Sunday, September 6, 2009

Doing It

I just finished reading Cindy Warner's reflection on her first full Ring experience in Seattle, which she released with the subtitle "Women and warriors need heroes and protection from cowards." By way of disclaimer, I should state that I have been maintaining a running correspondence with Cindy about Richard Wagner and his whole Ring des Nibelungen project, which began a couple of weeks before her departure for Seattle. For better or worse I was first exposed to the Ring even before the age of ten when my godfather gave my parents the gift of the Columbia vinyl recording of Anna Russell's "analysis" of the cycle. To this day I am one of a vast population of those who have probably memorized every word of her presentation ("I'm not making this up, you know!") and understand every detail of the Ring in terms of how she explained it (as in my recent reference to "Mr. and Mrs. Wotan have an argument"). However, since Cindy wanted to discuss matters of substance, such as the one exemplified by today's choice of subtitle, I tried my best to keep our conversation free of Anna Russell gags.

In this forum, however, I would like to focus on just one of Cindy's sentences:

It's an enrapturing first and only love for Brunnhilde and Siegfried, a match so pure, innocent and made in Heaven the pair never got to consummate the union sexually.

Reading this reminded me of a point that Joseph Kerman made in his Opera as Drama book about Don Giovanni. He observed that, for all of the prodigious length of Leporello's list of the Don's conquests, the Don never manages to "do it" over the course of the opera, thwarted first by the Commendatore and later, on multiple occasions, by Donna Elvira. This struck me as a rather naive assertion, based on the premise that the only acts that take place in the narration of the plot are the ones that take place (or are explicitly suggested) before your eyes. (I added that parenthesis in reaction to a staging of Rigoletto by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle: In the scene in which the abducted Gilda is brought to the Duke of Manuta, the setting is a large hall, clearly a public place for matters of court, at the rear of which is a four-poster bed. Gilda is placed on the bed, the Duke joins her, curtains are lowered around the sides of the bed, and the audience is then treated to the sight of these curtains being violently kicked!) The fact is that Da Ponte has the Don talk about how busy he has been when he is not on stage, and I have never seen any reason to doubt him.

In a similar vein I have never doubted that an act of consummation took place between Brünnhilde and Siegfried. This is not just a matter of my having been informed by what Anna Russell says about Siegfried's discovery of her on her rock:

He has never seen a woman before; and he doesn't know what one is … be he soon finds out!

For my money this is almost as good as Wagner's own text. Siegfried sees an armored figure who appears not to be breathing, and his first thought is to cut loose the breastplate. His first reaction to what he sees is:

Das ist kein Mann!

[That's no man!]

The two of them may then spend the rest of the scene (and, for that matter, the opera) singing their lungs out; but, when the orchestra brings the dawn to the Prolog of Götterdämmerung and the sun shines upon that rock, I have always assumed that the night involved far more than singing an extended Wagnerian duet! I would even go so far as to suggest that this "dawn's early light" setting may have inspired Hugo von Hofmannsthal's conception (most likely in conjunction with Richard Strauss) of what the audience first sees in Der Rosenkavalier, not to mention the very first words sung by Octavian, which can be loosely translated as:

Was it good for you, too?

Thus, I disagree with Cindy: Innocence is not part of this equation. Quite the contrary, it is through the loss of innocence through consummation (preceded, ironically, by Siegfried's discovery of fear) that both Brünnhilde and Siegfried confront their own mortality; and, once we have dispensed with the Prolog, the rest of Götterdämmerung follows their respective journeys from love to death.

Let me conclude with the suggestion that Wagner himself would have supported this point of view, because after the Prolog he drives those journeys forward at a pace far more intense than we have experienced in the preceding three Ring operas. On the two occasions when I "did the Ring" in a single week, I found myself going to the final night wondering if I had any strength left for the longest opera of the bunch. In both cases, I am happy to say, the sense of incipient fatigue vanished with the very first (fateful) note of the Prolog. Even the Norns' "review of the bidding" prepares one for a lot of action; and one needs to be so prepared. The closer Wagner gets to his conclusion, the greater the intensity of his pace. This must have taken quite a lot out of him spiritually, which may be why his next (and final) opera, Parsifal, is more extended religious ceremony than narrative.


Cindy said...

Hi Steve, I'm just relying on the finale in Gotterdammerung where Brunnhilde sings that she will join her husband in death although they never consummated their marriage. I'll have to find the exact lines in the libretto. I do think it possible they spent the night together and didn't have sex though as they are so innocent . . . but then if they have the Volsung libido that wouldn't last long.

Cindy said...

Brunnhilde explains that Notung, the sword, slept between them the whole night. Siggy never touched her or at least they didn't have sex. She was explicit and heartbreaking.

Stephen Smoliar said...

As I said in the original post, a lot happens in this opera; and it plays out at a breakneck pace. To resolve Cindy's points about the text in Act III, it is necessary to go back to Act I. In terms of the broad scope of the narrative, everything has to do with Hagen recovering the Ring to satisfy the (ghost of?) his stepfather, Alberich. Hagen's "cunning plan" is to have his half-brother Gunther marry Brünnhilde, who has received the Ring from Siegfried. When Siegfried comes to the Gibichung hall, Hagen drugs him with a love potion with the following consequences: Siegfried forgets Brünnhilde; Siegfried falls in love with Gutrune; to prove himself worthy of Gutrune, Siegfried binds himself in loyalty to Gunther. Gunther then invokes the loyalty oath by ordering Siegfried to fetch Brünnhilde (and the Ring) to become his bride. Siegfried returns to Brünnhilde's rock wearing the Tarnhelm to give him Gunther's appearance, claims her, and snatches the Ring from her finger. He forces her to spend the night in her cave before returning to the Gibichung hall the next morning. After Brünnhilde enters the cave, Siegfried removes the Tarnhelm, returns to his natural form, draws his sword and sings:

Now, Noting, be witness
that my wooing was chaste.
Keeping faith with my brother,
separate me from my bride!

This is the passage that is recalled by Brünnhilde in her final scene when she sings:

Deceiving his wife, loyal to his friend,
with his sword he separated himself
from his own true love, alone dear to him.

In the full context of the narrative (including the final act of Siegfried, I have always taken that use of "wife" to denote that Brünnhilde and Siegfried consummated their marriage during the night that separates the end of Siegfried and the beginning of Götterdämmerung. I can see how the Seattle titles may have implied a different reading of the text. If my German were better, I would try to resolve this on the basis of the source text, rather than the Lionel Salter translation that comes with the Solti recording; but right now I am working with what I have!

artandsoul said...

I love reading the Ring commentary and just feel like I have to jump in.

The line in Gotterdamerung where she says that Notung slept between them the whole night is referring to the night when he came under cover of the tarnhelm and appeared as Gunter.

When she sees Seigfried at the Gibbichung palace and he seems to not know her, and he says Notung stayed between them she refuted that -- and was referring to the nights they spent on the rock together before he left on his adventure. He was referring to the only night on the rock he remembers which was when he went as Gunter.

Her redemption in the Immolation Scene must set it all to right, and she reveals how he was, indeed, true to his friend and even true to her although he also betrayed her.

There is an innocence to their relationship in the beginning (at the end of Seigfried) -- both of them awaken. But I believe it is definitely consummated ... and thus the human fury and revenge that is sought.

Just my two cents. I was at the first cycle of The Seattle Ring this year - our fourth Ring Cycle there!