Archive for March, 2011

The Copenhagen Ring

March 11, 2011
Copenhagen Ring

The Copenhagen Ring, available on DVD, was recorded live in May 2006 at the Royal Danish Opera. The mastermind of this production, who directed all four operas, is Kasper Bech Holten, the artistic director of the Royal Danish Opera. There are two main conceptual lines for this Ring. Firstly, it was promoted and labeled as a “feminist” Ring, and secondly, each of the four operas take place against the backdrop of one of the decades of the 20th century.

In reference to the feminist or feminine element of this Ring, the commentaries I have read mostly revolve around two things. First, the instructional text which appears on the screen as a preface to Rheingold explains the silent video footage played during the instrumental passages, showing Brünhilde as she searches dusty books and rolls of her family’s archives of Valhalla.  “Brünhilde has just betrayed the man she loves more than anything in the world. Now she wants to find out how it came to this. She seeks back to the beginning, to her father’s attic to find the family mementos, and she starts to recall how it all begin…”

The second and most often discussed element of this interpretation is the alteration of ending.  Kasper Bech Holten relies on the fact of life that a love life sometimes results in pregnancy.  In Götterdämmerung, Brünhilde appears visibly pregnant and at the end she does not vanish into the flames of Valhalla but rather emerges after giving birth, with a newborn baby in her arms. This intervention on the libretto is one of those brave and clever moves that does not violate the original but finds an opening in the libretto to allow a fresh and different symbolism to emerge and provoke thought. Some productions have shown that Wagner’s own stage instructions can be altered with the result of providing a fresh and new insight into a rich material of myth and legend.

The term “feminist” may unduly reduce and stereotype the subtle and broader meaning revealed by this Ring, which examines the period of history in which violence and reliance on the materialistic point of view have marked the key quality of the twentieth century. The feminine, life-bearing feature, at the end refers to a rediscovered quality of rebirth, new beginning and forgiveness. It gives hope that with it a new consciousness will arise…

Is there anything more desirable and worthy in a man’s life than the love of a great woman?  In search of a great woman and her love the 20th-century-man directed himself outwardly. He set the goal to rule the world. The Industrial Revolution harnessed mechanical forces and conquered the unchartered territories of new continents. Men had launched wars worldwide on large and small scales, setting in motion havoc and mayhem. The accumulation of wealth and concentration of power reached peaks beyond imagination. The drive to succumb the world to his powers led the 20th-century man to assert himself as a conqueror and a ruler of natural resources and scientific discoveries. This was accomplished by violence and force.  Indeed the magnitude of destruction in the 20th century was unprecedented.

But the elixir of eternal youth remains beyond reach.

Das Rheingold is set in the 20s-30s of the past century. Alberich is an aging wealthy man tired of earthly riches, decadent in his lifestyle and spared from of any inner restraint. He can have all that can be had, but he does not have vigour and innocence of youth. The Rheinmaidens, depicted as three seductive and beautiful women tease, provoke and ridicule the old man’s lust. Alberich lures them to the bottom of an empty swimming pool, where in the captivity of an aquarium swims a naked handsome young man, not quite a boy any longer, and not a mature man either. Alberich carves out his heart in a desperate attempt to have that which cannot be acquired by stealing or by violence.

Alberich cannot accept himself and his transformation inevitably leads to degradation. He becomes  a being of a lower order, which takes place in a sort of scientific laboratory. His downfall continues in a chamber which resembles a morgue with walls of white ceramic tiles, chains bolted to the walls to accommodate any degree of torture and eliminate the possibility of physical resistance by the tortured. The scenes that follow require a strong stomach.  Stabbing burning cigarettes against Alberich’s neck constitutes a minor degree of violence. In a gruesome scene of mutilation, Alberich’s arm is cut off with a knife, spilling blood everywhere.

After the initial accumulation of capital in the symbolic blood sacrifice of Alberich’s arm,  the journey of the man through the 20th century takes us to a colonial compound where the family of gods negotiates its first collective agreement with the industrial forces of labour and management (Fasolt and Fafner).

With the soaring of the industrial era the family of gods wave to the audience their good-byes as their ocean liner departs to the New World, marking the end of one epoch and the beginning of a new one.

(It was long ago that I last saw Die Walküre of the Copenhagen Ring. I lent my DVD to someone who has not returned it yet. I do not keep track of negligent borrowers but I gently remind them it is a sign of fine character and respect for natural obligations to return borrowed items.)

Siegfried takes place in the 70’s when it appears that the outwardly manifested violence of the early decades of the century has subsided with the end of Vietnam war, under the outburst of rock-‘n-roll music and the hippie movement. Mime’s dwelling shows a dining room and kitchen, which abound in hyper realistic details, suggesting a pedantic character of the householder but failing to contribute much to the story. Siegfried’s room on the second floor features a poster of Jimmy Hendrix, an oriental rug and string instruments on the wall. Violence went underground, veiled by the secret lab experiments on human psyche exploring the effects of the threat of violence and evolving into a new form of violence: imaginary threats of danger. The key weapon of violence became the menace of an evil enemy, a deadly weapon, an imminent danger, a threat of attack. Violence grew by word of violent threat, such as we see in action today in various forms of alerts and possibilities of terrorist threats of a mysterious enemy ready to strike at any moment. Recent local news speaks of an emergency landing of an overseas flight to Europe, during which coffee spilled on the dashboard in the cockpit sent an automatic message of a terrorist attack to the control tower and the flight had to be grounded even though it was obvious that the message was wrong.

The stage director chooses levels of the house (ground floor, second floor and basement) to tell the story of Siegfried’s inner growth and search. It is an interesting metaphor sometimes used in esoteric texts referring to different aspects of a human being.

It is the main floor where Mime, whom we may associate with intellectual learning, teaches Siegfried about the outside world. This teaching is tailored in a similar way modernday western public education aims at teaching narrow, distorted fragments aimed at passing the threshold of literacy. It does not aim to provide a comprehensive overview of a certain field of science or the humanities, to empower and stimulate critical thinking and creativity. Mime as well as the rulers of the modern day world does not need a Siegfried who is free and strong. Mime needs a Siegfried who would serve him and his selfish purpose to rule the world. Mime’s anvil is a typewriter and his sword is a pen. The 20th century accelerated the speed by which words travel. The widespread use of telegraph, telefax, and electronic data made the word about anything instantly accessible all over the world. With these new forms of communication, new forms of violence emerge.

One of my dearest scenes is Wanderer/Wotan’s visit to a bedridden and heavily medicated  Erda attended by a nurse and portrayed as a dying patient in a hospital bed.

When Siegfried set himself to kill the dragon, he finds him at a command table from which many cables carrying words in various forms branch out from his underground compound. The “Needlehole” looks like a nuclear shelter of sorts, resembling  the grey and dreary architectural nightmares built on both sides of the Iron Curtain to hold and cultivate fear.

Siegfried’s room on the first floor (in USA and Canada usually referred to as second floor) is a reference of sorts to the most liberated period of the 20th century, a short-lived spirit of liberation unprepared for the harsh realities of the world which thrives on wars, from Korea and Vietnam to the Balkans and Afghanistan.

I have wished to write about the Copenhagen Ring for a long time, and the delay is not only because I couldn’t find the Walküre DVD. This one has to do with Götterdämmerung. My personal obstacle was in laying a necessary distance from my own views and experience about the Yugoslavian civil war in the 90s, and the fact that the Copenhagen Götterdämmerung takes place in the particular context of this civil war.

I came to the conclusion that this context unfairly reduced in scale the story of Götterdämmerung, which is the story of mankind. This is not to say that a universal question cannot be presented on a smaller scale or even an individual plane. The shortfall of a civil war as a contextual field, its mediators and peacekeepers included, is its inherent murkiness. There is no room for a hero.  The only fallen heroes of any civil war are civilians in their anonymous collective bulk. Gibbichungs are hence represented as an overly narrowed-down subspecies of the unconscious biomass of mankind. The Hagens of today rule the world and a marginal anonymous smuggler of booze and cigarettes in the Balkan’s unrest is merely his temporary remote servant.

My objection to this Götterdämmerung is the excessive and unambiguous identification of the Gibbichungs with Serbian national symbols such as the WWI military uniform, Christian Orthodox Cross, and registration plates on a Mercedes which reads “Knin 001”, all pointing out to one particular side within the Balkan civil war. Not that Gibbichungs are in small supply among Serbs, but the application of recognizable symbols does not offer meaningful reading. There is nothing wrong, in principle, with the explicit and specific symbolism, but it requires consistent and intelligible use, which is not the case here. Also it does not do justice to Wagner by reducing unduly the Gibbichungs to a context of events not yet ripe for interpretation on the scale that Wagner demands. The origin and nature of forces that drove the Balkans into yet another bloodbath still await important revelations. As a matter of fact they continuously keep popping up. Another shortfall with using the context of any civil war is that civil war flames burn well only when any potential resemblance of a hero is safely removed, disabled or channeled out through draining of a particular territory by means of refuge and immigration. Civil war feeds on the elderly young and infirm. There are no heroes in civil war.

Irene Theorin

This production of the Ring is visually impressive, with an excellent cast of singers throughout. The inexhaustible, sheer force of Irene Theorin’s voice as Brünhilde is a phenomenon in itself.  The enthusiastic and agile Stig Andersen as Siegfried carried around his bulging belly with admirable ease. My personal affinity goes to James Johnson as Wanderer, Ylva Kihlberg as Wellgunde and Gurtrune, Randi Stene as Fricka and one of the Norns, and Sten Byriel as Alberich. The impressively physically fit Guido Peavatalu first performs ten honest push-ups and then starts singing.

Michael Schønwandt conducts with joy and ease. He aims at a homogenous density and balance rather than amplifying the drama or protruding in any particular direction.

It appears that the set and costume designers Marie i Dali and Steffen Aarfing operated with a generous budget for this production, which adds a bonus of remarkable visual effectiveness. The make-up designer also seems to have unlimited supply and on occasion got carried away with ideas of adding horror and drama to the already abhorrent Alberich. With the notorious Danish attachment to close-ups in filming, the make-up seems to be the weakest link in this otherwise interesting and worth-watching human-centred Ring. It is difficult for any non-phantasy Ring to avoid comparison with the Stuttgart Ring, and even more difficult to escape its influence. Yet, the artistic originality and the coherent theme of man’s craving for power and violence juxtaposed to Brünhilde’s wish for new life out of the ashes of the old world cannot be denied to the Copenhagen Ring. It is a DVD worth having and repeatedly enjoying.