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.