Sunday, February 24, 2008

Alberich the Jew

There is no disputing Richard Wagner's anti-Semitism; nor is there disputing the legacy of anti-Semitic practices at Bayreuth long after his death. On the other side of the coin, it took approximately half a century for the State of Israel to accept the performance of Wagner's music in its concert halls. As Ghandi said, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

The question is not whether Wagner's music should be performed by societies that violently reject his philosophy. Rather, the question is whether productions of his operas should intentionally reopen the wounds of that philosophy. This was the primary thought on my mind when, through the good graces of the Wagner Society of Northern California, I had an opportunity to view a video of the Covent Garden Rheingold, a 2006 recording of the staging by Keith Warner. Warner seems to have done most of his work in Great Britain, although his resume includes the Portland Opera (Tosca, Carmen, and Fliegende Holländer), as well as the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Glimmerglass. His track record is such that he should know a thing or two about audience reactions. On the other hand, if I were to judge him on the basis of his "statement of purpose" that was handed out at the Wagner Society meeting, I would have to confess that I would be suspicious of any stage director who invokes Kant in his lead sentence. This carries the air of elegant systems, intricately structured and then delivered without the slightest hint of rhetorical skill. Still, this is not the sort of stuff that warns one to be prepared to take serious offence. At worst one should be prepared for blowhard-style silliness.

That, indeed, is sort of how the video of Rheingold begins, with the full-frontal nudity of the Rhine Maidens clambering up and down ladders in shimmering light. Then we see Alberich up above them, paddling along a sort of aqueduct in a rowboat. However, when the camera homes in on Gunter von Kannen singing this role, we are struck by a bizarre shock of recognition: Alberich has been cast as Zero Mostel, not the versatile comic who delighted so many of us with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or Fiddler on the Roof, but a synthesis of the hypertrophic id of Max Bialystock with the Morris Mishkin of The Angel Levine, pressed by the worst of circumstances to the brink of cursing God. This is the Zero Mostel who portrayed the Jew-in-agony with unbelievable poignancy transplanted by Warner to suffer the futility of frolicking with the Rhine Maidens.

Now I may be reading more into this than Warner intended, but it is not hard for me to feel as if he was encouraging me. He even had Wellgunde open Alberich's fly; so her little "Pfui!" outburst (immortalized by Anna Russell) seems to be provoked by the sight of his (circumcised) penis. This was pushing the envelope, and pushing it even further than Hans-Jürgen Syberberg did with his Parsifal film, which began with photographs of bombed-out Hiroshima and led up to an abundance of Nazi flags surrounding the Knights of the Grail. However, while Syberberg may have been indulging in provocation for its own sake, this conception of Alberich resonates with all the anti-Semitic stereotypes of the greedy Jew who curses that most Christian value of love. Whether or not this was the Alberich Wagner had in mind, was this really what we wanted from a Ring for the 21st century?

Just to be fair, however, I should point out that none of the characters in this Rheingold do anything to warrant our sympathy. The gods are hopelessly decadent Victorians, and Freia cannot even make up her mind whether to flirt with the giants or fear them. Nibelheim is a grotesque laboratory for genetic engineering, the Rhine Maidens are destructive Lorelei, and Erda just sits in a chair during the entire opera, observing the whole affair as if it were the only thing to watch on television. Yes, this is the part of the story that exposes the tragic flaws; but Warner's conception leaves us insensitive as to whether or not there will be any redemption from this mess.

It is the sort of production that reminds me of Chronicle reviews that advised the reader to close his/her eyes and just enjoy the music. Unfortunately, the musical interpretation is pretty bland. The climax of the hammer blow that opens the bridge to Valhalla was definitely the weakest I have ever heard. Conductor Antonio Pappano seemed to lack the necessary sense of the whole that gives shape to these uninterrupted two-and-one-half hours of music. All in all perhaps the greatest virtue of this video is that it provides an excellent cure for Covent Garden envy!

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