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.

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