Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Gods Must be All-Too-Human

Those fortunate enough to have a copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology that includes the illustrations by Steele Savage have probably observed that the caption of the first illustration for the text (as opposed to the frontispiece, which has no caption) say, "The Greeks, unlike the Egyptians, made their gods in their own image." In other words all the members of the Pantheon were modeled on (presumably familiar) human forms, rather than specific animals or chimerical syntheses of multiple life-forms. As Hamilton's text develops this thought, those gods ultimately tell us what the early Greeks, themselves, were like in terms of the very humanity that our contemporary civilization inherited from them: "Nothing we learn about them is alien to ourselves."

Thus, the behavior of the gods is not inscrutable, as is the case with animal (wild or domesticated) behavior. Nor are the gods abstractions of ideal behaviors that are, for all intents and purposes, impossible for mere mortals to attain. Rather, they serve to mirror the behaviors we observe within our own gatherings, running that entire Aristotelian gamut from noble to base. From this it stands to reason that, the more faithful that "mirror image" is rendered, the more likely we are to reflect on our own actual behaviors.

From this point of view, the decision by Francesca Zambello to stage Richard Wagner's mammoth cycle of operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen, in an American setting is a challenge as admirable as it is awesome. The history of the United States is filled with home-grown myths that cover a wide variety of aspects of "the American experience." With so much mythology already in place, would there be room for an Americanization of a Nordic myth transmogrified (often radically) by Wagner's poetic imagination? Having now seen Zambello's Rheingold for the first time, I would say that the answer is affirmative and even be bold enough to venture an explanation for why.

As I see it, the question is not one of whether or not the story itself (which I have already outlined) is "universal" (which I find to be more of a weasel expression, rather than an assertion of anything concrete). Rather, in terms of that Aristotelian gamut, the matter has to do with the extent to which we Americans can identify with the characters in the cast and with the principle that we recognize a character on the basis of his or her specific (characteristic?) flaws. This is basically my take on the first sentence that Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in reviewing the Metropolitan Opera production of Philip Glass' Satyagraha for The New York Review: "Good people do not, generally speaking, make good subjects for operas." We know our characters by their flaws and the actions they take arising from those flaws.

To make my point, let me just summarize all the members of the Rheingold cast in terms of their flaws. I shall do this using the "order of appearance" given in the San Francisco Opera program good:

  • The Rhine Maidens: Their most obvious flaw is that they shirk their responsibility. They have only one job to do, commanded by their Father: To guard the magic gold from theft. When we first see them, they are already more interested in playing than in guarding; and they pay for this reckless behavior by the end of Scene 1 (which is the first of the three thefts). However, there is another flaw, which is that their play is far from innocuous. As I pointed out in comparing Das Rheingold to The Miraculous Mandarin, they have a reputation for wanton behavior that "has drawn many mortal men to a watery death." Any one of them could thus be the subject of Heinrich Heine's "Lorelei" poem.
  • Alberich, on the other hand, is the "first thief." That is the primary among his many other flaws. Most of those secondary flaws have to do with both desiring and abusing power, but there are also flaws of greed and lust.
  • Fricka: I would say that her primary flaw is hypocrisy. She is a stern guardian of those laws of home and hearth that will figure so significantly in Die Walküre. Nevertheless, when she first hears about the Ring from Loge, her first reaction is to add it to her wardrobe. She is happy to live in Valhalla in the hope that it will keep her husband from gadding about; but she does this by choosing to ignore its "entry fee."
  • Wotan is the "second thief." This is no minor flaw, since he keeps the staff on which all laws and contracts have been recorded. Thus, if Alberich's theft is the root cause behind all the catastrophes that unfold in Götterdämmerung, Wotan's theft is the root cause behind the ultimate destruction of Valhalla and all those living there.
  • Freia: At this point we need to shift our attention from the "basic facts" provided by Wagner's libretto to the "interpretation of those facts" rendered through Zambello's staging. Wagner does not attribute any flaws to her, but Zambello decided to explore the nature of her abduction by the giants. We thus see that she has the flaw of a frustratingly short attention span. We see her carried off (almost literally kicking and screaming) by Fasolt; but, according to the timetable of the plot, she is gone for less than a day. (She is carried off in the morning and held hostage until the giants return in the evening.) When she returns with the two giants, she seems to have become very cuddly with Fasolt. Some might call this Stockholm syndrome; but my own reading is that it is more a case of love-the-one-you're-with! Once her ransom has been paid, she is back on the best of terms with her sister and brothers.
  • Fasolt's flaw is that self-gratification found on the bottom rung of the Maslow hierarchy. First, he is motivated to do back-breaking work with the promise of Freia as reward. Then, when Wotan tries to welsh on the agreement, he is easily distracted by the promise of the Nibelung gold. Finally, he is lured by the Ring itself. His life is one damned self-gratification after another.
  • Fafner, on the other hand, is the "third thief" and achieves his robbery through murder; when we next encounter him, he will have become the ultimate embodiment of the curse Alberich has laid on the Ring.
  • Froh and Donner also receive relatively little attention in Wagner's libretto; but Zambello has them clearly cut from the same tree as Freia. Their short attention spans, however, have less to do with amorous attachment and more to do with leaping to action even when they are not quite sure what to do. To some extent they are better captured by the text that W. H. Auden wrote for Benjamin Britten's operetta, Paul Bunyan: "Swedish born and Swedish bred,/Strong in the arm and dull in the head!"
  • Loge's flaw is best developed through the pun on his name: Lügner, which is German for "liar." He is the master of deceit. However, he never feels the consequences of the deceptions he exerts; someone else (in the grand scheme of things, everyone else) always suffers from them.
  • Mime's flaw is that he tries to emulate Loge's talent for deceit. Unfortunately, he never really succeeds at it. (He'll get his in Siegfried.)
  • Erde: Traditionally, this is the one character that does not assume strictly human form (which is why Anna Russell calls her "a green-faced torso that pops out of the ground"). Zambello also has her come from the ground, since she is, in both name and character, the Earth itself. However, she not only emerges all the way from head to foot; but she also walks around a bit. So, if Zambello wants us to perceive her in human form, then we should also think in terms of her own flaw; and, from my point of view, that is the flaw of detachment. She delivers a critical message of warning; but she gives the impression of neither knowing nor caring about the import of her message. By the time we get to Siegfried, Wotan has finally "got the message." He seeks her out to ask her some questions, and she is downright crabby with him.

The Zambello staging of Rheingold for the San Francisco Opera is thus a cavalcade of human foibles, and this opera is only a Prologue. Those foibles provide the fertile soil from which the catastrophes of the following three operas will sprout and flourish, only resolving themselves when, as I previously explained, the cycle itself is closed.

All of this tends to be more dramatic weight than most opera singers are accustomed to bearing. Therefore, I feel it is important to credit Associate Director Christian Räth, who did most of the trench-work with the San Francisco Opera cast, with getting all fourteen singers not only in tune with Zambello's conception but also on top of it. From this point of view, the greatest credit probably ought to go to Mark Delavan's Wotan. There is such a tendency to view Wotan as the protagonist of the entire cycle that it is hard to resist endowing him with strains of nobility. Delavan recognized that this tendency did not have to be avoided by reducing him to a base comic character but by just letting his flaws reveal themselves in the playing-out of the narrative. Whether either Räth or Delavan would accept my own working hypothesis, that the only protagonist in this drama is the Ring itself, their collaboration led to a portrayal of Wotan as a paradigm of human flaws, against which we can better understand the flaws of the other characters.

Finally, the key to all understanding resides in the attention of the audience. This is the shortest of the four Ring operas, but it also has the longest sustained duration. The extent to which we are drawn into the action and follow it from event to event is all a matter of properly pacing the entire score. This is the second time I have heard Donald Runnicles conduct this score, and I continue to find his command of these long time scales absolutely first rate. No less a conductor than Georg Solti has spoken of Rheingold as placing the heaviest demands on a conductor, but Runnicles gives the illusion of dealing with those demands without any strain. I suppose that is a primary reason why I can find the musical values of a San Francisco Opera performance as stimulating as those I expect from a performance by the San Francisco Symphony.

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