Monday, April 1, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "The Gods Fall in Love with Earth" (on Richard Wagner's Die Walküre at the MET, 2019)"

the gods fall in love with earth
by Douglas Messerli

Richard Wagner (composer, based on Nordic texts) Die Walküre / The Metropolitan Opera live HD performance which I saw with Howard Fox on Saturday, March 30, 2019

The other day I saw the MET’s production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, an opera I’ve now seen 4 or 5 times. Howard and I watched the previous Metropolitan Opera’s production, Otto Shenk’s 1968 version, at least twice on video (perhaps I saw that one only once, when Howard and I did a marathon viewing over 4 days of the entire Nibelungen cycle at home); we saw the complete Der Ring des Nibelungen, directed by Archim Fryer, at the LA Opera in 2010; and the following year we saw a live-HD production of Robert Lepage’s MET production with Deborah Voight (who played as host to this new production) as Brünnhilde, Jonas Kaufmann, Eva-Maria Westbroek, and Stephanie Blythe. So, despite the glorious new production we saw on Sunday—with Christine Goerke playing the Valkyrie queen, Stuart Skelton as Siegmund, again the superb Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, Jaime Barton as Fricka, and Greer Grimsley as Wotan—perhaps I should just remain quiet, allowing the thousands of other voices who have written about this remarkable opera speak for me. I have signed in to talk about it on at least three previous occasions.
      Yet these My Year volumes also serve as a kind of personal memoir of my experiences, and I find it difficult, accordingly, to not speak out—this time in brief—about one of the most glorious productions of this opera ever performed. All the singers were at top form, with Goerke, Westbroek and Grimsley representing the highest levels of vocal art.

   But I don’t need to talk about that given that so many other critics have acclaimed their performances. It is Grimsley, who in the intermission suggested that he plays Wotan not simply as a god but as a kind of Shakespearian tragic figure, who helped me, through his performance, to see another dimension—surely one discussed endlessly over the years since the opera premiered in 1870 (the MET first performed it in 1885).
      What Grimsley demonstrated, more clearly than any other performer I have seen, is that the pagan gods (and perhaps even the Christian one) loved earth and its beings far too much. Zeus kept descending to our green planet for sexual affairs with both men and women (Wagner, far more a homophobe than the Greeks, does not hint that Wotan had homosexual affairs—although he certainly does have a deep hankering after his favorite boy Siegmund). And that, we discover finally in  Die Walküre is the major problem, which will ultimately end in the downfall of the gods. If the gods come down to earth seeking love and entering into the daily affairs of the mortals, they, as his spurred wife Fricka reminds him, have lost their conventional powers; their intermingling’s with the earthlings not only suggest to the mortals that they might be imbued by the god’s power and glory, but seeds doubt about Valhalla’s inaccessibility.
      Siegmund, the perfect example of a hero beginning to have his doubts, even refuses the journey to the Norses’ heaven if he cannot take the woman (his own sister, with whom he has entered into an incestuous relationship) who represents earthly bliss, with him, and claims that he might rather go to Hell—quite literally. Perhaps he has, given the fact that Brünnhilde returns on her sky-traveling steed with his wife rather than him.

   It his Wotan’s recognition of the errors of his past that forces him to agree with Fricka that he must look less toward the future and change, and more to the rules that he himself, in his original godhead had enforced.

      So too has his beloved daughter, Brünnhilde, fallen in love, in her many journeys there, with earth and its beings, including Siegmund, who, defying her father’s insistence that she not intrude in his battle with Hunding (Günther Grossböck), attempts to help save him from a certain death, must be doomed herself to become one of the mortals—and in this production, high atop the now-famed Lepage “Machine” she is crucified to later become a kind of female Christ to the world with she has fallen in love. The theme, of course, is repeated in the opera Siegfried. It has always fascinating to me that in Wagner’s world, the Christ is not the dead hero, but the woman who has sacrificed her own immortality for man.     

     Grimsley’s Wotan is almost sick to death for his immortality, readily willing to die if only he might be able free himself from his own restrictions, to become a “free man” able once more to enjoy the sensual pleasures available, evidently, only on earth. If only someone might come along Wotan sings, to, without his interactions to save them, become a kind of hero who might deny the gods and destroy their power. This is Nietzsche, of course, speaking through Wagner, or Wagner, prefiguring the great philosopher.

      But it is also Ulysses defying Zeus and the other Greek gods; it is Augustine speaking out against the Roman deities; it is Ibsen’s Brand denying his own faith. Earth and all of its failings can be such a lovely place that even the gods, who realize they must severely punish its sinful denizens, long to be there. How the Christian God must have envied his Adam and Eve!
     If only the mortals stopped attempting to be gods!

Los Angeles, April 1, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (April 2019).

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