Friday, August 14, 2009

Fricka's Version

I am beginning to regret not having the opportunity to enjoy the Seattle Opera Ring this summer for a variety of reasons. The most important, however, may well be the high level of attention (coming from my fellow Examiner Cynthia Warner among many others) being given to Stephanie Blythe for her performance of Fricka. I am no stranger to Blythe's performance technique, having been more than duly impressed by her performance of Alan Louis Smith's Vignettes: Covered Wagon Woman when The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center visited San Francisco this past April. If she could bring high drama to a chamber music recital, I can imagine what she could do with a role as meaty as Fricka's; but I am not sure I could have imagined how she would do it.

The general consensus seems to be that her high point came in the second act of Die Walküre, summarized in Anna Russell's hilarious lecture on the Ring as "Mr. and Mrs. Wotan have an argument." The argument is over Siegmund stealing Sieglinde from her husband, Hunding, and having sex with her, the act through which Siegfried is conceived. The conception of Siegfried is part of Wotan's plan to recover the Ring itself, which he had lost to Fafner, one of two giants who built Valhalla for him. Fafner became miserly about all the wealth he had accumulated (in addition to the Ring). He hid it all in a cave and then used the magic helmet that was part of the wealth to turn himself into a dragon, who would frighten off (or kill) anyone who tried to steal his hoard. Wotan knew that the treasure could only be recovered by a fearless hero and set about to have that hero conceived by the illegitimate union of two of his own illegitimate children. This violated all of the principles defended by Fricka, goddess of hearth and home, leading to her confrontation of Wotan.

This "argument" tends to receive relatively static staging, leading many to wish that they would just get it over with, moving things right along to Wotan's first confrontation with Brünnhilde. It would appear that director Stephen Wadsworth wanted Fricka to get a better shake, and in Blythe he seems to have found just the right singer to give her more proper consideration. The bottom line is that Fricka prevails in her "argument" with Wotan by combining the ethical stick of her sanctity-of-home principles with the sexual carrot of marital bliss with Wotan. She thus is "reinvented" as a skillful sexual politician rather than the nagging prig that others (perhaps including Richard Wagner himself) have taken her to be.

As a result she is also "escalated" above a role that is usually taken to be secondary. That secondary status is usually justified by her absence from the final two operas. However, just as Scarpia is present in spirit in the final act of Tosca, Fricka's spirit is similarly there when Siegfried shatters Wotan's staff in Siegfried and when Waltraute describes the deterioration of Valhalla in Götterdämmerung. (I suspect Wagner would spin in his grave over any sentence that he had to share with Giacomo Puccini; but, as the Emperor Joseph keeps saying in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, there it is.) Whatever her merits, however, Fricka is still just as flawed as the other gods. When I wrote about the last San Francisco Opera production of Das Rheingold, I observed that her primary flaw is one of hypocrisy, abandoning her ethical standards when she thinks of the Ring as a wardrobe accessory. This has left me wondering whether or not Blythe (or Wadsworth) made it a point to recognize this hypocrisy, which may be the major reason I regret having missed this summer's Seattle production.

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