04 November 2019

Mythic Mystery


The last few nights I have been watching Die Walkure on PBS. I am not a big Wagner fan, finding his operas slow going, despite all the exotic trappings, the remarkable singers, and the frequently beautiful music. But I had seen broadcasts of the production when it debuted at the Met a decade ago, and I was curious to hear the new cast and to see how the famous – or infamous – Lepage machine had held up.

Wotan tries to get Fricka to see things his way
What struck me on this second viewing was how contemporary the situation was and how familiar the details of the whole Ring must be to any modern mystery aficionado. It’s a classic story of greed and power leading to disaster and regret, with some right up-to-the-minute touches.

Wotan’s troubles really start with luxury real estate in the opening of the Ring cycle. He goes into debt to the giants Fafner and Fasolt in order to build Valhalla, a home for the gods, complete with the rainbow bridge to bring the dead heroes who will defend the gods in the afterlife. Just how that will work out is left unclear, but later on, Wotan will worry that his semi-undead army might be led astray by bribes from a rival.

Those worries are in the future. The giants build Valhalla and, as contractors are wont to do, demand payment. When Wotan is short of cash, the giants seize Freia, the goddess of youth and beauty. The gods realize that this is a bad bargain, for without Freia, they are going to age and die.

Crisis in Valhalla. Wotan and Loki, fire god and trickster, go off to seize the Rheingold. The McGuffin in the opera of the same name, the Rheingold, had already been stolen from the Rhine Maidens by the master craftsman, Albrecht, who has forged the Ring of the Nibelungs, a trinket which guarantees world domination at least some of the time.

The Valkyries
Alas for Wotan, though he and Loki trick Albrecht and seize the treasure, every last scrap including the famous Ring is owed to the giants. They, in turn, immediately fall out over it. Fasolt is killed and Fafner, in a real self re-invention, turns himself  into a dragon, slinks back to the Nibelung forest and guards the golden hoard in his cave.

Wotan has his palace, the giant has his payment. All should be well, but Wotan, Valhalla in hand, wants the security of the Ring and realizes that his hands are tied by the treaties he has made with his rivals. Unlike certain modern politicians who withdraw from treaties without more ado, Wotan wants plausible deniability. He wants a hero who will, as heroes in these things tend to do, fight the dragon and get the gold.

Wotan sets out on this dodgy project, romancing first Erda, the wise earth goddess, and producing the Valkyries, lively equestriennes in odd costumes with wonderful music. But though Brunhilde, the protagonist of Die Walkure, is the most complex, morally alert and interesting character in the whole Ring, she is not a hero. Male gender required.

Brunhilde
Wotan’s second try, a liason with a mortal woman, produces the ill-fated twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde. While the boy is out hunting with his father, the family home is attacked by Hunding, a nasty piece of work, who murders the mother and kidnaps Sieglinde, forcing her to marry him, combining a @MeToo moment with news out of the Middle East.

Siegmund, brave, loyal, devoted, has hero written all over him, but when he finds his sister and falls in love with her, he offends the Fricka, queen of the gods and defender of marriage. Siegmund must die, and only Brunhilde’s courage saves Sieglinde and her unborn child. This will be the long-sought hero who, hampered by a notable lack of sophistication, will kill the dragon, marry his aunt, betray her love, get himself killed and bring on Gotterdammerung.

It’s a lot of keep in mind, but somehow with a philandering politician, a wronged but shrewd wife, luxury real estate, unsupportable debt loads, more or less bare-faced theft, plausible deniability, not to mention rape, murder, and mayhem, the world of the Ring doesn’t really seem that exotic.

6 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

My dad on weekends used to listen to baseball/football and opera, so I grew up with doses of German, French, and Italian operas, and Wagner was about as bloody (and bloody-minded) as one can get.

I saw clips of the Valkyries' 'ride-n-slide' gadget in operation, although I didn't know its name. I hope OSHA has checked it out.

Great summary of the opera, Janice. Nicely encapsulated!

Paul D. Marks said...

Great summing up, Janice. And didn't I see that on episode of American Greed last week :-) ?

janice law said...

My dad also spent Saturday afternoons listening to opera. Unfortunately for me, he also liked a cigar to accompany the music, and for many years I associated opera with heavy smoke!

I'm sure American Greed had nothing on the Wagnerian gods.

Larry W. Chavis said...

Enjoyed your summary, Janice. Mark Twain’s left-handed compliment notwithstanding (“Wagner’s music is not nearly as bad as it sounds”), I have been a Wagner fan for ages. Thanks!

Eve Fisher said...

Wonderful summary, Janice. Opera is always contemporary - mainly because human nature doesn't change - but rarely has it felt so... "now"!

janice law said...

Love the Mark Twain quote! And you are right, Eve, great art is always contemporary.