Column: Finding Reverie in the Met’s “Wagner Week”

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The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unusual boom industry: opera. With live performances out of the question, and many households suddenly in possession of the time to watch a four-hour presentation, quite a few opera companies are offering free nightly streams of their productions. The New York Metropolitan Opera, the most famous opera company in North America, was one of the first to offer free streams, with performances pulled from their Met On Demand streaming service and the archive of shows previously played in movie theaters as part of the Met Live in HD series.

As a result, my wife and I have been spending a fair amount of our shelter-in-place time watching Met operas – a genre that I have long admired but am hardly an aficionado toward. Just the other night we watched the Julie Taymor’s production of Die Zauberflöte, which left me profoundly confused about the plot and the staging despite providing several moments of real, raw joy in a difficult time. (How can anybody walk away from the birdlike duet of Papageno and Papagena without a smile?) But, I confess, it was not Mozart who drew my attention to watching opera during the quarantine – it was Wagner, who, for all of his many, many defects as a human being, is the composer to whom I have an almost magnetic attraction.

The second week of the Met’s stream focused entirely on Wagner, including his standalone operas like Parsifal and Tristan and Isolde, but the centerpiece was a four-night broadcast of the 2010 Robert LePage production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. The Ring, being, as it is, a colossal adaptation of Norse and Germanic mythology, has a natural draw for a Pagan audience, and its particular structures of philosophy, psychology, and musical motives are rabbit holes that an academically inclined viewer can fall down almost endlessly.

(Before I continue, I should point out that there are many good reasons not to be enamoured of Wagner or his Ring cycle. Wagner was deeply anti-semitic, and that is reflected in the Ring, especially in the roles of the dwarvish Nibelungs like Mime and Alberich. Wagner’s music was appropriated and endorsed by the Nazi party, in large part because Wagner’s determination to make a “purely German” form of art was easily conscripted by Naziism. And the operas have often been embraced uncritically by Pagan or Heathen audiences who seem to think that just because art includes characters based upon gods we worship that the art is sympathetic to those gods, or that the version of the myths it presents is in alignment with the understanding we have of those myths. I do love the Ring, but I think about these problems all the time while I take it in.)

I first fell into the Ring in 2013, my first year of doctoral study, where I watched DVDs of the Met’s Otto Schenk production, recorded in the early 90s. Anyone who comments on the Schenk productions says about the same thing: as the Mostly Opera blog said in its review of the DVDs back in 2008, “Detractors, on the contrary, find the sets drearily realistic, the production short of drama and describe it as a ‘Nibelungen Ring Museum.’” Schenk’s sets were intended to be as close to the literal scenery described in Wagner’s libretto as possible, an impulse that was, both at the beginning of its production and at the end, described in terms ranging from “studiously uncontroversial” to “reactionary.” Despite my own penchant for moody symbolism and political allegory, I rather liked Schenk’s production, and in any case, it was the only one available in my university library. (I certainly wanted to watch others, but as a graduate student, the DVD sets for other productions were out of my price range.)

Part of the difficulty of being a newcomer to a meisterstück with as long and convoluted a dramaturgical history as the Ring is that most productions are involved in a conversation whose earlier episodes are out of reach. While I recognize that Schenk’s production was certainly participating in that conversation, it also presented a safe point of entry for me; having a “traditional” Ring as a baseline made it easier to appreciate what other productions were attempting to do with their alterations.

In watching LePage’s production, I found myself quite often thinking back to Schenk. While the two productions look very different from one another, it’s clear that LePage’s intent was to fulfill the same goal as Schenk’s, if by other means. As many critics have written elsewhere, the centerpiece of the LePage Ring is a set of moving planks that can be raised, lowered, spun about and reconfigured; with the assistance of video projections, this set, nicknamed “the Machine,” serves as virtually the entire set for all four operas in the cycle. Despite the technology, LePage’s Ring is, at its core, as traditional as Schenk’s; both emphasize a literal understanding of the libretto, and attempt to translate that literalness onto the stage.

Sometimes the Machine produced images that I’m sure were startling within the live stage of the Met, especially in the first installment, Das Rheingold, where it allows for striking scenes like an overhead view of the gods Wotan and Löge descending into the underworld of Nibelheim. In other places its use seems more self-satisfied than anything; the valkyries ride on individual planks of the Machine as “horses” during the “Ride of the Valkyries” or Walkürenritt sequence in Die Walküre, and it looks for all the world like they are playing on see-saws. The LePage production received a number of critical drubbings for its use of the Machine, which was often criticized as being distracting to both the audience and the performers, but, at least in these filmed performances, it led to some dazzling executions of the material at its high points and was usually no worse than uninspiring at its lows.

Arthur Rackham’s illustration of Wotan the Wanderer from act one of Siegfried [public domain]

My favorite character, both in the Ring in general and in this production in particular, is, to no one’s great surprise, Wotan, Wagner’s interpretation of Odin. The Met’s performances feature Bryn Terfel as the god. I don’t have the musical ear of some who can tell the exact strengths and weaknesses of individual performers in a role like this, but I was satisfied with Terfel’s performance in terms of both music and acting. The heart of the Ring cycle for me is the conflict Wagner puts into Wotan between the force of laws that maintain his power and his true will, to support the flourishing and freedom and love – a theme that isn’t especially present in the mythological material but is a compelling dimension to fold into the story.

For a Heathen, especially one like myself who has a close relationship with Odin, the most stunning aspect of the Ring is watching a performer like Terfel embody the character for such an extended period. For me, the two most magnificent parts of the Ring are centered around Wotan understanding and confronting his own contradictions at the end of Walküre and then embracing his own destruction in the final act of Siegfried – two places where Terfel does a fine job of interpreting Wagner’s most psychologically complicated material. While Wagner’s Wotan is, and I must insist on this, not Odin, at its best, a performance of the Ring can be like watching a long, reverie-like invocation of the deity.

Truth be told, that reverie was the main thing I sought from the Met that week, a chance to disappear into art that was totalizing and dreamlike. I was not looking for escapism, exactly – now is not the time, I think, to retreat from the world, not when so much is falling out from under us. But there is a potency in submerging ourselves into myths and their reinventions, in the rise and fall of gods and heroes, if for no other reason so that we may dream of what worlds we will build when we emerge from this particular Götterdämmerung.