Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Wild Ride

This is my first blog post since my surgery two weeks ago. That means a couple of things. First, I'm now feeling good enough to sit at my computer and write (Applause, please!). Second, I've been giving some thought to "branching out," and have decided to claim my professional privilege as a musicologist and write about music in this space. This decision was only partially prompted by a current discussion on the American Musicological Society listserve about the putative failure of musical academics to communicate with the public.

A few weeks ago - after turning in my grades but before going under the knife - I attended the live simulcast of Wagner's Die Walküre from the Metropolitan Opera. Let me begin with a confession: Although the local Hollywood Jewel 16 theater has been brave enough to show these screenings for the past few years, this was the first time I had attended one. I had been hearing so much, though, about Robert Lepage's new high-tech production of The Ring of the Nibelungs that I had resolved months earlier I would not miss this showing for any reason. I even persuaded my son Jeremy to come along, by the simple expedient of not telling him in advance how long it was going to be. (It's a good thing, too; here in CST, the broadcast began at 11:00 am and, with a 40-minute technical delay at the beginning, lasted until after 5:00.)

Let me first assure those who have never see a live opera in a movie theater before that it was - different, but surprisingly exciting. Before the show began, we had scans of the theater, which seemed strangely underpopulated compared to Saturday matinees I can remember attending. Shortly before the delayed start (caused apparently by a computer malfunction in the elaborate stage machinery), we had a pep talk by Placido Domingo, and then got to watch a closeup of James Levine as, seated before the orchestra due to ongoing back problems, he drew his baton through an almost savage arc to prepare the downbeat of each successive act. From this point on, neither conductor nor orchestra was seen again until the final chord.

What we did see was the singers from an intimate perspective that would have been impossible from even the best seat in the house. Sometimes, as when Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund shed a large amount of saliva onto the stage toward the end of the first act, it was clear that this constituted a rather bold experiment. It certainly helped that all of the singers looked the parts. Both Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel, as Wotan, sported about a four-day growth of facial hair that must have been calculated with the closeups in mind. As a result, Kaufmann looked like he had been wandering lost in a storm after a furious battle, while Terfel, with his metal eye-patch, was clearly his father, but not your father's Wotan (more on this later). Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde looked more than plausible as his twin sister. Deborah Voigt, as Brünnhilde, though, seemed almost slight for the role. This was a result of her decision to have gastric bypass surgery a few years ago - presumably due, at least in part, to the pressures of modern operatic staging, in which very heavy women are not as acceptable as they used to be. By contrast, Stephanie Blythe as Fricka was impressively large and imposing, as she sat nearly motionless on an ugly-looking horned chair and utterly nailed her 20-minute turn as the tedious, outraged voice of conventional morality. Unfortunately, the mighty sword Nothung, though highlighted by mysterious lighting effects, looked all too obviously like a cheap prop, just waiting for Wotan's spear - or anything else, for that matter - to shatter it to pieces.

The sound was surprisingly good for a movie theater, but it was not at all what you would experience in an opera house. The voices sounded amplified - not in a way that distorted them, though; it simply removed the thrill that one gets from hearing unmiked voices compete with Wagner's huge orchestration. That thrill - impossible to duplicate in a movie theater in any case - was replaced by the slightly lesser satisfaction of hearing every line carefully enunciated, with never a threat of being submerged in the wash of instrumental sound. Everything was audible, but the voices dominated. The experience of watching the singers, impossibly close up, deliver their lines before Lepage's constantly shifting scenery and projections thereon, the orchestra and audience unseen, was riveting. I have a sneaking suspicion Wagner would have approved.

That leads to my most surprising conclusion, and my main reason for writing this. I had grown accustomed to viewing Wagner as a great composer who was, at best, a passable dramatist. As such, he was able, more often than not, to redeem his impossibly long, needlessly repetitive scenes with stunning musical effects. Sometimes, as in the case of Parsifal, this problem is intensified further by the knowledge that he deliberately incorporated anti-Semitic ideology into the very substance of his plots. It has caused me untold soul-searching to realize that the shimmeringly beautiful music of Parsifal, which entranced me from the first time I heard it as few works of any kind have ever done, is coupled with a story that deals with the purging of foreign (read Jewish) influences from a church that needs to establish a purer, more refined identity. I try very hard to listen to the music and hope that it can somehow exist in its own sphere, unburdened by all that ideological baggage, and, as often as not, I fail.

So it was a revelation to see Die Walküre emerge, in this production, as a dramatic masterwork in which the elusive promise of human freedom, caught in tension with the inexorable, destructive impulses of the will, finally achieves an ecstatic, if limited, victory. This is why Bryn Terfel's heavy metal interpretation of Wotan was so crucial. Almost impossibly, the famously long monologue in the second act in which he explains how he mortgaged his freedom of choice in exchange for an elusive prize of power and control emerged as the dramatic center of the opera. This was only partly the result of the large, constantly changing single eye projected on the scenery while Terfel, his own eye covered by a chintzy but somehow disarming piece of chain mail, conveyed a deeply human anger that made his plight seem more than credible. It was Terfel's presence, and the musical conviction behind it, that made this scene transfixing.

As I've said, this was quite a trick. The Ride of the Vaylkries and Wotan's final dialogue with
Brünnhilde work dramatically in even mediocre performances. The first act is richly romantic, and you can ignore the incest if you realize that for a man to fall in love with his twin sister means discovering and embracing his anima - his feminine side - while recovering his father's sword signifies the completion of his identity. Siegmund emerges from the first act as fully human, while Wotan begins the second as a hen-pecked, indecisive, pathetic god whose weakness in creating an incestuous pair and bringing them together is immediately exposed by his archly proper consort. She is the archetypal figure here, and Wotan is simply the victim of what turns out to have been his thoroughly misguided belief that he could do something worthwhile with his existence. Everything he's ever created, he now realizes, is a piece of crap just like himself. He is tormented, torn, furious and betrayed by turns. All of this Terfel conveyed brilliantly.

The final farewell, then, in which he kisses away
Brünnhilde's "godhood," became manifestly an act of creation: the very thing that had been denied him up to this point. By delivering his favorite child unto human weakness and frailty, yet finding a way to protect her, Wotan became, simply, a human father, and she a human child. The catharsis for both of them in this final scene was truly the point and goal of this five-hour-long drama, not a minute of which seemed wasted. The musical greatness of this opera I had always understood. I think I now "get" its dramatic greatness as well.

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