Siegfried had it coming (The Ring, days 3-4)

Phil Ford

We had a day off on Thursday and then heard Siegfried yesterday — mercifully an afternoon performance. After my nasty comments about Walkure‘s staging I should say at once that the staging of Siegfried was infinitely better, although oddly not all that different — which goes to show, as Spinal Tap says, that there’s such a fine line between clever and stupid. Atom Egoyan’s ugly minimalism was replaced by Francois Girard’s gorgeous minimalism: most striking was the third act, which took place on a completely bare stage whose only “set” comprised the bodies of 29 people dressed in identical white pajamas. They began as a compact heap on the floor, lit half-bright against a vast expanse of the blackest black that ever blacked. (I’ll impersonate Ken Nordine here: close your eyes and imagine the purest black. No, no, not even close. Much blacker than that.) When Siegfried confronts the Wanderer, the bodies roll, with infinite controlled Noh-like slowness, outward into a circle. (If you focused your eyes on any one body it looked kind of contrived; if you let your eyes relax and take in the entire stage, the effect was astonishing, a kind of biological dilation, like those time-lapse films of flowers opening.) When Siegfried breaks the Wanderer’s spear, the bodies slooooooooowly rise to their feet (they must have practiced these movements a lot), stretch up their hands and slowly start to wave: they are lit a deep flickering red and become the circle of fire. Now, this might sound dorky, but you had to be there. The spectacle of these slow body transformations, lit with indescribable subtlety and intensity against a field of utter velvet blackness, was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. So beautiful! My Mom (who used to work for the COC) told me about a set designer she knew, who said that stage sets are only interruptions of light. This was the purest instance of that notion, which Girard and Finn used to conjure a grandeur appropriate to Wagner’s mythic seriousness without in any way being beholden to its sometimes risible particulars (breastplates, etc.). One of my Mom’s old COC friends was furious at the way this Ring has ignored Wagner’s very specific stage directions, but for Siegfried, at least, the new staging respected the spirit of the directions all the better by ignoring their letter.

Here’s another example of this higher authenticity (yes, authenticity!). The formidable Phillip Ens returned as Fafner, but with his voice amplified and broadcast through speakers. Now, they certainly didn’t need to do this: Ens’s voice is huge, and in any event the new opera house has excellent acoustics and needs no help. But the amplification made his voice emerge from no specific place on stage, and the dragon itself was rendered by a heap of apparently dead bodies on stage that suddenly rear up (by means of hidden wires and harnesses) into a towering, undulating fleshy lattice, like a figure from a nightmare. And its voice seemed at once to come from everywhere around one’s body and from deep in one’s own brain — also like a nightmare. This was so much better — scarier — that the traditional wobbly rubber dragon head.

So: awesome performance. But leaving the performance aside, I have to say that Siegfried is, to me, the one opera of Wagner’s where I can’t help but adopt the contemporary habit of viewing everything through the lens of Fascism. I don’t think this interpretation, with the Nibelungs standing in for Jews, works very well for Rheingold, for instance. But all Siegfried’s endless humiliations of Mime, his blathering on about Mime’s hunching and shuffling and drooping eyes — Siegfried, a steamy slab of German mannheit coming into his true racial patrimony, Siegfried, a symbol of cultural reawakening to which the audience is expected to feel some kind of tribal bruderschaft — ugh. I want to poison the little bastard.

The problem of Siegfried is in part a problem of humor. George Orwell once wrote that humor is at bottom a kind of rebellion of the weak against the strong. To Orwell, every joke is an upending of the established social order; every joke puts a whoopie cushion under a dowager. And I think this notion is widespread in America, too. But Orwell universalizes too much: there is also the opposite kind of humor, which grows from a sense of superiority, a gloating over the humiliations of the weak. I would guess that this kind of humor leaves a sour taste in our mouths, for the most part: the Anglo-American tradition of humor is much more oriented to the first than the second style of humor.

But the thing is, Wagner had the second kind of humor. And Siegfried is supposed to be a humorous opera. Or at least the moments I find most distasteful are supposed to be comic relief. Now, I’ve heard people say of Wagner’s other allegedly comic opera, Die Meistersinger, that’s the light frothy wit of the Germans for you. But I’ve known plenty of funny Germans. I don’t think that Wagner found humor is the triumph of the strong over the weak because he was German: he found humor in such humiliations because he was a jerk. This is where I agree with those who can’t listen to Wagner because they can’t abide the man himself. Sometimes I think this kind of argument is completely irrelevant, but Siegfried offers an unusually straightforward example of a work of art that bears the direct imprint of its creator’s personality.

Then again, what’s strange about Siegfried is how lousy the first act is and how gorgeous the second act is (though still marred by Siegfried’s thuggery, and Wagner’s apparent desire that we should admire it). This is not simply a matter of Siegfried’s character. The first act is sooooooo boring. Aside from Siegfried’s jerkiness, the first act consists mostly of plot exposition and metallurgy. The endless casting of the sword . . . the adolescent excitement over the SWORD, the BIG SWORD that the HERO will use to WIN THE MAIDEN. Bring on Hagen.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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2 Responses to Siegfried had it coming (The Ring, days 3-4)

  1. Stephen Meyer says:

    Thanks for allowing some of us to experience the Toronto Ring vicariously! With regard to your assessment of the first two acts of Siegfried, I have to say that the second act has plenty of longeurs as well, and I’m kind of partial to Siegfried’s forging song. Yes, in terms of the drama, it’s a piece of thuggery, but it also functions strangely like the virtuostic cabalette in Bellini or Verdi: at some point we forget about the drama and simply treat the piece as pure vocal display.
    As a character, Siegfried is nearly impossible to like. Indeed, there are plenty of moments in the opera when his overexaggerated manliness becomes–so to speak–recursive: moments when celebration becomes critique. I’m thinking in particular of Siegfried’s murder of Mime. Later–in Goetterdaemmerung (forgive the lack of umlauts . . . ), Siegfried will try to pass this off as self-defense, but his attempts to justify himself often appear contrived or forced. I’ve seen plenty of productions in which the director goes to great efforts to show Siegfried’s spiritual growth, but somehow this moment always undermines and cuts across the grain of any attempt to ameliorate Siegfried’s thuggishness (I really like this word).
    I’m curious to hear about the last opera . . .

  2. Phil Ford says:

    Uh-oh, someone who knows what he’s talking about . . . Glad there’s a real opera scholar in here, though.
    It’s true, at a certain point — for me, that point comes in Götterdämmerung — Siegfried becomes an ambiguous figure. I can’t tell if Wagner is already ambivalent about him in Siegfried or if his conception changed as he wrote the opera. (Though didn’t he draft the Götterdämmerung libretto first?) I’d be curious to know if anyone here has taught the Ring and, if so, what sorts of reactions their students have had to Siegfried. Or any of the other characters, for that matter.

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