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Decoding Wagner's Ring

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Der Ring des Nibelungen
Patrice Chereau - Pierre Boulez, Bayreuth Festival (Complete Ring Cycle)













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Meet the Characters




Erda :

Key figure of the Ring, she appears only twice on stage, but like Freia and Loge, she plays an essential role by interposed music. The first scene where she appears to Wotan to warn him is one of the starting musical points of the Ring.

One knows that she inspired the rhythm of the future, which forms the main part of the prelude.

Wagner sees in Erda a woman covered with hoarfrost, buried to the waist. She is a figure of nightmare, a spectre of eternal dismay. Like her daughters the Norns, she appears in the storm and the darkness. As if numbed, lost in an indecisive dream, she is essentially negative. Like Loge and the Rhine maidens, she represents the nature prior to the Lance, the Nature in its original state. Wotan, who enslaved Loge, seized the Gold, paid Walhalla and soiled the Source, attacks Erda and forces her to bear him a daughter. Erda is a typical figure: the Sybille, the sacred clairvoyant. Chéreau represents her as a Kabyl fortune-teller, clad as a moving clod of mud.

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The Characters of the "Walküre"

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Siegmund :

He is the favourite of contemporary directors, although formerly he appeared as an eternal " looser ", someone feeling sorry for himself, lamenting and immature. This sympathy is credibly due to the repelling effect of Siegfried compared to him the "wolf cub" seems more human. And then... The adventure of the twins is designed to inspire sympathy.

Let us try to understand better this charming character, albeit somewhat a little bit annoying by his systematic vocation for misfortune. First of all what is obvious is his total ignorance of the manipulation of which he is the subject. He takes everything to the first degree, as later his son Siegfried will do.

It will be necessary that Sieglinde explain their gemellarity to him, so that he understands it. Siegmund like Siegfried love freedom and reject the laws. Alive in the present moment, he is incapable of establishing the slightest link of cause and effect. He merely notices that his values are opposite to those of society, without trying neither to adapt himself to them nor to wonder about their validity. He is an epic character by his long story of pursuing. He likes story telling.

A second trait of the man (one supposes him a young person, strong, brave and doubtless beautiful), is his true capacity to fall in love. Love that comes as lightning bolt is the sign of longing and has nothing sexual. The character dreams to escape the double nightmare into which Wolfe plunged him without asking: excommunication and pursuit. He strives for friendship and love but also for the conquest of the virility promised by his father. He conceals treasures of tenderness but also drives for death, which will turn against him and the pregnant Sieglinde when he will be forced into a dead end. The young man prefers to kill himself and his twin bride than to surrender to the mercy of his enemies. One can interpret this suicidal decision in a number of ways. One can suppose that he expects from his enemies a massacre preceded by humiliation: rape and torture.

He is well placed to know the fate reserved for him; the girl he defended was killed. We can imagine the punishment reserved by the servants of Fricka - Neidingen for incest and adultery! It is the most plausible version.

There exists a second one, contradictory to the first. He cannot stand the idea of separation. He dies, thus his twin bride should also disappear. At first he prefers go down to hell (at Hella) rather than to lead a life of enjoyment without his partner.

It is not forbidden to see a certain male chauvinism in this affection. Sieglinde is his property and he cannot stand to see it falling in foreign hands. After all, as long as there is life there is hope, a hope that he denies to his wife and son.

A third characteristic of Siegmund is his unmistakable humanity. For the first time in the Ring, appears a being inspired by Freia. Siegmund is sensitive to the beauty of Nature (the song of the Spring) and the beauty of a woman. This feeling inspires him one of the rare poetic passages of all the tetralogy. He gives a wholesome lesson to the Walkyrie, which is surprised to see to prefer a poor sick woman to the bliss of Wotan's wishmaidens. For the first time also, appears love, tenderness, and the feelings of Siegmund are contagious. They are passed on to the Walkyrie, who, upset, will find the stamina to oppose to the Iron Law of Power.

Finally, Siegmund is brave. Not in the style of the young unconscious who plays his life at the roulette because he believes he is immortal. But as any conscious being who knows suffering and fear, and who being true to himself carries the burden of life, which he hates. This courage takes several forms: heroic when he tears away Nothung from its sheath and when he faces Hunding in fight, quiet and noble when he resists the Walkyrie and accepts death.

It is these qualities of authenticity, courage and tenderness that moved the public and the directors. Some saw in Siegmund the only one being really free in the Ring and all prefer him to his son.

What does the music tell us about his character? The theme, which is connected with him officially, is depressive and grave; it arises from the first notes of the theme of the Lance.

The one that describes the fate of wolves, the Wälsungen, consists of three successive sections: a sort of heroic and funeral march, which accelerated turns into aggressive fanfare, this march is followed by a plaintive theme evoking an unfortunate fate, finally a third very sweet and almost comforting, major section resulting in a desperate conclusion.But when Siegmund evokes women in one way or another, the vocal line takes on extreme inflections of sweetness and longing joined to a delicacy of nuances which contrasts strongly with the heroic and aggressive breaks of the stories. What else can one add?

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Sieglinde :

The person is extremely complex and evolving throughout the opera. Several directors show her old, grey, as if worn out by suffering and tarnished by the conjugal life without love. But this is contradicted by music. The first theme is interlaced with that of Siegmund and results in that of Freia.

Inverted, it is curiously close to that of the Ring and the curse: two progressive successions of rising tierces falling slowly. One also names it the theme of condolence.

Freia's theme is represented only by its second section said often " flight motive " and serving as onset in the theme of love. The other theme associated to Sieglinde: a Dionysian fanfare expressing a revolt and a sexual desire repressed for a long time. Finally a ceaselessly repeated sinuous motive accompanies the touch of the body of her bridegroom brother: it expresses seduction, but also a sort of plaintive and obsessional desire.

It is rather close to the one that characterizes Hagen's manipulation, his desire to seduce and to persuade. Sieglinde's character is a paradoxical combination of a plaintive and a little passive sweetness and explosions of vitality and passion. One notices the brutality of these changes of humor in the last scene of "Walküre". She passes immediately from a suicidal dejection to a wild ecstasy as soon as she learns that she carries a child. We must take good note of the energy of this weak woman. It is she who continuously leads the party. She is the unconscious instrument of Wotan's project. She welcomes the hero, shows him the sword, pushes him to the incestuous union, incites him in her vengeance, and pulls him in the battlefield where he will die.

It is she who recognizes her brother, but she will tell him the truth only when the point of no return is crossed.

Like Erda and Brünnhilde, Sieglinde is clairvoyant. She sees her brother torn by the pack. Same as for Siegmund, her existence is placed entirely under the sign of the misfortune, and same again as for him it is the poignant will to fight, to strive towards happiness.

The incestuous couple was strikingly represented by Beckmann. It disturbs us profoundly by the extraordinary variety of contradictory feelings which it arouses: eroticism, pity, tenderness, light condemnation also tinged with admiration, solidarity, aversion, feeling of a failure and certain fault in this love relation.

In my opinion, aversion and illness do not result from incest. After all, the healthier relationship between Brünnhilde and Siegfried is not less incestuous. The mental and emotional consanguinity is really what shocks more than the physical consanguinity (the same voice, the same glance). During the duet of love, very strange if one thinks of it, each one of them recognizes his reflection in the other. The love relation is almost narcissistic and is placed under the sign of blood. The last words of the duet of love are "Wälsungen-Blut ". On this word Blood, the theme of the misfortune falls like an axe.

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Brünnhilde :

She is with Wotan and Siegfried one of the three most important key figures of the Ring. As Alberich and Wotan, she appears in three dramas out of four. She closes the Ring. She is also, with Wotan and Siegfried, the most refined character, whose slightest feelings are described with accuracy, comparable by wealth and evolution potential only to those of the God.

At first, favorite Walkyrie of her father is so attached to him that she loses her personality. To use Shinoda Bolen's terms, she is daddy's girl. She has such a gift for listening, for an empathy that Wotan imagines that by speaking to her he addresses his deep desire. And actually she compensates thanks to her intuition and humanity, for the loss of the left eye of the God, and through this fact she is at same time contrary and complementary to Fricka. It is here that the Jungian interpretation very much controversed by some scholars is enlightening.

For Jung, the couples thought - feeling and sensation - intuition are mutually exclusive. Fricka, however, is radically rational and logical thought and sensation (she is pretty and lives in the present: she believes only what she touches). Brünnhilde on the contrary is feeling and intuition: she perceives only the past and the future, for which Siegfried blames her. She describes herself as "barely intelligent ", which is of course false, because she has the most important intelligence, that of the heart.

Brünnhilde is the only person to release herself from the control of the God; the latter will not forgive her for that. When she wakes up two contradictory feelings tear her: the fear of rape and decay, an exacerbated sensuality that has been repressed for such a long time. If in Alberich's case denied love and sexual frustration are transformed into paranoiac ecstasy of the ego, in Brünnhilde's case she undergoes an inverse transformation by awakening.

The loss of her power and her goddess's status, the frustration connected to what she sees as decay changes into a fervent love, changes in a wild and aggressive sexuality. The duet between the Walkyrie and the Wälsung is no less strange than the precedent one, placed under the sign of the blood. The last word of the duet is " laughing death ".

There is a similar relationship of feminine domination, as in the duet of Siegmund and his sister. Even if it is Siegfried who brutally forces her at first and then incites Brünnhilde to mating by his animal like insistance, it is always she who thinks, who foresees and who takes the measure of events.

By waking up she acquired both Jungian functions, which she was missing: the capacity of reasoning, sensuality. Paradoxically, it is Siegfried who is going to be in a position of inferiority: living only in the present, and incapable to understand the slightest allusion in the words of his mistress, whom he initially mistakes for his mother.

A psychological error committed by Brünnhilde is not to understand that love should be compensated by an equal exchange, and that the risk that one loves more than the other condemns to sufferance.

She is not only unaware of her relationship error with Siegfried, but also she does not stop playing the role of the mother. She tries to protect, to immunize, and to pass on to him her knowledge, to remind him of her self-sacrifice. She becomes humble, selfless and almost masochist. (Me, poor woman, deprived). Driven by her maternal feeling, masochism and clumsiness, she separates Siegfried from herself and sends him to the see the world. Very often the fathers proceed that way with their sons. She imagines that she is going to bind him by oaths and by reminding him ceaselessly the due allegiance.

Brünnhilde evolves. Badly. Physical love does not succeed in her and she shows herself in a despicable way in her dialogue with her sister. It often happens that one feels full of enjoyment at the idea of seeing once again dear and powerful old friends, but the moment one learns that they are in distress and ask you for help, one finds good excuses for taking distances. Brünnhilde is enthusiastic at the idea of a Wotan powerful and forgiving, she shows pride and love to her father.

But as soon as she learns about his depression she has a feeling that he will ask for help, she becomes cold, distant, condescending and vaguely contemptuous. When she holds between her hands the fate of the world, and the fate of this father whom just a moment ago she claimed to love, not only she refuses to abandon this Ring, which is only an allegory, but also she shamelessly chases away the unfortunate Waltraute. The severity of Brünnhilde, one understands, even without evoking the curse, gives evidence of transformation of the Ring into fatal talisman. Very soon she will provoke Siegfried by brandishing the Ring, a suicidal gesture.

After the obnoxious scene of the fight with the false Gunther, the neurotic characteristics of the ex-Walkyrie reach a paroxysm. More than ever, she will complain, setting the radiant force of cruelty of Siegfried against the weakness of the poor woman. But this frustration and the apathy consecutive to the brutality of her husband are going to be reversed and transformed into jealousy, and into desire to murder. Irrational and impulsive desire

At last, but only after having assisted in the poignant death of Siegfried, Brünnhilde understands everything. She has all the cards. She knows now the full and true story of the Ring. Wotan's monologue, a kind of testament, was completed by her feminine experiment, when she lived through all passions: from love to hatred, from maternal tenderness to the vengeance of the offended mistress. Only she is capable of making the fusion between the cosmogonical and socio-political planes, the plane of Eddas and the human and individual plane, that of Nibelungen-Not; that between myth and history; that between the abstract logic of power and the carnal force of love.

I may remind you that in Act II of "Walküre", the original stage setting by Wagner foresaw three topological levels. Top floor (heaven): the Gods are in the sky and at the top of cliffs. Middle floor: a rocky platform suspended between heaven and earth. Brünnhilde addresses Siegmund without ever touching him. Third floor: Sieglinde and Siegmund on earth of the humans. Brünnhilde establishes the connection between the poignant bittersweet adventure of the twins, harbour of tenderness and love in the aridity of the Ring, and the vast concerns of the Gods. The Walkyrie Brünnhilde is doubtless the key figure, the pivot of the Ring, the perfect intermediary.

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The Walkyries :

They are at the origin of many misunderstandings. First of all their famous ride was often musically deformed. The main theme was accentuated in the fifth note instead of the second, replacing the spectral leap by a heavy military music. She was presented outside of the context and reorchestrated. She was accompanied by the fireworks, by the helicopters in Apocalypse Now, by a caravan of camels in the desert where nomads discovered with delight a bottle of mineral water half buried in the sand in a TV ad.

In popular mind, the Walkyries are the symbol of the Ring, Wagner is the grandfather of triumphant German militarism and Siegfried is the Aryan hero praised and sung by the Nazis.They are musical monuments amounted to the glory of the imperious and triumphant German race. Deutschland über Alles.

But the reality written in the opera partition is absolutely different and the Ring of Centenary was necessary to show it. The eight sisters are real hyenas, characters accumulating the negative connotations. Deprived of adequate selves, they are terrorized by Walvater Wotan who despises them openly; they are incapable to help the two women on the run. They restrict themselves to a corporatist reflex of defence towards Brünnhilde. Their necrophilia role deserves a phantasmagoria of horror. Their built in function is to instigate the frenzy, the virility of young people to make them to death. Hegel asserted, not without reason, that the one that wins in the fight is the hero who pawns his life to defend his cause. Walkyries suite this definition to the extreme: the heroes whom they select entail and coach for Walhalla (the Hall of the heroes), correspond all to the definition of Hegel: yes they are fearless winners, but they are dead.

In the spectral ride, which crosses the sky the massacre frightens less than the atmosphere that precedes the entrance of the heroes to Walhalla. We are at the antipodes of the noble assembly, the delights praised by Brünnhilde to Siegmund, the delicious creatures stretching out the mead to the happy warriors. The viragos enjoy themselves with corpses, compare them, and roar. In popular imagination they always sing in choir, while per partition they roar in a horrifying disorder, screaming in the storm.

Walkyries are atmospheric figures, comparable to Donner and to the thunderstorm. But while the theme of Donner, of his hammer and thick clouds that he collects, are based on the triad of nature, the harmony of the furies is based on the fifth increased, succession of two major tierces. This agreement belongs to the scale by tones, used profoundly by Debussy to represent the unverifiable force of elements and impulses. The stage setting and the iconography further reinforce the musical and semantic misunderstandings.

It is certainly extremely difficult to represent these riders crossing the airs; Wagner the precursor showed the way by using light projections. But today the stage-directors represent them either as hardened grandmothers in grey plastic clothes, with Prussian helmet headwear, or bitchy witches in leather motorbike ware.The behaviour of Walkyries justifies to a certain extent Brünnhilde's contemptuous attitude to one of them: Waltraute comes to ask her for help.

She depicts the troop of her sisters in a horrible light. The warrior sisters incapable of any reaction, surround wallowed on the ground, terrorized, and paralysed by fear, the indifferent and depressive God. They are unemployed and demoralized by idleness. The Walkyries will perish in the final fire with the powerless and catatonic gods.

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The Characters of " Siegfried "

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Siegfried :

This title role is one of three characters most detailed by Wagner. Although appearing only in the two last dramae, he occupies the front of the stage and is bound for paradoxical and crushing performances. He is in my opinion, together with the Rhine maidens and Loge, the most difficult person to characterize and to represent in a suitable way. One of the reasons is the combination of paradoxical features.

It is just as difficult to represent them faithfully as to make the Maidens sing under water! First of all the hero undergoes a considerable evolution throughout the eight hours of performance. At the beginning he is a teenager, a cruel and rebellious little brat, but brilliant with vitality. Gradually the child becomes adolescent and discovers himself step by step.

He will really know himself only when he dies. Many a stage director has interpreted the transformation of Siegfried after his first sexual experience by growing him a beard overnight! Such approach was at the origin of many popular misunderstandings, which affected the Ring and threw a doubtful light on its "ideology". On the first images of Doepler or Echter, Siegfried is an anti-authority ecologist, a good young man in the pink cheeks and a sweet glance. Rackham makes a moving portrait of his innocence and sweetness. It is only after the First World War that Stassen makes him a symbol of the Teutonic fighting spirit. Braune and the other Nazi iconographers will stress this aggressive side. The affectionate protester, in love with freedom, close to nature and dreaming about the friendship of a companion, becomes the beautiful animal, powerful and aggressive, dreamed and sung by Nazi iconographers.

After the Second World War, directors had three choices. First choice was to keep the traditional look: armour, hairy animal skin and winged helmet.

Second choice was the look of the young a worker in overalls, or an astronaut coming from Mars. The third, final choice was consisted to caricature the character by exaggerating his Teutonic aspect.

So, one could see Siegfried as a dull beer barrel, in Bavarian pair of shorts and beer drinker's paunch or as protonazi officer super-evolving among swastikas and mussolinien monuments. I wondered for some decades what Wagner would have done if he had had to represent his favorite hero with modern means.

Let us enumerate some features of the character, revealed by the image of Wagner and those that worked with him have seen it. First of all, Siegfried is as cheerful, as his father is sad. Even, if following the example of the Rhine maidens, his laughter is cruel. At the beginning, having imposed a wholesome fear to the dwarf, he is obliged to sit down to calm his laughter.

Also, when Wotan tries to explain him the mystery of his blind eye: " You are funny and I laugh! " He exclaims. The dragon himself makes him laugh, and Brünnhilde as Hagen characterize him by the happy and radiant character. Cheerful as the Rhine maidens, he is also a player. The counterpart of this happy arrangement is his impatience and his fits of anger. Not only Mime, but also Brünnhilde and Wotan have to taste his physical impulsiveness. Curiously Siegfried passes by periods of extreme quiet and excessive liveliness. The other characteristic of the hero: his propensity to the " Sehnsucht ", that is German romantic sentimentalism. Very sensitive to beauty and to brightness, he can be shy and brave at the same time.

Sometimes Siegfried is represented as a quiet muscled imbecile. But the false duet of love with Brünnhilde shows him in a surprisingly different way. The boy shows himself as a skilful courtier and answers the arguments of the Walkyrie with remarkable logic and sharpness. Mime hates Siegfried, Wotan is proud of him at the beginning, but is cruelly humiliated by his presumed heir. Brünnhilde feels for him an unfathomable, unspeakable, maternal tenderness, alternating with a wild idolization which paves the way for prepares for a wild vengeance. The key passages that stir up Brünnhilde's feelings for Siegfried are the following:

1." Du wonniges Kind... ": You charming child, your mother will never return to you... A very affectionate motive accompanies the line of song, which melancholically goes down on the last verse. (Wagner recommends singing it "hesitantly"). It is this affectionate, maddeningly exciting theme that will conclude "Siegfried". The same theme crowns the short existence of the hero. It will be associated to the shudders of agony, which the dying young man takes for the shudders of sensual delight.

The same theme comes up when the magic caress make the hero invulnerable. (Apparently, his back was not caressed!)

2. " Ewig war ich... " Brünnhilde begs Siegfried not to infringe on her virginity and to keep her as his anima. Two motives accompany these psychoanalytical verses before the word. The first one, said "about peace" results from a string quartet, but its line of bass reproduces the motive of Walkyrie's slumber.

It will never reappear in the Ring. The second, associated with verses " O Siegfried Herrlicher! Hort der Welt... " O powerful Siegfried, treasure of the world, life of the earth, cheerful hero person! " It begins with a trill and a melancholic and sensual chromatic preparation resulting in the oscillating triad of the perfect accord. One hears this triad in the prelude of the Rhinegold, and when Siegfried remembers his reflection in the water. This filiation explains itself by the following verses: " have not you ever seen your image in a clear brook? ". (One could object that it is difficult to be mirrored in a source! Same as to wonder how to sing under water without swallowing it!). Let us be serious, the music literally melts under the most heart-rending tenderness, tempted by a feeling, which is as delicate as powerful: the fear to lose what one likes too much. Colette wrote about Chéri that physical beauty in a boy is sad because it is intended not to last.

This obsessing and discreet theme appears laconically and only four times in the Ring. When Brünnhilde asks her lover not to overwhelm her but to spare her, when in solitude, in the middle of the near thunderstorm, she contemplates the wedding Ring and later when ill treated by Siegfried she falls broken into his arms and meets her shining glance, finally when she is mad with resentment she evokes this fatal moment. These themes reflect the character of a very young man, almost a child. And this teenager is capable of arousing feelings of an unfathomable protective tenderness, of a melancholic and worried care, of a boundless admiration. Such character does not agree with the reputation of an insensible brute, which is generally attributed to Siegfried.

The theme of peace and that of Siegfried as treasure of the World are most meagrely distributed in the Ring. But Wagner caught up on these themes in the strongly autobiographical music of Siegfried Idyll.

He projected his feelings for his hero on his the newborn child Siegfried Wagner.

One finds these two themes reborn, refined and associated in counterpoint to a popular lullaby, to the theme of silver horn of adolescent Siegfried, to a motive for the warm blood which circulates in his veins, and finally to another one of his quartos called " about the decision to love ".

The above enumerated brings a precious light on the character of the young man: Wagner liked him and admired him. The composer identified himself with Brünnhilde as he identified Siegfried with his son. This is the source of his ambiguous longing for the inaccessible, which is typical for the homosexual phantasm. We know that Siegfried Wagner, who was unhappily named after the hero of the Ring, died of a heart attack after having directed the funeral march of Siegfried.

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