Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Saturday, October 09, 2004


I’m aware that probably everything I said a couple nights ago against Wagner’s stage craft and music has been said before.

Wagner’s frequent tunelessness: I remember someone somewhere joking that what Wagner claims is “endless melody” is really “endless recitative.” And, Jill Grove, who beautifully sang Erda’s lovely song in Chicago Lyric’s “Rheingold,” is quoted in the program about the music she sings: Erda “actually has a *tune*.” (Italics hers, indicated by the asterisks.)

Wagner’s clumsy stagecraft: Someone (maybe Virgil Thomson?) complains somewhere that it’s absurd for an opera’s heroine to take 15 minutes to cross a stage alone and silently because the orchestra has a lot of music to play.

(Aside to dwarf and troll partisans: I’m aware that Wagner says that Alberich is a dwarf, not a troll, which is what I called him the other night. He looked more like a troll to me; he was bulky; he wasn’t short; he lacked the dignity of Tolkien’s “Ringy” dwarves, which are the only Northern-Euro-quasi-mythic dwarves I’ve known.)

(Aside to anti-anachronismists: I’m also aware that Nietzche didn’t claim that Wagner’s operas were the movies of his day. That was a joke.)

Wagner’s stagecraft: I’m pretty sure that Alberich the trolly dwarf’s renunciation of love is supposed to be Tragic or Intense or Foreboding, even though Wagner’s played him for comedy until the renunciation, a “comic” lustbucket who has shown no evidence of a capacity for love, thus making the renunciation nonsensical, or redundant. It didn’t work for me, either as comedy or tragedy, though it did as didacticism, as an expression of a point that Wagner was trying to make about the incompatibility of love with the pursuit of absolute money and power. Alberich later has dramatic heft, when he curses the Ring after Wotan steals it from him. (Alberich has stolen the gold of which he’s made the Ring from the Rheinmaidens.) Unfortunately, Alberich’s “ridiculous” lasciviousness undercuts all that follows. A serious theatrical mis-step. Shakespeare could pull off that kind of tonal shift; Mozart too. Wagner couldn’t, either as librettist or composer; the comicality was lame.

The relationships between Wotan, his wife Fricka, and her sister Freia don’t make sense to me. Wotan has agreed to pay the giants Fasolt and Fafnir for work they have done by giving them his sister-in-law. The emotional whoozitts of this never gets echoed in the music. Fricka complains to Wotan about his philandering, Wotan says fuggedaboutit-I-ain’t-changin’; Fricka also complains about him selling his sister into slavery. And I simply didn’t hear or feel or see the depth of outrage that the dramatic situation requires. Wotan’s “excuse” is that he has a plan to have his assistant, the intriguing Puck-like Loge, trick the giants out of their deal, but Loge falls through. Nietzche and Bernard Shaw both asserted that “The Ring” was about contemporary bourgeois livin’, and that’s what I saw, a world-weary super-rich screwed-up unloving lameley-scheming couple bickering at each other. So, OK, maybe I do get it. (But probably not.)

My understanding is probably hampered by not knowing how the story unfolds; Wagner didn’t intend me to see just the 2.5 hour introduction to the 17 or 18 or 20 hour 4-part show, but that’s what Chicago Lyric was offering, that’s what my sister’s father-in-law had an extra ticket for, that’s what I saw.

Nice theatrical moments which I neglected to mention: After Wotan steals the Ring from Alberich, the giants get it from him. Wotan wants to go after the giants to steal it back again, when the ancient female earth-spirit Erda appears and with a serious and beautiful aria talks him out of it. Great moment.

Also, the Wotan-Loge relationship echoes the Shakespearean Oberon-Puck relationship nicely, and Loge is an attractive cynic.

And, when Wotan and Loge go to the Alberich’s ville to scope out this Ring biz, Alberich’s dwarfishness comes through as we hear the banging of Alberich’s metalworkers -- a great percussive moment in the score that’s also great theater.


I’m intrigued by the story. Curious at least to read the libretto of the whole Cycle.

Today I bought a used CD of Lorin Maazel conducting a Berlin orchestra in his own 60-minute redaction, “The Ring Without Words” -- it’s wonderful. I’ll be listening to it quite a bit. The ubiquity of Wagner Orchestral Highlights recordings rhymes with my feeling that Wagner’s music outshines his words; that the words may even be an impediment for many people.

I can imagine being carried by the music into a state of accute sensitivity, where Wagner’s characters and scenes pierce the heart. I don’t think it would happen to me that way, but I can imagine the possibility. I’m guessing that this might be how the stuff affects the people who love it. My hang-up about this is, I didn’t see joy in the bearings or the faces of anybody who was at the opera after it was over. Just didn’t see it.

I know people do love Wagner, passionately -- people travel thousands of miles to see productions of the Ring. When a highly regarded Wagner buff rapturously describes the Rheinmaidens as “charmingly frivolous, carefree, and childlike creatures without a serious thought in their very pretty but very empty heads,” I know Wagner will never completely be for me -- the bubbleheaded beauty is a lame and degrading stereotype, and it was even in Wagner’s time. But I look forward to digging more deeply into his stuff anyway. I once spent half of an 8-hour car ride trying to fathom why people like Phil Collins. I didn’t have much choice in the matter -- the dude who owned the car was a Phil Collins nut. If I can give Phil Collins the benefit of the doubt, I can do it for Wagner too.

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