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.

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