Ring of Truth
The Metropolitan Opera’s new Siegfried, part of its ambitious Ring cycle, exposes the greatness—and the limitations—of Wagner and his admirers
Even those of us who cannot hear Wagner without recalling the Nuremberg rallies should make an effort to understand why Wagner changed the world. The young Gustav Mahler, often cited as a composer with a Jewish sensibility, heard Wagner for the first time and wrote, “I understood that the greatest and most painful revelation had just been made to me, and that I would carry it unspoiled for the rest of my life.” No other artist changed so many lives or so drastically changed the course of the culture. Writer Roger Scruton says that Wagner’s Ring is “surely the greatest drama composed in modern times”—fatuously in my view, but his view is widely held.
“At the beginning of this century there were people called Wagnerians,” Hitler said in 1943. “Other people had no special name.” He was right. Wagner did not invent the main themes of post-Christian culture—follow your bliss, invent your own identity, do your own thing, all you need is love—but he softened us up to accept them in the intimate dimension of music. We continue to emulate him, above all in film. If we find Wagner in the original tedious, it is because the Star Wars series, the Harry Potter films, and a hundred other imitations have corrupted us with Wagner Lite.
Like Caliban, Wagner set out to people this isle with Siegfrieds. He succeeded: Luke Skywalker is the most obvious knockoff, down to the battle with and redemption of the father figure. (Wotan almost says, “Siegfried, I am your grandfather!”) Harry Potter is a younger Skywalker, except that unlike Siegfried, he doesn’t murder Dumbledore. The most popular English novel of the 20th century, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, is modeled on the Ring cycle, although Tolkien intended his epic as an antidote to Wagner rather than an imitation.
With the third installment of its new Ring cycle, the Metropolitan Opera has set a high-water mark for opera, featuring director Robert LePage’s theatrical wizardry and a strong cast. LePage devised a 45-ton mechanical set for his Ring cycle, which debuted last September with the first opera of the tetralogy, Das Rheingold. It required extra reinforcement for the Met stage, the most expensive thing the Met has ever undertaken; estimates of the cost of this cycle range up to $40 million. Much as one might wish that the Met had spent that money on Mozart and Verdi, the result is a marvel, despite occasional mechanical glitches including one in a subsequent Siegfried performance. Fortunately the big machine worked flawlessly at the Oct. 27 premiere. The set looks like a row of parallel planks, set at a 30-degree angle to the audience. As the prelude begins, the planks rotate to right angles, and we see the forest floor magnified in three-dimensional projection, with worms and insects crawling over the tree roots; it rotates again and transforms itself into the primeval forest. The Nibelung dwarf Mime takes the infant Siegfried from his dying mother Sieglinde, along with the shards of the sword Nothung. With another rotation, we see Mime’s cavern smithy next to a shimmering pool fed by a small waterfall. The morphing stage and the high-definition projections are magical.
But it is not just LePage’s shape-shifting set that lures us into the enchanted forest; it is Wagner’s music. The rhythm of a tapping anvil grows as if from primal chaos in the timpani and low winds, while a rising figure in the brass—it is the music of the Nibelung hoard—builds to a climax. Under the baton of a James Levine, the longtime Met music director now sidelined by injury, it is chilling; conductor Fabio Luisi made it sound like the Nibelungen waltz, but we will save the bad news for last.
The good news is that the Met offered the strongest cast for Siegfried in many years, headed by Jay Hunter Morris in the title role. The young heroic tenor from Texas can summon the requisite vocal brass when required but has a convincing lyrical side as well. And I cannot recall a Siegfried who looked and acted the part so well. He compares well to the leading interpreters of my lifetime: René Kollo, Siegfried Jerusalem, Jess Thomas, and James King. Opposite Morris was Deborah Voigt, one of the great dramatic sopranos of our time. The Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel sang Wotan beautifully, as he always does. Gerhard Siegel as Mime, Eric Owens as Alberich, and Patricia Bardon as Erda sang and acted wonderfully in their respective roles.
It was good enough to recall the Jewish joke about the old woman who receives a letter from her son containing horrendously awful news. “But does he write beautiful Hebrew,” she sighs. “It’s a pleasure to read.” Wagner’s news is that the West will burn, and murderous thugs like Siegfried will run wild. But the Met presented it so beautifully that it was almost a pleasure to hear.
Mime has raised Siegfried to kill the dragon Fafner, who sits upon the hoard of the Nibelungs, including on a magic ring that can make its owner master of the world. Wotan, the god of laws, had stolen the hoard to pay the giants who built his fortress, Valhalla, and the Nibelungs want it back. But Mime cannot forge the shards of Nothung. The young Siegfried will do so himself and kill Fafner as well as Mime and go on to claim as his bride the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, who lies sleeping on a mountain surrounded by magic fire.
Siegfried will overthrow Wotan with the words, “All my life an old man has stood in my way,” and replace the rule of law with the rule of unrestrained impulse, which Wagner calls love. He and Brünnhilde (who is Wotan’s daughter) shall be the redeemer and redemptrix of the world, replacing the old order of covenants with the new order of do whatever feels right. Everybody dies at the end, but they do so following their bliss.
To understand Wagner’s convulsive impact on the culture, one must hear his work in the theater. We have become accustomed to what he called Gesamtkunstwerk, or the total work of art, through film, which holds us captive and controls our visual and auditory perceptions. Wagner demands that we subject our senses to his control for many hours. (Siegfried begins at 6 p.m. and, with two intermissions, ends near midnight.)
The destruction of the covenantal world by impulsive strength, Wagner’s great theme, also involves an even subtler change in our perception of time. Western classical music subordinates individual events to a musical goal, and our perception of time depends on our progress to that goal. In the hands of the great composers, time itself can be compressed or distended for expressive reasons, but it always remains intact. In the Ring cycle, the thread of time spun by the Nordic fates, or Norns, figuratively breaks to herald the end of the old order. Wagner uses musical sleight-of-hand to evoke the illusion of a break in the continuity of time as well.
Wagner’s music usually is explained through his use of leading motifs, or Leitmotiven, short musical phrases that refer to characters or concepts. (The Wagnerheim website guides the interested listener through each use of these motifs in the cycle.) Darth Vader’s “Dum, dum-dum dumb, dum, dum-dum” and Indiana Jones’ “dee-de-dee-dee, dee-de-dee” are the idiot grandchildren of the Ring. There is something in this procedure of the handworkers’ staging of “Pyramus and Thisbe” in Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which one actor holds up brick and mortar to show that he is playing the Wall, and another holds a lantern and horns to show that he is playing the Moon.
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