Sunday, June 13, 2010

Wotan's Will, Alberich's Market

I try to wait until my colleague, Cindy Warner, weighs in on San Francisco Opera performances as SF Opera Examiner; but this afternoon's performance of Richard Wagner's Die Walküre sent me down some philosophical paths. I figure that, as long as I keep to those paths, there should be little risk of my stepping on any of Cindy's toes. Most important was that I quickly lost count of the number of times the word "will" came from Wotan's lips; and, in a close second place, I found that this was the first time I was thinking about all four operas in Der Ring des Nibelungen in terms of a fundamental opposition between Wotan and Alberich. I believe that these are two pieces of a common puzzle, at which I shall make some attempts at assembly.

Let us begin with that concept of will. We knew that Wagner had a fair amount of interest in philosophy; and, while I suspect that he was a bit of a cherry-picker in the way he read philosophy, we may arrive at a better understanding of the dramatic side of his operas through some of those cherries. In this case the source most likely to be of interest is Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. As contemporary readers we might consider whether or not this book was sowing the seeds of what would later be called "constructed reality," either subjectively or socially. However, we might also have the inclination (which Wagner may have shared) to consider the opening words of The Gospel According to John as a reflection on creation by will:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

In other words will had its origins in the godhead and only subsequently descended to mankind, perhaps as a result of eating from the "tree of knowledge of good and evil." Thus, will has a place in Wagner's pantheon; and much of the drama has to do with the fact that the exercise of will is not restricted to Wotan. Both Fricka and Brünnhilde exercise will, and Wotan's will does not always dominate.

What may be more interesting, however, is that, in Wagner's narrative, will resides only in the pantheon. In particular Wotan's primary opponent Alberich is never driven by will. His whole obsession with the gold-to-become-Ring is "market-driven;" and all of his actions are driven by marketplace thinking and the ambition to dominate all markets. Thus, if, as Wotan claims, the Ring has the power to bring down all residents of Valhalla, it is because market-driven thinking has no need for divine will and can essentially "eliminate gods from the equation."

Go back to Rheingold. Wotan's will has no power over Alberich. In order to get the Ring, Wotan has to resort to trickery and theft (not to mention probably violating the principles of contractual agreement etched into his staff). This is the beginning of a slippery slope. Wotan is already losing his right to godhead (and the divine exercise of will) before the entry into Valhalla that concludes Rheingold. By the beginning of Walküre, the Ring is being hoarded by Fafner; and Wotan is trying to recover it. This involves a "cunning plan" for the procreation of a "hero" through the incestuous union of his Volsung children.

Director Francesca Zambello may have come up with an interesting way to suggest that this is the next phase of the slippery slope. Siegmund and Sieglinde begin their duet under a full moon. Moonlit night gives way to dawn, but not before the sky displays a churning red color that looks more like fire seen from a distance. This led me to consider that the first romantic embrace of Siegmund and Sieglinde provided the spark that began the fire that would eventually consume all of Valhalla at the end of Götterdämmerung. (I suggested to my wife that this was the longest "Hail Mary" forward pass in the entire musical repertoire!) To be overly reductive, all catastrophe is motivated by the union of Siegmund and Sieglinde; and that union is motivated by the displacement of will by market-based thinking and the chain of thefts resulting from that displacement.

There is no sign that Karl Marx ever showed any interest in Wagner; but, from this particular point of view, it is amusing to consider how he might have reacted to the Ring cycle!

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