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.

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