Friday, November 09, 2012

Letter from WC I (3)

Covent Garden

In one respect, the Ring is a lot like Star Wars.

Wagner wrote a single opera called Siegfried. He realized it was too long, so he split it in half (Young Siegfried; Siegfried's Death). Then he realized that he needed a prequel to explain the back-story And, like George Lucas, Wagner's understanding of the plot and the characters changed during the writing process, so the early episodes are a good deal more complex than the later ones. We have to work quite hard to convince ourselves that the pantomime Dark Lord in Episode IV is the same character as the flawed Chosen One of Episode I. We have to work almost as hard to make ourselves believe that the favoured daughter of Wotan, we meet in Valkyrie, the personification of the All-Father's will is the same character as the vengeful ice-queen in Gotterdamerung.

The loose ends never really get tied up. Gotterdamerung is more primitive — more like an opera — than either Siegfried or the Valkyrie. It has a chorus. It has a silly plot involving a love potion. It has a revenge trio. Am I the only person ever to spot that the elaborate revenge plot in Act II makes no difference whatsoever to the final outcome? Brunhilde, Hagen and Gunther agree to kill Siegfried during a hunting trip; but then Hagen stabs him in the back and immediately admits that this is what he has done. He might as well have just stabbed him when he first saw him. (Their original plan is to make it look like an accident for the benefit of Gutrune, who has just married him, but they forget about this during the interval. They were probably also drinking cocktails.) Have all the shenanigan of Acts I and II really just been to generate a situation in which Brunhilde will reveal Siegfried;s Achilles heel to the villains? (It turns out that he is indestructible from the front but vulnerable from the rear "because he would never turn his back on an enemy". I believe that in the original legend Brunhilde guides Hagen's Spear into Siegfried's Achilles-Spot-Just- Below-The-Left-Shoulder blade. I recall even less distinctly that the sympathetic villain in Maharbarat has an Achilles Bottom, which causes endless problems because the hero is too chivalrous to strike below the belt.) Chunks of the libretto of Acts 1 and 2 feel like one of those bad Dungeons and Dragons games where the GM desperately tries to retrofit the scenario to the mythology. Brunhilde suddenly remembers that, despite having been de-Valkyried at the end Valkyrie, still has "magical powers" inherited from Erda; and that she has, without telling anybody, cast magic indestructibility spells on Siegfried. On the other hand she seems to have completely forgotten all the hours of exposition that she went through with Wotan. She knows what the significance of the Ring is — yet when Siegfried hands it to her she seems to regard it as important only as a token of love. (Are we being asked to believe that when Wotan sends her to sleep he also has her memory erased? But then how does she know who Siegfried Help!)

There is also, in the Ring as in Star Wars, a problem about the passage of time. So far as I can see, it takes Siegfried a matter of hours to get from the dragon's cave to Brunhilde's rock, and he sets out on new adventures after one ecstatic night of love with his new bride. Siegfried's Rhine Journey must take a few days at the most. But by Act III of Gotterdamerung, the slaying of the dragon has become an event which took place in the hero's youth. When he says that he hasn't talked to any birds recently, does he really mean "since yesterday afternoon."

"There you are, Andrew" I hear you saying "That is why it was much better in the olden days when we used to listen to Wagner without surtitles. We understood that the music tells the story of the universe from creation to apocalypse, starting and ending with that undulating B flat buzz; and as long as we couldn't understand them we could pretend that the words must be saying something very profound indeed. (It also meant that we could treat Tristan as a love story and ignore all that Buddhist shit.) If you insist on listening to a running translation of the lyrics you can't complain if they turn out to be tosh."

Well, up to a point. It is true that there are sections of the work which don't make sense once you understand them, it is also true that once you know what is going on, you discover that the opera is full of significance and connections and subtleties that you hadn’t noticed before.

For example. Act I of Gotterdamerung is very long. Very, very long. Longer, as everybody knows, than a complete performance of La Boheme. And there is no doubt that it can feel like a bit of a marathon. Scene two sets up the climax — Siegfried is going to climb up the mountain and awaken Brunhilde all over again. But before you get to that pay-off, you have to go through a long (and very beautiful) musical interlude and a long (and very powerful) scene in which Brunhilde is visited by another Valkyrie.

Wagner loves to embed back-story in narrative: even he can't put the whole of Norse mythology on the stage, so he engineers sections in which Wotan, Waltraute (the Other Valkyrie) or the three Norns tell us about the creation of the world and the cutting of Wotan's spear from the World Ash Tree. The narrative of Waltraute is very powerful indeed. Wotan is, she explains, still sitting on his throne in Valhalla with the broken fragments of the spear on his knees, waiting for the universe to come to and end. She tells Brunhilde that he is saying that the end of the gods could be averted if only she will return the Ring to the Rhine-maidens

Brunhilde says no: she's not giving away Siegfried's wedding present no matter who asks her too. What she actually says — I've never noticed this before — is "I will not renounce love". She would have to renounce love in order to return the ring; Alberich had to renounce love to steal the ring in the first place. The music agrees: the two scenes are parallel. Thematically and philosophically and musically it all hangs together wonderfully. But you do rather need to know what she is singing about.

People who'd rather not have surtitles are as silly as people who'd rather have a concert performance or just listen to it on the wireless. 

(Except…why is Wotan asking her to return the ring to the Rhine? I thought the whole point was that he has accepted and was positively seeking, oblivion and the end of the gods? Help.)

There is, by the way, nothing more surreal than a men's lavatory in the interval of an opera. Lots of men, all in their extremely smart tuxes, standing alongside each other doing what they came into the lavatory to do, and all humming different bits of the opera while they go about it.

Once again, the most memorable scenes in the production are the most minimal. Hagen stabs Siegfried in the not-invulnerable back and kills him. There follows two of the most beautiful bits of music in the Ring, and therefore anywhere. First Siegfried's death itself; the harp notes of him dying are precisely the same as those we heard when Brunhilde woke up. And then, of course, the mighty Funeral March which is arguably what the whole sixteen hours have been building up to, thumping out all the motifs, with that huge explosion of brass in the middle. (Don't bother to listen to it if you haven't been to the opera: it doesn't work out of context, any more than the Mona Lisa's smile works out of the context of her face.)

The script says that during the funeral march, Hagen’s vassals come and carry Siegfried back to the castle. This production simply left him dead on the stage, picked out by a spotlight and left the music to do the work. Just when we thought that nothing was going to happen at all, we realize that Wotan (presumably not Bryn Himself) has come in and is standing over the body of his dead grandson, paying his respects. That’s it. Astonishingly powerful. And, of course, it was powerful precisely because the simple empty stage was such a contrast to the relatively crowded imagery of much of the rest of the cycle.

There were other powerful ideas. At the beginning of Act II, Alberich appears in Hagen's dream, floating above him in a boat, the same boat in which he approached the Rhine-maidens on Friday night. (Siegfried finds the remains of the boat on the banks of the Rhine at beginning of Act III.) The Tarnhelm has been represented as a transparent perspex cube throughout: when Siegfried arrives at the Gibiching castle, the whole stage has become a cube; as if he is somehow inside the helmet. (Opera-buddy spotted that the glass of one of the windows was cracked, and the Tarnhelm was cracked in exactly the same place.) Act I ends with Siegfried using the helmet to take on the form of Gunther, and going back up the mountain to woo Brunhilde all over again on Gunther's behalf. (The love potion means that he's forgotten her and fallen in love with Gutrune, Gunther's sister. Please try to keep up.) This usually means we see Siegfried but have to imagine that Brunhilde sees Gunther. Tonight, the wooing/abduction/rape was acted by Gunther, while Siegfried stood on the stage, wearing the helmet, and delivering his lines. This may have been the cleverest invention of the whole cycle: it was easier to understand, more dramatic and less silly than the standard staging. (Oh, and Hagen — John Tomlinson again — remains on stage as a malevolent reminder of who's in charge for the whole of the second half of the act.)

Years ago, I saw a version of Pygmalion in which introduced Bernard Shaw as a character, reading out his own impossible stage directions. Has anyone ever tried to do the Ring on a bare stage, with the text of Wagner’s descriptions projected as text or read out as a commentary? It would be fair to say that his instructions for Act III of Gotterdamerung are literal unperformable. 

From the ruins of the fallen hall, the men and women, in the greatest agitation, look on the growing firelight in the heavens. As this at length glows with the greatest brightness, the interior of Walhall is seen, in which the gods and heroes sit assembled, as in Waltraute's description in the first act. Bright flames appear to seize on the hall of the gods. As the gods become entirely hidden by the flames, the curtain falls.

The producer claims, however, that tonight’s production found some stage action to represent virtually everything which Wagner describes. I can will believe this.

In Act II, huge golden statues of the gods from Rhinegold dominate the stage. (This makes a lot of sense, since the act actually ends with sacrifices being made to Fricka to celebrate the marriages of Siegfried and Gutrune and Gunther and Brunhilde. Instead of taking oaths on the point of Hagen's spear, they take oaths on Wotan's spear, which Hagen has taken down from the statue for the purpose) In Act III, the dead Siegfried is wrapped in a shroud, like a mummy, and Brunhilde embarks on her monumentally epic Immolation aria, in which she decides that the resolution to all dramatic, theological and philosophical problems that have developed in the story up to this point is to throw herself onto Siegfried's funeral pyre. Typically for this production, she puts a lot of light and shade into the final solo; she's particularly convincing and dramatic in the bit when she says that Siegfried was both the most faithful, and the least faithful of lovers. (The scene where poor Gutrune realises that she was never married to Siegfried at all is also carried off with unusual sympathy and drama.) Considering the pyrotechnics we've had on Brunhilde's rocks and Mime's forge, it's not surprise that the funeral pyre is done with real fire, sprouting from both the Rhine and from the arches (possibly representing DNA) which have been cropping up since Day 1.

But the really inspired bit was that the long-suffering vassals also carry the four golden statues from Act II back onto the stage and then dropped them into the Rhine, where they burned impressively. So while we don’t actually get to see Valhalla going up in flames (we never, ever do) we do very much get to see the Twilight of the Gods. (Didn’t Wagner’s mate Freddy write a book called Twilight of the Idols?)

This spectacles didn't completely swamp out the joy of the Rhine-maidens finally getting their ring back; although we felt that when Brunhilde jumped into the river (as opposed to riding on to the pyre) it felt slightly bathetic, as if the immolation had turned out to be a dip in the pool.

The very very final image had the double-helix-archy-things rising up out of the Rhine, now formed into a circle (or, indeed, as you might say, a ring) with a previously unseen and unidentified youth sitting on them. I assume that this represented Rebirth or the Triumph of Youth or Birth of a New Society or something. Tomorrow belongs to me. (This was possibly the one point in the whole week when I felt that the part of my brain that said What are they doing? What does this mean? destracted the rest of my brain from listening to the actual music.)

I am told that this is the first production in Covent Garden history where, during the final curtain call, the orchestra comes onto the stage and got, naturally and justifiably, the only actual standing ovation of the week.


Groß Glück und Heil lacht nun dem Rhein,

Whoot whoot.

It may, however, now be that I have seen enough Wagner for one year.