Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Gods Shouldn't Talk Like the People Next Door

That's what Desmond Shaw-Taylor told Andrew Porter when Porter started working on his singing translation of the Ring nearly 40 years ago. It's a matter of tone: Wagner writes in different textual and musical tones for the different groups of characters in the Ring. The Giants move heavily to heavy music; Loge is light and mercurial, befitting the demigod of Fire and his trickster nature.

This raises the question of whether the Gods should act like the people next door.

Francesca Zambello's Ring makes a number of errors of tone, in the staging and in the supertitle translations, where the tone she's setting on stage is at odds with the music and the libretto. There's the physical horseplay between Wotan and Bruennhilde, which I called out in my review. Do the Gods really act like that? And what about the phone conversation that got laughs right before Fricka's entry?

Zambello also has a habit of throwing characters on stage who aren't there in the libretto. I remember these, and perhaps there are more; I'll include my theories about what her justifications might be:
  • The end of the first Rheinmaiden scene in Rheingold, with Loge watching on the side. Loge says later in the opera that he has talked with the Rheinmaidens and promised to get the gold back for them. We don't know how much time passes between Scenes 1 and 2, only that it's enough time for the Ring and Tarnhelm to be forged. We don't know when the Giants start to build Valhalla.  I see no good reason to put Loge on stage at this point; his first entry in the score is accompanied by his characteristic fiery leitmotif, as it should be.
  • Rheingold, scene 2, when Fricka wakes Wotan up, Zambello puts Donner and Froh on stage too. here FZ is establishing the Gods as frivolous, Gilded-Age types. Not so bad. But...did Fricka whack Wotan with the blueprints, as in 2008? If she did, I missed it, a piece of stage business I found eye-rolling the first time around.
  • The Rheinmaidens' on-stage appearance at the end of Rheingold, rather than singing offstage or from the pit. I saw Zambello discuss this, and other subjects, at a music critics' panel between Siegfried and Goetterdaemmerung, during cycle 1. She wanted the Rheinmaidens to appear, dressed in brown rather than gold, to show their growth over the course of the opera, and also the environmental degradation that had started with the theft of the gold.
  • Hunding's men, who appear twice in Walkuere, were invented for this production. I presume this is to give Hunding social context within some period of American history, but I find it wholly unnecessary. Hunding appears as a single individual in Walkuere, and individualism is a prominent trope of American social history. Act I works best as a confrontation among three individuals, and the Siegmund/Hunding fight works best as a fight between two men, alone in a rocky place.
  • The parade of dead heroes during the Annunciation of Death. I found this moving in last year's production, though not necessary. I am sure it's distracting for some, and, again - the scene is a discussion between a Goddess and a man. Do they need dead heroes? Can Siegmund see them?
  • Fricka's appearance on the freeway in Act II of Walkuere. She tears up the contract for Siegmund's death that she forced Wotan to sign, now that Siegmund is dead. A little gratuitous! We already have Wotan, Bruennhilde, Siegmund, Sieglinde, and Hunding on stage.
  • The Forest Bird in Siegfried is supposed to be offstage, but in this production she's been personified as a young woman. I found her adorable and her interactions with Siegfried, all at a distance, quite touching. (Contrast with another personified Forest Bird whom I liked in the past, the cellphone-wielding Bird of Mark Streshinsky's production of Legend of the Ring at Berkeley opera.)
  • Hagen's Watch at the beginning of Act II of Goetterdaemmerung, where Gutrune is inserted in the scene to converse - and flirt? - with her evil half-brother. Truly unnecessary, and the implied flirtation is past gratuitous. If anything, Gutrune and Gunther probably look down on their half-dwarf brother. And of course there's the unnecessary remote control...which got laughs during the production I saw. 
Then there's the pile-up at the very end of the opera, with the imposed feminist viewpoint and the Rheinmaidens providing mounds of garbage for Siegfried's funeral pyre, rather than the vassals bringing mighty logs. Gosh - it's a mess. Too many people coming and going and rushing around what should be a comparatively static scene. Not to mention, too much Kumbaya, as my review said. FZ talked about the fact that there's six minutes of music after Bruennhilde rides into the flames, and how hard it is to figure out what should happen there. Buh? Wagner spells it out quite clearly in the libretto.

The director gives us another Kumbaya moment that I did not much care for: the godly huddle in Rheingold around Donner during his call to the mists, in which all of the Gods grab hold of the croquet mallet that he lugs around - while he's singing. What, the God of Thunder can't make a mighty noise on his own? They're also so far upstage as to make Gerd Grochowski work much harder than he should need to.

At the critics' panel, I challenged her on her calling the Rheinmaidens good, because on one hand, they lose the gold! and on the other, their merciless teasing of Alberich sets off the whole story. On the third,
 as Frick says, they've drowned a lot of men. She had a reasonable explanation - that they're 13-year-olds who don't fully understand their own actions and they grow up during the course of Rheingold and the whole cycle. I can sorta buy that.

The rewrite of the libretto for supertitle purposes that bugged me most, though, was the translation of something Wotan says in Siegfried, where he first refers to Alberich as "schwarz Alberich" and himself as "licht Alberich." Dammit, the latter was translated as "Wotan, lord of light," when he's making a clear analogy, for good reasons, between himself and Alberich.

They have so much in common! They're both willing to abuse and use others in the pursuit of power. Alberich enslaves the Nibelungs with the power of the ring, and rapes Gunter and Gutrune's mother to create Hagen.

Wotan is willing to make a deal with the giants using the goddess Freia as payment of the construction fees for Valhalla. He creates Siegmund and Sieglinde with the idea of creating a free man who can obtain the ring, then doesn't exactly take good care of them, not to mention the nameless mortal woman who is their mother.

The mistranslation of "licht Alberich" is bad, very bad, given the above; far worse than any of the silliness I describe above, because it undermines our ability to understand an important analogy between two of the moving forces of the cycle.


pjwv said...

The Rhine Daughters are 13? Where is that coming from? They're water creatures, and most water creatures in mythology (mermaids, the sirens, the Lorelei) are alluring and cold-blooded. That seems like enough of an explanation for their treatment of Alberich. I wouldn't say they're "good" or "bad" -- I'd say they're not guiltless though.

About Hagen's mother: You may be remembering something specific in the libretto that I've forgotten, but I don't think that she's actually raped; isn't she "suborned by gold"? It's not a happy and wholesome relationship, but rape implies physical non-consensual force and I think that wasn't the situation with Hagen's mother.

Lisa Hirsch said...

"They're 13" is Zambello's explanation. I should have asked her where she got that from, but I think the answer is that it's what makes sense to her. Your explanation makes more sense to me.

Here's the English translation of a chunk of Wotan's ranting in Walkuere Act II, scene II:

\Away, then
with lordly splendour,
divine pomp
and shameful boasting!
Let it fall to pieces,
all that I built.
I give up my work.
Only one thing I want now:
the end,
the end!

And for that end
Alberich is working.
Now I understend
the hidden meaning
of the wise woman's wild words:
"When Love's dark enemy
begets a son in anger,
the end of the Blessed ones
will not be long delayed."

Of the Nibelung
I recently heard a rumour
that a woman was overpowered by the dwarf
and seduced for money.
The fruits of his hatred
a woman is carrying:
his envy at full strength
is stirring in her womb.

Bribery, rape, or both?

pjwv said...

Hmmm, OK, that is the passage I was (generally) thinking of -- is it usually translated "overpowered"? In which case, yeah, a case could be made that he raped her, which would fit thematically. I kind of sympathize with Alberich, though, so I guess I was hoping his lovelessness went as far as prostitution but not into rape.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Google Translate offers "mastered, overcame" for the verb, bewältigt. However, the whole sentence is tricky and my German is bad:

Vom Niblung jüngst
vernahm ich die Mär',
dass ein Weib der Zwerg bewältigt,
des' Gunst Gold ihm erzwang:

I can't get a clear translation of the sentence about the gold.

Joe Barron said...

The last line may be translated as "whose favor gold won for him." It doesn't sound to me like rape. Erzwingen has the connotation of force or extortion, but I think Wagner is using it to show how unsavory the transaction was, that the woman's judgment was overcome by greed. So "seduced for money" is legit. (But where did Alberich get said gold? Wasn't the Rhinegold stolen from him? Or does he have a stash we don't know about?)

Anyway, why do people even go to the opera anymore? It seems like you spend huge amount of money, and then all they do is nitpick. Or is that part of the pleasure, like Monday morning quarterbacking?

Lisa Hirsch said...

As a Nibelung, he might have had access to materials from the earth other than the Rheingold.

I like going to opera! And I have a blog exactly so I can talk about whatever I want, including second and third thoughts about performances I see.

Joe Barron said...

Vom Niblung jüngst vernahm ich die Mär',
daß ein Weib der Zwerg bewältigt,
des' Gunst Gold ihm erzwang:

My own (somewhat literal) translation:

Of the Nibelung I recently heard the story,
that the dwarf has taken a woman
whose favor he extorted with gold.

Inrerstetingly, "bewältigt" is present tense (past would be "bewältigte"), so his "mastering" of her could be ongoing.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Interesting, thank you!

Joe Barron said...

That is, "interestingly." That's an embarrassment. But at least I can use the heat as an excuse.