Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Bright Twilight of the Elders

 Rhine Maidens on a slippery slope

Only during the brief period of heedless youth, when most people unconsciously assume an attitude of immortality, do we really think we are likely to achieve all our “goals.”  As serious age advances the realization of life’s impossibilities becomes articulate and acute.  That is one of the several not so nice things about aging.  It is all the more wonderful to discover, therefore, that among all the things you hoped to do but never will there turn out to be a fair number of delightful experiences for which you never before had the time, money, or opportunity to explore.  One such, which I will touch upon next week, will interrupt the thus-far reasonably disciplined schedule of this blog.  A second will provide this week’s subject: Richard Wagner's Ring of the Niebelung.
            As I write we are half way through it.  The Rheingold was on Saturday.  Last night’s performance of The Valkyries (part two of the four of the whole work) has three acts, each a mini-opera of its own.  The Metropolitan’s production began at 6:30.  We were still applauding the singers at twenty minutes before midnight.  If you can imagine an experience that combines the leg pain of a tourist class flight to Heathrow and the tachycardia of a long Alpine ski slope with the ethical exaltation of Paradise Lost—well, if you can do that, you can do more than I can do.  I have a day to recover before Siegfried (tonight) and then, on Saturday, the marathon finale of The Twilight of the Gods.
            You almost certainly know more about Wagner’s Ring cycle than I do, and if you don’t, I could never offer even my infant appreciation in a few hundred words.  It has to be among the most audacious artistic creations the human spirit has yet attempted.  The excess is staggering.  The length is daunting.  It calls for dramaturgical resources unavailable in Wagner’s day.  It requires a vocal range and stamina that surely only a few singers in any generation can command.  Its narrative vehicle is an arcane phantasmagoria of early Germanic mythology and heroic legend.  Most grand opera goes over the top at cardinal moments.  The Ring begins there and hardly descends, except when the Valkyries came galloping, as over the crest of the globe, on their equine planks.

The Valkyries ride the rails

            The old theology, though prehistoric, is almost post-modern.  The gods have created the human race; but the destiny of divinity is to be supplanted by its creature.  The ethic—far from being Hitlerian or Nietzschean as I have been endlessly told by cultural historians—is classical, humanistic, indeed Christian.  It is a plea for the superiority of the spiritual over the material.

            Chaucer’s Pardoner preached always on a single biblical text: Radix malorum est cupiditas.  That’s the one translated in the Authorized Version as “The love of money is the root of all evil.”  An inordinate lust for the golden ring of the Niebelung, and by extension for the power the possession of gold wields, animates the hugeness of the entire tragedy.  Whether beneath the waters of the Rhine, as in Wagner, or beneath the earth’s surface, as in the Boethian tradition, gold is naturally hellish.
            “Let none admire [writes Milton in Paradise Lost]
            That riches grow in Hell; that soil may best
            Deserve the precious bane”
That is a great old English word, bane.  It means a thing or person that kills.  Radix malorum est cupiditas.

            Naturally I was generally familiar with the Ring as an item of cultural literacy, but its concentrated viewing is something else.  The current Met production is directed by Robert Lepage, the founder of Ex Machina, a production company made up chiefly of Quebecois cybergeniuses who specialize in transforming the proscenium arch into a computer game field.  I thought it was fabulous, but it is evident that controversy swirls about Wagnerian opera when presented with the production values of Star Wars.  Traditionalists groan.  Our own tickets became available for purchase only because some friends of friends who had them by subscription were preemptively disgusted by the very idea.  Yet however numerous, the naysayers, having voted with their feet, left the field to the majoritarian enthusiasts.  In the half hour before the curtain rises the large plaza in front of the Met rather resembles the pit of the Stock Exchange, as musical junkies, gesticulating like bond brokers, desperately search for a seller among the surging throng.  I saw no takers and, within the hall, no empty seats.

            But I myself must eschew an excess of Arnoldian high seriousness of my own.  The Ring Cycle may be a masterpiece of musical high thinking, but it would appear no less to be the Rocky Horror Picture Show of the aesthetic classes.  This is an opera with fans.  Our own excellent friend Susan, through whom we got our tickets, was seeing the cycle for the fifth time.  Opera is exhibition, and over-the-top opera enthusiasts at times do not stop short of exhibitionism.There were around us in the dress circle a few hard-core fans who had complemented their glitzy attire of tuxedo or ball gown with those horned helmets that since the nineteenth century have become the headgear de rigueur for most imaginary medieval warriors north of the Olive Oil Line.*  The idea that a man in his mid-seventies can come upon this for the first time with the freshness of a child is rather thrilling.


                                                                   A genius larger than life...

*On this topic I recommend the indispensable article of my learned friend Professor Roberta Frank, “The Invention of the Viking Horned Helmet”.