MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

O Tell Me the Truth about Love

Die Walkure

The renunciation of love is what spins the entire Ring cycle into dramatic motion – yet there’s precious little evidence of what love actually is in Das Rheingold (the preludial opera, as Wagner conceived it, with the three longer operas that follow constituting a trilogy on the model of ancient Greek tragedy).

What unfolds before us onstage (and in the pit) is, instead, a brutal cosmos in which rape, violent coercion, deception, and theft hold sway. Is Alberich really giving up all that much when he curses love to access the gold? You have to wonder, in a world where Freia, the goddess of love, is held as sexual ransom to pay for Valhalla per Wotan’s deal with the giants who constructed it.

So it’s not surprising that Die Walküre has always tended to be the most popular work of the cycle: love, and spring, and humanity all enter in with that miraculous first act – an act which, after all, is basically a digression from the main narrative line. And Wagner’s music warms up as well after Rheingold‘s abstractions and muscular assertions.

Die Walküre benefits especially from director Stephen Wadsworth’s obsessive attention to the nuances of character interactions in Seattle Opera’s Ring cycle. Sure, it’s easy to milk the audience’s sympathy for the Wälsung twins in their passion and plight – does anyone actually ever get worked up these days about the incest taboo? – but this production delineates with tremendous subtlety how love affects the gods: above all Wotan’s love for Fricka (hardly “traditionalist” but a directorial conceit, however persuasive), and how this love sets up inescapable conflicts with his love for his son and for Brünnhilde. Love, not its renunciation, is the source of his pain.

Whenever you grapple with the Ring, the mushy term “redemption by love” gets tossed around as predictably as the sun will set. But “love” – by which Wagner, in the Ring text’s early stages, clearly had physical, sexual expression in mind – is elusive and ultimately contradictory in the Ring cosmos. Its meaning is as slippery as the rocks at the bottom of the Rhine are to the frustrated, grasping Alberich when he tries to seize love like catching a fish.

On Monday night, when I heard Margaret Jane Wray pour out that glorious arc of melody [1:26] in the pivotal moment when the just-widowed Sieglinde suddenly learns she is pregnant with Siegfried, I was thinking of how this is a kind of reverse Annunciation scene: Brünnhilde bears the joyful news, but the music is Sieglinde’s as she praises the Valkyrie.

This is the music that has become so misleadingly tagged as the “redemption by love” theme when it is heard again at the very end of the Ring. And the words which are “imprinted” with this melody are “O hehrstes Wunder! Herrliche Maid!” (“O miracle most sublime! Glorious maiden!”).

In other words, as Sieglinde rejoices in this new hope, she glorifies Brünnhilde the virgin warrior. But the love the goddess maiden-turned-human lover experiences with Siegfried is what sets in motion the final tragedy, just as inevitably as Alberich’s theft of the gold as a substitute for love launched the cycle in the first place. So where has love gotten us?

(Image: Seattle Opera’s Die Walküre: Stuart Skelton (Siegmund), Greer Grimsley (Wotan).
Photo © Elise Bakketun.)

Filed under: opera, Ring cycle, Seattle Opera, Wagner

Into the Ring


Seattle Opera’s famous “green” Ring production – celebrated for highlighting the prominent role nature plays in the cycle, but also for its psychological focus – returns this month for the fourth time since it first debuted in 2001. A particular highlight for me will be the contribution of Asher Fisch, who for the first time takes on the role of conductor of this production.

Among the things I’ve been reading to prepare, Nicholas Spice’s recent essay in the London Review of Books (“Is Wagner Bad for Us?”) is rich in food for thought:

Debussy said that it was ‘hard to imagine the state to which the strongest brain is reduced by listening for four nights to the Ring … It is worse than obsession. It is possession. You no longer belong to yourself.’ Returning from a Wagner performance in January 1917, Otto Klemperer said to his sister: ‘When I like Wagner, I do not like myself.’ I think one can go a step further and say that even disliking Wagner is not straightforward. There are many composers we may not particularly care for, but this poses no problem because we experience their music as separate from us, as other. They do not tamper with our sense of self. In possessing us, Wagner restricts our freedom to dislike him, since in disliking him, we can find that we end up disliking bits of ourselves. And this, after all is what he set out to achieve: he wanted his listener to abandon himself unresistingly to the work, so that he ‘involuntarily assimilates even what is most alien to his nature.’

(Image: Das Rheingold at Seattle Opera, Jennifer Zetlan (Woglinde), Cecelia Hall (Wellgunde),Renée Tatum (Flosshilde), Richard Paul Fink (Alberich). Photo © Elise Bakketun.)

Filed under: opera, Ring cycle, Seattle Opera, Wagner

Theater Obsessives and Super-Fans

Sleep No More

Sleep No More, a much-touted, site-specific, silently acted take on Macbeth by the British theater group Punchdrunk, has been running at the  McKittrick Hotel for several years. This imaginary “decadent luxury hotel” from the 1930s, which is said to have been condemned before it ever opened to the public, is in reality a set of adjoining warehouses in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.

With its audience members asked to don masks and invited to engage silently with the play’s characters while roaming about the eerie maze of fictional hotel rooms spread across five floors, the entire performative concept radically smashes down the fourth wall.

Tara Isabella Burton’s fascinating observations about her protracted experience with Sleep No More — and about the legendary super-fans who’ve become obsessed with reinhabiting this world in visit after visit — remind me of the dynamics of opera: of the immersive intensity that opera, allegedly the paragon of artistic “artificiality,” encourages:

Yet how real is real? For Sleep No More to succeed as a piece of theater, it must convince its audience — at least for the three hours of the show — that their interactions with Lady Macduff or Malcolm are true relationships, emotionally fraught on both sides. And yet to do so is to fuse fiction and reality in a manner that may feel uncomfortable, even dangerous, and on both sides (stalking on the part of besotted fans is not unheard of).

(Image: from Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More: Sara Krulwich for the NY Times)

Filed under: Shakespeare, theater

How Did We Get Virgil Wrong for So Long?


Madeline Miller reflects on how the standard reading of Virgil and the Aeneid as a pro-imperialist epic came into question:

The closest thing we have to a portrait of Virgil is an imperial-era mosaic, discovered in Tunisia. In the center sits a somber Virgil, with the Aeneid open in his lap, flanked by muses. On his left stands Clio, the muse of history; on his right, we might expect the muse of epic poetry, patron of Virgil’s chosen medium. Instead, the artist has given us Melpomene, the muse of tragedy. It is the perfect iteration of Virgil’s message to us: that history is more tragedy than triumph. For two thousand years it has been hiding in plain sight.

(Image: Virgil Flanked by Clio and Melpomene, 3rd-century mosaic from the Bardo Museum in Tunis)

Filed under: classical literature

America’s Shape-Note Tradition Remade


Will Robin traces the remarkable impact of the rediscovery of shape-note customs by American composers in the 1930s and also points to how today’s young generation of composers — Sam Amidon, Sufjan Stevens, Gabriel Kahane, Matt Marks, and David T. Little — is adding their own perspective to this legacy:

Today’s young musicians don’t seem particularly interested in the Billings strain or the patriotic fervor of the Yankee tunesmiths and the Bicentennial that renewed them. They are, instead, children of the 1970s revivalists… In absorbing the style and sound of Sacred Harp as sung today, [this] generation recasts a vibrant tradition for a new audience, pointing towards a true style for the 21st century.

Filed under: American music

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