Sunday, March 28, 2010

Preparing for the Valkyries

The San Francisco Opera production of Francesca Zambello's staging of Die Walküre, the second opera in Richard Wagner's cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, will not take the stage of the War Memorial Opera House until June 10; but I have always believed that it is never too soon to begin preparing for a Wagner experience. Today's full-page advertisement in the Datebook of the San Francisco Chronicle declaims the headline "TAKE A WILD RIDE WITH A VALKYRIE!" with all of the energy that Birgit Nilsson used to throw into her performances of Brünnhilde, particularly in the third act of Walküre; and the accompanying photograph (available in full color at the San Francisco Opera Web site) suggests that one will ride in the company of savage aviatrices, any one of whom could bring down "Red Baron" Manfred von Richthofen without dropping an appoggiatura. This is certainly consistent with Zambello's decision to stage the entire cycle in an American setting, even if my first reaction to the photograph was to wonder whether Nordic myth might finally resolve the question of whatever happened to Amelia Earhart.

Those who want to pick nits over temporal continuity might raise questions about how we have moved from the California Gold Rush setting of Das Rheingold to the dawn of military aviation in World War I; but it is important to remember that considerable time elapses between moving day at Valhalla (the final scene of Rheingold) and Siegmund's arrival at Hunding's house at the beginning of Walküre (although, since both of these scenes involve a massive storm, they are linked musically by Donner's leitmotiv). Furthermore, a good deal happens over that time to lay the groundwork for the narrative of Walküre itself. Most importantly, over this period of time Wotan, with a procreative zeal that he shares with his Greek counterpart Zeus, has brought about the births of the majority of the characters in Walküre! So, while much time elapses between these two operas, it is time over which Wotan has been very busy!

When I saw Rheingold here in June of 2008, I came away with the impression that Zambello's "American move" had been a good one. Reviewing those impressions this morning, however, I realize that her success may have come from her not letting the American references get in the way. In the terminology of Kenneth Burke's pentad, matters of scene are always subordinate to matters of the agents. In other words the primary significance of Rheingold resided in the characters (even the minor ones) and their flaws that are revealed to us as the narrative unfolds. Thus, as I begin to prepare myself for Walküre, I find myself wondering whether or not these priorities will still hold. It is certainly the case that the entire cycle emerges from the consequences of acts committed by flawed agents; but will this foreground priority be jeopardized by rampant aviatrices?

In an effort to purse this question, I turned to the account that Tim Page prepared for The Washington Post on March 26, 2007, after this staging was first presented by the Washington National Opera. Getting beyond his high praise for the performers, I found the following paragraphs about what those performers were actually doing (rather than just singing) up on stage:

This is the second installment in what director Francesca Zambello has called an "American Ring" ("Die Walkure" is part of an interrelated quartet of Wagner operas known as "Der Ring des Nibelungen.") Some of the visuals were attractive -- the opening tableau, set in the midst of a storm, called to mind Auntie Em's house, ready to be blown away, and there was a succession of beautiful filmic cloud ballets throughout the evening. I liked the sinister underworld Zambello created beneath abandoned freeways in Act 2; moreover, she made the most of the excruciatingly awkward, achingly conflicted but profoundly loving exchange between Wotan and Brunnhilde that closes the opera.

But a lot of Zambello's work seemed either obvious or secondhand. The idea of Wotan as uber-capitalist has grown tired (it dates at least to the Patrice Chereau staging at Bayreuth in 1976), and the imagery in the "Ride of the Valkyries" -- airplanes, parachutes, modern warfare in all of its atrocity -- seemed to be lifted directly from "Apocalypse Now." I suspect that Zambello feels the imperatives of drama more acutely than she thinks about them, which is not a terrible flaw in itself (and certainly better than the reverse condition) but still somewhat problematic when one is called upon to re-imagine a distinctly German opera and transport the action to America.

That second paragraph is pretty harsh, enough so to set me wondering what he had written after the first Washington performance of Rheingold. Before Rheingold opened here, the only report from Washington I had read was by Anthony Tommasini from the archives of The New York Times; and I am willing to admit that my own perspective on the relationship between agents and scene may have been influenced by having read this piece. Now I needed to figure out if that "obvious or secondhand" accusation may have had its origins in Page's Rheingold impressions.

Here is what he wrote on March 27, 2006:

The best way to approach Washington National Opera's new production of Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold," which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, is as a solid, abstract and sometimes very attractive updating of a classic.

In short, forget most of what you might have read about this being the first installment of an "American 'Ring' " -- that is, a staging of Wagner's four-evening "Ring" cycle based on what WNO calls the "rich history of the United States." It isn't, unless you count as pointed political commentary, dressing up the earth goddess Erda like the lady on the Land O' Lakes box, casting African Americans in the roles of the captive Nibelungs, and having the giants Fafner and Fasolt bop and swagger like wild 'n' crazy guy construction workers.

Perhaps the next three operas in the series -- a new "Die Walkure" will enter the repertoire next season, with "Siegfried" and "Gotterdammerung" promised for later -- will deepen the American subtext. For now, just enjoy Francesca Zambello's "Roaring Twenties" staging for its general usefulness, its evocative projections (mist, sun, water and some creepy snakes), its occasional moments of majesty and whimsy.

I am grateful, I suppose, that none of the characters wear antlers on their heads, but I am less happy that the production, for the most part, lacks the luminous beauty of the best traditional stagings (Otto Schenk's hypnotic rendition at the Met foremost among them) and the sort of genuine directorial vision that would make for a radical new understanding of the piece.

This leads me to believe that, like many of us, Page had become too hooked on Schenk's staging to allow for an alternative interpretation and that he had already decided that Zambello was letting scene get in the way in Rheingold, meaning he anticipated more of the same in Walküre. Note that I used the first person plural in that reference to Schenk. I think it is absolutely wonderful that his staging for the Met was captured on DVD, because it is the perfect way for anyone totally new to the Ring to form a good set of first impressions.

Once one has those impressions, though, one should always be open to other interpretations. Until I see Walküre for myself, I plan to take Page's swipe about feeling and thinking as unfounded. Zambello's Rheingold had no trouble dealing with both sides of that coin in equal measure; and I would conjecture that her success had much to do with always keeping her focus on the agents. Furthermore, as the prevailing buzz over this summer's Seattle Ring made clear, the second act of Walküre needs to be anchored in intense personal feeling in order to get beyond Anna Russell's characterization of Wotan as a "crashing bore," who has an argument (actually, yet another one) with his wife. After all, Rheingold is just prologue. The real narrative only gets under way with the events leading up to Siegfried's birth (since the overall narrative arc basically carries us from birth to death); and Walküre provides us with the account of those events.

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