With an opera production as overwhelming as Robert Lepage’s Die Walkure at the Metropolitan Opera, adjectives seem unable to capture the majesty and profundity of the experience. “Spectacular”? “Magnificent”? “Sublime”?
All of those and more.
And in the most difficult of all art forms. Opera has so many variables subject to personal disposition, physical strength, and ensemble sensitivity, that any hesitation or weakness necessarily reverberates throughout the work to affect others. And of all operas, none is more complicated and demanding of perfection than those of Richard Wagner. Creator of the famous “gesamtkunstwerk”, Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung is the most “gesamt” of all his “kunstwerk”. And Die Walkure is the heart and soul of the grand tetralogy.
Since today more people are familiar with the Ring of J.R.R. Tolkien’s (1892-1973) than they are with the Ring of Richard Wagner’s(1813-1883), Wagner’s Ring might be best approached through Tolkien’s work, before considering Mr. Lepage’s huge achievement.
Following the second of two devastating worldwide conflicts, Tolkien believed his war-weary countrymen deserved a literary salute. Drawing upon his knowledge of ancient Icelandic and Norse myths and sagas, he fashioned an epic tribute to the little guys of the R.A.F., Dunkirk, and D-Day, without whom, the forces of evil would surely have prevailed.
The Lord of the Ring (1954-1955) is a celebration of mankind’s redemption by God’s love, not by the deeds of great heroes, but by the faith of the little people. The “world-redeeming deed,” to use Richard Wagner’s phrase, is done by a little hobbit, who has no territorial demand to make in Middle-earth and simply wishes to resume his gardening. The chief Hobbit is Frodo, sort of an anti-hero, who sets out to destroy the Golden Ring of Power, the source of a power which, when possessed, turns good men greedy, evil, pain-inflicting, and destructive.
Tolkien followed and championed the Christian model of redemption . Only as God intervenes, by using an evil man like Gollum, does the Tolkien world find redemption. Gollum, holding the ring aloft, “stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell…There was a roar and a great confusion of noise. Fires leaped up and licked the roof. The throbbing grew to a great tumult, and the Mountain shook…” Said Frodo, “But do you remember Gandalf’s words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I should not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him! For the Quest is achieved, and now all is over. I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things.”[i]
Tolkien created a kind, gentle epic, a mythology without malice. In the end, it is the elves who give up their dominion while God remains. Power is transferred peacefully. Tolkien’s story ends, not with the collapse of Heaven, but with the restoration of a wasted world. Tolkien subscribed to the Christian view of history in which “God marches through history in judgement or in mercy, and always in glory.”[ii]
A hundred years earlier a defeated and pessimistic Richard Wagner turned his genius to the creation of a mythic epic expressing the feelings he had acquired as a defeated social and political revolutionary. Still smarting after his socialist revolutionary hopes were dashed, Wagner conceived of his work in tragic terms Roger Scruton elaborates:
The Ring of the Nibelung was conceived with the Oresteia in mind, and Wagner understood the Greek gods in Aeschylus in the same spirit he depicted the German gods in The Ring, namely as personifications of unconscious forces by which human will is governed.[iii]
Unlike Tolkien, Wagner presented a pagan worldview. In that world love was all that mattered – all kinds of love, uncensored by any human concept of morality. Love of one kind or another animates Wagner’s story and finally destroys his Golden Ring, so that human love can replace power as the world’s greatest force. Wagner uses the Ring to shine a light on various intense, confused, all-too-human relationships. For example, Siegfried and Brunnhilde, lost in their love for each other, proclaim their human passion against Wotan’s godly world, and thereby bring it down. The very belief in any higher power, hierarchies, orders—crumbles with the walls of Valhalla. Brunnhilde, Wagner’s great hero, finally destroys the Ring and herself in the final opera, Gotterdammerung. She takes the ring from her beloved Siegfried, mounts her horse, and leaps into the burning pyre. The Ring of the Nibelung ends as “bright flames seize on the abode of the gods; and when this is completely enveloped by them, the curtain falls.”
Wagner and Tolkien both saw than mankind needed redemption. However, their views of how that salvation should, or could, come about were radically different and colored the events and characters in their sagas. Each man presented different solutions to the problem of power. Wagner created the great German hero Siegfried, an icon to the German Nazis. Tolkien went the other way. His Frodo is the complete antithesis of Siegfried.
In fact, Tolkien seemed to want to undo with his saga the dangerous influence of Wagner’s Ring. Whereas Wagner’s story ends unhappily, with many deaths, human hopes dashed, the gods perished, and Valhalla up in smoke, Tolkien’s drama reflects the great relief the world experienced at the end of World war II. Tolkien’s world is saved, freedom is guaranteed, law and order is restored, and a kindly king rules.[iv]
Each Ring returns to its original elemental form before being rendered – Wagner’s to the waters of the Rhine, Tolkien’s to the fires of Mount Doom.[v]
Beginning with the First World War, Germany, Germans, and all things German were, rightly and wrongly, tinged with the scent of evil. As a self-promoting atheistic anti-Semite, Wagner was a prime target for those opposed to German notions and behavior. The Second World War and the Holocaust merely magnified that perception.
Tolkien probably didn’t want to be associated in any way with the lunatic German genius and anti-Semite Richard Wagner Tolkien was a devout Christian, and an unashamed monarchist. Wagner was an immoral socialist revolutionary and philanderer, a product of his unique times.
The two greatest poets, Goethe and Schiller, had chosen the theatre to be the focus of their creative activity, and they, with the help of various other writers, made the German theatre a temple consecrated to the highest ideals of the German nation, not merely a place of amusement as it was in England, or a battleground of literary cliques as in Paris. This religious devotion to the theatre naturally affected the development of German opera….[vi]
At the turn of the century, “Wagnerism” had infected Tolkien and his friends. It produced a mania which continues to this day. In 1931 Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, and Lewis’ brother, Warnie, spent an evening reading the libretto of Die Walkure in German. Later, Tolkien and Lewis attended a performance of the Ring together at Covent Garden.[vii] In the 1930s Lewis and Tolkien began to translate Die Walkure into English.
Historian Jacques Barzun explains the pre-war love for Wagner:
It was an ism and not just the vogue of a particular composer and his works, such as happened for Mahler in the late twentieth century. Wagner’s opera’s had been before the public for thirty years and were appreciated at their just value by connoisseurs. What occurred around 1895 was a vast extension of his public thanks to and organized propaganda built on the subject, the message, and the musical system of The Ring of the Nibelungen. Music lovers had always been a minority among intellectuals and the rest had generally ridiculed opera. For the first time now literary people en masse took to music – to Wagner’s music. They were told that to bridge the gap between their tone-deaf past and this new art form, they must study. Articles, handbooks, lectures were there to help, besides Wagner’s prose works in eight volumes. Shaw wrote The Perfect Wagnerite; in Paris Mallarme in a sonnet called Wagner a god; and Revue Wagnerienne was started to confound the resistant and to keep the devotees of the cult abreast of interpretation.[viii]
Wagner became a favorite of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarme, Blok, Shostakovitch, Nietzsche, Thomas Mann, Degas, Cezanne, Gauguin, and Whistler. Even Queen Victoria and Price Albert counted themselves as musical Wagnerians. So did Swinburne, Yeats, Wilde, Conrad, Bulwer-Lytton, Beardsley, Rackham, Joyce, Woolf, D.H. Lawrence,, E.M. Forester, T.S. Eliot, and, most famously, the other great self-promoting blowhard, Bernard Shaw.
Wagner called his Ring a social allegory describing how and why the existing order of things was doomed. Shaw saw Wagner’s Ring as describing the end of late 19th century capitalism, but had his own take on the music. Shaw hailed Wagner as the producer of a new art form called “music-drama, “ which is no more “reformed opera”, he said, “than a cathedral is a reformed stone quarry.”
Die Walkure (The Valkyrie) is the second opera of the cycle to which Shaw gave his full socialist attention. He wrote The Perfect Wagnerite to explain The Ring of Nibelung as a socialist political tract. The opera concerns the god Wotan’s son by a mortal woman, Siegmund. Siegmund flees his foes, and ends up in the house of the woodsman, Hunding. He falls in love with Hunding’s wife,Seglinde, who turns out to be his long lost twin sister. While at first Wotan supports the new-found relationship, he is forced by his wife, Fricka, the goddess of marriage, to have Wotan’s illegitimate son, Siegmund, killed. The son is the cursed product of his father’s violation of the gods’ laws against adultery and incest. Wotan’s daughter, Brunnhilde, flees with the pregnant Sieglinde to the Valkyie, Wotan’s protective army of warrior daughters, seeking shelter for Seglinde to have her baby. The baby is destined to rebuild the shattered sword, and, with Brunnhilde, redeem the world. Wotan arrives, strips Brunhilde of her divinity, and puts her into a deep trance, deeming that she love the first man who awakens her. Loge, the god of fire, is summoned to surround her with a ring of fire through which only a true hero may cross
Where Tolkien has a meek Hobbit as his anti-hero, Wagner presents, not the god Wotan, but the greatest of mortal heroes, Sieglinde’s son, Siegfried:
Wotan is the loser in The Ring because ‘he resembles us to a tee; he is the sum total of present-day intelligence, whereas Siegfried is the man of the future whom we desire and long for but who cannot be made by us, since he must create himself on the basis of our own annihilation’. [ix]
Perhaps the best summary of Richard Wagner comes from musicologist Jan Stafford:
Wagner was a piece of work on a monumental scale, a monomaniac, a cad, a user, a virulent anti-Semite – and a brilliant, revolutionary, overwhelming artist who believed the world owed him a living…Wagner was one of the most innovative composers who ever lived, and in his work he had the tenacity and courage to make the world accept whatever he chose to. The effects of his achievements reverberated throughout the rest of Western music.” [x]
The Met’s stunning Die Walkure represents the latest radiant iteration of that epic reverberation.
For the Metropolitan Opera, the confluence of a production team interested in the old-fashioned notion of beauty, plus cinematic special effects and new technologies, with some of the world’s most acclaimed vocal and instrumental musicians, produce what the cliche would label “theatrical magic.” Led by the Canadian stage genius Robert Lepage, this production team of set designer Carl Fillion, costume designer Francois St.- Aubin, lighting designer Etienne Boucher, and video artist Boris Firquet create a stage machine in which tectonic slabs move in almost every possible way to create novel static and dynamic playing areas. The configurations are bathed with projected moving images to represent abstract locations, seasons, moods, or earth elements. The actors move, and are moved, freely about the spaces as the action flows from dramatic climax to dramatic climax, the focus always maintained by pinpoint lighting. The actors are clad in elegant “period” costumes, with a touch or two of modern interpretation, as with the sleek hairpiece horns for the goddesses. Credit must be given to the work of revival stage directors Gina Lapinski and J. Knighten Smit for fine-tuning Mr. Lepage’s original work. The only question to emerge from this glorious production is why would the famous sword not gleam along with the rest of the mise en scene, rather than looking like two 1 x 3 s nailed together, and painted grey? Nevertheless, the question is moot when in the context of Mr. Lepage’s profound composition, a far cry from the empty industrial warehouses which are too often created to house “modern interpretations” of the great operatic repertory.
The Met’s cast of singer-actors could not be improved. Stuart Skelton’s Siegmund has a peasant’s passion and power, along with a vigorous and loving voice. His Seglinde, as offered by the lovely Eva-Maria Westbroeck, breaks one’s heart in countless ways throughout the production. Her voice can express the slightest nuance of ambiguity, or release a volcano of pent up emotion. Her Hunding (Gunther Groissbock) is not some stupid rube as seen in some lesser productions. Groissbock’s Hunding is a skillful and devoted forester, justly proud and possessive of hearth and home. The working out of their love triangle produces some of the act’s greatest moments.
Greer Grimsley doesn’t bluster or strut as the god-of-all-gods, Wotan. He is first and foremost a husband, father, and lover of life. His manner resembles the quiet authority of Gary Cooper or Clint Eastwood, though his hair and make up make him resemble too much David Lynch’s “Bob” of Twin Peaks. His Pieta-like cradling of his dying son, Siegmund, cannot be viewed with dry eyes. Neither can one avoid the father’s pain as he is forced to discipline his most beloved child, Brunnhilde. The fact that Mr. Grimsley sings for almost all of an act is overlooked by the beauty and power of his acting and singing, which seem to stop time itself. Christine Goerke gives the famous Brunnhilde the widest possible character arc. She first appears as an almost goofy, happy-go-lucky teenager, and, through the course of her life, ends as a sacrificial offering on a fiery altar. Her poignant singing and stellar acting take us along through each painful psychological step. Jamie Barton’s Fricka has the Entrance of All Entrances: she rises from a mountain top up stage center, seated in a royal serpentine throne. Lesser singing actors wouldn’t be able to follow such an entrance. But Ms. Barton, in her best performance to date, rises to the occasion to present a Fricka to match Ms. Grimsley’s Wotan.
Special praise must go to the chorus of Valkyryie, a group by which a production of Die Walkure lives or dies. This group is the show-stopping backbone of the opera, led by the dynamic Gerhilde of Kelly Cae Hogan. The group knows how to create a cohesive ensemble, while, at the same time, allowing for individualization of character to shine through without destroying the teamwork. This group – Jessica Faselt, Renee Tatum, Daryl Freedman, Wendy Bryn Harmer, Eve Gigliotti, Maya Lahyani, and Mary Phillips, along with Ms. Hogan, should be seen playing leading roles in Die Walkure, they are that good. Maestro Philippe Jordan must share some credit for the sisters’ individual excellence within their remarkable solidarity.
Mr. Lepage’s Die Walkure demonstrates convincingly, and I hope conclusively, that a new contemporary staging of a classic opera need not degenerate into European-style regie – opera. Bravo to him, and to all involved in this memorable production
[i] Simon Callow, Being Wagner. The Story of the Most Provocative Composer who Ever Lived. New York” Vintage Books, 2017.
[i] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings. New York: Houghton Mifflin,1954, pp.925-926.
[ii] C.A.Patribes. The Grand Design of God. The Literary Form of the Christian View of History. London: Routledge Kegan Paul,1972.
[iii] Roger Scvruton, Musuic as Art (London: Bloomsbury, 2018).
[iv] Renee Vink, Wagner and Tolkein: Mythmakers. (Kuruch:walking Tree Publishers, 2012.
[vi] Edward J. Dent. Opera. Harmondsworth Middlesex: Penguin Books,1940, p.p.63-64.
[vii] Humphrey Carpenter. The Inklings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1979, p.56.
[viii] Jacques Barzun. From Dawn to Decadence. 1500 to the Present. 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2000..
[ix] Simon Callow, Being Wagner. The Story of the Most Provocative Composer who Ever Lived. New York:Vintage Books, 2017.
[x] Jan Swafford. Language of the Spirit. An Introduction to Classical Music. New York: Basic Books, 2017