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.

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