I must say I have what can be called a love-hate relationship with Wagner, or, better said, a love-fear relationship. I recall what Rilke said about great music in general: he tended to avoid listening to it not because it wasn't good, but because it was too good--it had the ability to overwhelm him. Sure, Bach and Mozart can overwhelm me too, but it puts me in a very different state: my "little" I, as it were, is swept away; all the remains is, well, all, the very center of reality. This can be a very serious feeling, say, while listening to The St. Matthew Passion, or a lighter, but no less profound feeling, while listening to Mozart's 23rd piano concerto. All in all, it is a very exalted feeling, and, as with the best art, one recalls Rilke's stunning last line to one of his best sonnets: You must change your life. (True, most of us don't, but still.) Wagner sometimes leaves me with a different feeling: what Germans call Rausch, something similar to the intoxication one get with a chemical fix. Sometimes it doesn't take me to the center of reality, but leaves me in an intense--almost pathological--state at the periphery. His music can be, for the musically sensitive, sometimes downright dangerous. (Read Thomas Mann's short story Tristan, if you haen't read it already.) The end of die Walkuere, which we will discuss later in this essay, has some of the most moving music ever written, no doubt about that. But at times this scene and others have affected me so that I spend the subsequent days walking around like a zombie, with hyperemotional swells and breakers pummeling me from the inside. Something, I think, that is best resisted, however beautiful it might be.
Perhaps this is the source, and not Wagner's deficiencies as a human being, of a prevalent ambiguity for Wagner, in general--He tends to evoke, unlike, say, Mendelssohn, extreme reactions. (There is no anti-Semitism in his music and we are thus very much able to separate the music from the man.)
He was, I readily admit, one of the greatest composers ever. I thoroughly understand the comparison someone has made between him and Puccini: Wagner's music is much better than it (at first) sounds, while Puccini's is much worse that it (at first) sounds. There is much more to Wagner than meets the ear at first hearing, even though the first hearing might be a musically unforgettable experience. There are problems, of course, but the master always seem to "pull it off." Spear-wielding women running around the stage in helmets remain a standard caricature of Wagner, but the roles he created evince a striking and profound humanity. Well, what about the words? Though I find his hyper-Teutonic language sometimes to be almost ludicrous; when sung, however, it is anything but. And the characters! All the main roles in this opera are beautifully delineated and go much deeper than those of most operas--The Marriage of Figaro, Falstaff and Otello being very notable exceptions.) Fricka, for example, who spoils her husband's plans, which leads to tragedy, is not simply a harridan. She has been wronged by her husband's serial adultery. She still loves him, but she is no stand-by-her-man type and insists that he do the right thing--from her perspective: this entails letting die Wotan's beloved son, Siegmund, on whom he sets all his ambition, since he has committed an intolerable crime: incest with his twin sister. Fricka, one recalls, is the goddess of marriage. (The listener, of course, forgives Siegmund, since he falls in love with his sister before he knows that she is, in fact, his twin. The music convinces us that their love is a very good thing indeed.) Here is an added irony: Fricka is convinced that she's doing the right thing, but is a subconscious desire for revenge not part of her motivation? She is not a stock character from a lesser opera, but a complex "person"--reminiscent more of Shakespeare than of, say, early Verdi.
Well, I could go on about the extraodinary way Wagner develops his leitmotifs, which change according to the inner state of the protagonists; or how the music sometimes articulates the inner state of a character better than the character can put into words, and even before the character is consciously aware of what he or she is feeling--no other music even remotely approaches Wagner's ability in this regard. Still.
Now that I'm older, Wagner's music has lost some of its danger. I can appreciate the intellectual aspects better now, which are considerable. Still. My realtionship is, and will never be, Mozarty, as it were: I recall what Auden said about Byron: I don't want to read him a lot, but now and then no other artist will do.
What can I say about the new Met production? Fabulous cast, outstanding conducting, and, at best, so-so sets. (We attended an HD performance at a local movie theatre. Such an experience does not replace the excitement of attending a live performance, but it has its advantages. It is nice to see the singers up-close--even if this includes becoming aware, at times, of Jonas Kaufmann's greatly magnified drool--instead of seeing them, as it were, through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.) Let's discuss the sets first. They are by the Canadian director, Robert Lepage, and are touted as an example of state-of-the art technical wizardry. The main set consisted of long planks that can be rotated around an axis and be moved--often with audible creaks--into forms representing mountains, hills, horses and backdrops onto which all sorts of weather and terrain are projected. It was its best when unobtrusive--we music lovers love the music first, and not the fancy direction--and at other times it annoyed and was even ridiculous. The mountain in Act 111, for instance, had an uncanny resemlance to a giant xylophone. And the ride of the Valkyries! During the majestic music we had to watch the poor girls, each one of which was haplessly at the back of a giant plank that rose up and down. This was supposed to represent their riding on horseback. It looked more like a wacky seesaw in an Alice-in-Wonderland kindergarten playgound. Alternatively, the unfortunate ladies reminded me of streptococci cavorting at the end of a giant tongue blade. I can't imagine staging and music more at odds than they were here. These sets were not worth their tremendous expense!
Well, let's talk about the performance which was much more satisfying. James Levine is a master of Wagnerian instensity and Wagnerian balance. What more can be said? The German tenor Jonas Kaufmann was in great voice, if a little stiff at times. Eva-Maria Westboek, the Dutch Sieglinde, acted well and sang well, if not outstandingly well. Hans Peter Koenig as Hundig had a lovely, full voice and was, of course, stiff as Hunding is supposed to be. Stephenie Blythe was astounding as Fricka. Fricka has only about eighteen minutes of music in this very long opera, but it is essential music which is crucial to the plot. She sang with intelligence, emotion, and interpreted Fricka's complexities effectively, all done in great voice. True, the dress she wore evoked the low-budget Flash Gordon sci-fi style of the 1950s, but once she started singing all else was forgotten. Bryn Terfel was a very effecitve Wotan. Then there leaves Debra Voigt. She is realy a terrible actress; when you don't know whether she's laughing or crying, you know you're in trouble. Her idea of acting is well, just an idea of acting. The singing wasn't too vivid either. One wonders why Wotan loves her so much.
All in all, the previous Met production of this opera, in which I heard the spectacular Vickers, Nilsson, Ludwig and Levine in a staging that was more effective, was superior. But this cast was well worth hearing.
Addendum: Many critics have rightly pointed out the centrality of father-daughter relationships in Verdi, such as in Rigoletto. But for my money the most sublime father-daughter scene in all opera takes place at the end of Walkuere. Wotan, having been thwarted in his plans by Fricka, has very little self-respect left. That his own daughter defied him--even though her attempt to save the twins is really what he would like to, but cannot, do--sends him into a rage. They must part forever, which is a great tragedy for them both. The tenderness and pathos of the music here are overwhelming. Wagner takes his time potraying their emotional state with some of the most sublimely moving--and sad--music ever written.
Yes, I still have a lump in my throat. But it will be removed--too bad! and thank God!--by practicing Bartok on the piano.