Opera administrator Speight Jenkins has suggested that we think of Siegfried as the scherzo of the Ring. Most of us would agree that our teenage years were the scherzo of our own lives, and so we know the problem isn’t to keep Siegfried from seeming a hopeless jerk – all teenagers are hopeless jerks — but to develop him to a point that makes his behavior in the last scene credible, where he learns what fear is by encountering a woman for the first time, even though Brünnhilde, having lost her divinity, doesn’t yet know what a real woman is.. Just as Wotan’s interventions and renunciations have produced a hero to capture the ring by a path Wotan could not foresee, his purposes have stumbled into providing the hero a wife by his demotion of Brünnhilde from divinity to humanity and consigning her to doze on a rock until a bold hero chances upon her and wakens her with a kiss. The model for Siegfried’s evolution is our own adolescence, but we need something more to understand Brünnhilde’s.
In Francesca Zambello’s production Siegfried makes it but Brünnhilde does not. He wants her; he is confused and hurt by her reluctance; but Brünnhilde still to be the scampering teenager we saw jumping onto Wotan for a piggyback ride in Die Walküre last year. As the great Carl Dahlhaus taught us, Siegfried must move up from the fairy tale world of the enchanted forest and friendly animals to the human world, but Brünnhilde must come down from the mythological realm and recognize and accept her mortality. In the last scene Wagner has produced a huge double helix of psychological development that must culminate in their own interlacing in the middle after they go through a dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. According to the libretto she doesn’t yet realize she has lost her divinity when she first wakes up and greets Siegfried (thesis); but then she recoils when he touches her and dotes on her horse and her armor (antithesis); as for the synthesis, Wagner’s music as usual performs a wordless sublimation and resolves the contradiction better than his libretto does, leaving room for Wagnerians to grope once again for a saving interpretation. My latest idea is that she is pushed beyond the completely justified narcissism of a god (the unstirred image in the water) by learning from Siegfried’s burning and stirring passion that an undisturbed image of oneself can for a mortal only can mean a desiccation of what little life she has.
A great production will not solve such problems but will lay them out with perspicacity and depth. Moreover, the depth in Wagner is distinctly psychological, not historical or philosophical. It is the archetypal meanings and subconscious forces that must be made visible on the stage, and the music will unerringly guide the director’s divining rod to them, if she cares to use one. The problems might even be insoluble: as with many great artists, Wagner’s reach exceeded his grasp. But to fill in the blanks he left with a supplement of interpretive ideas only takes us further from a more fruitful kind of engagement. Brünnhilde is not allowed to be beautiful or – so far — loving. And eeek! – She starts a game of tag at the end! The archetypes will endure, of course, and Brünnhilde will once again be seen saving mortal humanity from the empty pomp of the gods who cannot die, rather than to be saving nature from the abuse of man: again it is the depth that must be invoked, not the latest fashionable guilt-hope of the baby boomer generation.
I disagree with the ideas but the scenery was unobtrusive enough and the scrims disappeared soon enough that we were still given adequate access to the deeper conflicts. Touchingly, the Forest Bird was allowed not only to come onto the stage (like the mute boy in the new Paris Siegfried) but actually to interact with Siegfried; this is a little overdrawn since the Forest Bird speaks about Siegfried in the third person though Siegfried speaks to her in the second. The asymmetry has to do with Siegfried being led along his way by an access of intuition he does not completely understand, but this congenial and solicitous Forest Bird carries some of his things for him and by the end has become a go-between. I felt the sentimentality between Wotan and Erda at the beginning of Act Three was incorrect: she is angry at him for waking her up as if he could make her change her dreams which both of them are powerless to do – that’s why we need a new world order; on the other hand the production somehow got me to see for the first time that just as the last scene between Siegfried and Brünnhilde is the culmination of what was started in the first scene of Die Walküre between Siegmund and Sieglinde, this penultimate scene between Wotan and Erda rings with the encounter of Wotan with Fricka in the second act of that opera.
I enjoyed the orchestra’s playing, under Donald Runnicles, more than any other Siegfried I can remember. Somehow all the telling moments in this topsy-turvy score arrived nicely prepared and at just the right moment, and were then allowed full breathing room. The new Wagner style of the Third Act came through in technicolor. Mime’s laboring motifs were comically allowed to droop. At this performance there was a acoustical problem that left some of the singers inaudible, perhaps because the stage is so deep and empty. In the first act the singers were drowned out by the orchestra even if they were standing as little as four feet behind the plane of the proscenium. Of the voices Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde was the highlight of the evening, reaching through to divine authority, far beyond what the harsh, utilitarian and dissatisfied characterization should have allowed.
Götterdämmerung premieres June 5th, and then three full cycles will occupy the rest of June.
– Ken Quandt