Sunday, September 16, 2012

800 Words: The Evil Fantasy of Gotterdammerung

(Yes, that’s THE Christopher Lee singing Hagen’s Watch. Not very well…but I suppose that’s the point.)

The first time I watched Gotterdammerung all the way through was during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college – a videocassette in the American University library of the Met’s recently retired production from the late 80’s. Parts were unspeakably dull and stupid, and yet the parts that weren’t…

(Matti Salminen shows how it’s done)

I awoke that night bathed in a cold sweat, with the image of Hagen burned into my retina and his calls of ‘Hoi-ho’ playing over and over in my head for the rest of the night. Hagen is the modern era’s answer to Edmund from King Lear but with no Edgar to counterbalance his evil. He is the black soul which brings The Ring to its apocalyptic conclusion, and perhaps the most perfect incarnation of evil which any stage has yet seen. Never in my life before or since did music scald my ears so intensely. It can be tremendously hard to be drawn into the world of Wagner, but once you are, no music is made to relinquish its hold with more difficulty. If Bach is the angel of music, showing a world untroubled by doubts of the world’s ultimate goodness – with a musical hierarchy in which tonic chords reign over the Western scale like a perfect kingdom; then Wagner is the devil – worming ever deeper questions of doubt into our heads with nothing but the dissonant chaos and diminished chords for company. Bach builds the world for us, Wagner destroys it.

Allegedly, The Ring is four operas. That is simply not true – The Ring is two. One is a mammoth five act monsterpiece which even has a two hour prologue, the other is everything after that. One day, I’d like to see a production that stages Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, and the first two acts of Siegfried as a single opera, and then treats Siegfried’s last act and Gotterdammerung as the same (good luck finding the singers…). Wagner began work on the music to The Ring in 1853, by 1858 he’d written Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, and the first two acts of Siegfried. He then broke off to write Tristan und Isolde – the opera that truly shattered every preconceived notion of harmony that began with Bach; and then wrote the five hour comedy, Die Meistersinger, perhaps as a way of lightening up…

The first 2 2/3rds operas of The Ring are an opera of a demonic genius just beginning to find his footing. The musical material is so rigidly over-controlled that momentum is senselessly dissipated from measure to measure just so Wagner can fit in yet another leitmotif (theme signifying a character or idea) into his score. His first ascent to complete The Ring Cycle is as much theory as music – in which Wagner has a scheme which he adheres to so completely that coma inducing music stands next to some of the most exciting music ever written – and when the exciting bits occur, you’re so grateful for them that they appear all the more exciting in the midst of so much boring bombast. And yet it is also a well-managed journey, a dark comedy that brings us over the course of three days from a primordial beginnings of Das Rheingold to the dark woefulness of Die Walkure’s opening to the light-hearted joyfulness of Siegfried in the forest.

(The Forest Murmurs with which Wagner set down The Ring for a time...)

After Act II of Siegfried, The Ring begins its descent back into darkness – perhaps Wagner was not ready for such a tortured psychic journey. By the time he got around to finishing Siegfried and Gotterdammerung, Wagner was an utterly different composer who’d written Tristan und Isolde, to this day the most harmonically tortured musical journey ever written in which the resolution of an endless series of diminished chords is held just beyond our reach for four hours.

But whereas the diminished chords of Tristan signal the presence of larger-than-life love, lust, and longing, the diminished chords of Gotterdammerung testify to a larger-than-life presence of agonizing doubt, of an infinite spiritual void, of evil reigning triumphant – and the only catharsis remaining possible is through the destruction of the world. Were Satan to speak through music, he would speak through the nebulous key regions of Gotterdammerung.

(The Vengeance Trio)

Unfortunately, Wagner still had to contend with the flawed rigidity of his scheme – so neither the remainder of Siegfried or of Gotterdammerung can be as consistently compelling as either Tristan or Die Meistersinger. But perhaps this is all part of Wagner’s master plan. Whereas with extremely few exceptions, the first six acts of The Ring are all dialogue – a pointless conversation about some stupid Ring and how it’s making everybody batsh-t even though it disappears for four-and-a-half acts; scantly few traditional opera numbers like arias and duets, instead only the talk that exists between them. But beginning in final four acts of the Ring, we feel the air of another planet. Entirely new musical themes are introduced, characters sing real arias and duets, there’s even a chorus (all male though…). Some of the themes may be the same, but the final third of The Ring is a completely different composition.

Or is it? Perhaps the claustrophobic, captive air which we breathe through the first two-thirds of The Ring is deliberate. For all the association of Wagner with bombast, Wagner is bombastic in a completely different way than he’s alleged. Much of Wagner’s music is deafeningly quiet, with nothing but ominous sounds emitting from the orchestra which accompany quiet dialogue that is unspeakably – perhaps deliberately – dull for an hour-long stretch. Whether Wagner intended it this way or not, it creates an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia for which the only release is the violence of Wagner’s louder passages. As The Ring progresses, these releases grow more and more frequent, more and more frenzied, more violent, darker – as though we’re pushed ever further to a kind of ecstatic despair for which destruction is the only release.

(Again, the immolation scene that wraps things up)

(Still more…much more…as this develops through the next few days)

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