Monday, May 28, 2012

Enchanted realms in the Bohemian woods: Wagner on Weber

One of my favorite works of the late 20th century is a symphony by John Adams, an orchestral triptych called Harmonielehre (Harmony Lesson). The title is a reference to a book by Schoenberg on his “theory of harmony.” The first movement was inspired by a dream set near the composer’s northern California home. Crossing the “San Francisco Bay Bridge,” the composer writes (in his engaging autobiography, Hallelujah Junction), “I looked out to see a huge oil tanker sitting in the water. As I watched, it slowly rose up like a Saturn rocket and blasted out of the bay and into the sky. I could see the rust-colored metal oxide of its hull as it took off.”

Composers have long remarked on the mysterious power of dreams and visions as sources of inspiration. Elsewhere I have quoted from the composer Jonathan Harvey’s excellent book on this subject, Music and Inspiration. It should not be surprising to learn about such colorful dreams coming from the composer of the vivid and original operas, Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic.

The second movement of Harmonielehre is a brooding adagio called “The Anfortas Wound.” This Mahlerian elegy references the “sacred wound” in the thigh of the Grail Knight around which Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal revolves. While Wagner and Adams would not appear to have much in common, their attraction to medieval legends and their shared mystical bent proves at least one strong connection.

The final movement of Harmonielehre was also inspired by a dream. The enigmatic title, “Meister Eckhart and Quackie” links the hermetic philosopher and the nickname of Adams’s daughter (who made “a funny, ducklike noise” as a baby). The dream consisted “of a single image: the medieval mystic floating in space and carrying on his shoulder, like a blithe and gentle homunculus, our fourth-month old daughter, Emily.”

Adams joins a shortlist of composers whose prose – if frequently inflated – is often engaging. Berlioz was one, and among others, Wagner is a writer whose criticism is capable of remarkable flight and picturesque color. His essay on Weber’s romantic opera, Der Freischütz is a great read. It reveals as much about its author as it does his subject. Der Freischütz is considered the greatest of early 19th century German operas. Wagner admired it immensely and it was an important influence on his developing style. Equally important for Wagner was its authentically “German” character. In Weber’s wind- and brass- rich orchestration, his dispensation of recitatives (in favor of “Singspiel” dialogue), and his move away from the “number opera” to an opera of scenes, he anticipates Wagner. This distinction from the prevailing fads of Italian Bel canto opera and French grand opera is nearly as important as Weber’s score for the “truly German” composer of “authentic music dramas” Wagner claimed himself to be. The essay was written for an 1841 Paris production to be conducted by none other than Berlioz, one of the few French musicians for whom Wagner had high praise. Here is Wagner’s opening salvo:

"In the heart of the Bohemian Forest, old as the world, lies the ‘Wolfsschlucht’; its legend lingered till the Thirty Years War, which destroyed the last trace of German grandeur; but now, like many another boding memory, it has died out from the folk.”

In this initial sentence, Wagner has offered a world of information. Most apparent is the emphasis on “German grandeur” and the collective loss of connection to these folk legends that say so much about a people and its culture. What may be less obvious to the uninitiated is the mystical “secret history” behind the reference to the “Wolf’s Glen” in the Bohemian Forest.

The Thirty Years War saw both the climax and the quashing of the “Rosicrucian Enlightenment,” a movement of visionary mysticism associated with the Stewart princess Elizabeth (daughter of King James) and her German husband Frederick V, the Elector Palatine of the Rhine. Disparagingly known as the “Winter King and Queen of Bohemia,” their demise following their defeat at Prague has overshadowed one of the most fascinating chapters “and most profound ironies” in the history of thought. This late-flowering “Enlightenment” at the end of the Renaissance gave birth to the so-called “Age of Reason.” Through a usurping reversal, the “Rosicrucian furore” was all but erased by the Cartesian era it helped engender. A more extensive treatment of this theme is on my “musings” page, using the Renaissance historian Frances Yates and her excellent study, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment as a guide through these intriguing historical woods.

Wagner’s reference to the “old as the world” setting signals a connection to the wisdom of the ancients. It enlists mythologies from the Greek classics to the Norse sagas. His inspired prose on Weber’s prototypically German romantic opera reinforces these parallels with the ancient world and its mysteries. I believe Wagner, like many a “romantic” and “visionary” artist – from across the ages – was more in tune with the esoteric traditions than many critics allow. Because these traditions are shrouded in mystery and muddied by misunderstandings they are easy to dismiss or ignore. This is a loss for our appreciation of the lives and works of artists as varied as Leonardo da Vinci and Wagner.

It is not insignificant that his reference to the “Wolf’s Glen” legend parallels Yates’s findings on the Rosicrucian movement whose “last traces of grandeur” were also “destroyed.” The loss of that mystical tradition is part of the reason “secret societies” (like the Freemasons) have always existed in a “catch-22” relationship with their prevailing culture. Again, the curious and inquiring may look elsewhere for clues. I am not making any claims for Wagner’s “membership” in a literal or figurative chain of hermetic artists, alchemists or mystics. I simply perceive a connection between Wagner’s life and the metaphysical “forces” that propel The Magic Flute, Weber’s masterpiece and all of Wagner’s own music dramas.

Like Gounod’s Faust, Freischütz is an opera that takes off after a “date with the devil,” involves conflict and consequence, and ends with salvation. Redemption is the leitmotif of Wagner’s music dramas. Reconciliation is also one of the principal motifs uniting the various schools of esoteric thought, the Renaissance and its re-incarnation in the Romantic movements of the 19th century. Both the theme of reconciliation and “the daemonic powers” of this mysterious “spirit world” engage Wagner’s imagination and fire his creativity. He says as much himself.

Wagner said Weber’s orchestration “seemed to me like a greeting from the spirit world,” and eagerly confessed to a “sense of eeriness that had always excited me.” That same titillating thrill has always drawn hordes of spectators into various arenas to watch "thrillers." Who knows, Wagner might have been a horror movie fan had he lived in another era. His music has certainly inspired the dramatic scores that accompany films from Hitchcock suspenses to Star Wars. Subject to vivid visions, dreams and nightmares throughout his life, Wagner’s prose can also reach heights of oneiric fancy. Though Adams doesn’t cite him as a formative influence, his own fantastic dreams echo Wagner’s rich imaginative life. Perhaps my syncretist claims for a connection between the two composers is as tenuous as some of those made by Wagner’s biographers. Let’s see.

Weber’s opera had its premiere in 1821, the year Wagner’s stepfather Geyer (whose name means “Vulture”) died. Wagner learned the score as a child and played excerpts to his dying stepfather. One of Wagner’s biographers, Joachim Köhler illuminates fascinating details between the life and works in Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans (Yale, 2004). One such parallel is in the first bird the hunter shoots in the folktale upon which Freischütz is based. Johann Apel, author of the original story, lived in the same Leipzig house where Wagner had some of his earliest, and according to Köhler, “darkest experiences.”

After making the deal with the “dark tempter,” the hunter shoots, and “a great vulture [Geier] fell bleeding to the earth.” In Weber’s opera the bird is an eagle [Adler]. Nietzsche uses a pun on the identities of the birds to reinforce the (false) claim that Geyer was actually Jewish. “A Geyer [vulture] is almost an Adler [eagle] – that is, a Jew,” quotes Köhler. This enigma nagged Wagner, who was uncertain about the identity of his real father. It shines at least a sliver of light on a possible origin of his notorious and odious anti-semitism. Richard Wagner was known as Richard Geyer until he was a teenager. Regardless of the origin and veracity of such biographical enigmas, the importance of the archetype of the felled bird is a potent symbol. As I mentioned in an essay below about the origins of the “Flying Dutchman” legend, Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” features both the “Ghost ship,” and more importantly for his ballad, the shot-down Albatross, ominously hung around the neck of the offending mariner. Near the start of Wagner’s ultimate opera, Parsifal shoots a swan. Like the mariner, he spends the rest of the story atoning for it.

Returning to Weber’s opera and Wagner’s vivid description of it, we find his essay concentrates entirely on this famous “Wolf’s Glen” scene. In the opera, it is the finale of the second act where the young protagonist Max invokes the name of the Mephistophelian “Dark Hunter,” Samiel. In this Faustian pact, he trades his soul for seven “magic bullets” with which he can win the shooting contest as the “Free Shooter” (Der Freischütz), and win the hand of his beloved Agathe. Here Wagner is describing the hunter’s approach to the mysterious lair.

“Arrived at the verge, he had looked down into an abyss, whose depth his eye could never plumb: jagged reefs of rock stood high in shape of human limbs and terribly distorted faces; beside them heaps of pitch-black stones in form of giant toads and lizards; deeper down, these stones seemed living; they moved and crept and rolled in heavy, ragged masses; but under them the ground could no more be distinguished. From thence foul vapours rose incessantly, and spread a pestilential stench around; here and there they would divide, and range themselves in ranks that took the form of human beings with faces all convulsed…”

Wagner’s description of the scene is as fantastic as the vivid prose of E.T.A. Hoffmann or Edgar Allen Poe. Wagner’s interest in Gothic fantasy is evident in his essay, and informs the world of his next music drama, the “poem” (libretto) of which was begun in and around his 1841 sojourn to Paris. That poem would evolve to become his first great music drama, The Flying Dutchman.

Köhler’s calls Wagner a “Virgilian guide” to the “Dantesque Inferno” of the “Wolf’s Glen” scene. Like Dante, Wagner is so inventive with his version of the tale, he threatens to overshadow the original. With language of great potency, he describes what the hunter finds in “the jaws of hell.”

“Everything awakens from its deathly slumber, everything comes to life and swirls and stretches; the howling turns to a roar, the groaning to the sound of a raging fury; a thousand grimaces circle the magic ring.”

Wagner could be describing his own music, a point Köhler reinforces. “Only he who exposes himself to the terrible visions of the subconscious can cast the magic bullets of music… In Der Fliegende Holländer, Lohengrin and the Ring, he conjured up the demonic power that was to oppose his errant heroes in the guise of their fatal adversaries.” And therein we have the essence of the Wagnerian formula: curse, conflict and resolution / redemption.

Equally interesting and significant to Wagner is Weber’s mortal villain, Caspar. “Condemned to eternal wanderings, like the Flying Dutchman,” observes Köhler, Caspar was the role Wagner played himself in a living-room example of children’s theatre, soon after the work’s premiere. This helps us understand his identification with the Dutchman, the Faustian figure Wagner makes utterly his own. Where Weber’s Caspar is an interesting, if somewhat conventional “bad guy,” Wagner’s Dutchman is Shakespearean. Wagner’s sweeping imagination carries his characters to new heights, having plumbed the depths.

It should come as no surprise that he was carried away as a child performer, relishing Samiel’s “devilish whistle” in the improvised children’s theatre. Köhler notes how, 20 years later he was “carried away while writing the article… Fired by his own enthusiasm, he went far beyond the familiarly eerie world of the opera, perhaps only stopping short at the point where his nightmares had taken him…”

I don’t think Wagner stopped short of his nightmares. He lived them. They are written into his music and fire his dramas. From the stormy overture of The Flying Dutchman to Parsifal’s life and death battle in the enchanted forest 4 decades later, and nowhere more vivid than in the mythic epic, The Ring of the Nibelungs, Wagner faced the darkness and found a way to through-compose the light.

Near the conclusion of his essay, Wagner spells out the reason for his love of these particularly German sagas. He is in thrall to the mysterious dark powers because he believes in Nature’s regenerative and ultimately redeeming power. His trenchant assessment of the imagination-stunting effects of “conventional life” still rings true. His idealism where these “Nature-sagas” and the German “Volk” are concerned should inform our understanding of this most enigmatic of artists. Because of the posthumous connection of Wagner's music with Hitler's Reich, bolstered by Wagner's own anti-semitism, it is easy to distort history by associating Wagner with the fascist “folk” of a German Reich he could never have foreseen and most certainly would have abhorred. One cannot thoroughly consider Wagner without approaching the tragic history of his country in the 20th century, and the atrocities of the Third Reich which used his music as manipulative propaganda. That will be the subject of another essay, and it has been the subject of many a book and symposium. This piece is concerned with Wagner’s response to a great romantic, authentically “German” opera, and we shall give him the last word on it.

It seems to be the poem of those Bohemian woods themselves, whose somber aspect lets us grasp at once how the lonesome forester would believe himself, if not the prey of a daemonic nature-power, at least irrevocably subject to it. And that is just what constitutes the specifically German character of this and similar sagas: a character so strongly tinged by surrounding Nature, that to her we must ascribe the origin of a demonology … Albeit terrible, this notion does not here become downright remorseless: a gentle sadness shimmers through its awe, and the lament over Nature’s lost Paradise knows how to soften the forsaken Mother’s vengeance. And that is just the German type. Everywhere else we see the Devil communing with men, obsessing witches and magicians, and saving of abandoning them to the stake according to his humour… In that the very rawest peasant no more believes today, because such incidents are laid too baldly in conventional life, where they quite certainly take place no longer: but happily the mystic converse of the human heart with its own surrounding Nature is not yet done away with; for in her sounding silences she speaks to it today just as she did a thousand years gone by, and what she told it in the days of hoary eld it understands today as well as ever. And so these Nature-sagas come to be the Poet’s never-failing element of discourse with his folk.

from Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, Volume VII: In Dresden and Paris
(translated by William Ashton Ellis)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Origins of "The Flying Dutchman" legend

Origins of "The Flying Dutchman" legend.

As we wrap up the 2011-12 opera season and prepare for another exciting year of new productions of classic operas, I am writing a series of essays on Wagner and his mythological subjects. Essays on Wagner's Ring are below, following my recent sojourn to the Met for their last "Ring Cycle" of the current season. Since our upcoming fall production of The Flying Dutchman is the first Wagner staging we've undertaken in our 37-year history, it is a momentous occasion.

This entry is in two parts. The first lists literary references to the origins of "the flying Dutchman" legend. The second part looks more closely at Edgar Allan Poe's "ghost-ship" story, "MS. Found in a Bottle."

A quick Internet search leads one to many references of the origins of the “ghost ship” frequently called “the Flying Dutchman.” Wagner’s opera is the most famous, and the Disney film franchise, “Pirates of the Caribbean” the most recent popular adaptation of the timeworn tale. Wagner's opera is most directly based on Heinrich Heine's satirical story, "The Memoirs of Mr von Schnabelewopski." Also of interest from the great German Jewish writer is his
Reisebilder: Die Nordsee (Travel Pictures: The North Sea).

The first credited reference to the mysterious ghost ship is found in George Barrington's 1795 account, "A Voyage to Botany Bay."

I had often heard of the superstition of sailors respecting apparitions, but had never given much credit to the report; it seems that some years since a Dutch man of war was lost off the Cape of Good Hope, and every soul on board perished; her consort weathered the gale, and arrived soon after at the Cape. Having refitted, and returning to Europe, they were assailed by a violent tempest nearly in the same latitude. In the night watch some of the people saw, or imagined they saw, a vessel standing for them under a press of sail, as though she would run them down: one in particular affirmed it was the ship that had foundered in the former gale, and that it must certainly be her, or the apparition of her; but on its clearing up, the object, a dark thick cloud, disappeared. Nothing could do away the idea of this phenomenon on the minds of the sailors; and, on their relating the circumstances when they arrived in port, the story spread like wild-fire, and the supposed phantom was called the Flying Dutchman. From the Dutch the English seamen got the infatuation, and there are very few Indiamen, but what has some one on board, who pretends to have seen the apparition.

The next literary reference, according to another online source, introduces "the motif of punishment for a crime." This appears in John Leyden's Scenes of Infancy (Edinburgh, 1803)

It is a common superstition of mariners, that, in the high southern latitudes on the coast of Africa, hurricanes are frequently ushered in by the appearance of a spectre-ship, denominated the Flying Dutchman ... The crew of this vessel are supposed to have been guilty of some dreadful crime, in the infancy of navigation; and to have been stricken with pestilence ... and are ordained still to traverse the ocean on which they perished, till the period of their penance expire.

The Irish poet, Thomas Moore (1779–1852) is best known for popular lyrics like "The Last Rose of Summer." I share Britten's settings of his folksongs frequently in my "Listening to Paintings" series at the Taubman Museum of Art. The colorful and not infrequently visionary imagery of his poetry lends itself to visual associations. In a poem whose title is a chronicle in and of itself, he describes a phantom ship on the North Sea. "Written on passing Dead-man's Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Late in the Evening, September, 1804," describes her:

Fast gliding along, a gloomy bark
Her sails are full, though the wind is still,
And there blows not a breath her sails to fill.

A footnote adds: "The above lines were suggested by a superstition very common among sailors, who call this ghost-ship, I think, 'the flying Dutch-man'."

Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) was not only a friend of John Leyden's, like Edgar Allen Poe, he was a romantic writer of Gothic, supernatural fantasy. His Bride of the Lammermoors is best known for inspiring Donizetti's bel canto masterpiece, Lucia di Lammermoor (heard to acclaim in Roanoke in 2010). Scott may have been the the first to refer to the vessel as a pirate ship. Notes to his 1812 poem Rokeby, say the ship was "originally a vessel loaded with great wealth, on board of which some horrid act of murder and piracy had been committed." He goes on to warn this pirate ship "is considered by the mariners as the worst of all possible omens."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1799 ballad, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," may be the most famous of the ghost-ship references, with its lexicon-forming imagery of "water water everywhere / and not a drop to drink" and the archetypal "albatross" hung around the neck of the ill-fated Mariner who shot her down. Coleridge's poem will be considered later. Before we move on to a closer examination of Edgar Allen Poe's 1833 tale of nautical phantasmagoria, "MS. Found in a Bottle," mention should be made of several other ghost-ship references.

Best known for "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the American romantic author Washington Irving, indebted to Moore's poem, wrote both "Bracebridge Hall" (1822), and "The Flying Dutchman on Tappan Sea (1855).

In 1826, the English playwright, Edward Fitzhall wrote The Flying Dutchman; or the Phantom Ship: A Nautical drama. Frederick Marryat's novel, The Phantom Ship appeared in 1839.

(Albert Ryder's 1887 canvas, "The Flying Dutchman," from the Smithsonian Museum)

A closer reading of Poe's "MS. Found in a Bottle."

In the middle of a tumultuous storm, “at an elevation beyond the albatross,” fearful of disturbing “the slumbers of the kraken,” Poe describes his narrator’s first glimpse of the ghost ship:

We were at the bottom of one of those abysses, when a quick scream from my companion broke fearfully upon the night. “See! see!” cried he, shrieking in my ears… As he spoke I became aware of a dull sullen glare of red light… I beheld a spectacle which froze the current of my blood. At a terrific height directly above us, and upon the very verge of the precipitous descent, hovered a gigantic ship of perhaps four thousand tons… Her huge hull was of a deep dingy black… For a moment of intense terror she paused upon the giddy pinnacle as if in contemplation of her own sublimity, then trembled, and tottered, and – came down.

Poe’s companion does not survive the fateful encounter, but his narrator finds himself on the phantom ship among the mysterious crew, who “seemed utterly unconscious” of his presence.

We are surely doomed to hover continually upon the brink of eternity, without taking a final plunge into the abyss. From billows a thousand times more stupendous than any I have ever seen, we glide away with the facility of the arrowy sea-gull; and the colossal waters rear their heads above us like demons of the deep…

Poe foreshadows the appearance of the Captain and reinforces the parallels with the “Flying Dutchman” legend. As his narrator proofreads the account he is chronicling, “a curious apothegm of an old weather-beaten Dutch navigator comes full upon” his memory. “’It is as sure,’ he was wont to say, when any doubt was entertained of his veracity, ‘as sure as there is a sea where the ship itself will grow in bulk like the living body of the seaman.’”

I have seen the captain face to face, and in his own cabin – but, as I expected, he paid me no attention… But it is the singularity of the expression which reigns upon the face – it is the intense, the wonderful, the thrilling evidence of an old age so utter, so extreme, which excites within my spirit a sense, a sentiment ineffable. His forehead, although little wrinkled, seems to bear upon it the stamp of a myriad of years. His gray hairs are records of the past, and his grayer eyes are sybils of the future.

Poe’s superb ear for conjuring phantasmagoria is apparent across this compact story, “imbued with the spirit of Eld,” like the ship and its crew. They “glide to and fro like the ghosts of buried centuries.” And like Poe's narrator, we are drawn in by a strange attraction, an uncanny fascination. Close reading of Poe opens up the creative space where intellect and intuition, history and fantasy, “truth” and “fiction” meet and unite. Most modern forms of fantasy concentrate on external effects for “entertainment” value. This exoteric, special effects-driven approach is most obvious in Hollywood films. To cite one example, the director Guillermo del Toro’s comic-book fantasy film, Hellboy plays to the typical summer blockbuster audience, skimming over the mythic layers inherent in the genre to relish in special effects and “epic” battle scenes. His vastly superior film of historical and archetypal resonance, Pan’s Labyrinth was an art-house, “foreign language” favorite (in Spanish). Its nature is truly epic, its “fantastic” elements deeply layered, and its violence is all the more unsettling for not being gratuitous.

Poe, like Coleridge and Blake, belongs to a lineage of esoteric creative artists deeply connected to mythologies and the transformative power of the “fugitive causes” (Coleridge) behind and within inspiration. (Coleridge’s famous ballad “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” is another “ghost ship” reference and will be discussed separately.) Art’s ultimate concern, the proverbial “meaning of life,” crystallizes around the artist’s confrontation of death. Like growth, meaning is attained through suffering. For Wagner, reconciliation with death was only possible through the redeeming power of love, and this is the leitmotif of every one of his mature music dramas, from The Flying Dutchman to Parsifal. In Poe’s stories, it is not so much redemption through human love as it is transformation through trials. Love of life experience supplants love of the beloved “other.” Poe’s narrator weaves these strands together as his story moves towards its open-ended conclusion.

To conceive the horror of my sensation is, I presume, utterly impossible; yet a curiosity to penetrate the mysteries of these awful regions, predominates even over my despair, and will reconcile me to the most hideous aspect of death. It is evident that we are hurrying onward to some exciting knowledge – some never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction.

This is "only" dark and brooding Gothic romanticism if taken at face value, which is why close reading is essential for an authentic appreciation of real literature. Poe's narrator eerily demonstrates the open curiosity that is a prerequisite for expanding both the mind and the soul. The “secret knowledge” and the “penetration of the mysteries” are motivating forces behind the esoteric traditions. The abstract nature of music makes it an ideal vehicle for transmitting such elusive power. Even within the specificity text imposes upon music drama, this strange force stirs like a phantom, speaking that “never-to-be-imparted secret” for those with ears to hear.

Of course, one can always shut one's brain off and just be entertained.

Friday, May 18, 2012

In memoriam: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012)

Remembering Fischer-Dieskau 28 May 1925 - 18 May 2012

“Providence gives to some singers a beautiful voice, to some musical artistry, to some (let us face it) neither, but to Fischer-Dieskau Providence has given both. The result is a miracle and that is just about all there is to be said about it.” (John Amis)

The world has lost one of its artistic titans, the German baritone, conductor, writer and painter Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He died just 10 days shy of his 87th birthday, exactly 101 years after the death of Gustav Mahler, one of dozens of composers whose recorded legacies are in this amazing artist’s debt. The British writer John Amis (whose quote appears in the NY Times obit) was not exaggerating. He was known in France as “le miracle Fischer-Dieskau.” He was equally fluent in English and Italian.

The most recorded artist in classical music history, he set the standard for the performance of Romantic art song, recording all the songs suitable for male voice by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf and Strauss. In addition to Samuel Barber and Benjamin Britten, composers such as Gottfried von Einem, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Hans Werner Henze and Aribert Reimann wrote works specifically for him. He specialized in virtually every niche of the vocal repertoire, from Baroque masters like Schütz and Bach to the Viennese Classical school of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven through the avant-garde “Second Viennese School” of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. In addition to his standard-defining performances of German lieder, he sang French music of Faure, Debussy and Ravel with "sensibilité." He set the bar for neglected and difficult 20th century works by Hindemith, Martin, Pfitzner, Reger and Shostakovich.

His mastery of 19th-century art song and 20th-century “specialty” repertoire overshadowed his magnificent work for the operatic stage. An imposing presence, he was a gifted actor and his early operatic performances from the ‘50’s belie the popular assumption that opera singers of the “golden era” only knew, as it were, how to “park and bark.” From Mozart to Strauss and Wagner his interpretation of roles such as Don Giovanni, Mandryka (Arabella), Wolfram, Amfortas and Kurwenal (Tannhäuser, Parsifal and Tristan, respectively) was exemplary. And his interpretations of Verdi and Puccini, whether sung in Italian or German, were vocally stellar and stylistically informed.

What I try to instill in students and young artists is an appreciation for the vital role continuity plays in our ever-evolving artform. Vitality, evolution and innovation from within a genre require a deep appreciation of its tradition. As I mention below in writing about Wagner, "interpretation" is predicated upon exemplary execution. You have to know the notes before you can do anything with them. An entire generation of artists with immediate connections to the 19th-century is available to us thanks to the technology of recordings. Fischer-Dieskau studied with Weissenborn, who studied with Muller, who studied with Stockhausen, who was a collaborator of Clara Schumann’s. He passes on to us a connection with the creators of the most beloved period in classical music, the 19th century, "Der Romantik." He is a bridge from the past across the 20th century to today, a Janus-faced visionary whose importance it is impossible to overstate.

With an impeccable technique, the gift of youth (his performing career spanned nearly 50 years), a probing intellect, an open mind and a sensuality finely tuned to the lyrical arts of poetry, painting and theatre, Dieter (or Fi-Di) was a miracle, and thanks to his astonishing recorded legacy, will remain so. He cited his love of poetry as the window opening unto the hitherto neglected vocal miniature, the art song. I continue to be confused by singers who claim to have little interest in poetry. Fischer-Dieskau insisted his students study not only the poetry of the specific songs they were to perform, but the entire contextual world of composer and poet. The creator's works in other media (Schumann's piano music and Goethe's novels, for example) are as important as related genres in contemporary and historical periods. To sing Schumann's Dichterliebe, (A Poet's Love), one needs to know not only about Schumann's and Heine's life and works, but the artworks described in the poetry and contemporary with it, German history and its landscapes, and the classical references to myth and fairy tale imbedded like clues across the verses. Fischer-Dieskau was a complete artist, and his polymath approach to his work as a performer and teacher is an example to emulate.

It’s difficult to know where to begin in recommending an entry point for the novitiate. His recorded world is the epitome of an "embarrassment of riches." Deutsche Grammophon recently issued an excellent 2-disc DVD set of memorable excerpts from the stage and recital hall. Britten’s War Requiem, written as an act of reconciliation for the re-dedication of the WWII-ravaged Coventry Cathedral (fifty years ago this month), is one of the great works of the previous century and the first of several works its composer wrote expressly for the baritone. Fischer-Dieskau is one of a handful of artists where one must specify when citing a favorite version. Which Winterreise? The early one with Demus? Or Moore? Or the wise but youthful 62-year old with the equally gifted Alfred Brendel? My favorite Schubert recording – of the literally dozens he made – is from a live recital at the Aldeburgh Festival with Benjamin Britten as the pianist. The chemistry between the performers is palpable even across the secondary medium of a 40 year-old archival recording.

(one of many such watercolors by Fischer-Dieskau)

An alchemical marriage takes place when technique (discipline, science) and inspiration (art) unite. This fusion of energies sparks the inimitable power of re-creation, which is the art of performance. Though his studio recordings are the foundation of his legacy, listen to Fischer-Dieskau in a live recording. One of my “desert island” discs is a live version of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, a work Fi-Di recorded no fewer than three times, with Bernstein, Krips and Keilburth. It is the latter that captures the singer in Mahler’s incredible score in that ideal marriage. But don’t take it from me, just have a listen.

(portrait of the artist’s wife, soprano Julia Varady)

Monday, May 14, 2012

NYC notebooks: "…like a geyser from the bedrock depths:" the end of the Ring

I've just returned from a trip to NYC, where I attended the Met's new production of Wagner's Ring cycle. I've written about each of the 4 operas from the perspective of Wagner's mythological motifs and themes in essays below.

Music drama should be about the insides of the characters. The object of music drama is the presentation of archetypal situations as experienced by the participants, and to the dramatic ends music is a means, albeit a very expressive one (Richard Wagner).

The Met’s final Ring cycle of the season ended yesterday with Wagner’s apocalyptic vision of the “end of the world as we know it,” in the most rapturous music he wrote. The program annotator Paul Thomason (the source of Wagner’s quote above) noted that Wagner’s wife Cosima said he’d never “write anything as complicated as that” final scene of Götterdämmerung. “For many Wagnerians, he never wrote anything better,” Thomason rightly concludes.

Opera Roanoke audiences were treated to exceptional performances of the two most famous scenes from the final opera of the Ring cycle in 2010, when Steven White conducted the RSO in Siegfried’s Funeral Music and the crowning Immolation Scene.

The proximity of those two threnodies heightens the impact of each and reinforces the cathartic effect of the entire Ring cycle. As I mentioned at the conclusion of my previous entry, the investment of time and attention required for Wagner’s epic rewards the pilgrim who has sojourned to participate in that most hallowed of musical treks, the Ring cycle.

Götterdämmerung is the culmination of 16 hours of music drama spread over four evenings, featuring two-dozen archetypal characters and seemingly countless motifs (though books devoted solely to Wagner’s leitmotiven have attempted to catalogue them) in western musical theatre’s most ambitious enterprise.

Opera’s special power derives from several sources. One is its concentration of musical and dramatic forces. Many opera lovers are also devotees of the individual genres of the symphony orchestra, chamber music, solo vocal and choral music. Opera is the only one where we find them all. Another source of its power is its special ability to depict and evoke those deeply resonant archetypes Wagner himself described, bringing them to life for the audience to experience vicariously and viscerally. In addition to its concentrated force and energy-releasing potential, opera has a cumulative effect of unequaled power.

We speak of many a climactic scene in the concert hall or on stage as an “apotheosis.” This exalted metaphor for the aesthetic “making divine” of a subject or theme is a technique creators have used since the dawn of art itself to inspire the desired catharsis of emotion from the audience. It is the essence of the “sublime,” a complex archetype itself, richer than merely serene and deeper than simply beautiful.

The culmination of Wagner’s epic is a sublime apotheosis. Indeed, the Immolation Scene epitomizes the concept. And its power is strengthened by the concentration of the sublime Funeral Music preceding it. Thomason notes Cosima’s diary recording of Wagner’s description of this awesome music following the hero’s death. “I have composed a Greek chorus, but a chorus which will be sung, so to speak, by the orchestra… How could words ever make the impression that these solemn themes, in their new form, will evoke?”

Incapable of false modesty, Wagner did not overestimate his achievement. It is one of those moments that inspired the great novelist Thomas Mann to say that Wagner’s “music seems to shoot up like a geyser from the pre-civilized bedrock depths of myth.”

The essays below muse on some of the themes and symbols in the individual operas. One of Wagner’s central concerns in the cycle is the painful process of birth (or symbolic re-birth) and the movement from an old order to a new one. This dynamic works on a political level in tumultuous 19th century Europe and has equal relevance on the aesthetic and philosophical planes. It is applies to the individual and to the society in which he finds himself. Götterdämmerung has a cumulative effect because it works on all of these levels at once. It is the most “cultured” and “conventional” of the Ring operas, containing throwbacks to 19th century operatic traditions against which Wagner rebelled. It contains a “blood-brother” oath duet and a “vengeance” trio that both echo Verdi. Götterdämmerung is the only opera in the cycle to use a chorus, the strongest symbol of modern culture and community in 19th-century opera. Mozart was one of the first operatic composers to self-reference by quoting himself for (typically humorous) effect. Wagner hints at it in Götterdämmerung for a different effect. The potion Hagen has Gutrune give Siegfried (at the start of the former’s scheme to steal back the ring) features music remarkably like the intoxicating theme that perfumes Tristan und Isolde. The choral music accompanying the wedding celebration recalls similar festal fare from Lohengrin and Die Meistersinger, reinforcing Wagner’s ambivalent relationship to “culture,” that is, the modern society for which his music dramas were written.

Returning to the Ring cycle 15 years after my first (and only complete) live experience with it, I was affected by details and scenes over which I previously glossed. In addition to the two references above, I was struck anew by the opening of Götterdämmerung. Wagner uses the idea of a ring as a device throughout the cycle. Each of the operas contains scenes of narration and story, where a character will circle back to relate past episodes and adventures (the Nibelunenlied, one of Wagner’s inspiring sources, contains 39 tales). As discussed in the entry below on the dramaturgy in the Ring, narration can be problematic, and it adds length and bulk to an already dense project. As I experienced yesterday at the Met’s final Saturday matinee of the season (at 11 am), Wagner’s circles of stories add to the cumulative impact. The three Norns, mystical daughters of the earth goddess Erda, weave the rope of destiny and tell the story of the ring from their view. We don’t need their prologue to understand the plot if we’ve paid attention to even part of the previous 12 hours. But their looping back, a narrative act that mirrors their function as weavers of the chronicle, reinforces another level of archetypal resonance and literally sets the stage for this final episode, an epic chapter to crown the epic.

An “old versus new” dynamic is played out in scene after scene. It is transparent in another scene that struck me with unusual force in Saturday's matinee. Brünnhilde's duet with her closest Valkyrie sister, Waltraute enacts this tension. Waltraute urges her sister to return the Ring and save the world from imminent destruction. Brünnhilde, having tasted the divine pleasure of human love, refuses to give up the symbol of her union with Siegfried. She won't prevent the twilight of the gods, but her sacrifice will enable the world's redemption, Wagner's ultimate theme. Redemption through sacrificial love is a theme that runs from The Flying Dutchman through the rest of Wagner's musical dramas.

The corrupt society (or culture) Wagner would like to overthrow in order to return to the “bedrock” of nature is a mirror image of this death / rebirth dichotomy. The “new order” will in essence be a return, replacing the already stagnant “old” world of modern society and its stultifying conventions. The dynamic between the “cultured” Gibichungs (where Hagen manipulates the "civilized" court of King Gunther and his sister Gutrune) is juxtaposed with the pure and innocent, nature-loving world of Siegfried. Wagner’s use of conventional set pieces of romantic opera, like the oath duet, vengeance trio and ceremonial chorus underscore this dichotomy. Each of those numbers, and the scenes surrounding and informing them can elicit a response that, for the Wagner initiate, is at once emotional and intellectual. Recognizing the overlapping leitmotifs in the Immolation Scene, swirling and circling like a magic ring with tidal force as the opera reaches its sublime conclusion, can provoke an overwhelming catharsis. And the syncretizing effect of the response is proportionate to the investment one makes in this music. At least that was my experience yesterday, in one of the more memorable afternoons I've spent at the opera (following a memorable week there).

For the novice, the sheer emotional power of the music, for all the reasons already listed, should be enough to draw her in and awaken interest in this unique world of musical drama. Wagner’s ability to simultaneously appeal to the head and the heart, to stimulate the senses and arouse the spectrum of human emotions, is unmatched in all of musical theatre. This is another virtue that makes every Wagner opera - and none more than the Ring cycle - the epitome of an event.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

NYC notebooks: Interpretation, narration and presentation in Wagner

In the April issue of Opera News, Philip Kennicott writes about interpreting Wagner. He begins by quoting Susan Sontag’s influential collection, Against Interpretation. “”Interpretation,’ she wrote, wasn’t ‘simply the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius.’ It had become a wall that separated us from art itself.” He claims Wagner “created the intellectual construct for the ongoing interpretation of his work. Die Meistersinger isn’t just a comedy, it creates a template for how audiences should relate to Wagner’s music. In a conflict between philistinism and innovation, the opera invites us to identify with Walther’s brand of artistic progressivism.”

Kennicott goes on to say the conflicts between characters in Wagner’s work “echo this basic appeal, enlisting audience sympathies on the side of rebellion and iconoclasm. Wagner, in effect, drafts us into the ongoing drama of his art – the notion that to love Wagner appropriately is to hate artistic complacency, traditionalism and bourgeois ideas about entertainment.”

Whatever Wagner’s faults – and he is notoriously infamous for the breadth and depth of risible traits most infamously found in his anti-Semitic writings – they cannot hide the unparalleled ambition of his vision and accomplishment. Despise the man, but consider the works on their own merit. Kennicott quotes Sontag again at the end of his article: “What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” Her prescription sounds rather close to the aim of the Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”) Wagner envisioned and realized in the Ring. The re-creation central to performance requires first the enactment of the creator’s instructions, that is, following the score (or the script). As Stravinsky put it, execution precedes interpretation (and in many cases the former should render the latter, if not unnecessary, then secondary).

The dramaturg David J. Levin, in a fascinating academic study, compares Wagner’s stated preference for active presentation over passive narration to his predilection for the latter. (Richard Wagner, Fritz Lang, and the Nibelungen: The Dramaturgy of Disavowal. Princeton, 1998.) Action matters more than words in drama. Thus evil characters like Mime, “all talk and no action, ” embody the system Wagner aims to disavow. This brings us face to face with one of the greatest ironies between Wagner’s claims for opera and his execution of them. A desire to compress narrative and expand presentation was his motive behind the expansion of the Ring from 1 to 2 to 4 operas. This dramatic augmentation was to enable more of the Nibelungenlied story to be presented (performed) as action, rather than narrated as story. Wagner stated this explicitly in a telling analogy regarding Siegfried, an opera “that has the enormous advantage of conveying the important myth to an audience by means of the action on stage, just as children are taught in fairy-tales” (quoted in Levin). Wagner’s expansion of the individual operas and the entire Ring cycle required “sufficient space to exploit the full wealth of emotive associations contained in the work.” The Ring is a veritable embarrassment of riches or an overblown exploit, depending upon how one responds to Wagner’s music and his claims about it.

That each of the operas contains stretches of narration in which chapters of the story are related by various characters should then raise dramaturgical questions of function and interpretation. What does Wotan’s retelling of his story to Brünnhilde tell us about the narrator? Which pieces of this complex puzzle are clarified and which obfuscated by a particular retelling of a story? Who is being addressed?

Despite his claims to arouse “the senses” and not the intellect, Wagner’s gargantuan operas cannot help but engage both. Wagner was critical of a public that “wants to distract itself in the theatre, not collect itself.” His ever-resonant polemic continues: “he who is addicted to distraction has a need for artificial details but not artistic unity.” Those “artificial details” were the set pieces of traditional Italian opera like the recitative, aria and cabaletta Wagner found obsolete. He wanted his through-composed rivers of musical drama to recreate the ancient world, uncorrupted from acquired convention and learned culture, unspoiled and harmonious with nature herself. This juxtaposition of “nature versus culture” is key to understanding not only Wagner’s dramaturgical intentions, but the Ring cycle itself. This dichotomy is transparent in Siegfried, between the innocent nature-loving title character and his corrupt guardian, Mime. This dialectic is a primary artery and a powerful subcurrent in the final opera of the tetralogy.

The function of narration, particularly its use and misuse in Götterdämmerung by the villainous Hagen, is one of Levin’s foci. He reminds us Wagner “repeatedly insists on the point: language was corrupted as it moved further and further away from its natural roots.” Wagner’s “poems” (his libretti), each a Pandora’s box itself, employed alliteration over learned end-rhyme, according to Levin. This preference “embodied a mythic sameness of language and nature.” This “primal cry” (my term) approach to “the language of feeling is much closer to the roots of expression… reconnecting language to nature” (Levin). “Music is assigned the task of resuscitating language,” Levin says, quoting from Wagner’s treatise, Opera and Drama:

Science has laid bare to us the organism of language, but what she showed us was a dead organism that only the Poet’s utmost Want can resuscitate... by breathing into that body the breath that will animate it into self-movement…this breath is – Music.

In Götterdämmerung, Hagen manipulates Siegfried through deceit and manipulation. Siegfried speaks nature’s language, and Hagen speaks the “learned” language of corrupt modern society. Drugging Siegfried to make him forget Brünnhilde, he then marries the hero to Gutrune. Having learned the otherwise invulnerable hero’s weak spot, what Levin calls “German mythology’s equivalent of Achilles’ heel,” Hagen will give Siegfried another drug to make him remember Brünnhilde. This reversal causes a significant change in the “origin story” Siegfried tells of his past. Levin draws a fascinating parallel between Freud’s methods and Hagen’s, linking their “surreptitious plot to gain access to vulnerability through narration.” In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud compares his method of learning the patient’s “weak spots,” which serve the analyst “as the embroidered mark on Siegfried’s cloak serves Hagen.” Like Freud asking leading questions to learn where the patient is repressing desire or suppressing truth, Hagen learns Siegfried’s vulnerability, knows his “back-story” and exploits both. When his men are aghast at the “stab in the back” murder of Siegfried Hagen puts the blame on his victim, who has innocently incriminated himself in a “shock of revelation” moment by suddenly remembering his true bride, Brünnhilde (in yet another parallel with the Oedipus story). Like a cunning and mendacious prosecutor, Hagen claims to have “avenged perjury.” He is the opera’s sinister dissimulator. Levin deftly summarizes Hagen’s deceit. “The aggression is authorized by the act of perjury; at the same time, that perjury is produced by the interlocutor who avenges it.” These men are mirrors.

Like Billy Budd and John Claggart, Siegfried and Hagen are light and dark opposites. Siegfried’s commerce with birds and bears and his battle with the dragon represent his kinship with nature. With Hagen and the Gibichungs, we have the first example of human “culture” in the Ring cycle. It is not a desirable milieu. This is underscored by the casting typically employed in the Ring. The bass who sings Hagen usually sings the giant-turned-dragon, Fafner and Siegmund’s murderous enemy, Hunding. Unlike the contemporary notion equating culture with art, Wagner’s dichotomy of nature and culture is that of good and evil. Nature is good, and the aim of art is to sensually enact it through the presentation of performance. The Gesamtkunstwerk opera is the vehicle for this presentation. Culture is a product of excessive reason, widespread corruption, the insular effects of bourgeois convention and stultifying social institutions from the academy on down. The Ring is Wagner’s critique of society and so-called culture and his prescription for renewal. The pure-of-heart hero Siegfried’s death at the hands of the corrupt “confidence man” Hagen reawaken’s Brünnhilde’s noble resolve. It is an example of tragic suffering serving as a catalyst for an alchemical transformation of life-redeeming value. As Brünnhilde commands the funeral pyre and summons her sacred horse, Grane – both echoes of the classical mythological world– the long strands of Wagner’s “endless melody” unfurl like Ariadne’s spool of thread. A musical labyrinth of leitmotifs is woven together, not uniting the world so much as heralding the apocalyptic end of one. Brünnhilde compares her immolation to the ashes from which a new Phoenix will emerge. As the Rhine spills over in a cataclysmic flood the music enacts the transformation of its material in opera’s ultimate apotheosis. And the world waits…

Apocalyptic visions have always fascinated the human imagination. From the Revelation of St John to Dante’s Inferno to the otherworldly canvases of Hieronymus Bosch, our ongoing craze for fantasy and adventure and epic, for sci-fi literature and drama attests to our insatiable hunger for dystopias and utopias. Experiencing the Ring requires breaking that “addiction to distraction” and investing the time and attention necessary to commune with a 16-hour epic over the course of a week. What a remarkable investment it is. Wagner prophesied the diminishing attention span of the modern audience. This is an obstacle to an audience’s ability to “collect itself.” And we must collect ourselves in order to find ourselves mirrored in these characters, reflected in the motifs, and awakened by the power of unparalleled musical drama. It is through engaging with life that its worth is revealed to us. This is why we need art. This is why Wagner’s matters.

Friday, May 11, 2012

NYC notebooks: the mesocosm of performance / Wagner and mythology

[This is the 2nd notebook essay on Siegfried; others are below. Kudos to Roanoke native Stephen Gould for his excellent portrayal of the title character of Wagner's heroic opera!]

The myths and rites constitute a mesocosm – a mediating, middle cosmos, through which the microcosm of the individual is brought into relation to the macrocosm of the all. And this mesocosm is the entire context of the body social, which is thus a kind of living poem, hymn or icon of mud and reeds, and of flesh and blood, and of dreams, fashioned in the art form… [Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology]

Following an essay on the mythological motifs in Siegfried, this notebook will consider the power of performance to constitute the mediating "mesocosm" Campbell describes, using two of the other central characters of Wagner’s Ring, Wotan and Brünnhilde.

The 4th chapter of Campbell’s Primitive Mythology is called “The Province of The Immolated Kings.” Its heart is a re-telling of an ancient Arabian nights-like story set in Africa, “The Legend of the Destruction of Kash.” The Sudanese tale involves the passing of the sacred flame from one king to the next, and among other things, the spellbinding power of live performance. The king’s closest confidant is a famous storyteller, Far-li-mas. “The performance is quicker than the command,” Far-li-mas replies to his king’s wish for entertainment. His art was like an intoxicating elixir, enveloping his audience “in a delightful swoon… They were hearing the story only in dream, until they were carried entirely away.”

Opera achieves a similar result when engaging artists bring the powerful combination of music, poetry and drama to life on stage. Two of opera’s titanic characters are at the heart of Wagner’s Ring, the god Wotan and the Valkyrie, Brünnhilde. Wotan is a study in the progression of modern man through the stages of adulthood. Wagner reinforced this association by equating his father-figure god with “us.” When we meet him in Das Rheingold, he is bold, arrogant, domineering and voracious in all his appetites. It is not surprising to see him cast as a contemporary mogul CEO in updated productions. We find him in mid-life in Die Walküre, reaping the consequences his deceitful schemes have sown. He is also poignantly and nobly human as he agonizes over his mistakes and accepts responsibility for them (however recalcitrant and reluctant he may be). Childless in Das Rheingold, Wotan’s love for his children in Die Walküre is as fierce as any passion in his complex temperament. His anguish in the middle of the opera is like an intense neurotic breakdown through which he comes to terms with his choices. There is nothing quite like it in all of opera. Watching the Ring 15 years after my first encounter with it, 5 years into my marriage and first experience as a stepfather, I appreciate Wagner on deeper levels than I imagined as a younger man. As mentioned in a notebook on this very scene below, the outer acts of Wagner’s most popular opera frequently stand alone on the strength of their excerptable music, but the second act of Die Walküre is its beating heart, pulsing with all the complexity of life. In Siegfried, Wotan is an old man and has assumed the identity of an aged pilgrim, the “Wanderer.” Where he was tortured and trapped in the 2nd opera, he is lucid and liberated in Siegfried. Unburdened and resigned to accept the fate he has engendered for the gods and humankind, he is able to pass the torch in a spirit of noble freedom.

In Siegfried, the Wanderer has four archetypal confrontations, each of pivotal importance for his character and the entire drama. The first is a “battle of wits” with the evil dwarf, Mime. There is never a doubt as to who will win this proverbial war. Mime asks questions to prove to the Wanderer that he has seen through the god’s disguise. Wotan follows suit, but with a subtle and double-edged blade that cuts to Mime’s imminent downfall. Wotan’s formidable intelligence is manifest in music of such power that the scene is elevated from narrative filler to a conflict resonant with repercussive force. Wotan’s challenge to Mime carries the “shock of recognition” to the audience.

You should have asked me what you needed to know: for my answers my head stood as guarantee. Now I claim yours as pledge, since you do not know what it is you need…You asked about idle, remote things, but what lay closest to you that you needed to know did not occur to you. Such pronouncements have more than a ring of truth.

The Wanderer’s next encounter is with his nemesis, Alberich. This “clash of the titans” face-off is the first time the rivals have met since the middle of Das Rheingold. It will be their last. Wotan overpowers Mime with his wit and the force of the truth he has earned through the reconciliation wrought from experience. He toys with Alberich in a gesture that is equal parts unexpected gift (the proverbial “shirt off my back” offered to the undeserving) and cryptic taunt (“is he offering to help me, or is he toying with me?”). In his newfound liberation, Wotan can simply watch the action unfold. This painstaking lesson is the result of his steadfast resolve to not interfere with the “free hero, ” Siegfried. With uncharacteristic levity, he jests with Alberich and plays on the Nibelung’s blinding greed and crushing ambition.

The musical landscape of the brief prelude to Act III of Siegfried is one of the Ring’s greatest unsung moments. Its tectonic force represents an inscape of Wotan’s passion and strength (that is how this Wagnerite hears it). Like the hero’s trials at the onset of adulthood, The Wanderer’s encounters at the end of his journey increase in significance. As every good actor knows, the stakes on stage are always high, and they’re always raised as the drama unfolds. Wotan’s third archetypal confrontation occurs in the third chapter of the third volume of the tetralogy. In the most passionate outburst we’ve heard since the end of Die Walküre, Wotan heralds the end of the age and dismisses Erda, the once-omniscient earth goddess and mother of their beloved Brünnhilde. In a symbol of the world’s imminent end, Erda has slept through Brünnhilde’s exile and has failed to foresee the coming “twilight of the gods.” This leave-taking of the earth goddess is as bittersweet as his farewell to the Valkyrie at the end of the previous opera. In prophesying the end, the Wanderer offers a glimpse of possibility, prefiguring the sunlight that will greet the soon-to-be-awakened Brünnhilde, and the redeeming fire that will enable the new world’s birth.

Wotan’s final and most significant encounter, the epitome of the adjective “archetypal,” is with his “child,” Siegfried. Though the young hero never learns the identity of the old man he defeats, the mythical resonance of the scene is powerful and immediate. After a dialogue of banter and confrontation, Siegfried defies the Wanderer and shatters his spear with his re-forged sword, signaling his independence from the “old order” and his readiness for manhood and the imminent encounter with the exiled Brünnhilde. In each of his first three encounters, the Wanderer presages the eminent downfall and has the last word. In relinquishing his power and ceding place to Siegfried, Wotan lets go of the past and signals the world’s hope in the young hero’s union with the sleeping Valkyrie.

And what a union! If Wotan is fit for the analyst’s couch in Act II of Walküre, then Brünnhilde’s “Erwachen” (awakening) in the final scene of Siegfried is a case study in neurotic ambivalence. This is reflected in the music the moment she opens her eyes. Slow and radiant arpeggios unfurl, but instead of being crowned with the tonic major key, we hear mysterious minor-key chords. These could symbolize the dazed fog from long slumber and reflect Brünnhilde’s uncertainty at her newfound state of mortal consciousness. Her awakening is ravishing however we “read” the shifting planes of harmony. There is no more sublime greeting of the dawn (“Hail to you, Sun; Hail to you, Light; Hail to you, glorious day!”) in all of western music.

As she awakens to the realization she is now mortal, roused by a rash and impetuous, innocent and naïve teenage boy, she remembers with anguish her father’s punishment, banishing her to a fire-encircled rock. She experiences this recollection as a shock and recoils from Siegfried. Does she intuit “Das Ende?” Is she loath to embrace her mortality or is she afraid of a hitherto unknown vulnerability? Through her quick ascertainment of Siegfried’s ignorance, does she fear for his life, knowing her molten core could utterly consume him? Or does she resent his violation of her person and her autonomy? Or does she feel all of these things, this Valkyrie-turned-woman, destined to wed her nephew and redeem the world? All of these psychodynamic questions are implicit in the stormy continuation music that makes this the oddest “love duet” in all of opera.

The tension is palpable between her noble, beautiful melody and her plea to Siegfried to “leave me… do not come near me…love yourself and let me be: do not destroy yourself!” We catch the ambivalence in her words as we hear the music flowing forward towards consummation. And that ability to compose ambivalence, the musical equivalent of the oft-quoted “negative capability” Keats defined, is one of opera’s greatest attributes. No opera audience has ever bought into the suspense-thriller factor of the genre. Certain aspects of a new production or a new cast may surprise us, but theatergoers have always been an informed bunch. The Nibelungenlied was one of the most popular of Germanic myths, and every Ring cycle audience in its 140-year history has known how the epic will end. Brünnhilde’s words here reveal her to be still endowed with god-like intuition and wisdom. Yet her dual embrace of her destiny and her newfound human sensuality cause her to yield to Siegfried in a union that feels as inevitable as it appears enigmatic. It is a rapturous close to one of Wagner’s crowning achievements. It accomplishes that mediating function of the “living hymn” by stimulating our senses and touching our souls, while leaving us open and eager for the final chapter in this world-redeeming enterprise known as the Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

NYC notebooks: Mythological motifs in Siegfried

When people ask me how I enjoyed my time at Westminster Choir College, my answer is always effusively positive. While I always mention my mentors, I neglect to mention the reading list of a seminar course I audited my first term, which introduced me to Jung’s classic study, Modern Man in Search of a Soul.

Primordial images [are] symbols that are older than historical man... [they] make up the groundwork of the human psyche. It is possible to live the fullest life only when we are in harmony with these symbols.

One of the reasons Wagner’s Ring has unparalleled staying power among versions of ancient epics (in any genre) is his masterful harmony of “primordial images,” symbols and archetypes. Joseph Campbell succinctly defines symbols as “energy-releasing signs.” This helps explain why we Wagnerites feel a rush when Siegmund pulls the sword Nothung out of the symbolic “World Ash” tree, or why yet another thrill accompanies Siegfried’s re-forging of that sword. The symbol releases energy through music. And it is a potent symbol. A flaming sword guards the entrance to Paradise in the Garden of Eden. Other mythical and heroic examples range from King Arthur’s Excalibur, Lewis Carroll’s Vorpal sword in “Wonderland,” and the mighty Anduril, which Aragon wields in Tolkien’s Wagnerian-scaled Lord of the Rings.

Just as Wagner’s Nothung has a Janus-faced history representing Siegmund’s martyrdom and his son Siegfried’s promise, archetypal symbols frequently perform a double function. Siegfried will slay the dragon Fafner, win the magic Ring and shatter Wotan’s mythical rune-notched spear in one of his final trials before freeing Brünnhilde from the ring of fire. The Valkyrie-turned-mortal is a richly layered symbol herself, an untouchable warrior goddess like Athena, a mortal exile and vestal virgin. Siegfried may be the most resonantly symbolic and ritualized opera in the Ring cycle. Each stage of the hero’s progress corresponds to both the mythological path of the individual and the solemn rites that symbolically enact the heroic journey. According to Joseph Campbell (in both The Masks of God and The Hero with A Thousand Faces), the heroic journey and the sacred rites involve the three stages of separation, transformation and return.

Siegfried’s orphaned childhood represents his separation or exile, and his transformation occurs through the experience of the trials described above. Libraries full of books of psychology, human development and comparative mythology (like Jung’s and Campbell’s) have been devoted solely to this central human experience of growth, maturation and individuation. The goal of the process is the individual’s contribution to the social fabric, the “heroic return” of the “boon” to better the community. This last aspect has been compromised in the western world since the dawn of the industrial age. The boon should profit the community and not only the individual. As in so many areas of our modern experience, our rush to keep pace with our own technology has come at a price we have yet to count. Without spending too much time on the proverbial soapbox, our loss of connection to the ancient world and the mythologies that first engendered meaning for our species has impoverished not only our culture, it has stunted our collective emotional and psychic growth. As W.H. Auden put it, we need “escape art” (entertainment) like we need rest & relaxation. And we need “parable art” to educate, ennoble and enrich us, and assist us in the process of becoming fully functioning members of the human race.

To return to the final stage of the “heroic” journey every human being is called to undertake, we find Siegfried on another threshold, at another crossroads. Having successfully completed the other rites of passage, his “homecoming” will follow his union with Brünnhilde. And like all tragic heroes, his flaws will manifest and precipitate his downfall. But this happens in the final opera of the tetralogy, Götterdämmerung.

Campbell observes, “Ritual is mythology made alive.” We should experience this sense of presence at commencements and inaugurations, weddings and funerals. It should be the organizing principal of communal worship and religious ceremony. Sadly, the superficial requirements of most institutions require focus-stealing sustenance and demand a disproportionate allegiance to the structure and its functionaries. Thus the central generating principal of our communal organizations is frequently lost. It is as if our timeless primordial forest has been replaced by plastic trees constantly in need of an upgrade. In such a surface-driven culture sensationalism will trump the genuine “shock of revelation” that accompanies an authentic rite of passage.

We can experience that shock vicariously when we enter Siegfried’s world. Every rite of passage involves a wound, and sacred scars mark heroes from Christ to Amfortas to Ulysses. Though Siegfried bears no scars from his fight with Fafner, his taste of the dragon’s blood sears his tongue and opens a new window of his consciousness. The dragon is a many-layered motif itself, variable according to historical epoch and culture. Wagner’s dragon guards a precious hoard and protects secret (esoteric) wisdom. He is in the same family as the mythological “cosmic serpent,” the one who tempts Adam and Eve, at once fascinating and dangerous. The burning pain of the dragon’s blood, Siegfried’s first “wound,” enables him to discern the voice of the "Forest Bird," who shares hidden knowledge with the hero. Blake’s mystical “doors of perception” are opened via this searing tonic, yet another motif Wagner uses to great effect.

I find the most significant layer of this motif in the intuitive awakening that occurs when the forest bird enlightens Siegfried to the fact he will be able to discern Mime’s evil thoughts. This is not so much “magic” as it is the uncovering of intuition. It is an opening of the oft-neglected “right side” of the brain. This motif, like symbolism itself, uses apparent “magic” or “fantasy” to represent and communicate deeper, frequently esoteric, wisdom. Communing with animals and spirits is not a sign of madness but an indication of fuller intelligence, keener intuition and openness to the energies coursing through the universe. In Homer, Ulysses hears the voice of his protecting goddess Athena in the cry of the heron. Birds are frequently messengers of Zeus and Apollo. As noted below in the “trickster” mythologies associated with Das Rheingold, the anthropomorphic bird is a rich symbol. Communion with animals is one of the oldest and commonest motifs in so-called “fairy tales” and mythologies around the world.

What Siegfried has experienced in his series of trials is a progression of challenges, a moving through of the “inclination of the energies of the psyche,” as Campbell puts it. In addition to the Wagner-imitation score by John Williams, the Star Wars films owe a debt to the Ring. Luke facing his father, Darth Vader is a derivative of Siegfried facing the Wanderer (Wotan is his grandfather and symbolic father-figure). This mythological rite of passage requires the son to earn independence from the father. The Oedipus complex (discussed with Die Walküre below) is an example of what can happen when this central rite is violated. This sacred and universal bond is compromised for children by abusive parents. Indeed, psychoanalysis would not exist were it not for the deep-rooted and widespread failure of communities to prepare adolescent initiates for full membership in society.

The ultimate task upon our hero’s “return” as an initiated man will be his marriage to the goddess-like Brünnhilde. As noted above, the former Valkyrie turned mortal is a double functioning symbol. Their union is an example of both the ultimate human bond and the sacrificial sacred marriage. It is through Siegfried’s death and Brünnhilde’s subsequent martyrdom that the corrupt “old” world will end, enabling a new one to emerge, Phoenix-like, out of the ashes. Rilke described the human path as a journey through ever-increasing challenges, a fight with larger and stronger foes, achieving growth and finding meaning through a series of soul-enlarging defeats. The heroes of Wagner’s Ring earn their status by engaging in and not shirking from this daunting responsibility. Redemption is Wagner’s ultimate motif, and it runs like a through-line across the 10 operas for which he is known, from The Flying Dutchman through the Ring, to his final masterpiece, Parsifal.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

NYC notebooks: Wagner’s Die Walküre & the enigma of Oedipus

[I'm in NYC for the final Ring cycle of the season. Notebooks on Das Rheingold and Billy Budd are below this one].

Thalia Philies Feldman neatly summarizes the lesson of Sophocles’ Oedipus dramas and Greek tragedy itself. His Oedipus “proves how an intelligent, ethical and courageous man can not only transcend his fated misdeeds, but help society profit by the knowledge he has gained from his terrible destiny.” Thanks to Freud and modernity’s oversimplification of his not infrequently blunt diagnoses, the complex Oedipus myth is usually reduced to a story of incest and patricide. The Norton Critical edition (1966) of Oedipus Tyrannus (the first of Sophocles’ Oedipus dramas) includes parallel passages from ancient Greek sources and a variety of critical essays, including historical examples from Nietzsche and Freud.

Meyer Fortes compares Oedipus and Job, contrasting the Oedipus story’s “notion of Fate or Destiny” with Job’s focus on “Supernatural Justice.” Writing of oracles, Gordon Kirkwood notes Oedipus’ “fate is not independent of his character…it is relevant to emphasize that it is not the oracle that brings about the events but the events that permit the oracle.” In the Oedipus myth, some of the ancient world’s original notions of individual responsibility, choice and will are laid bare. Kirkwood also observes that oracles, rather than causing or driving the drama, “are invariably shaped to fit the dramatic context.”

Several of the scholars remind us Oedipus was innocent of guilt, as he killed his father in ignorance and self-defense. He was unaware queen Jocasta was his mother when he won her hand by answering the riddle of the Sphinx. As Feldman reminds us, taboos “are social symbols by which the complex fabric of society is held up.” Violating an authentic taboo (rather than an externally imposed one) threatens the social fabric and always carries consequences. What Sophocles & co. gave us are prototypical examples of man responding to tragedy with a “sense of personal involvement in his destiny.” Oedipus chooses punishment and exile in Sophocles as a sign not of guilt but of shame. The function of Greek drama, Feldman argues, is “to reveal in an external and public way the terrible internal feelings a man ought to have who is involved in a taboo transgression.” The Oedipus myth serves as a moral barometer of shame. It is also an example of the courageous acceptance of responsibility. She quotes Oedipus’ own admission: “I myself must bear the load of ills that no one but I can bear.”

Freud’s findings do have psychological relevance when it comes to “killing the father” and “marrying the mother.” The failure to individuate, to “break” from one’s guardians and “grow up” emotionally often leads to tragedy. Opera is full of examples of violent characters whose tragic flaws can be diagnosed on the psychoanalytic couch. Don José in Carmen is one such aggressor. The media is full of real-life examples, and art-imitating-life scenarios are played out in crime dramas every night on TV. The Oedipus enigma (whose gender opposite is the Electra complex) is difficult not in the least because of the discomfort caused by the familial taboo violations. This connects us to the pivotal opera in Wagner’s Ring.

Die Walküre, the second opera in Wagner’s Ring, the single most popular among his music dramas, centers on an amorous relationship involving one of those familial taboos. Siegmund and Sieglinde are reunited twins whose incestuous lovechild will grow up to be the cycle’s pivotal hero, Siegfried. Siegfried loses his innocence to his aunt, Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie half-sister of his twin parents. The family tree in Wagner’s Ring makes Tolstoy’s “unhappy families” paler than Siberian snow. Wotan’s matrix of treaties, shady dealings and adulterous affairs have fathered not only the Walsung twins and warrior Valkyries, but have created a series of paradoxical traps worthy of the greatest Greek tragedy. As Shakespeare would later master in English drama, the precarious intersections of fate and choice, destiny and will, prophecy and oath, oracle and law have always propelled human drama.

So how does one approach such a tangled web? Like the Greeks and Shakespeare, Wagner is building upon mythology, using symbols and archetypes, fate, chance and choice for his dramatic purposes. The Ring is an extraordinary artistic vessel carrying a slow-aged, complex and rich elixir with countless applications. The love theme Wagner composed for his twins is so ravishingly beautiful our senses are immediately captured, preempting the conflict with the taboo-violation about to unfold. Acts I and III of Die Walküre feature its most recognizable music, from that love music to the “Ride of the Valkyries” to Wotan’s “farewell.” Act II is the heart not only of the 2nd opera, but the entire cycle. We meet Brünnhilde for the first time and hear her famous “Hojotoho!” battle cry (which echoes back to Homer and the famous war-cry of Achilles). Wotan and Fricka then share a scene that reinforces the human drama introduced in Act I with Sieglinde and Siegmund. As the goddess of marriage, Fricka favors the villainous Hunding, whose union with Sieglinde, however loveless, has been violated by her affair with Siegmund. In one of his many schemes, Wotan left an archetypal “magic sword” buried in the "World Ash" tree for his son to find (the same mythical "tree of life," orYggdrasil of the Nordic sagas). Strengthening the symbolism is the sword’ name, “Nothung,” which reveals its function as the fulfillment of the would-be hero’s urgent “need.”

In one of the most poignant moments in the tetralogy, the tragic fate awaiting both the gods and the race of children Wotan has sired is depicted with extraordinary subtlety. In a fleeting 30-second passage the New Yorker critic Alex Ross calls a “microlude,” Wagner composes in exquisite miniature the colliding worlds of the drama. Rather than use one of the portentous motifs overtly heralding “das Ende,” Wagner connects Fricka’s implacable morality to the lyrical world we associate with human love, and specifically with the enigmatic, sympathetic, taboo-violating twins. It is one of many moments in this great opera full of the tragic irony worthy of classical drama. The “microlude” follows an arioso for Fricka resembling (or parodying?) Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben, thus underscoring her association with the “old order” and convention. The ascending passage sounds in response to the oath Wotan and Brünnhilde both must swear, a self-imposed restraint limiting the freedom they most require to aid the otherwise-doomed twins. The interlude is truncated like Wotan’s thwarted plan, interrupted by a clashing harmony above, as if Fricka’s sacred order can only be imposed from on high. After Fricka’s exit, Wotan pours out his pain and grief in a confessional monologue of staggering depth and range, winning our empathy in his conflict, capturing our sympathies for the Scylla and Charybdis trap he has inadvertently set for himself.

The conflicts that drive Sophoclean drama and Wagnerian opera both involve the irony of the paradox. The blind seer Tiresias reminds Oedipus “to abide by the decree of your own mouth” as the Theban King seeks out the truth that will lead him enigmatically to himself. The paradox of Oedipus is that in his relentless quest for truth, he finds only himself, and in finding himself he loses everything he cherished. As the classicist Roberto Calasso observed, Oedipus solved the enigmatic riddle of the Sphinx only to become an enigma himself. One of the most admirable virtues of Oedipus is his persistent search for the truth. Though Wotan has tried to escape from the truth via cunning and duplicity, their predicament is similar. Parallels and sympathetic resonances abound. Tiresias was blinded for looking upon a naked goddess and then granted the “gift” of prophecy and “all-seeing” wisdom. Wotan loses an eye to gain wisdom and win Fricka. The command the seer gives Oedipus to obey his own law is the same gauntlet Fricka throws down at Wotan’s feet.

Like Oedipus, Siegmund and Sieglinde are caught by the “force of destiny.” They know they are cursed and yet they persist. The conflict between fate and choice plays out on every kind of stage. The title character of Wagner’s most famous opera, Brünnhilde is another archetypal heroine and walking enigma. A rebellious and beloved progeny of Wotan and the oracular Earth-goddess Erda, the Valkyrie fulfills her father’s desire by disobeying his command. The Greeks would have beamed at such ironic ingenuity. Robert Cohen calls the Oedipus myth the original “theater of the absurd.” Wagner’s heroes have more than a trace of the absurd in their stubborn wills and their “terrible persistence.” Cohen cites the “ritualization of man’s intrinsic anguish” as the “basic ingredient” in contemporary absurd theatre. What better ritualization of anguish is there than the Wagnerian opera?

In one of the many rhapsodic passages in Hermann Broch’s The Death of the Virgil, the poet is haunted by the knowledge that the “purity of being…carried the seed of world-destruction in itself.” This has a Wagnerian ring to it. Broch’s prose, like Wagner’s music and like lyric poetry from Virgil to Rilke can be appreciated solely for the sensual and aesthetic beauties of its surface. When in the hands of a master, however, such alluring sensuality is also an exquisitely crafted portal into a rich world of symbolism and deep-rooted meaning. Perhaps this is what Keats meant by the oft-repeated couplet from his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

All I know is that hearing Die Walküre again last night in the Met’s new production, I experienced the all-too-rare thrill of feeling every follicle of my body come alive. From the chill starting in my forearms, spreading to my face and the top of my head, down the nape of my neck and length of my back to my legs, feet and toes, I felt a charge of electricity as Wagner’s music surged through me like a powerful current. That this happened in moments I’d never before remarked upon only strengthens my resolve to praise the incomparable power of such music.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

NYC notebooks: Das Rheingold and Wagner’s trickster…

In the playbill for the Met’s new Ring cycle, Paul Thomason writes about Das Rheingold and the origins of its sui generis opening. Wagner “had gone for a long walk, then returned to take a nap. Falling into a state of half-sleep, he suddenly felt as if he were sinking into a flood of water:
‘The rush and roar soon took musical shape within my brain as the chord of E-flat major, surging incessantly in broken chords: these declared themselves as melodic figurations of increasing motion, yet the pure triad of E-flat major never changed… I awoke from my half-sleep in terror, feeling as though the waves were now rushing high above my head. I at once recognized that the orchestral prelude to the Rheingold, which for a long time I must have carried about within me, yet had never been able to fix definitely, had at last come into being in me: and I quickly understood the very essence of my own nature: the stream of life was not to flow to me from without, but from within.’”

The visionary romantic poets Edgar Allen Poe and Samuel Taylor Coleridge both wrote about inspiration arising from within the oneiric world of semi-consciousness and slumber. Poe tried to induce the very state of “half-sleep” he found so conducive to the spontaneous formation of images and visions. The prelude to Coleridge’s “vision in a dream” of a poem, "Kubla Khan" is another famous example of the debt the creative process owes the dreaming unconscious.

Wagner’s genius for musical portrayals of mythological resonance and his unmatched ability to compose musical symbols and evoke archetypes imbues his ginormous operatic scores with incredible power. Thomason echoes the sentiments of Wagnerians across time and space when he opens his program note on Das Rheingold with this sweeping statement: “In all of Western culture there is nothing quite like Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Ring of the Nibelung”).”

Many Wagnerians share the same reservations about the composer’s unattractive personality and infamous bigotry as do the legion of Wagner’s detractors. Paraphrasing the polymath conductor and Wagnerian, Daniel Barenboim, there is no greater gap between the enormity of a creator’s genius and the ugliness of his person than in the figure of Wagner. An Argentine Jew and recently naturalized citizen of Palestine, Barenboim is equally active as a writer and cultural ambassador. He famously broke the ban of playing Wagner in Israel, and is an expert witness on wrestling with difficult and volatile subjects, from interpreting the Master of Bayreuth to engaging dialogue in the Middle East. One inevitably confronts ambivalence when engaging with Wagner. The intricate web of his ambiguous life and complex works render the latter more substantive because we are dealing with a genius and not a dilettante. Put another way, while we may be ambivalent about the man, it is the genius of the artist to create such engaging enigmatic characters like Wotan and Siegfried and even Alberich (when played by Eric Owens or Richard Paul Fink, as in the Met’s new production). The commonalities between the lord of the gods and the overlord of the Nibelung in Das Rheingold are striking. They resemble a pair of vying politicians, equally conniving and mendacious, using whatever means necessary to serve their greedy ends. They may be creatures of fantasy, but they are uncannily human.

Wagner anticipated findings in systems from depth psychology to comparative mythology. In Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell credits Wagner as one “whose masterworks were conceived in a realization of the import of symbolic forms so far in advance of the allegorical readings suggested by the… ethnologists of his time that even with the dates before one… it is difficult to think of the artist’s work as having preceded the comparatively fumbling efforts of the men of science to interpret symbols.” I’m fascinated by the juxtaposition of this sentence in Campbell’s book with his next, an observation about Melville, quoted in my notebook just a day before in reference to the Met’s Billy Budd. (I watched the opening night of Britten’s opera May 4, backstage with Steven White. A notebook essay about it is below this one). That case of synchronicity reinforces the parallels between the 2 composer’s “villains,” character studies in dangerous lust and destructive greed. Britten’s Claggart and Wagner’s Alberich are much more than mere villains, they are among the most engaging characters in their respective stories and have some of the best music heard from the stage in “their” operas. We may or may not be ambivalent in our opinions of their virtues (or lack thereof), but there is no questioning the ambiguity of these complex characters. As in many a complicated work, appreciating the Ring is aided by “negative capability.” Keats’ term refers to the ability to maintain balance amidst tension and conflict.

My favorite character in Das Rheingold, after the Earth goddess Erda, is Loge. Loge is derived from the trickster of Nordic mythology, Loki (and is a character in the Marvel comics Avenger series, currently on the big screen). While Loki may be more villainous than ambiguous in the Avenger stories, he should not be reduced to a cipher. Modernity’s oversimplified version of Cartesian logic has impoverished a multilayered appreciation and “whole-brained” understanding of many a subject. We speak, for example, of the “myth” of the Masonic origins of Washington, D.C. in the context of our “founding fathers." This is an example of a “popular myth,” which is understood to mean “fiction.” We do a disservice to both Freemasonry and the USA’s original patriots by such categorical claims. As the eminent conductor and teacher Elaine Brown taught her students, we moderns need to both feel more and think more. I believe Wagner – like many great composers for the operatic stage, from Monteverdi to Mozart to Verdi to Britten – united head and heart in a synthesis of the dialectic between Cartesian “reason” and the “heart’s reasons reason cannot know” (paraphrasing Pascal, and echoing one of Elaine Brown’s mentees and colleagues, my eminent mentor and friend, Joe Flummerfelt).

Loge / Loki is cousin to the trickster of Greek & Roman mythology, Hermes or Mercury (the gods don’t quibble about proper names the way some humans do). In Native American lore the trickster is the anthropomorphic Crow, a scavenger who is alternately clever and foolish, virtuous and devious. He is “countercultural,” an outcast maverick, a notorious troublemaker and therefore a threat to order and the safety of the status quo. This makes him dangerous. This dangerous ambiguity is a primal source of the strength and staying power of the trickster in the collective imagination. Poe’s Raven is the most famous example of trickster’s haunting phantasmagoria (also currently playing on the big screen). Ted Hughes’s collection of Crow poems is among the most striking personifications of a figure that appears in Wilhelm Müller’s and Franz Schubert’s masterpiece song-cycle, Winterreise. The popular HBO series, Game of Thrones, an epic medieval adventure saga, enlists Ravens to carry messages across the “seven kingdoms,” weaving a labyrinthine thread between Hermes (AKA: “the messenger”), Poe and the trickster, Crow.

At the end of Das Rheingold, as the gods enter Valhalla for the first time, Loge muses about their inevitable downfall, ironically thanking fate that as a demigod, he won’t share their destiny. We know Wagner identified with the central hero of his cycle, Siegfried. Siegfrieds Tod (“Siegfried’s Death”) was the first “poem” Wagner wrote. This became Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”). It was followed by the origin stories in reverse order, from the “young” Siegfried, to the Walküre to the trilogy’s “prologue,” the Rheingold (which turns the trilogy into a tetralogy. Wagner then composed the music in the chronological order of his libretti. Over a decade separates the 2nd and 3rd operas, in which he wrote Tristan and Meistersinger).

After Siegfried, the godhead and father figure Wotan resonates with the most obvious autobiographical relevance. Yet it isn’t difficult to glimpse the rebellious composer and exiled revolutionary in the portrait of his Promethean “bringer of fire,” the ultimate operatic trickster, Loge. And in that multiplicity is found another facet of Wagner’s greatness. The Ring captures the attention and devotion of its admirers for as many reasons as there are leitmotiven in the 16-hour epic. Entering the Met, I saw a family of four, two parents and two adolescent boys, clad in suits and plastic-horned Valkyrie helmets. Rather than feeling sorry for the poor kids, who clearly were more excited than embarrassed about their operatic accessories, I congratulated the family on their pluck and chuckled to myself about the strange attraction Wagner engenders in all kinds of fanatics (the etymological origin of “fan,” for inquiring minds). Wagner’s scores are inseparable from his characters. The symphonic adaptations of “The Ring Without Words” will always pale in comparison with the Gesamtkunstwerk. And as magnificent as the three-minute prelude composed from the web of one unfurling chord is, the apotheosis of the first evening of the Ring is thrilling because the figures leaving the stage have left their mark. God-like majesty is juxtaposed with villainous intrigue, giant footsteps tread alongside filial tenderness, and alluring sirens sound above foreboding subterranean machinations. Wagner literally creates an original and entire world in the Ring. Das Rheingold’s multiplicity of characters, 3 Rhine Maidens, 2 Nibelung gnomes, a pair of giants, a family of 5 titanic gods, 1 demigod and the omniscient Earth mother herself fill the stage and our imaginations. His vision created a musical canvas that speaks “in such a fashion that people shall hear what they cannot see” (as Wagner wrote to his champion and father-in-law, Franz Liszt).

Music has the uniquely mysterious power to enter through our senses and awaken us from without; then, like a fantastic dream, it affects our unconscious and stirs us from within. This cumulative effect is one of opera’s greatest strengths, and for initiates of Wagner’s epic cycle, it is the ultimate example of the power of music.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

NYC notebooks: “…some stammer in the divine speech…” Billy Budd at the Met

The best place to see the music and hear the drama of the Met’s magnificent John Dexter production of Britten’s Billy Budd is just off-stage in the wings. I owe this privilege to my friend, Met conductor and Opera Roanoke principal guest conductor, Steven White. The impressive battleship, the Indomitable, rises and falls up to four decks from the subterranean depths under the Met’s massive stage to the upper reaches of its high arched proscenium. The singers are almost within arm’s reach and the orchestra sounds as if it is underneath your feet.

E. M. Forster’s and Eric Crozier’s adaptation of Melville’s novella is faithful to the original and is a masterpiece libretto on its own merits. Joseph Campbell reminds us Melville was a survivor of captivity among a tribe of “cannibals on the South Sea Island of Nukahiva.” In Primitive Mythology, Campbell cites “the profundity of the author’s psychological insight,” and credits Melville’s “infallible use of the language of symbol.” The author’s visionary writings set upon the seas remain unsurpassed.

In Billy Budd, Melville juxtaposes twin poles of good and evil, light and dark, pure and corrupt in the figures of the “innocent” sailor, Billy Budd and the “experienced” Master-at-arms John Claggart. Britten’s mentor and frequent collaborator W. H. Auden diagnosed the composer’s personality struggle with the competing forces of “Bourgeois order” and “Bohemian chaos” in a frank letter that undoubtedly contributed to the drifting apart of one of the most fruitful artistic partnerships in the early 20th century. The Apollonian / Dionysian dialectic plays out across Britten’s life and is most apparent in subjects reflecting William Blake’s dichotomy of purity and corruption in the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.

While Budd and Claggart are the most obvious symbols of the polarity, in Britten’s opera Captain Vere and Claggart form the most complex dichotomy. I maintain this is why they are the two most intriguing characters of the opera, its central duo.

Written for Britten’s partner and most important collaborator, the tenor Peter Pears, Vere is one of the great roles in not only Britten’s canon, but in all of 20th century opera. He frames the drama with a haunting solo prologue and epilogue. These poignant monologues addressed to the audience are Shakespearean in range and function, and hearken back to Greek drama. Vere is like Ulysses, “lost on the infinite sea.” At the opera’s close he appears like a ghost, recalling the events of “long ago…centuries ago,” as if to reinforce the timelessness of his character and the human condition.

Like Ulysses, Oedipus and Jason, Vere is an enigma. Like Hermann Broch’s Virgil (quoted in a notebook on my Musings page), he is “inescapably held” by human error – his own and that of others. “There is always some flaw in it, some defect… Some stammer in the divine speech, so that the devil still has something to do with every human consignment,” Vere declaims in the prologue. Mythical and Biblical references pervade the drama and resonate between the archetypal characters. Vere’s Apollonian light is reflected in a brief monologue in his study. “Plutarch: the Greeks and the Romans, their troubles and ours are the same. Their virtues be ours, and their courage.” His virtuous aspirations are in direct conflict with Claggart’s destructive desires. Their polarity is announced by Vere himself when he angrily describes Claggart as “a veritable Argus…he has one hundred eyes!” Like another Melville captain, Vere may be tormented, but he is a different sort, an anti-Ahab. He is a compassionate and generous leader who has earned the admiration of his crew. His affectionate nickname reflects both this fact and the artistic bent of his character. “Starry Vere we call him… he cares for us.”

Like every classical hero, Vere is enigmatic and his conflict is played out before us. The pure villain to Vere’s tragically flawed character, Claggart is the embodiment of a corrupt and cruel bully, bent on the downfall of those he secretly envies. He is Iago to Vere’s Othello. As Steven said to me, Iago’s perversion of Cassio’s affection for Desdemona is inverted by Claggart’s coercion of the novice in precipitating Billy’s demise. Iago’s credo in Verdi’s Otello, “I believe in a cruel god,” is mirrored in Claggart’s chilling invective against Budd’s unsuspecting virtue (In a bit of small-world operatic serendipity, Opera Roanoke's Otello, Allan Glassmann, sings the role of Red Whiskers in the Met's Billy Budd).

“Oh beauty, oh handsomeness, goodness...would that I never encountered you… would that I lived in my world always… in that depravity to which I was born.” Claggart corrupts a Biblical reference, driving the nails into the coffin of his own soul. “But alas, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness comprehends it and suffers… Having seen you, what choice remains to me? None... I’m doomed to annihilate you… I, John Claggart… have you in my power, and I will destroy you.”

Claggart’s bold statement of name, rank and aim is mirrored not by Billy, but by Vere. “I, Edward Fairfax Vere,” the Captain proclaims in the same uniform recitation as his nemesis. “John Claggart, beware: I am not so easily deceived.”

Unlike Othello, Vere is not deceived. Where the Moor’s passion and unchecked jealousy lead to his downfall, Vere’s passion is too much in check. He is tortured by the conflict between duty and love, between the rational logic of his head and the stirrings of his heart. The homoerotic layers of Melville’s novella and Britten’s opera are an undercurrent surging beneath the surface of the rival officers. This undertow should neither be dismissed nor exaggerated. Like Tarquinius lusting for quietus by destroying Lucretia (the subject of Britten’s second opera), Claggart is drawn to Billy in overtly Freudian terms. Vere’s attraction to the “pearl of great price” is both more apparent and more deeply sublimated. This conflict plays out in the drama and is reflected in the Captain’s haunted fate. “Oh what have I done,” Britten’s tenor laments in characteristically plangent tones. This is the “primal cry” Britten wrote throughout his career. It appears at the end of his Hardy cycle, Winter Words, and it runs like a through-line across the epic War Requiem. It perfumes his intimate anti-war cycle “Who are these children?” and ends with the dying utterance of the quasi-autobiographical artist, Ashenbach in his operatic swansong, Death in Venice.

The parallels between Vere and Thomas Mann’s narrator bear deeper consideration. They both suffer under the Apollo / Dionysus conflict (the polar twins appear in Britten’s last opera). They are torn between discipline and desire, the organizing order of obedience versus the liberating freedom of passion. Auden hit closer to home than was comfortable for the young Britten, and the composer’s choice of operatic subjects lend credibility to the poet’s insight.

Vere chooses the legally expedient path and does not intervene on Billy’s behalf after the latter strikes Claggart dead. This retaliatory gesture can be symbolically read as “self-defense,” since Billy’s stammer prevents him from defending himself against Claggart’s false accusations. Vere discerns his master-at-arm’s prevarication and his sailor’s innocence, yet remains silent behind an implacable “I have said all that I have to say.” The Met's "handsome indeed" Billy Budd is the popular American baritone, Nathan Gunn. Nathan (whose first Papageno was opposite Amy Cofield's first Pamina), speaks perceptively about the pivotal conflict. In response to the inquiry, "Captain Vere has no choice but to condemn him to death - or does he?" Gunn replies (in the Met Playbill and online): "I understand that this story is often read in law school because of this very question. Did Vere have a choice? Absolutely. He made the mistake of thinking that doing nothing would free him of any kind of guilt. He realizes later that inaction has consequences." I think Vere realizes this in the very moment, but is frozen. There is no paralysis like that of fear.

The crux of the allegorical drama hinges on Billy’s Christ-like forgiveness of “Starry Vere,” when he blesses his Captain before his hanging. Vere resembles not so much they “who know not what they do,” but a more self-examining Pontius Pilate. Vere “washes his hands” of the affair during the hastily convened court-martial, but is dogged by regret even as he acknowledges the blessing of a pardon he did not deserve. In psychological terms, Vere “owns” his guilt and can thus attempt to come to terms with it. Recognizing there is always something more to be done on the narrow path of integrity, especially when envy and pride compete for power and corrupt virtue, Vere faces his error. Like Broch’s Virgil, he embraces the enigmatic “fate of the human soul.” The Death of Virgil uncannily mirrors “the old man of the sea" Vere is as he frames Britten’s opera:

but he, behind whom the heavy wings of dread’s portal had closed,
had arrived at the fore-court of reality,
and the unknown stream on which he was being floated onward,
this unperceived element became the source of his knowledge,
being, as it was, the streaming growth of his own soul,
the uncompleted within himself, and unable to be completed,
which for all that developed to a whole
as soon as the self was self-assimilated…

Billy Budd functions like a prism through which the brilliant light of transforming goodness blinds Claggart, stopping him dead. Vere’s conflicted personality is refracted in the prism of Billy’s virtuous beauty. Like art itself, Billy holds the mirror for Vere to glimpse the “unperceived element… uncompleted within himself.” Britten leaves the question tantalizingly open as to whether Vere dies “self-assimilated.” One of the 20th century's greatest musical dramas, Billy Budd is equal to the masterpiece status of its original source. It is grand opera at its best, full of emotional sweep, tragic conflict and archetypal characters singing their human passions as if their life depended upon it. We lose ourselves in the drama as we are carried along by it. We stir with discomfort when we recognize our own corruption in Claggart, our fear in the cowardly novice, our ambivalence in the conflict-torn Captain. We are inspired by Britten and Melville’s vision, their thrilling evocation of life on the “floating bit of earth” that is the Indomitable, “lost on the “infinite sea.” Perhaps most of all, we are moved by their absurd faith in goodness, that always anachronistic idealism that propels our species inexorably onward.