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Friday, May 27, 2011

Casting Out the Self (on Wagner's Die Walkure at the Met)





CASTING OUT THE SELF

Richard Wagner Die Walküre / The Metropolitan Opera, New York, live in HD broadcast, May 14, 2011

One of the major questions of Wagner's great opera, Die Walküre, is how it is possible to cast out or renounce oneself, and a great deal of the argumentative and pleading discussion between Wotan and his warrior daughter, Brünnhilde, is precisely about this issue. She claims, rightfully, that in protecting Siegmund she has only followed the will of Wotan, even if it is no longer his stated command. She is, she argues, only a manifestation of his will, and has no other existence. On his part, Wotan must suffer the strictures of his own laws, particularly since he has himself ignored those laws in search of power and love. Fricka, who insists on his destroying Siegmund in favor of Hunding, may seem unable to comprehend love or even less, unable to forgive, but she is right: Wotan has disobeyed his own rules, and so too have his offspring, the brother and sister lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde.

In this opera, Wotan painfully loses those whom he loves most, Siegmund and Brünnhilde, in order to obey his own proclamations. Suddenly the omnipotent god must be punished for his own sins. And, in that sense, he is, symbolically speaking, renouncing his own power; by casting out Brünnhilde from Valhalla, he is also assuring his own destruction and, ultimately the fall of the gods.Brünnhilde, now human, becomes a kind of Christ-like figure who shifts the center of reality from heaven and the underworld to earth itself.

It is for these very reasons, I would argue, that, although there is great music and drama in the other operas of the Ring cycle, Die Walküre is the most poignant, the easiest of all to hear and love.

Strangely, a similar "outcasting" almost happens with the god of this new Met production, director Robert Lepage, and most of the opera's characters. The final Met live-in-HD broadcast production of the season began 45 minutes late, having suffered, we were told during the first intermission, computer difficulties of the great, galumping, set of 24 rotating planks at the center of this production.

People patiently waited it seemed, both inside the opera house and at my movie theater, yet there was a sense, that only grew as the production got underway, that the wonderful performers— Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde), Stephanie Blythe (Fricka), Jonas Kaufmann (Siegmund), Bryn Terfel (Wotan), and Hans-Peter König (Hunding)—were now subject to the directorially created machine. Kaufmann was a stunning Siegmund, portraying a character with whom the audience could not help but be sympathetic, as he and the lonely wife of Hunding, Sieglinde, slowly fall in love. The planks, standing linearly to suggest a forest of trees, was quite effective, except that the image projected upon them was also reflected across the faces of singers (primarily Hunding).

The great ride of the Valkyries was quite terrifying given the see-saw movements of Brünnhilde and her sisters, particularly after we had been told, during another intermission, that in some of the early productions dresses had been caught in the apparatus. I am afraid that I missed a few of the Valkyrie's cries simply worrying about the actors as they slid one by one down the planks to the floor.

At one stunning moment, as Brünnhilde was left by Wotan on her burning rock, the apparatus rose to the heavens, with a body-double Brünnhilde suspended upside down over the fire, one felt that the machine had finally done something, created a kind of cinematic effect, that would have been otherwise impossible.

Yet for all that, I was, as my companion Howard had noted about Das Rheingold, under-impressed by this expensive machine (estimated at costing over forty million dollars), so heavy that the Met needed to reinforce the underpinnings of the stage itself. As some critics have suggested, it seems that the singing, excellent as it is in this production, was sacrificed to the art of staging.

It seems to me, moreover, that the kinds of effects achieved—far tamer than the recent Archim Freyer production in Los Angeles—might have been accomplished with more standard stage devices, light, scrims, etc.

Let us hope that in Siegfried and Götterdammerung Lepage might find a way to justify the immense cost of his device without ousting Wagner's singers from the stage!

Los Angeles, May 27, 2011

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