognize the evil and resist it. Thus he earns the honor of joining the ranks of selected knights that guard the Holy Grail and, according to Wagner, sires another hero, Lohengrin. Siegfried perishes without glory or issue as a result of betrayal and his own errors.

If Siegfried's demise reminds you of Greek tragedy, there is a good reason for it. Other than the name Nibelung in the title, Wagner's tetralogy has little to do with medieval German poem Das Nibelunglied, and what it does have is contained in Götterdämmerung. Wagner's other sources include ancient Norse sagas, German mythology, classical fairy tales and, yes, Greek drama. His ability to compress and modify elements from divergent sources into a more or less coherent story continues to dazzle with its brilliance. The Nibelunglied's Siegfried was neither a product of an incestuous union, nor a lover of his aunt. He subdued and abducted
Brünhilde for his prospective brother in law Gunther.  There are several older sagas that differ in their accounts of Siegfried (or Sigurd), but in Das Nibelunglied, Siegfried loved and married Krimhild, Götterdämmerung's Gutrune.

Wagner's Siegfried is physically strong, beautiful and intrepid. He is intelligent enough to figure out that Mime is not his father, he is able to forge a sword, something a much more experienced Mime cannot, and he knows where to inflict the most effective blow to kill Fafner. All of those skills have made him cocky and overconfident, but have not prepared him to deal with treachery. As a boy, Siegfried would have taken advice from Forest Bird, but as an adult he laughs off the warning from Rhein maidens that could have saved his life. His braggadocio is perhaps his biggest flaw and he pays for it dearly.

Brünhilde's case is a little more complex. Generally considered The Ring's larger-than-life heroine  - the savior of the world - she makes her share of mistakes before doing the right thing. Siegfried's betrayal seems unforgivable, but to plot with Hagen to kill him in revenge? That's bad manners even in the pre-historic era. In the end, she returns the cursed ring to its rightful owners, but on careful analysis it was Wotan's plan for her (remember Wotan's dialogue with Erda in Siegfried). Brünhilde's downfall began when she first refused to give up the ring, a token of love from Siegfried. The moment she held on to it, the curse kicked in: Siegfried accepted a doctored "refreshment" from Gutrune and fell prey to Hagen's plot. If Brünhilde is a hero, she is that because of the tragedies that befell her, rather than any grand deeds on her part. That seems to be the case with most Ring heroes - their appeal is in their failures more than in their accomplishments.

Götterdämmerung, the Norns
The last installment of The Ring cycle on Friday was a glorious end of the gods. Director Francesca Zambello, achieved the right balance between dream and reality. The Norns in the opening scene worked with electric cables instead of yarns, while they discussed the past, present and future, providing helpful information for those who missed the first three operas. A cable (aka rope of destiny) breaking at one point portends bad future. All three singers (Lindsay Ammann, Jamie Barton and Marcy Stonikas) were excellent and I hope we are spared yet another review labeling Wagner's narratives as "excruciatingly" long. Zambello has done a superb job of making the Norns scene somber, but lively. I love that prologue even when there is nothing on the stage, because it unveils another nuance of the story every time, but on Friday just examining details on the stage along with the music made it fly by.

In the next scene, we are back at the Valkyre's rock last seen in Siegfried. Catherine Foster and Daniel Brenna reprized the roles of Brünhilde and Siegfried. They seemed to sing with vigor, but it was hard to hear them over the orchestra.

Siegfried's Rhein journey is accompanied by somewhat abstract projections of flowing water, which is all that was needed. The Gibichung Hall was austere and elegant in black-and-white, and shades in between.
Eric Halverson's Hagen was older than expected, but had a voice that no orchestra could overpower. His take on Gunther's conniving step brother was as good as one could wish, but completely different from Gidon Saks's portrayal in the WNO's 2009 concert performance. Saks was a more brooding and moody Hagen, who could be seductive, insinuating and commanding by turns - the most sexy Hagen I have ever seen. Halverson projected power and self confidence, and was more of a bully.
Götterdämmerung, Hunting Scene

Brenna's Siegfried changed from an inexperienced young man, a boy really, to a self-assured grown up which Siegfried had become through his relationship with Brünhilde. The former demi-godess taught him all she knew, she said, but that clearly did not include how to recognize deceit. Having lived mostly in isolation, Siegfried has poor social skills and makes his first sortie into the real world completely unprepared. He trusts the lying Gibichungs, but not the sincere river maidens. His memory is selective: he remembers that he has gained the ring by killing the dragon, but forgets all about Brünhilde. What a confused young man! Brenna was good in Siegfried, but affirmed himself definitively in the crucial death scene of Götterdämmerung. 

Foster was not my favorite Brünhilde. She may have done everything right but, as far as I am concerned,  failed to electrify with her presence. The weakest scene of the evening for me was the meeting between Brünhilde and Waltraute. Foster was more of a revengeful daughter than a woman in love, and Jamie Barton was neither a fierce Valkyre, nor a desperate daughter.

As Gutrune, Melissa Citro was simply lovely. Her seduction of Siegfried was a charming combination of tease and restraint, her desperation over his death genuine, her remorse at having been part of a ploy that killed him convincing.

Götterdämmerung, Hagen and Gutrune

The male chorus was excellent throughout. Conductor Philippe Auguin was impressive yet again, though he turned up the volume too high in more places than I would have liked.

Rhein maidens wading through the river full of trash was Zambello's environmental message, creative and effective. Less creative and somewhat kitschy was the closing scene in which a young girl comes to plant a tree next to the now cleansed river, as a symbol of new and better world coming after the departure of corrupt gods. 

I couldn't quite understand the meaning of barbed wires and watch towers projected in black-and-white in the background before the hunting scene.  Good reason to see the opera again.

The great thing about Wagner's Ring is that it fits into almost any time and place. It lends itself to diverse concepts, settings and interpretations more than any other opera I can think of, and every production reveals another layer worth exploring. 

Wotan can be a male chauvinist or a henpecked husband. He did seek wisdom from women - the Norns, Erda - but for advice on legal loopholes he turns to a male, Loge. Having once made a wrong choice, could he have stopped the downright spiraling and get back on the right path? 

And who is the real hero of The RingIs it Siegmund who refused glory in the name of love, or is it the fearless Siegfried? Brünhilde the Valkyre, or Brünhilde the woman? There is no definitive answer to any of these questions, which allows everyone to find his or her own. Perhaps that's a secret ingredient of Wagner's lasting appeal.