Saturday, November 4, 2017

Wagner the feminist? "Walküre" a sort of "Thelma & Louise" on the Rhine.

Elisabet Strid
     "I haven't read the synopsis yet," my wife said, as the lights lowered at exactly 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Civic Opera House, an early start for the debut of Wagner's "Die Walküre"
     "Don't worry about the plot, it's nonsense," I said. "Just enjoy the music."
     A moment later, I was about as close as bounce-in-my-seat excited as I ever get. Then again, Sir Andrew Davis had just dug his spurs into the flanks of the Lyric Opera orchestra and it sprang forward into the fluttering, insistent "storm" prelude—if you're not familiar, think a a distant cousin of the pulsing arrival-of-the-shark motif in "Jaws."
     Not that you need Cliff Notes to understand what's going on. There is Sieglinde, sung with power and precision by Swedish soprano Elisabet Strid, making her Lyric debut. She's chained to an enormous ash tree, arching priapically across the stage, yet does her best to be hospitable to a guest, wounded warrior, Siegmund, who, perhaps through his own good breeding—his dad's a god, we discover—never says, "Hey, what's with the big chain?"
     At the end of "Rheingold," the first part of the Ring Cycle, performed at the Lyric last year, Sieglinde was forced to marry the brutish Hunding who — you know, I 'm not going to wander off into the thicket of the plot and lose you. Not just yet anyway. 
    Let's just say that, an hour later, during the first intermission, I quipped. "That was the most elaborate ode to incestuous adultery in musical theater." Or should it be "adulterous incest?" Either way, my wife, always a quick study, explained she knew that Siegmund and Sieglinde were brother and sister when Hunding said he recognized a familiar gleam in his guest's eye. (The names aren't quite the giveaway they seem in print because Siegmund is coy about his name, calling himself "Woeful.")
     Even listening to beautiful music for five hours, the mind tends to wander, and during "Walküre" I found it idly exploring two separate rooms.
Christine Goelke, singing Brunhilde, contemplates her suitors.
     The first was picking out all the mythological story lines either touched upon by or lifted from Wagner—Norse mythology, of course, with its treasure and dwarves ("Walküre" is the second part of Wagner's epic four-part "Ring of the Nibelung," "Nibelung" being a Teutonic word related to either a dwarf or a race of dwarves) Greek mythology (Wotan and Fricka being the Norse version of Zeus and Hera) with some King Arthur (the sword in the stone, er, tree) and even Sleeping Beauty, with all that maiden-awakened-with-a-kiss business. 
    As for stories lifted from Wagner, the Lord of the Rings, of course (the ring, the dwarves) plus aspects of Harry Potter (such as the sword that only showed up in times of duress, and the practical side of the fantastical, like the giants demanding the ring as payment for constructing Valhala, like the most demanding contractors ever) and even Star Wars (the brother and sister hot for each other though, unlike Leia and Luke, realizing the connection stokes the passion of these two instead of quenching it).
     The twins, by the way, belong to Wotan—sung with complex humanity, almost tenderness by bass-baritone Eric Owens—and the second act features him in black tie, in a cool grey deco-ish Valhalla suspended midway between the proscenium arch and the stage. being browbeaten by his wife Fricka (who is hellbent against Siegmund and Sieglinde for their incestuous union—hypocritically since, at least in the Greek version, she herself is both Zeus' wife and sister).  
    Fricka isn't happy about how he's about to come to the aid of Siegmund when he battles Hunding, and wants him to call off Brunhilde and her eight Valkyrie sisters.
    The second act had me thinking—and I think this connection is a first in music criticism—of Henry Winkler, aka "The Fonz." Director Garry Marshall and I once got to talking about his TV show "Happy Days," and he was saying how Winkler was excellent at "laying pipe," aka coming on stage and explaining complicated plot developments in way that wasn't too tortuous on the audience. In Act 2, Wotan gives the back story to how we got this point. 
   After I finished playing Name the Mythic Reference, I wandered into What-is-this-all-about? Yes, yes, a bunch of Nordic (and German and Greek) heroic hooey. But what's it mean?  As the opera progressed, a single revelation came to mind, and I'm going to present it just as it came to me, an admittedly crude epiphany. 
     We were in the 3rd Act act—spoiler alert!—Siegmund's dead, and Sieglinde is fleeing Wotan's wrath. Brunhilde helps her, because, well, she carrying her ... nnn, doing the relationship calculus... bastard half nephew, the future Siegfried. The two women clasp hands, powerfully, and I think: "Oh, this is a chick flick. Or rather, a chick opera." 
    I know that's a stretch, but hear me out. 
   Look who moves the action in "Walküre." In Act 1, Sieglinde escapes her chain (somehow, we don't see it done) drugs her husband Hunding, arms his enemy with some kind of holy sword, and then the two head off for hot Teutonic incest in a springtime wood in winter. No shrinking Madam Butterfly she. 
    In Act 2 Fricka ("Frigga," by the way, in Old Norse, leading to our term "Friday") looking like a 1940s movie goddess, browbeats Wotan into calling off his Valykuries and tacitly allowing the death of his son. He orders Brunhilde to stand down, but she disobeys him, forcing Wotan to deploy his spear and do the deed himself.
     Act 3 opens with the famed "Ride of the Valkyries" set effectively by director David Pountney into a chilling abattoir,  the valkyries in blood-soaked white dresses riding full-size metal horses through the air above slain heroes wheeled around on gurneys by orderlies in bloody aprons and masks, a bracing corrective of field hospital gore to balance all Wagner's war-father nonsense. 
     Then we shift into a kind of Teutonic "Thelma and Louise" as Brunhilde goes completely off reservation, rescues Sieglinde and whisks her to safety. Then, when Wotan shows up to punish his wayward daughter, her sisters form a #MeToo defensive ring around her, brandishing children's chairs, a lovely distaff touch. As Wotan sentences Brunhilde to marriage to whatever dolt of a man can push his hairy way through the ring of flame he sets around her, a motley collection of loutish supernumeraries closes menacingly in. Ugh, men.
     Reader Michele Kurlander, in the Facebook remarks on this post, pointed out one other significant aspect that, perhaps tellingly, I overlooked during the opera: 
Brunhilde wouldn't be at the top of an unscaleable mountain surrounded with a ring of fire so only her juvenile heroic nephew can get in—but instead would be wandering among the hairy dolts, sans Goddess powers, just waiting to be grabbed up—if she hadn't been so clearly smarter and more articulate and more all knowing than her horny Fricka-whipped daddy and almost talked him totally out of punishing her at all! Talk about woman power!
     That too. Wrapping up (the primary drawback to Wagner is that it's just so hard for anybody involved to stop) as I said in the beginning, the plot is best ignored. And really, it's the ... seventh reason you go to a Wagnerian opera, the first seven being, in order of importance: 1) music; 2) voice; 3) acting; 4) scenery; 5) costume; 6) set and 7) the story.
      Edie loved it, by the way, in those words: "I really loved that." Though she missed the horned helmets promised in Bugs Bunny (there is a certain joy in finding expected cliches in a famous work. I explained that for the past few decades directors generally drop the horned, or winged, helmets in order to appear a la mode). As for me, I'm planning to see it again in a couple weeks. Because really: how often do you get the chance? 


  1. I'm going again too. Have seen several production over the years, and this is the most dramatically satisfying. It's true that reading up on the plot is not necessary, since Wotan recites the whole damn thing in a monologue at the beginning of Act 2. This could be tedious because it goes on so long, but somehow isn't. And it is followed by what, for me, is the most affecting scene in the opera, the long dialog between Brunhilde and Sigmund, in which the latter takes a pass on a ticket to Valhalla because his sister/bride can't come with.

    If you must bone up on the plot of the ring, the best synopsis is probably the one delivered on record by that eminent musicologist Anna Russell.

    Musically, Wagner is popularly associated with musical bombast, but until the third act Ride of the Valkyries, about whom the aforementioned Ms. Russell accurately says, "they are the loudest women," much of the orchestral accompaniment is quite delicate.

    One quibble with Neil's wonderful exposition -- about how Sieglinde got hitched to Hunding. If memory serves, neither appear in Das Rheingold, which is all about Gods, Giants and dwarfs.

    It's true the opera evokes a barbarous time when fighting and killing were celebrated, but as many commentators have noted, the main subjects are love-paternal, filial, incestuous, etc.- and duty. Which probably explains why it is the most frequently performed Ring opera.


    1. I was thinking that as well about Sieglinde and Hunding. Unless the Lyric did some sort of altering to the original, they don't show up until the second opera.

    2. As I said, it's been a year. I've adjusted the text. Thanks.

  2. I always thought the Nibelung were Jewish, not that there's anything wrong with that, being Jewish that is or being a dwarf, or being a dwarven Jewish Jewelry maker for that matter.

    1. I always thought the Kinks song "Lola" was about a girl. No, they trace back to before the Norsemen knew what a Jew was. I think you might have just revealed more about your perception of Jews than you realize, Bernie.

    2. I know that, the post was intended as a mockery of those who believe the Nibelung are a racist Jewish caricature created by Wagner. Or perhaps just trying to maintain my status as the holder of the Bernie Farber Trophy for skewed worldview.

    3. Bernie, ever heard of Poe's Law? Maybe you should bone up on it.

    4. Nonetheless (pointing an index finger straight up), another item on my bucket list is to achieve the impossible and break Poe's Law!

  3. Wotan has essentially nothing to do with Zeus aside from being a god and ruling other gods. He isn't the sky god like Zeus, doesn't hurl thunderbolts like Zeus ....


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