My faithful readers will have noticed that, even if I travel all over Europe to watch the most obscure operas, up until now I have been carefully avoiding Wagner. My attitude towards his music has been the same as Woody Allen’s: “I just can’t listen to Wagner, you know…I’m starting to get the urge to conquer Poland.”. It always felt “too much”. He takes himself too seriously, he believes too much that his music is important. The operas are too long, the roles are too hard. Too many notes.
So, when my friend and colleague Anna suggested that we buy tickets for The Ring, a year ago, I almost laughed. For the people who don’t know what “The Ring” is, it is a monumental work, composed of 4 operas, for a total of 16 hours of music, based on old Nordic wacky legends. She somehow convinced me (Nina Stemme is singing Brünnhilde!!) and, honestly, I figured that it was the perfect occasion. I do love Stemme, and if I don’t go see a Ring when they’re doing it in my home town, when on Earth am I going to see it?
I bought the tickets, and last week off I went! My tweeps have been following the development, which I tweeted live on the #MyFirstRing hashtag, so they already know what happened. But let’s go in order. I prepared. I listened to all the operas, I watched them on youtube (Bayreuth 1980, directed by Boulez, with English subtitles), because at this point of my life I know that if you prepare you enjoy the experience much more. When I watched on youtube I realized I would probably survive, the music is, in fact, absolutely gorgeous, and I figured I would go through it unharmed.
I was NOT ready for what would happen.
I have to write a disclaimer here, because tons of books have been written on Wagner’s Ring cycle – my colleague Hannes says that the only person in the world who has had more books written about him than Wagner is Jesus – so I am sure that whatever I am about to say has been said and/or refuted a million times. I am going to sound very naive to any seasoned Wagnerian. Alas, so be it.
The weirdness of the plot is extreme. There are gods, dwarves, giants, dragons, talking birds, heroes, Valkyries, mermaids of the Rhine. Cursed rings, magic swords, golden apples giving eternal youth, potions which make people forget their true love. The gods are not very smart, the heroes do stuff that make any decent human being cringe in horror. The values driving these beings are ancient and incomprehensible, and, often, frankly terrible. It reminded me of the Bible.
The most amazing thing about Wagner’s music is the flow. It’s like a flood: a wall of music that hits you , lifts you up, and carries you away. Resistance is futile: Wagner’s confidence just drags you away. It communicates an absolute certainty of its own value and importance: the sheer arrogance of Wagner’s music is more than enough to overwhelm you. It never stops, there is never a spot where you might even think of applauding, stopping the show.
The preposterousness of the plot clashes vehemently with this almost sacred feeling that the music communicates. This clash, in some mysterious way, adds to, instead of subtracting from, the sense of deep spiritual significance of the artistic work. It might exactly be the “biblical” weirdness of the plot: the story is, and feels like, the result of uncountable layers of ancient legends, piled up on one another in an incoherent mess, exactly like the Bible. This type of incoherence resonates in our culture as prophetic and sacred. Wagner’s astonishing music does the rest, and the result is a sense of awe, of witnessing something of extreme philosophical significance.
This is the “prologue” of the story, an opera with “only” 2.5 hour of music, in one single go! No intervals, nothing. The Nibelung dwarf Alberich steals the gold guarded by the Rhinemaidens, and makes a magical, powerful ring with it. In the meantime Wotan, the god-chief (the Nordic Zeus), hires two giants to build his palace (the Valhalla), promising his wife’s sister as payment. He doesn’t *really* mean to give his sister-in-law to the giants, but he has no plan B, he kind of thought something would come up and make everything all right (not the sharpest knife in the drawer, Wotan). The giants come to ask for Freia as payment, and Wotan’s wife goes berserk, as expected. So Wotan steals the gold and the ring from Alberich, and gives that to the giants instead of Freia. Alberich gets really mad and curses the ring. Right away one of the two giants kills the other (the curse!). Erda, a sort of “mother Earth” goddess, turns up and warns Wotan against the ring, while the gods enter Valhalla and go to live there. I managed to stay awake for most of this, except for a short nap during the second scene – Loge goes on and on and on. Don’t look at me like that: taking naps during the Ring is allowed.
When the opera ended I realized I had been sort of holding my breath, a feeling that I have rarely had, in an opera theatre. Wotan was a fantastic singer, John Lundgren, with a beautiful voice, great stage presence. His acting made him into a very credible god-chief. All the other singers were veterans of the Kungliga Operan in Stockholm, some better than others, but overall absolutely solid.
I have a hard time judging the orchestra, because I don’t know the music very much. I was globally pleased with their performance: the size of the work is so monumental that the players (and singers!) deserve respect just for getting through it alive. The brass have a very prominent part in Wagner’s music, and they were not always perfect. But again, playing brass is hard! It’s like dancing naked in public for 16 hours, of course every once in a while you show something not really pleasant. Yes, I know, the Wiener Philharmoniker are perfect, all right. My feeling was that they did a good job, the conductor Marko Letonja managed to drive the show, and the music is so gorgeous that it did the rest.
So I got out of Rheingold completely exhilarated, happy and ready for more!
Between the first and the second opera, Wotan has been doing quite a bit of running around. He is obsessed with the ring, and wants it back (hello Tolkien), but he can’t just steal it from Fafner, the giant, because he has signed a contract with him, and his godly power is based on contracts and treaties: if he breaks a contract, his power is gone. In order to get more information about the ring from Erda (the Mother Earth goddess) he has seduced her and made not one, but NINE daughters with her, the Valkyries, virgin warriors who ride magical horses and collect dead heroes from the battlefields, taking them to Valhalla. He has also fooled around with some mortal woman (unknown and unnamed) who bore him 2 twins: Siegmund and Sieglinde; he has lived with them on Earth, roaming around in the woods with Siegmund, hoping to raise him as the hero who will steal the ring from Fafner for him. In the meantime, Sieglinde was kidnapped and forcibly married to some rando (Hunding) but Wotan didn’t seem to mind, and did nothing about it. (I mean, you are the most powerful god of all, somebody kidnaps and rapes your daughter and you do NOTHING? Way to go, Wotan.) All this before the curtain goes up.
The opera opens with a grown-up Siegmund who is running away from some enemies and finds shelter in a garden. The lady of the house comes out, gives him a drink and they fall madly in love. She is none else than Sieglinde, his twin sister: they come to realize this fact, while talking to each other, but the hormones are already out of control, he calls her “sister and bride” and off they go rolling in the hay. Besides the jokes, this love scene is the most beautiful I have ever seen in any opera. Wagner manages to capture the instant when two people fall in love, and communicates it in music with an intensity that I have never heard. There is no “gelida manina”, no “croce e delizia”, no “Dio che nell’alma infondere”. Nothing compares. I got out of act 1 in a flood of tears.
Siegmund was Michael Weinius, a very good tenor with a true Wagnerian voice (as far as I can tell); he has sung Wagner in the greatest European theatres. His Wintersturme was strong and tender, his voice has easy high notes and he is communicative. His Sieglinde was a wonderful surprise. Cornelia Beskow is very young, and she is spectacular, I must follow her career. Her colour is rich, her metal is pure, and she has a gigantic volume! The high notes are amazing, and her legato is perfect. I will see her as Tatjana in Onegin here in Stockholm, can’t wait! She is also beautiful, a perfect Sieglinde.
In act 2, Wotan is talking to his favourite Valkyrie daughter, Brünnhilde, on how to defend Siegmund in the upcoming duel with Hunding (Sieglinde’s husband), but he ends up having to promise his wife Fricka that he will actually kill Siegmund. Fricka is the protector of marriage, and wants Siegmund and Sieglinde punished, and Hunding avenged. She also is not thrilled about her husband having fathered Siegmund and Sieglinde in the first place. Wotan, I have to say, seems very weak here: his power comes from treaties and contracts, and he’s like the worst negotiator EVER. So he calls back Brünnhilde and tells her “change of plans, we will let Siegmund die”. Brünnhilde understands that this is not Wotan’s desire, and ends up defending Siegmund anyway (she also develops some sort of crush for him). Wotan shows up and destroys Siegmund’s magic sword so that Hunding can kill him.
Act 3. Brünnhilde saves Sieglinde (who is pregnant by Siegmund, of course) and runs for help to her own sisters, and HERE is where you get the ride of the Valkyries, which is just about the most famous piece of classical music ever written, and, in context, is absolutely MAGNIFICENT. The Valkyries are horrified that Brünnhilde has disobeyed Wotan, they refuse to help her, Wotan arrives mad as hell and punishes Brünnhilde by stripping her of her godhead, turning her into a mortal woman with no defence, easy prey of any man who wants her. Then he decides that this is too much, so he plunges her into a deep sleep, on a rock within a circle of magic fire, so that only a hero will be able to wake her up (hello Sleeping Beauty), and not any idiot who’s passing by.
The finale of Die Walküre absolutely killed me. The scene between Brünnhilde and Wotan is so emotional, so intense, it’s just too much. This moron leaves his little girl in danger, and he still loves her, he is desperate, but somehow just can’t act like a decent human being. Her abandonment burned in my soul.
Nina Stemme was superb. Her voice is perfect for Brünnhilde, it has all the necessary range of emotions, it is strong and powerful, sweet and girlish, wise and silly. All at the same time. What a singer!
Between the second and the third opera, Sieglinde has given birth to her and Siegmund’s son: Siegfried. She died in childbirth, and Siegfried was raised by the Nibelung dwarf Mime, Alberich’s brother. (Alberich is the dwarf who forged the ring in Das Rheingold.) Mime’s motives are not as pure as it may seem: he raised Siegfried hoping that, when he grows up, he will defeat Fafner (who has turned himself into a dragon), and recover the ring, which Mime hopes to get for himself. The opera starts with a teenage Siegfried who re-forges his father’s magic sword (destroyed by Wotan in Die Walküre), treats Mime really badly, and generally behaves like an ass.
One of the problems is that he is a teenager, but seeing a middle aged man on stage acting like a teenager is very annoying. Siegfried proceeds to kill Fafner, the dragon, kill Mime, get the ring and a magic helmet for himself. He leaves the gold in Fafner’s cave, and, following a little bird who tells him the story of a maiden sleeping on a rock, goes in search of Brünnhilde, to wake her up.
Wotan is waiting for him near the rock. Siegfried attacks him and destroys his spear, the symbol of his power, goes through the magic fire and wakes up Brünnhilde with a kiss (hello Snow White), and they fall in love immediately. And this is the second best love scene in the whole history of opera, after Siegmund and Sieglinde. The music is unbelievable, and, of course, I cried.
Lars Cleveman was singing Siegfried, I liked him a lot. It’s a vicious part, very high, always loud, it’s really hard not to bark, and he did a good job. Great hammer game!
This is the Twilight of the Gods, the final chapter, the longest of the 4 operas (5 hours and a 40 minutes, with the intermissions). Siegfried and Brünnhilde live together and are madly in love. He “goes to work”, which in this world means that he goes to perform unspecified heroic deeds (him being a hero). He arrives in the palace of the ruler of the Gibichungs, Gunther and his half-brother Hagen, Alberich’s son. Here the story gets really weird. Siegfried and Gunther, for no apparent reason, sign a pact of brotherhood with blood. Gutrune, Gunther’s sister, gives Siegfried a magic potion, by which he forgets he has ever met Brünnhilde, and falls in love with Gutrune herself. Gunther wants Brünnhilde for his wife (he’s heard of her) and Siegfried goes “of course bro! I will disguise myself as you, and I will rape and kidnap Brünnhilde so I bring her back to you as your wife”. He uses his magic helmet to disguise himself as Gunther, and does precisely that. Brünnhilde is of course terrified and in total shock. She arrives at the palace after “Gunther” has kidnapped her, and finds Siegfried getting married to Gutrune. Long story short, Hagen kills Siegfried (who, in his dying breath, remembers Brünnhilde and how much he loved her) and Brünnhilde throws herself on his funeral pyre. Gunther and Hagan get killed in the process. The fire from the pyre rises and burns down Valhalla, with all the gods inside. And the ring? it goes back to the Rhinemaidens, to whom it belonged. No news of Alberich.
The final scene, after Siegfried’s death, is unbelievable. Brünnhilde dominates the whole scene, singing alone and planning her immolation, and Stemme was out of this world, she was wonderful. It is so intense and beautiful (yes, I cried again).
But here I want to point out a serious weak point of this whole story. Siegfried is supposed to be a great hero, the music tells us clearly that he is, but seriously, he’s not. In the eponymous opera he’s an insufferable dumb teenager, and in Götterdämmerung he really acts like a criminal. Even taking into account the difference in values and morals from nowadays, how on Earth is it ok that he deceives and kidnaps Brünnhilde in that cruel way? Even if he forgot who she is, how is his behaviour “heroic”? And why does he trust all these Gibichung people so much? he’s just met them! The whole thing does not stand up.
After his death, Wagner gives us an amazing funeral march. It is everything you dream a funeral march of a hero should be: beautiful, pompous, emotional. The thick orchestral score overwhelms you and drags you along in the mourning for Siegfried. But the Siegfried depicted in the story does not deserve that. The mourning is for an idea of hero which is very clearly delineated by the music, but not by the plot.
So, have I become a Wagnerian? Only time will tell. For now I am seriously eyeing the Ring in Munich in 2018, with Kaufmann as Siegmund and Stemme again as Brünnhilde. What I know for sure is that if I add Wagner to my schedule my life and bank account are going to collapse, like Valhalla. Pray Wotan for me.