Monday, August 13, 2007

Ring, afterthoughts

Over its full weeklong course, Wagner's Ring has so many -- and so many sorts of -- musical and dramatic felicities that a complainer might be told, as of the weather: "If you don't like it, wait five minutes." (Well... maybe thirty.) Even on the scale of a single opera, each evening presents a different kind of story -- a creation/origin tale, a tale of the desperate, a youth's adventure tale, and (in substantial part) a tale of archaic intrigue -- so that most will find something to love or admire.

All this is true, and yet the whole -- or, specifically, the bits Wagner put in to connect the stories together -- is such unrelieved hokum that one can't be silent. I don't mean the leitmotivs, or the musical textures derived therefrom, which are a huge pleasure throughout, but the fabled "dramatic unity" of the cycle, the "significance" that a certain kind of Wagnerian never tires of rattling on about.

A glance into Wagner's sources, for example, shows that amidst the usual alterations, combinations, and rearrangements, there are two threads which Wagner made up of whole cloth: the power and danger of the ring (including Alberich's renunciation) and the whole Wanderer/burning of Valhalla business. And what do these threads add? Not drama. When Wagner claimed that "the characters owe their immense, striking significance to the wider context", he had it quite backwards. Characters owe their immense significance to appearing in the flesh onstage. It is the "wider context" that draws its significance from the characters'.

At any rate, we learn from Wagner's additions to "wider context" that commerce is fundamentally incompatible with love and virtue. We also learn that the existing (and despite any anachronism, the events of the Ring are clearly meant to be experienced as now, not "a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away") order is unsalvageably corrupt -- not least due to the above -- and would even itself be pleased by some fiery cleansing end.

It is Romantic narcissism writ large, in other words: the particular 19th century disgust with the bourgeois, non-absolutist now that powered many another work and movement. -- Not least Tristan, of course, and it's in fact that work's glory and lasting appeal; but what Wagner there honestly plays as utter rejection of the daylight world is, in the Ring, dressed up in ill-fitting public bombast (compare Isolde's rapture with Brünnhilde's sermon). It would be funny, if such political transposition of absolutist yearnings had not repeatedly (and to this day) had mind-bogglingly awful consequences.

It still is funny, I suppose, that this stuff is still a particular favorite -- especially in Europe -- of the nabobs of the now, who may now be entertained by a Wagner scion so devoted to the absolute that her solution to the "troublesome" Meistersinger is (by all reports) to eliminate its comedy! What could be more absurdly fitting? Except Meistersinger -- which affirms the public as deftly as Tristan does the private -- deserves better.

In a sense, the Ring does, too, though the problem's not directorial meddling but the librettist-cum-composer's own muddle. Wagner's persistence in doggedly rounding and fleshing out his outline all the way to completion added, as I began by noting, enough riches (particularly musical) that the whole project surely remains of value. Even if one can't take it seriously.


  1. sort of like Wodehouse, then.


  2. Funny, I always read the Ring as deconstructing the idea of love having transcendent power in and of itself.

  3. That's why the Ring lends itself so well to parodies.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.