I Saw the World Begin: Das Rheingold

It wasn’t possible to post last week. And why? Well, life presents its various difficulties, of course, but I think more than this is that I reached the precipice: Wagner. It was inevitable that I should eventually write about him, as I knew when I started this blog, although I wasn’t sure how I would get there or when. But, having spent some time on the Circe myth in Alcina and South Pacific, I started thinking about sirens, about the Lorelei, and this led me to the Rhinemaidens, that trio of seductive water nymphs swimming in the Rhine in the opening scene of Das Rheingold, first of the Ring operas.

(Nexus entry?)

This is the kind of moment that has the power to arrest the flow of prose. What can one say that hasn’t been said? At the same time, how can one choose what to say when there are so many things to say? Just take the Prelude of Das Rheingold, that long suspension of E-flat major bliss, growing from the subterranean basses and blossoming into swaths of full orchestral diatonic glory—how to focus? Do I say something about the significance of the three-flat key signature, suggesting simultaneously the trio of Rhinemaidens, the trio of Norns, the three muses (Dance, Music, Poetry) that Wagner cites when writing about his concept of music drama, the Christian trinity, the key of Beethoven’s Eroica, of the Masonic in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte? Do I then opine further about how in this originating kernel of E-flat-ness, Wagner has conducted preliminaries for a ritual theater during which he makes obeisance to the Christian god, to the norse gods, to the Greek gods, to the gods of music (Mozart and Beethoven)? v1.bTsxMTYxODIxMjtqOzE3Njg0OzEyMDA7NzY4OzEwMjQ.jpegOr do I go in another direction entirely and talk about the uses of Wagner—for example, the use of the Prelude from Das Rheingold in Terrence Malick’s film The New World (2005), ostensibly about the founding of Jamestown and the relationship of John Smith and Pocahontas, but projected, through the use of Wagner’s Prelude, into a larger creation myth, an originating legend for America paralleling the creation of Wagner’s world of the Ring, and/or a suggestion of the unspoiled world before European colonization.

(Nope, just kidding.)

You see? I have a problem. And no one’s even on stage yet!

40300.jpgI take consolation from reading Deryck Cooke’s I Saw the World End: A Study of Wagner’s Ring (Oxford University Press, 1979). An attempt to say as much as could be said, Cooke managed to say intriguing things about the libretti (and occasionally the music) for the first two Ring operas, and then laid him down to rest. Somehow this is touchingly fitting, in a way that echoes other extraordinary projects of scholarship cut short by the unsympathetic winnower: Henry-Louis de La Grange’s revision of his definitive Mahler biography, J. A. B. van Buitenen’s translation of the Mahabharata. What I mean is that the epic subject is honored, in a sense, by not being fully encompassed by similarly epic scholarship. On a more pedestrian level, I was by turns upset, amused, and relieved that in the extensive liner notes + libretto accompanying Karajan’s classic recording of Das Rheingold with the Berlin Philharmonic, the essayist Wolfram Schwinger hardly mentions that singing is going on. (Yes, really!) Schwinger’s focus is almost exclusively on the Master—Karajan!—and his sensitivity to orchestration, his commitment to accuracy, transparency, his refusal to get bogged down and insistence on maintaining forward momentum. All well and good, but. . .singers?

118001648.jpgAfter all, here is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Wotan, the ultimate singer of German Lieder crafting a father of the gods who is lyrical and sympathetic instead of brash, spoiled, tyrannical. And here is the masterful performance of Gerhard Stolze as Loge, who follows every opportunity for multi-dimensionality of character that Wagner provides: at one moment playfully mercurial, at another fiercely scornful, at another distant and wise. And here is Martti Talvela as Fasolt, volleying blasts of bass sonority over the orchestra and hamming it up marvelously as the unlikely love-struck giant. But perhaps this is why Schwinger doesn’t say much about the singers—they do their job splendidly, on the whole, so his focus is free to flit to other phenomena. (How’s that for Stabreim?) All this to say that, after delay and uncertainty, I feel liberated not to attempt the completist’s gambit. Flit, float, fleetly flee, fly—it will be enough to be and not to be enough.

Nexus entry.

Wagner’s command of musical irony always stuns me, and I was perhaps more sensitive to it than ever on this listen to Das Rheingold. The gold standard for Wagnerian musical irony is Act I of Tristan und Isolde, and the queen reigning over that language is Isolde herself, who can snatch away someone else’s line and spit it back laced with venom. But I don’t think I had fully appreciated how much irony there is throughout the first of the Ring operas. Take, again, that opening scene with the Rhinemaidens, where the dwarf Alberich, frustrated in his attempts to capture one of them, takes the Rhinegold instead and curses love so that he will be able to forge the ring of power.

00005973.jpg(Don’t say anything about Tolkien. . .don’t say it!!! No, go on and say it—you’re in the nexus!)

In Wagner’s cosmology, love is the ultimate power inasmuch as it cannot be achieved through force, whereas everything else can be. So when Alberich can’t have love, he seizes upon the next best thing. Seen another way, the denial of love is what twists Alberich into a destructive tyrant. In Tolkien’s mythos, the creation of the Ring doesn’t work this way. It is forged by Sauron, who is so wholly evil, a force so far beyond conventional human experience, that to imagine him (it?) giving up love for power is a laughable suggestion. Love is foreign to evil in Tolkien’s universe; it cannot be imagined as existing anywhere in Sauron’s sphere.

Steamboat_Willie.jpgWagner invites us to consider, though, what might have happened had one of the Rhinemaidens chimed, “Oh, so he doesn’t replace the toilet paper and puts his elbows on the table—can’t help lovin’ that dwarf of mine!” And how does he invite us to consider this possibility? By writing mock-love music, of course! The Rhinemaidens sing, each of them, as if they’ve fallen for our sulfurous cave-dweller, and he buys it each time. But we know better, and not just because of the narrative context. Wagner hams it up, giving us saccharine overtures interrupted by action-oriented “underscore.” (Incidentally, do you realize how much mickey-mousing there is in Das Rheingold?! Steamboat Willie, sit down!) The music shifts gears too quickly for us to hear the love music as genuine; something that gets that sticky that quickly must be manufactured.

There are so many moments like this in Rheingold, each representing its own unique dramatic accomplishment, and the completist in me wants to dwell on many more, but the realist in me wants to mention one more general idea that kept occurring to me on this listen to the opera, and this has to do with Wagner’s materials. When the Rhinemaidens first direct Alberich’s (and our) gaze to the Rhinegold, we hear, for the first time in the score, a bright and shiny solo trumpet line. Got it, Wagner. A trumpet is made of brilliant metal, and so is the Rhinegold. But what about other such associations? Like the blast of clarinet sonority that accompanies Alberich, suggesting a reedy, swamp-like origin for him. Or the waves of arcing string lines in the Prelude suggesting, yes, the motion of the waters of the Rhine, but also, because of presence of string instruments themselves, the “threads” (strings) that the Norns are weaving and the wood of the World Tree—those organic materials. IMG_4855.JPGWagner was the kind of brilliant orchestrator who understood the cultural significance of timbre, particularly as it had been used historically in opera, and knew therefore how to use timbre to communicate dramatic ideas. But the world of the Ring seems to me to have presented Wagner with the perhaps singular opportunity to associate instruments with primal elements. Okay, so this idea is partly formed at best, but I’m recording it nonetheless as one of those topics to keep in mind as the life journey that constitutes anything more than a passing familiarity with Wagner’s Ring continues to unfold. Long may it last and never reach its end.

Nexus exit.

Beachcombing with La Stupenda on Alcina’s Island

This week I had the immense pleasure of spending time with Handel’s Alcina, in a classic recording with Joan Sutherland (1926-2010)—La Stupenda—in the role that earned her the sobriquet.

Nexus entry.Handel-Alcina-Bonynge-5a[London-3LP].jpg

I had been thinking of Alcina for weeks because of my recent fascination with “island music,” which has spawned a series of entries here on Sound Trove, but after last week’s dip into the waters of South Pacific, I could resist no more. For Alcina is not so very different from Bloody Mary: enchantress-queen of an irresistible isle, creator of a marvelous fantasy that a strapping young foreign “hero,” remembering his “girl back home,” reveals as illusory. Of course, Alcina is herself both enchantress and lover, whereas in South Pacific those functions are separated: Bloody Mary’s “extension,” her silent daughter Liat, serves as the object of desire. Both stories are ultimately Circe stories, Alcina more obviously so because her ex-lovers are literally turned into wild beasts, just as in the Greek myth.

The composer has an interesting function to perform here, because the music demanded of Bloody Mary and Alcina has to be music that cannot be resisted, music that would lure you to self-annihilation with a song in your heart.

page1-220px-Whispering_sheetmusic.pdf.jpg“Bali-Ha’i” is pretty convincing in this role; Rodgers achieves a suggestion of the mysterious, romantic allure of island vistas in a way that perhaps parallels the suggestion of the beauty of the mountains in the opening of The Sound of Music. But what about Bloody Mary’s other song, “Happy Talk”? Since writing about South Pacific last week, I’ve been thinking a bit about what sort of a song that is, and the more I think about it, the more I feel comfortable committing to the idea that it’s Paul Whitemanesque. (Listen to “Whispering,” if you’ve allowed yourself to forget what Whiteman’s orchestra had to offer at its best.) And what, pray tell, is Bloody Mary doing singing music in the Whiteman mode as she plays overseer-enchantress for her daughter’s big love scene with Lieutenant Cable? My take is that this music would have sounded seriously dated to the original audiences of South Pacific, that the out-of-touch and corny note it strikes either reveals Bloody Mary’s basic misunderstanding of what it would take to make the Cable-Liat relationship work or reveals to the audience that there is insufficient music here upon which to build a lasting relationship. It seems to me that there might also be racial dimensions of “Happy Talk,” perhaps prompted by the dialect present in the lyrics. More pointedly, Rodgers seems to be referencing minstrelsy, and therefore making a weird link between “othernesses” that might nevertheless have been operative for his audience, including the diegetic “audience of one,” Lt. Cable. Ultimately, Cable’s “Younger than Springtime” can’t save his relationship with Liat from “Happy Talk.”

118001911.jpgAnd what about Handel’s music for Alcina? She also has her “Bali Ha’i” moment in her first aria, “Di’, cor mio, quanto t’amai,” sung to the new arrivals to her island kingdom. In it she acts as a sort of tour guide, recommending that the newcomers visit the secret grove where she and her lover Ruggiero first, um, realized their mutual affection. Little does Alcina know (we suppose?) that she’s singing this to Ruggiero’s betrothed, Bradamante. (Bradamante is apparently terrifically convincing as a man, since Alcina’s sister Morgana falls for him/her instantly upon seeing him/her.) Listening to Sutherland sing this single aria, one can well imagine the audience at Venice’s La Fenice immediately hailing her as “La Stupenda.” Her virtuosity here is effortless, graceful, entirely assured; she has numerous opportunities in the aria to demonstrate her famous trill, so accurate and even that it sounds like an instrument. How could Bradamante, worn out from travel and dressed up as a soldier, ever hope to compete with this exotic goddess of fioritura? I mean, just look at her: She’s not even trying that hard!

The appearance of effort, of workman-like virtuosity, is present in Alcina, of course (It is Handel, after all.) It’s particularly evident in the Jane-Fonda-meets-Arnold-Schwarzenegger sweaty swagger of “Sta nell’Ircana pietrosa tana.” Here Ruggiero has seen through the all the sorcery of Alcina and is ready to do battle against the “armed squadrons and bewitched monsters” she has amassed to stop him. So he sings about how Alcina, the “Hyrcanian tigress,” lurks, while showing through leaps and sequencing melismas how he’s the kind of guy who can hunt him some tiger. Handel even throws in (thrillingly!) horns to show that the folks in the orchestra know a legit huntsman when they see one. So as fun as the aria is—and it is terrifically fun!—it also makes itself a bit absurd as a classic case of overcompensation. Teresa Berganza sings it, as she often does the role throughout the opera, with a brightness signifying brash youth that touchingly (if you go for that sort of thing?) demonstrates how uncritical a consciousness Ruggiero possesses. He blows hot and cold because he really does feel that way, a mental child who was never any match for the subtle, calculating, and yes enchanting, Alcina. But he wins against her in all his bluster. How can we be comfortable with that?

One answer is that it’s not really Ruggiero who wins but Bradamante, and that the power struggle in the opera is really between the plot-women (Alcina and Bradamante). I would love to talk more about this, but. . .maybe another time.

51tniyOSHLL.jpgAnother reason we can accept La Stupenda’s humiliation and defeat is that Alcina isn’t always such a nice person. In Act III, in a final act of tigress-like desperation, she eggs on Oberto, a captive boy whom she allowed to remain human instead of turning into a beast, to kill a lion that approaches him. Oberto (Mirella Freni!) realizes that the lion is actually his father—in part because the lion nuzzles up to him—and calls Alcina, whom he had previously thought of as protector and friend, “Barbara!” (“Barbarous one!”) This is the real end of her world of enchantment. It makes me think of the moment at the end of Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し, 2001) when Yubāba asks Chihiro to choose which pair of swine is actually her transformed parents as a last test before she will return her real name and release her from the kingdom of the spirits. (It’s a trap, but one Chihiro, like Oberto [and Admiral Ackbar], sees through.)

What happens after Oberto calls out Alcina is one of those remarkable moments in Handelian opera when it seems the composer is doing things he’s not supposed to be doing. He writes a ¡¡¡tRiO!!! in which Bradamante and Ruggiero are musically (and textually) pitted against Alcina. 1843832682.jpgAs Winton Dean writes in his magnificent Handel’s Operas, 1726-1741, this trio, a phenomenon “all too rare in Handel’s operas. . .stands beside those in Tamerlano and Orlando as a masterly summing up of a dramatic confrontation.” <1> And then? Well, then Alcina is utterly defeated, her magic urn broken, all her enchantments undone. The chorus of former rocks, waves, and beasts sings about their release “from the blind horror of night” (“Dall’orror di notte cieca”). It feels like the prisoners’ stepping into the light of the courtyard in Fidelio, like the broadcasting of the Letter Duet from Figaro over the loudspeakers in Shawshank Redemption. Winton Dean talks about Act III of Alcina as “trac[ing] the disintegration of Alcina’s personality.” How far she had to fall from the vocal heights of her first Act I aria!

Nexus exit.

There’s always so much more to say, but it’s time to bid adieu to Alcina’s island for now. But what sadness I feel at leaving such a beautiful illusion! There’s some consolation in knowing that Ruggiero felt exactly the same way when he sang this. . .“Verdant meadows, leafy woods, all your beauty will decay. . .”

<1> Winton Dean, Handel’s Operas, 1726-1741 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2006): 321.