Sunday, April 10, 2005

The End of the World

New Readers Start Here

1: The Controversial Bit

At the end of "Twilight of the Gods", Brunhilde rides Grane, her long-suffering horse, onto the funeral pyre of her lover, Siegfried. Siegfried's death seems to have restored her divine powers. She invokes Loge, the god of fire, and Wotan's magical ravens. The flames of the bonfire rush up to Valhalla. The Rhine bursts its banks. The gods are wiped out. The magic Ring is returned to its rightful owners. The old order has been swept away. A new era of humanistic love will emerge from the ashes.

Brunhilde's last words are "Siegfried! Here, husband, welcome your wife!" But are these lovers going to be re-united in the Undying Lands? With the gods incinerated and Valhalla destroyed it is doubtful that there is any after-life for them to go to. When they were in love, they kept saying that they wanted to merge together and become one person. ("I'm hardly Siegfried at all, I'm merely Brunhilde's will" "Apart yet still united, divided yet still as one.") But this can't really happen. Human souls can't become united; they can only communicate through symbols. And the same symbols with which we communicate also separate us. The Runes on Wotan's spear are the symbols of his power: but ultimately they render him powerless. The Ring, which Siegfried carelessly gives Brunhilde as a pledge of his love, is what ensures that they will be pulled apart. The only place they can be together is outside of language; outside of symbols; outside of the opera. By destroying themselves, they ensure that the idea-of-Siegfried and the idea-of-Brunhilde will always be united. Brunhilde isn't dying so she can be with Siegfried in heaven: her death, her consumption in the flames, is the consummation of her love. She is literally in love with death. And she dies by her own hand in such a way as to destroy a morally bankrupt social world.

Everyone who reads the arts pages already knows how Phyllida Lloyd interprets this scene at the climax of the English National Opera's brilliant Ring Cycle. Five hours of gripping drama has been summarized in a single phrase. "Oh, this is the one where they turn Brunhilde into a blankety-blank. Apparently, it was very controversial." You could easily think that this one "controversial" image was the most important thing about the opera.

As every review reminds us, Ms Lloyd specializes in modern-dress re-imaginings of Wagner that range from the astonishing to the impenetrable. What is less often said is that her greatest strength as a producer is that she knows when to shut-up. What I took away from Act III of "Twilight" was not any sense of shock about the Controversial Bit. (I didn't realize it was controversial until I read about it in Sunday morning's Observer.) I was far more impressed by the relative lack of stage business and "production ideas". We are, after all, dealing with most emotive music ever composed by a human being. I swear, every time I hear Siegfried's funeral march, I feel as if someone really has just died. It's Wagner at his most sadistic. Siegfried's death would do for the show-stopping final bars of any other opera; but it turns out to only be the lead-in to the funeral music, which, if I have counted correctly, has five separate climaxes. Every time you think the music is going to let you down and release you, it comes back even bigger and louder, and more painful. And when it finally subsides, Wagner starts building up to another, even bigger climax, Brunhilde's death. Very sensibly, Lloyd mainly let's the music speak for itself.

Act III mainly un-folds on an empty stage. I could have done without the Rhine-maidens being represented as pole-dancers, although I take the point that if you look at how they treated Alberich, they are more "lusty nymphs" than "innocent maids". There was no great "controlling idea" informing Siegfried's death. Hagan stabs him with a knife rather than a spear: a slight blunder because the operas have loaded "spears" with a large amount of symbolism which it would have been better not to muck about with. The mortally wounded Siegfried is lying on his back. He is lifted up by two of Hagan's vassals: first to a sitting position (as per Wagner's stage direction) but then onto his feet for his final lines. Once he is dead, the vassals crowd around him, completely hiding his body. The stage is dark. As the march proceeds, a few of the vassals emerge from the crowd with relics: -- his hat, his horn. (I can't help mentioning that I saw this on April 2nd, a little before the news-story from Rome broke...) They take his body back to Gunther's hall. After Gutrune's vigil, they again cluster around Siegfried's body. The quarrel over the Ring starts. And then the group parts as Brunhilde enters. ("I heard your feeble whimpering just like a baby who's lost his mother/ But I heard nothing, nothing befitting a mighty hero's fall"). We're already emotionally shattered by Siegfried's death and the funeral march, but this is another fantastically charged moment. Brunhilde is back in her black costume from Act II of "Valkyrie": no longer a victim of Wotan, Siegfried, Gunther and Hagan -- she's a Valkyrie again, commanding the stage. Brunhilde's simple entrance may have been the most dramatically perfect moment in the whole saga.

It's at this point we deviate slightly from the script. When Brunhilde orders the vassals to build a funeral pyre, Siegfried's body is taken off stage. This is fairly common when director's don't feel they can cope with an on-stage cremation. Brunhilde's eight sisters turn up, dressed as they were in "Valkyrie" Act III. This somewhat contradicts the narrative, states that the Valkyrie are at Wotan's feet, waiting for the world to end. But it makes dramatic sense for the choosers of the slain to be swarming around Siegfried's pyre.

Brunhilde sings her great "immolation" aria: "Send Loge to Valhalla/For the final Twilight now is at hand/So here is the fire/Valhalla, this is the end..." Waltraute, the Valkyrie who visited Brunhilde on her rock in Act II, straps some kind of waist-coat or breast-plate to her sister and hands her an object. The audience does a double-take. It's a hand-grenade. The waist-coat is explosives. Instead of exiting stage-right and throwing herself onto Siegfried's off-stage funeral pyre, as we might have expected, Brunhilde pulls the pin out of the grenade and throws herself into the crowd at the rear of the stage. Everyone mimes being destroyed in an explosion. A combination of lighting and silvery curtains indicates that the Rhine has flooded. We see Hagan and Alberich briefly embrace under the water, before being left with a more-or-less empty stage, representing the Rhine, the return to the purity of nature that existed before the Ring was stolen. The implication is that everything has been wiped out, a rather larger scale of destruction than Wagner envisaged. (His stage direction had "men and women watching the fire in the sky in great agitation" from the the ruins of Gunther's hall. The abbreviated stage direction in this translation simply says "The world is destroyed by fire and water.") But the music and the stage imagery clearly tells us that an old world has passed away and a new one will emerge from this wreak. I have no problem with Gotterdamerung being envisaged as "the end of the world" as opposed to merely "the end of the gods".

So yes. If you insist. Phylida Lloyd "made" Brunhilde into a suicide bomber. Or, rather, Phylida Lloyd observed that the psychology of the religious suicide bomber is very close to that of Brunhilde. I really don't think she is appropriating the "Ring" in order to "say something" about terrorism. But she is very cleverly using the idea of terrorism to illuminate the psychology of a character in the "Ring."

I heard no booing, jeering, cat-calling or anything else. I don't believe that this is something that British opera go-ers do, any more than they throw flowers or shout "bravissimo".

2: The Rest of the Opera

The controlling motif of this "Twilight" is cowboys and America. Siegfried has grown up a little since the last opera. In Act I, Brunhilde unceremoniously takes away his baseball cap and replaces it with a stetson. Brunhilde herself is dressed as a little wifey out of "Little House on the Prairie", all flowery pinafores and aprons. The lovers are discovered sitting at a table with a checked table-cloth and vase of flowers.

Now, backtrack and consider the plot. Wotan sentenced Brunhilde -- who we first encountered as a sort of macho biker-chick -- to be stripped of her immortality. She was to become the wife of any man who came her way. This is intended as a punishment. But it has not turned out that way because the person who found her was Siegfried, with whom she fell in love. This is brilliantly encapsulated in the stage image – Brunhilde pathetically reduced from warrior to "little woman" but happy. It also gives a sense that they have been together for some time. If you aren't careful, the opera can give you the impression that Siegfried met Brunhilde on Tuesday morning and got murdered in time for tea on Wednesday.

A sense of the passage of time was also conveyed by the clever back-projection sequence which accompanied Siegfried's Rhine Journey. While Richard Berkeley-Steele mimes walking and riding, a film of dusty roads, prairies, and rivers is projected on the backdrop. "Wild west", Marlborough country imagery slowly gives way to scenes of the big-city. This gives a good sense that Siegfried has been traveling a long time before he reaches the Gunther's hall; it also nearly sets up the fact that although he is a Great Hero he is out of his depth in Gunther's world.

I thought maybe Gunther's "hall" was over done. Some people thought that it was an executive health spa: I thought perhaps they were meant to be running a pharmaceutical company. It certainly conveyed wealth and sophistication. An anti-septic white room; Gunther and Gutrune in bath robes, on sun-beds, with lap-tops, and a big glass fronted cup-board full of drugs or medicines on the back wall – possibly recalling the Damien Hirst installation. Admittedly, a rather very unsubtle way of introducing the love-potion, but we'll let that pass...

One got a sense from the programme notes that the company was slightly embarrassed by Act II. There is no doubt that it's as close as Wagner ever got to writing straight opera. There is a chorus, who more or less sing a drinking song; there is a rousing three way climax where Gunther, Hagan and Brunhilde swear vengeance, not totally unlike Act II of "Otello". There is the magnificently declamatory section where Siegfried and Brunhilde swear oaths on the point of Hagan's spear. (Or, unfortunately in this case, dagger.) Where Siegfried's death makes me cry, the spear-swearing makes me want to cheer, and shout "encore!". I rather wished I could have watched Act II in a Glastonbury-type situation, where you could respond to the action without fear of everyone behind you going "shush"! Wagner being Wagner, he doesn't give us very much of any one of the "tune": the oath swearing is repeated twice; the vassals celebration is really only sung once. You feel anyone else would have milked them for twenty minutes.

The production pretty much dives in an enjoys itself. Gunther and Gutrune are marrying Brunhilde and Siegfried, respectively, not because they love them, but because they think that marrying a hero and an ex-goddess will confer status on them. They are trophy brides, this is a celebrity marriage. The wedding, done partly as a set-piece for benefit of their subjects falls apart when Brunhilde (Gunther's "wife") announces that she is already married to Siegfried (who, as a result of a plot device, has completely forgotten who she is.) Brunhilde faints. Everyone starts swearing oaths and vengeance. In the aftermath of the disastrous wedding, Brunhilde, Gunther and Hagan plan to murder Siegfried. It has aways seemed to me that this section of "Twilight of the Gods" represents a desecration of the last two operas. How can the dragon-slaying Siegfried have been turned into a puppet by such a silly Shakespeare-comedy device as a love-potion? How after that intense love-duet, can Brunhilde possibly believe that Siegfried has really betrayed her, let alone participate in a plot to kill him? (Why doesn't she say "Siegfried would never betray me. One of you must have enchanted him.") It's part of the genius of the opera that he completely regains his nobility in death. But it is really not very much to the point to say that the production of Act II reduced the characters status, turned them into figures in a melodrama or a soap-opera. That is pretty much what Wagner has already done to them.

After his strange dream-meeting with Alberich, Hagan calls his vassals together to announce the double wedding. It begins with a horn call, and Hagan's very dark theme, as he insinuates that he has called them together to go to war. The chorus appears in black body suits and silver helmets, looking like riot police or stormtroopers. There are even what look like nuclear missiles lined up at the back of the stage. This is slightly corny, almost a parody of modern-dress Wagner. But at the moment when they realize that they have been assembled, not for a war, but for a wedding and the the music changes the chorus all simultaneously rip off their black costumes, and reveal gaudy, modern, pastel colours underneath. The stage has gone from black to colourful in a about three seconds. (This was another moment where I wanted to applaud.) "Hollywood" style lighting and a big silver silver staircase are lowered from the ceiling, and Gunther and Brunhilde enter in a gaudy wedding dresses, followed by Siegfried in a sparkly white cowboy outfit. The whole thing has turned into the most vulgar of Las Vegas show business weddings. As Brunhilde accuses Siegfried of treachery, and the whole things threatens to degenerate into a brawl, the two sides of the "congregation" start waving their programmes and fists, for all the world like a Jerry Springer audience.

I repeat. Phylida Lloyd is not appropriating the "Ring" and using it to "say something about" show business weddings. Neither, I think, is she shoe-horning Wagner's material into inappropriate modern situations. She is asking the question "Who, in the modern world, most resembles these legendary characters". She wants us to approach "Twilight of the Gods" as human drama, not as an argument involving philosophical archetypes. A bride weeping in a dressing room while stripping off her expensive wedding dress has a pathos that is hard to achieve with animal skins and standing stones. A woman being given a hand-grenade by her own sister makes us perceive suicide as something brutal and nihilistic, rather than satisfyingly romantic.

Dramatically and in terms of production, "Twilight of the Gods" was the most successful opera in the E.N.O ring. It wasn't as gut-wrenching as "Valkryie", but that's really Wagner's fault: it only gets onto an emotional plateau in Act III. Act I is longer than most sensible operas, and with its long expository sections from the Norns and Waltraute, is always going to feel like a bit of a test of endurance.

So it's over, and there is now nothing to look forward to unless and until they do all four operas together as a proper cycle in 2006. Obviously, only a complete lunatic would sign up to a complete "Ring". 14 hours, four consecutive nights in the theater, ticket costs of around £300. I'll be right at the front of the queue.

3: By the way....

Ellen Collins e-mailed me to point out that in the E.N.O "Rhinegold" Wotan is discovered surveying Valhalla from his bath-tub. When it is agreed that the ransom for Freya will be enough gold to cover her, they put her in the bath to bury her. So the Fafner's bath, which which perplexed me in "Siegfried" is probably a symbol of the Neiblung hoard.

A letter on the website of the Wagner Society points out that the Woodbird tells Siegfried to go into Fafner's cave to get the Tarnhelm. If the helm is in the cave, Fafner is not wearing it; but if he isn't wearing it, then he isn't transformed into a dragon. So the idea that Siegfried fights and kills a giant is actually faithful to the literal sense of the libretto.

4: And finally....

I have had a number of requests... but I decided to do it anyway:

Complete Synopsis


Anonymous said...

Sieglinde: The shards of Narsil!

Brunhilde: Er…It was Nothung.

Sieglinde: You're welcome.

Sigh. You know, you deserve whatever happens to you, after this.

(Most amusing.)

Anonymous said...

The closest I have got to watching a proper opera is "Alladin", which isn't close at all; though I do have a recording of the The Threepenny Opera which I rather like.

Thus I can make no useful comment on Andrew's critique, except to say that is was amusingly written and the synopsis was excellent- so good that I thought he'd borrowed it from someone else.

Which brings me to the 'narrative' of the Cycle which, as Andrew informs us makes not a lot of sense, and a few questions:
1. Was Wagner a composer/librettist of operas who merely grabbed interesting looking ideas and 'operatised' them; or: was he genuinely interested in/passionate about Germanic/Arthurian mythologies and sought to reinvent/revitalise them in operatic form?
2. To what extent was Wagner constrained by the conventions of Germanic opera circa 1850-1870: in other words did the love potion scene have to be there whether he wanted it or not?
3. How much of the narrative of the Scandinavian/Germanic mythology actually survives in the Ring Cycle?

RE the critc's reviews: There's a familiar experiment regarding people's perceptions.
A person rushes into a crowded lecture hall or similar room and does something both eye-catching and obviously illegal in full view of everyone in the room. Each witness is then interviewed and asked for a description of the offender: the descriptions offered are then combined to produce a tall short, bald-headed clean-shaven person with dark hair and a moustache, or similar. How then is a critic suppossed to give an objective review of anything as complex as four hours of opera (or film/theatre/ballet/art show/ etc.) is beyond me.
Perhaps all the critics should meet in the bar after the show and thrash out a consensus, or preface their reviews with an account of their personal foibles and prejudices to aid the reader.

Or are we supposed to cultivate a long term relationship with these people, as we would a friend or lover?, so that after many years we might say: "Ah, you're only saying that because...."

Just a thought.

Andrew Rilstone said...

The synopsis was excellent- so good that I thought he'd borrowed it from someone else.

I don't know, but I think I may resent that remark. :)

Unknown said...

2. To what extent was Wagner constrained by the conventions of Germanic opera circa 1850-1870: in other words did the love potion scene have to be there whether he wanted it or not?

My understanding is that Wagner was a mad visionary who wanted to reinvent dramatic performance pretty much from the ground up, and things didn't go into his Gesamtkunstwerk[1] unless he wanted them there, but I'm prepared to be corrected on that point.

[1] Gesundheit.

Anonymous said...

There's something about synopses of the Ring...

I wonder if you've read Stephen Donaldson's version, tacked on to his apologia for the Gap series? I've always wondered whether someone who cared about the plot would agree with his take on "real story" there...