Over at the Boukoleon I have my newest post up in which I discuss prophets, opera, castrati, art, inspiration, Dionysos, sacrifice, devotion and more. Check it out, folks.
Unlike the aforementioned “Nutcracker,” the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Donizetti’s “Fille du Regiment” was spectacular. This was, quite possibly, the most enjoyable opera I’ve ever seen, and that was completely unexpected. For those of you who like opera and who are in New York, try to go see this one before the season ends. It’s hilarious, well sung, well staged, and a completely delightful evening.
Often referred to as Donizetti’s ‘ode to France,’ “Fille…” tells the story of a young girl Marie who was found as a baby shortly after a battle. She was raised by the regiment of French soldiers who found her and is, in all things, to the core of her heart, a daughter of that regiment. She falls in love with Tonio, a Tyrolean villager who saves her life. Since she promised to only wed a member of the regiment, Tonio joins up and manages, after some doing, to convince her ‘fathers” i.e. the entire regiment to bless their union. Unfortunately for Tonio, this happens right as Marie’s long lost aunt (really her mother) finds and reclaims her. The aunt, the Marquise of Berkenfield, takes Marie away and tries to school her in the manners appropriate to a girl of her rank (unsuccessfully). She also arranges a marriage for her with the son of the Duchess of Krakenthorp. Marie refuses the marriage, and Tonio arrives to plead with the marquise for her hand but to no avail. It’s finally revealed that far from being her aunt, the Marquise is actually her mother who had an illegitimate child when she was younger. The child was lost and believed dead, in the aftermath of war. When Marie finds out that the Marquise is her mother, she sadly acquiesces and prepares to enter into a loveless marriage, believing it her duty to be obedient. At that point, the entire regiment shows up with a tank holding up the wedding guests. Tonio again pleads for Marie’s hand and this time her mother realizes that she’s about to ruin her daughter’s life and consents to the love-match. The Duchess of Krakenthorp shrieks and runs off stage and the opera ends happily with a rousing song to the glory and honor of France.
Firstly, any opera that involves the hero riding a tank onto the stage to save his lady gets my seal of approval. Any opera that involves a tank, gets my approval especially when it comes with its own army. It was a hilarious ending. The biggest surprise of the evening for me was tenor Lawrence Brownlee. He has an amazing voice and compelling stage presence. I was flat out blown away by his handling of “Ah mes amis.” His high notes were rich, ringing, and smooth, exactly as they should be. The tone was light and bright and there was none of the vocal tightness that I’ve heard all too often with tenors singing in that particular range (that aria has some brutally difficult high notes). Moreover, his chemistry with Nino Machaidze, who played Marie was just delightful. They worked extremely well together on stage.
Machaidze was also a nice surprise as Marie. I had no expectations there, not being familiar with her work. Apparently, she only made her Met debut (I believe) last year. She’s an opera singer to watch, in my opinion. Her singing was, to my ear, impeccable and the role suited her very, very well. She was hilarious as she bounced through the first act and moved some of the audience members to tears with her heartfelt aria (see link below) in the second. There is a depth and richness to her voice that I rarely hear with sopranos (I tend to favor contralto voices for this reason) and I found her completely engaging.
The treat of the evening was seeing Kiri Te Kanawa in the role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp. She was at the height of her career when I was a child, but her voice is still rich and warm and full. As the Duchess of Krakenthorp, she only sings once, but she owned the stage with her comic portrayal of the arrogant noblewoman each and every time she appeared.
Ann Murray sang the Marquise of Berkenfield and her portrayal, at first eliciting little sympathy for her character in act one (which is appropriate to the role), blossomed in act two, particularly after it was revealed that she was Marie’s mother. Maurizio Muraro was engaging in his portrayal of Sulpice, the lead sergeant of Marie’s regiment and everyone’s acting was strong. In fact, I can’t fault any of the performers. It was an all around engaging and enjoyable night.
The sets were interesting, and unlike many Met productions, sane. No one had to risk life or limb on them! The staging played up the comedic pathos of the tale and I really cannot praise this production highly enough. I enjoy opera. I’ve seen *a lot* of operas—hell, my great grandmother was an opera singer--but I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed myself as much as at this performance.
Here are some links:
Lawrence Brownlee singing the best aria in the whole opera: Check out those exquisite high notes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9OXNPuHK-g
Nino Machaidze in the second act, lamenting her fate: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbu2IRP_Pck&feature=results_video&playnext=1&list=PLF63607A857B70555
Kiri te Kanawa in her cameo as the Duchess of Krakenthorp: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vG0zgBBIC4A
Happy New Year, folks!
(If you don't like opera, you'll want to skip this post. I'll shortly be posting a couple of articles and/or updates relating to Heathenry but tonight, I"m writing about opera. So if you're not an opera fan, check out the archives to the right instead).
I am not a particular fan of Gounod. In fact, insofar as opera itself goes, I prefer those written well before 1789. That's not to say I don't enjoy later operas like "La Traviata," or "Madama Butterfly," or - salient to this post- "Faust" but they're not my favorites. The exception to that rubric might be Britten whom, sadly, the Met rarely seems to stage. So, while I was expecting to have an enjoyable time at Tuesday night's production of "Faust," I wasn't expecting to be blown away; and I was, despite its faults.
I went to see this production first and foremost for the cast. Who could resist Rene Pape as Mephistopheles, and Jonas Kaufmann as Faust? I certainly couldn't and so resigned myself to sitting through an opera that I figured I probably wouldn't much like (it's been many years since I saw "Faust" and then, it was tepid to say the least) just to hear this magnificent cast. Instead, I ended up having, if my readers will pardon the pun, one hell of a good time.
First of all, Rene Pape totally stole the show. He was hilarious as Satan, suave and sleazy all at once, witty and self-deprecating so that you don't really see the brutality and spiritual barrenness of who and what this character is until the final act. I went to see this with a friend and her daughter - my five year old God-daughter-whom I shall refer to by her nickname "boo" here. (She lasted two acts and then fell asleep) and she was rooting for Mephistopheles the whole time. I had to tell her 'boo! You’re not supposed to root for the devil!" I think she was taken with his props though, especially a cane that shot fire out of its end. Oh to be five.
Surprisingly, Pape doesn't have a lot of singing in this opera, yet his character lurks in corners, watching and sometimes instigating action between the other characters. He's always there, even when he's not visibly on stage. His presence cast a shadow over the entire story. That is, I suppose, as it should be: in "Faust," the devil really does steal the show...and a little bit more to boot. The cheesy magician’s props, like the cane mentioned above only serve to remind the audience that this is the devil, the prince of lies, a showman, whose tricks pave a well-walked road to devastation. The props serve one purpose: as a reminder that all those tricks are empty of truth and nothing is really as it seems (which the ending of the opera, the very ending –and no I shan’t give that away here—brings home).
This is an opera where the chorus gets quite a workout and I have to say, I was impressed with the quality of the Met’s chorus. They did a really, really good job, enough that it was the first thing that I noticed about the production. I also liked the staging a lot. I felt that it allowed the audience to focus on the emotional interplay between the characters without distraction. There have been several reviews of this production that criticized the staging quite a bit, but I found it to work, for the most part. I don’t think the juxtaposition from present (c. 1950s) at the beginning of the opera, to pre-WWI worked quite as smoothly as I would have liked, (though the ending transition was quite powerfully done), but the metaphor of the atomic bomb was quite effective, as a parallel for the spiritual dissolution of the main character and the damage we do to one another. It was a little odd seeing scientists in white lab-coats in place of an angelic host but for me, it didn’t detract and I found the sets used for the scenes with Marguerite quite beautifully done. I don’t think the staging was quite as cutting edge as the Met. might think, but it was, for the most part, well done. Using a video of the atomic bomb being detonated may have been a bit overdone, but again, as a whole, the staging worked for me. The choreography was another matter, but I’ve seen worse and while it didn’t add to the production, it didn’t detract either.
I have heard from a couple of people that other performances with this cast were not quite as stellar, but the night that I went the performance was just delightful. That is not to say that it was without its faults. Though I am a fan of Jonas Kaufmann, I didn’t particularly care for him in this role. In the opening act, his voice is dark and tight, lacking the rich fullness and robust lyricism that I’ve come to associate with him. I don’t feel this is a role that ever really allowed him to shine, though he gave an excellent performance. I’ve seen him in other roles so I’m comparing him to that; also, in the first act there were times in one duet where he was very slightly pitchy – though to be fair this may be Gounod’s music – which at times flirts with an embedded dissonance--- rather than his voice –did I mention with Gounod that I’m not a fan? Kaufmann was, however, darkly compelling in the role, which is as it should be, given that the entire storyline revolves around his seduction of Marguerite and he is meant to be attractive and compelling.
Marguerite was voiced by Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya. I first saw her as Liu in “Turandot” a couple of seasons ago and in that role, she was exquisite. She has a very delicate, crystalline soprano and her acting ability is understated yet powerful. Her voice can be lovely but frankly, it wasn’t up to the rigors of Marguerite. She gave a beautiful performance and I cannot fault her acting but her voice did not hold in the third act. She simply didn’t have the power to hold her own vocally against Pape and Kaufmann in the closing trio. It was powerfully blocked and while her acting was equal to the task, her voice was either lost between the two men or somewhat …shall we say…screechy. There were one or two notes in the second act that lacked beauty as well but that is hardly worth commenting on. In the third act finale however, she was noticeably lacking. Having only seen her twice, I’m really not sure what I think of her as a singer. In Marguerite, despite the vocal issues, she created a character that was fragile, innocent, naïve, and incredibly vulnerable, a lonely girl aching for love with devastating consequences. The characterization worked, even if her passivity in act II was, at times, annoying. I think that such passivity was culturally correct for that character in the time and place in which that section of the opera was set. It was believable.
In the third act, when Marguerite is driven temporarily mad, her performance was riveting without in any way being over the top; she never descends into pathos, which makes her performance all the more compelling. In the final act when, being tempted by Faust again, facing death if she does not yield to that temptation (and unbeknownst to her, damnation if she does), sure that she is already damned, she falls to her knees and, instead of giving into despair, prays for forgiveness and salvation it was one of the most poignant scenes in the entire opera. Still, the role was unsuited to her voice. She has a lovely soprano but it is too delicate for the demands of such a role and I think that I need to hear more of her performances before making a determination on what I think of her as a singer. I’m not sure why she’s pushing herself into the heavier vocal roles but, despite her acting abilities, it’s disheartening to see.
One completely unexpected surprise was Michele Losier in the trouser role of Siebel. Her voice is powerful and clear and she drew the eye with her stage presence. She moves well, sings beautifully and I would very much like to see her perform again.
The most annoying character (not singer—the singer, Russell Braun was quite good) was Marguerite’s brother. The self-centeredness, narcissistic male ego, and complete disregard for his sister’s well being (but plenty of regard for her ‘honor’ in whatever ways it might affect him) were staggering and contributed to Marguerite’s mental decline. This character, while on the surface a man of honor, was in fact a man of arrogance and cruelty. For despite all this talk of wanting to protect his sister and her honor, in reality, that is what it was: cruelty. I see little difference in the end between him and Faust, save that the latter acknowledges what kind of man he is. I found that juxtaposition added nuance to the main trio of Marguerite, Faust, and Mephistopheles.
As I said, I’m really not a fan of Gounod’s music, but the story and this particular production were captivating. Despite the issues that I mention above, it is certainly worth seeing. In fact, I’m sorely tempted to see it again. It’s one of the most enjoyable opera experiences I’ve had. The singers create this world in which this horrifying, deeply moving story unfolds, and just when you think all is lost, there is a final moment of grace, at least for Marguerite. It’s a tremendously powerful story and the staging and the singers did it justice.
Rene Pape as Mephistopheles in "Faust" (this is NOT the Met's production;i haven't found a youtube clip of it yet, but this is my favorite aria in this opera): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUgoMzkaSoE
Marina Poplavskaya singing one of Liu's arias from the Met's 2009 production of "Turandot": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXbCsaKHYGs
Jonas Kaufmann singing "La Donna e Mobile" : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mjgo7c3IW4
I swear this is not turning into an opera blog *G* but I am going to gush for a moment.
I'm not one for tenors. I'll take a good counter-tenor over a tenor any day and dream about how castrati must have sounded and get personally annoyed when I see a mezzo singing their roles in place of a man (except for C. Bartoli, who is in a class by herself vocally). Conversely, fwiw, I prefer a rich, deep female contralto to a soprano. The upshot of all of this is that it takes a lot for a tenor to catch my attention and even more for one to hold it. Finally a tenor has done this. LOL. I first saw German tenor Jonas Kaufmann by chance in the Met's production of "Tosca" last year and I was just flat out blown away.
Kaufmann's voice is a glorious thing. I am coming to believe that the man can sing anything. He has a rich, flexible voice that reminds me of a young Pavarotti in his prime....only better and certainly more layered and complex. Also, he can act, quite well in fact. The man ruined "Carmen" for me. His portrayal of Don Jose was so spot on, so intense, so perfect (and he portrayed Don Jose as such a whining, sexually repressed Momma's boy) that I don't think I'll ever be able to watch that opera again. That performance is the one that I shall hold all others up in judgment. To my surprise, he was equally compelling in Wagner (no small feat) and his presence in "Die Walkuere" earlier this year actually compelled me to attend a performance. (I have nothing against Wagner, but he's not a favorite composer of mine and the acts are long and it's hard for me to sit that long in general so i rarely go to live showings of the Ring cycle).
Anyway, I'm going to see him in Gounod's "Faust" this week and I'm looking forward to it. The opera has been re-staged, set in the period after the two World Wars. I'm curious about the staging--in my opinion, it's a 50/50 thing with the Met. I think they try too hard to be contemporary sometimes--but even more eager to see Kaufman in this role. The opera itself is one that generally I could take or leave but, as another opera lover commented on fb: if the staging sucks, i can just enjoy looking at him, because really, in addition to his voice, Kaufmann is not hard on the eyes. LOL (Hey, i've seen some productions over the years where a handsome singer was the *only* saving grace. Don't knock it. Operas can be painfully long when badly done).
The cast that I'll be seeing also includes Rene Pape and Marina Poplavskaya...I'm very curious to hear her as well. Apparently she gives a fine performance even though, by reports that I've been reading, her vocal strengths are uneven toward the end of the opera. The thought of hearing Pape and Kaufmann together was too much to resist (I wasn't planning to go to the opera again this season). In fact, the Met has had some truly phenomenal casts this season, just in general, as evinced by the recent performance of "Rodelinda."
I'm going to stop rambling now. This is what happens when I get online before having had my morning coffee. heh. I'll be posting a review of this opera here sometime this week. For those interested, I believe that some performances will be telecast in HD in certain theaters. Check http://www.metopera.org for more info.
So, this has nothing to do with runes, or the Norse Gods, or spiritual work, but everything to do with one of the things that nourish me on a very deeply spiritual level: music. As a former dancer, I still have a very visceral response to music. I engage with it, even when all I’m doing is sitting in the audience watching and listening to a performance. I think that music and dance were my first conduits to the Gods, my first real way of praying, and certainly the first way I learned to experience the sacred in any meaningful way. Moreover, some of the most important connections in my life (namely with my adopted mom) were enhanced by a shared background in and love of music. Because of this, I make it a point to go to the opera a couple of times per season. It was many years after I stopped dancing before I could stand to watch ballet but now, I also attend ballets regularly as well. All that being said, I’m going to take this post to gush about an opera that I’ve seen twice –yes, you read that rightly: twice--in the past two weeks: Handel’s “Rodelinda” at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC.
I have been waiting for this performance for two years. I’m a fan of counter-tenor Andreas Scholl and this was the first opportunity that I have had to see him perform live. (I keep missing his performances every time I’m in Switzerland). I’ve been looking forward to this since I first saw this particular run of performances listed on a site that keeps track of his international performances. I love a well-trained counter-tenor voice in general and would far rather listen to that, than a skilled tenor or soprano. Let me be frank, I mourn the loss of castrati in opera, I really do, and deeply. That’s not a popular opinion but there it is. I know that it’s in fashion to bemoan the horrors of castration for the sake of the voice, and the loss of agency (though there were castrati who requested the operation on behalf of their voice) inherent in the practice but there is something very powerful and in my opinion holy about sacrifice in service to something greater than oneself and I well understand the beauty of such a sacrifice in service to music. I began dancing semi-professionally at thirteen, after studying for several years and if someone had told me then, that by mutilating myself in some way, I’d have even the slimmest chance to be truly great, I’d have done it in a heart-beat and knowingly. I think we lost something truly great when we began putting the individual over the legacy of art. But that’s me, and I spent half my life training in a brutal art, sacrificed my body and health to it, and was still found wanting. Still, I’d do it again if the opportunity presented itself; and I mourn the loss of castrati quite keenly. Viva il coltello. The closest we have today are magnificent counter-tenors like Andreas Scholl, Bejun Mehta, and Michael Maniaci. (For those who may not know, a counter-tenor is a male voice with a natural range equivalent to that of a contralto, alto, mezzo-soprano, or sometimes, far more rarely, a soprano. It is not necessarily falsetto, but rather, the singer’s normal vocal range. It is not the result of surgery—castration has not been performed to preserve the voice since the mid-nineteenth century).
Why all this talk about castrati? Well, the opera “Rodelinda,” written by Handel and first performed in 1725 originally featured two castrati: the great singer Senesino as Bertarido, the deposed king, and the alto castrato Andrea Pacini. In the most recent contemporary production of this opera, currently on stage at the Met, those roles were taken by Andreas Scholl and an up-and-coming British counter-tenor Iestyn Davies. This was a particularly interesting pairing. Scholl’s voice is dark, mellow, and rich in timbre while Davies’ is sharp and bright (and his performance as Unolfo, the king’s retainer, was delightful). It provided a striking contrast throughout the opera though I found that Scholl’s voice didn’t have the projective force of Davies’. Still, that did not detract from the performance. I almost wondered actually if the role might be slightly too low for him (Scholl) though, for in the high notes, he shone. His voice rang like a bell, clear (and blessedly free of vibrato), rich, and compelling.
This production of “Rodelinda” was originally staged in 2006 as a vehicle for lyric soprano Renee Fleming. She is not, by her own admission, a specialist in baroque music and, to be frank, it shows. However, also being frank, it doesn’t matter. While yes, her ornamentation is occasionally fuzzy, her voice is warm and rich, (I always think of golden honey and warm amber when I hear her sing) and she is a powerful actress. The ending duet of Act II, between Fleming and Scholl, in which Bertarido and his wife Rodelinda are reunited only to be torn apart again is one of those performances that will stay with me, tucked away in the labyrinth of my memory as a treasure. It was one of the most moving dramatic performances I have *ever* seen. In thirty nine years, only one other performance matches it and that was a ballet performance in Berlin (Giselle, with Ronald Savkovic as Alberich). The chemistry between these two singers was undeniable and their performance had a dramatic power I’ve rarely seen.
This cast also featured Stephanie Blythe as Eduiga, the king’s sister. It must be said that the costuming did not at all flatter her, however, her voice, as always, had a powerful clarity. I’ve seen Blythe in several operas now and I think the role that suited her best (of those I’ve seen) was Fricka in ‘Die Walküre.” Her voice has a wonderful force to it and she was more than capable of handling the emotional requirements of the role. Joseph Kaiser sang Grimoaldo, the usurper of the throne, and the first time I saw this, I thought that he was ok, but rather outshone by Scholl and Davies. The second time, however, I realized that he was very, very good with remarkable vocal control. The surprise of the night was Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang. He was the consummate villain (who gets what he deserves by the end of the opera, I should note) and delightfully sleazy and sinister throughout the opera—as the character should be.
The interactions between all the singers were quite natural and overall the chemistry was amazing. I found this to be a phenomenal cast, one that worked on a deeply intrinsic level—not surprising I suppose, given that Fleming and Blythe originated these rolls at the Met, and Scholl performed with them in its 2006 production.
The sets were stunning. I think this is the only opera that I’ve ever attended where there was an audible gasp and even applause (the second time I attended) when the curtain went up on the act two scenery: the interior library of the castle. The costumes were relatively simple, as the main character is supposed to be in mourning for her husband though I have to admit, given that the opera is set in the eighteenth century, and hence that the performers all wore curled wigs, my first though when the curtain rose was ‘they all have such nice hair.” Lol.
I think my only complaints lay with the staging. Firstly, it seems to be the fashion now to have exotic and elaborate choreography for the singers. I saw a performance in Berlin a couple of years ago, where the poor singers were actually required to climb part of the scenery. Just this past season at the Met, they gave a staging of Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre” with (admittedly) visually stunning scenery that was so impractical and dangerous that Deborah Voigt fell at one point off the set, and some of us were watching Bryn Terfel with concern as he teetered atop the moving contraption. In this case, they had Shenyang mount a horse and ride off (at a walk) while singing. Seriously? There was no dramatic reason to have this poor man mounting a horse on stage. But more distractingly, the staging had random people walking across the stage and doing things while the singers were performing their arias. Iestyn Davies, in a charming aria in act two had to compete with a gardener who walked behind him as he was singing, climbed up a ladder, picked up a box of flowers, and walked off….to no purpose whatsoever. Later, in act three, Davies is again singing about how he is about to free the king from prison and a gardener is leaning on his wheelbarrow behind the man nodding. It’s absurd and distracting. Let the singers sing! I think the attempts at verisimilitude have gone way too far in recent years. These are small complaints though in light of an otherwise truly memorable performance.
I tend to find the quality of the Met’s productions to vacillate greatly, but this was one of the finest that I have seen anywhere. If you’re in NYC and like opera, I encourage you to check this one out. It’s playing through December 2011. In the meantime, whether you like opera or not, take time to seek out those things that nourish your soul. Take time to seek out beauty. Spiritual work is hard. Engaging with the pain and disconnection of the world and attempting to heal that (as many of us are called to do) can grind a person down. Find those things that nourish your soul and enjoy them. That’s part of the work too, I think. For me, part of that is opera. ^___^
Some Cool Links:
Scholl singing “Habaňera” from “Carmen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzi_M-Vl_38&feature=related
Scholl singing “Xerxes” : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbU5cckjctE&feature=related
Bejun Mehta singing “Vivi Tiranno,” one of the final arias for Bertarido in “Rodelinda” : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G50qtB2ijq4&feature=related
Cecilia Bartoli, who specializes in singing Castrati roles, performing “Son Qual nave” : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yLsGL3J1VQ&feature=related (phenomenal voice….she has several interviews available on youtube too where she talks, in part, about how she had to specifically train to sing these roles…castrati apparently had remarkable vocal ranges).
A collection of articles on castrati: http://www.musicoutfitters.com/castrati.htm
Friday night I had the pleasure of attending the opening night performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s “Die Walküre,” which, for those who might not know, is part of Wagner’s Ring cycle. The staging was minimalistic but quite powerful (and immensely creative in its evocative use of Norse cosmological symbolism) and the actual performances were fantastic. S. Blythe gave what for me has been her best performance ever as Fricka and Jonas Kaufman is always a joy to hear. I enjoyed Hans-Peter König’s performance as the otherwise unsympathetic Hunding and Eva-Maria Westbroeck gave a moving performance as the rather spineless and ostensibly abused Siegelinde (though she became ill after the first act and was replaced by her equally talented second). I enjoyed Deborah Voigt’s spirited portrayal of Brynhilde (though just once I’d like to see a producer have the valkyries – warriors—with their hair properly pinned up and in pants! Cut this skirt nonsense out). Finally, Bryn Terfel played Wotan and his performance was excellent but it is always surreal for me as an Odin’s woman to watch a fictionalized portrayal of a God that I know intimately (as intimately as any human can, at any rate). It’s odd. I imagine this is what people who have movies made of their lives must feel like, watching portrayals of the lovers, friends, and relatives who formed such an important thread in the warp and weft of their existence being portrayed by actors. I kept waiting for Odin to shine through, to feel the sense of that presence as I watched Terfel move about the stage and yet, while he looked the part (and sang with a wrenching power), Odin wasn’t there. It was just very surreal for me. But that is not why I am writing this.
Die Walküre is an incredibly difficult opera for an Odin’s woman to watch, at least this Odin’s woman. I find the third act horrifying and there was a moment or two where that horror almost had me fleeing the theatre. The essential paradox of this particular story revolves around Brynhilde and the choices she makes. Brynhilde is one of Wotan’s valkyries and thus a living extension of His will. She defies Him, protecting His son in battle even though He forbade this (much of act two deals with the politics of the Gods and why Wotan had to allow His son to die). In so doing, she actually does what He really wanted (but was prevented from doing by virtue of having gotten trapped in His own machinations), but at the same time, she brings about her own humiliation, shame, and downfall. With that downfall comes separation from Him, a loss of her status and position as valkyrie and banishment to mortal life and marriage to a man not of her choosing (Wotan puts her in a deep sleep and any man who finds her may claim her “body and soul” as the libretto goes). She is condemned to eternal mediocrity. It did not matter that what He really wanted had happened. Because of her actions He had to intervene and facilitate the death of His son Himself. It did not matter that she was His favorite and He loved her dearly. He still cast her away from him. I do not believe there is anything more atrociously, sickeningly horrifying to an Odin’s woman than the thought of being separated from Him, of having Him turn His back on us.
I puzzle often over Brynhilde. I’ve never found her a sympathetic character. In fact, it is hard not to have disgust and contempt for any servant of Odin who would go against His will, especially a valkyrie. To me, she is an abomination, and a fool. She has always seemed to me like a weak, silly girl who got exactly what she deserved by her own lack of attention to her duty. That’s my gut response, yet, like most things, I don’t think the reality is that simple. Valkyries are, by their very nature, extensions of Wotan’s will so one has to ask, as my opera going friend, also an Odin’s woman, did: how much free will did Brynhilde actually have in making that choice? Throughout the opera, Wotan is conflicted about what He wants to do and what He must do. As my friend pointed out, in many respects, Brynhilde was His loophole. He upheld the laws by which He was bound and at the same time got exactly what He wanted, and that is one possible and very plausible explanation, though the powerful scene in which He watches Siegmund, His son, die belies that just a bit. Moreover His wrath at Brynhilde’s disobedience is quite real, and her punishment seemingly excessive.
Throughout the third act I pondered this: what was her true crime? Over and above the disobedience of her actions, where did her deepest fault lie? Was that disobedience the only fault present? Personally, I don’t believe so. I don’t believe her deepest fault lay in the disobedience either. I think the nature of her punishment shows us the nature of her greatest crime: she came to love a mortal man, mortal emotions, mortal life and relationships more than service to her God, Father (Wotan is the valkyries’ father in Wagner’s portrayal), and Master. I maintain that it wasn’t her disobedience that brought such a terrible fate down on her head, but rather its true motivations. Had she truly been moved by Odin’s unspoken will alone, I don’t believe her punishment would have been so terrible. But she was moved by misplaced emotion into disloyalty to her very essence. She put her personal feelings above her duty. Her decision and its attendant actions weren’t clean.
Brynhilde’s conundrum is one that chills my heart. I know well that Odin is entirely capable of putting of one His servants in the situation where to truly obey Him, they must disobey Him and suffer the consequences. That terrifies me. I have no doubt at all that such a thing is possible. To serve Him, doing that which would sever the connection between God and servant forever….I could see that happening all too clearly. In such a case what could a servant of Odin do but that which was His will? I could see Brynhilde being a truly tragic figure, a sacrifice to Odin of a kind I don’t often care to contemplate, if I believed that was what truly occurred. I don’t. At least I don’t think that was the only thing that occurred. I suppose, either way, it just goes to show that service is never quite so black and white as we’d like to believe, and sometimes comes with a terrible price.
I wish I could see Brynhilde as a sympathetic character but, like so many women (hell, like so many people), she simply seems all too willing to put her feelings and impulses, ahead of her duty. Anyone who truly serves a God or Goddess sacrifices quite a lot. (They gain quite a lot too, but service isn’t always easy). To me, her story stands as a warning of what can happen when we let our emotional impulses interfere with our commitments and devotion. It stands as a stern warning that we ought not presume to interfere in the politics of the Gods, or judge them (at one point Brynhilde justifies her actions by arguing that Fricka made Wotan withdraw protection from Siedmund, which is really not her place or her call to make). There are repercussions to every action good and bad and we don’t just get to do that which feels good. Sometimes there are consequences. Sometimes, “I’m sorry” just isn’t good enough.
I pray never to be placed in the situation of having to sacrifice my relationship with Odin in order to serve Him. I won’t speculate on what I would do or what that might cost me. At the very least I hope if I do have to make that sacrifice, I do it for better reasons than admiration of a human man, which, if you listen very closely to the libretto, is what Brynhilde confesses. Sometimes service requires sacrifice. Sometimes it just requires that we grow the hell up.
Anyway, as to the actual opera, I recommend the production which runs through May 14th. In the meantime, check this out: there is a small gallery off to the side of the main opera entrance. The Met sponsors shows by various artists there and this month Elizabeth Peyton has a series of works up all about the Ring, Wagner, Wotan and Bryhilde. I am enthralled with the image at the bottom of this link. Their expressions just move me deeply: