On Die Walküre and the American Trajectory Revised

08Jan08

Back at work this morning we find our blood still coursing with the slow, oscillating melodies of last night’s third act of Die Walküre at the Met. By the end (and really, by the middle of the first act) it was sublime and transcendent, so that all of our quibbling about the final dress seemed miles away; what could we possibly say about Jim Morris that hasn’t already been said? He owns the role of Wotan and seems more than content (and completely able) to let the opera ride on his shoulders. Nor can we limit our praise to him; all of the performances thrilled us at different points as we dropped into this primordial world marked by passion and strength on one hand, and rich (but constantly mutating) psychological nuance on the other. (If it sounds like we’re describing the wonders of say, a lava lamp, our response is to shrug, for the experience is not so unlike taking a hallucinogen, to the extent that we feel altered by Wagner’s music, suddenly able to see the world around us in new ways.)

To watch it twice in such a short period — and just as the opening-night performances far eclipsed those of the final dress — gave us the chance to revisit and revise our theories about the opera’s symbolism with respect to our country’s ongoing political turmoil. While Wotan (by turns booming with anger and shattered by impotence: “Most joyless am I of all living,” says the king of the gods) can still be said to represent “America,” it quickly became clear that Fricka (sung with equally mind-blowing richness by Stephanie Blythe) does not represent any political faction — “nagging” or otherwise — but rather a concept of conservatism that exists within us all; it’s not only a nostalgia for the past and a hope for old glories to be resurrected, but an angry reluctance to acknowledge the implicit and unstoppable power of change that is coincidental to the march of time. Wotan by contrast professes to crave change but he too refuses to acknowledge his inability to control it, even as his actions — and here, unconsciously — hurtle him ever closer to his fate. Sound familiar?

Accordingly, we see the immortal Walküre sisters as high-minded but practically diffuse “concepts” or “ideals” borne of America itself; specifically we think of “freedom” and “democracy” and “pursuit of happiness” and “liberty” and all of the other foundations upon which our institutions — and not just nominally — are built. On the other side of the equation are “we the people” with our inevitable flaws and conflicts: Hunding; the mean-spirited disciple of Fricka who wants to enslave his wife; Sieglinde and Siegmund, this pair ruled far more by emotion than logic or convention as they flee blindly away from a tormented past.

When these forces are thrown together — that is, when Brunnhilde is “touched” by the immoral but undeniable love of the mortal siblings, and she is led to disobey her father’s directive to “punish” them — we see (despite the best intentions of all concerned) the inevitable corruption of our (America’s) highest ideals, so that she ends up stripped of her power and chained to a rock by her founding father. Is there anybody — conservative or liberal — who does not recognize the parallels of this to the United States today, when as a country we seem to have drifted so far away from the indisputably great principles that once fueled our story?

What pleasure we felt to see this timeless theme in an opera written so long ago and rendered so beautifully by the Met! As we confronted our fate in the dark space of the auditorium, we felt less pained than godlike, as if we were watching the world and all of its problems from a mountaintop. So the tragedy is decreed; the corruption of our ideals permanent and irrevocable. But if the situation seems dire as we sink into the impossibly sad music that marks the end of Die Walkure, we can look ahead with some hope; for while it’s true that all of the characters — and we among them — are doomed in one way or another, at least we take solace in the idea that some visionary in the future will arrive to unchain our beloved goddess from the rock, so that she can live and die with the rest of us.

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