The Great Reckoning of Ragnorak: Wagner, Valhalla, Wall Street and the Twilight of Capitalism’s Gods

Gotterdammerung » Jennifer Wilson (Gutrune), Alan Held (Gunther), Eric Halfvarson (Hagen). (Photo by: Monika Rittershaus)

L.A. Opera’s culmination of Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelungen is not only the fourth, final and finest installment of the four part Ring Cycle, but goddamn, Götterdämmerung is the greatest opera I’ve ever seen in my entire life!!! In terms of its breathtaking design, staging, mise-en-scene, special effects, costuming, performances, hidden message and of course Wagner’s virtuoso music, director/ designer Achim Freyer surpasses himself with his tour-de-force Twilight of the Gods (as Götterdämmerung is called in English).

Götterdämmerung is the endtimes gospel according to the ancient Germanic and Nordic myths, as retold in libretto and stirring musicality by Wagner, and here intepreted by the brilliant Freyer. The complex, intricate plot of the gold stolen from the Rhinemaidens and forged by the dwarf Alberich into a magical, omnipotent ring that begins in the Ring Cycle’s first installment, Das Rheingold, which L.A. Opera opened back in February, 2009, reaches its conclusion in Götterdämmerung. The Ring’s second installment, Die Walkure, depicted Wagner’s rousing The Ride of the Valkyries, as the chief god Wotan punishes his daughter the winged women warrior Brünnhilde (soprano Linda Watson who reprises her role in Twilight) for perceived disobedience. In Siegfried, the third installment, heroic but not too bright Siegfried (heldentenor John Treleaven also returns in Twilight) rescues and weds Brünnhilde.

(Spoiler alert:) Götterdämmerung unfolds with all the high drama of Shakesperean tragedy: If Wotan’s (aka Odin, as all Thor comicbook readers know) misbegotten treatment of Brünnhilde suggests King Lear’s similarly misguided actions towards his loving, loyal daughter Cordelia, Twilight calls to mind Othello. As in the latter, wherein the insidious, envious Iago schemes to split Othello and his bride Desdemona up, the misshapen Alberich (baritone Richard Paul Fink in his L.A. Opera debut), Hagen (bass Eric Halfvarson, who has also played several other roles in L.A. Opera’s Ring Cycle) and Gunther (bass-baritone Alan Held, who previously portrayed Wotan) cunningly conspire to divide Siegfried and Brünnhilde, with similarly disastrous results. Siegfried may have brawn, but not enough brain, and this Twilight tale ultimately, inexorably leads to what Christians call the Apocalypse, and ancient Scandinavians and Germans called “Ragnorak”: The destruction of the gods’ fortress of Valhalla and the deities’ downfall.

Top: Christian Steiner, Stacey Tappan, Gordon Hawkins. Second: Linda Watson, John Treleaven. Third: Amanda Freyer, Eric Halfvarson, Beth Clayton. Bottom: Michelle DeYoung, James Conolon, Lauren McNeese

Much has been made of Freyer’s avante garde style and sensibility, with a Star Wars and Blue Man Group panache replacing traditional iron horned helmets, breastplates and other operatic conventions, which opera purists scorned. But what I think is far more important is the content of the Cycle and Freyer’s interpretation of it, and why this opera which premiered in 1869 remains relevant for our times. The key is that Freyer, born in Germany in 1934, was a “meisterschuler” – a sort of star student – of leftwing playwright Bertolt Brecht, arguably the 20th century’s Shakespeare. Freyer presented productions at the fabled Berliner Ensemble, which is to Germany what the Group Theatre is to America. However, unlike the Group, which was chronically plagued by underfunding, the Berliner Ensemble was the German Democratic Republic’s national theater, and with the GDR’s state subsidized support, the Ensemble could rehearse shows a full year before premiering them.

The anti-fascist Brecht, who’d married Jewish actress Helene Weigel, fled the Nazis in 1933, relocating to Denmark until Hitler invaded there, moving on to Finland until Germany struck, then crossing the vast Soviet Union until he departed on the very last passenger ship out of Vladivostok before the Nazis invaded the U.S.S.R. Brecht wound up at Santa Monica, co-wrote Fritz Lang’s 1943 anti-Nazi film Hangmen Also Die! , but then fled persecution by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. Eventually Brecht established the Berliner Ensemble at East Berlin, in the GDR (aka “East Germany”).

Consciously, unconsciously or both, Freyer appears to bring a leftist sensibility to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It’s deities toppling tale symbolizes the current collapse of capitalism that’s still unfolding. Once known as “masters of the universe,” like Valhalla’s gods, Wall Street’s financiers have been brought down by the financial meltdown. The omnipotent Lehman Brothers went bankrupt in 2008; this April the Securities and Exchange Commission charged godlike Goldman Sachs with fraud. Just this month, as Greek workers battled imposition of austerity measures with Siegfried-like heroism, the stock exchange plunged with its steepest ever decline, almost 1,000 points in a mere matter of minutes. And so on, from Asgard and Valhalla to Wall Street; o, how low the mighty have fallen! We’re witnessing the Götterdämmerung of capitalism and the capitalist class.

Back: Michelle deYoung (Waltraute), Front: Linda Watson (Brunnhilde) (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

In terms of form, Freyer seems to have deftly deployed Brecht’s well-known “alienation effects” via the Ring Cycle’s wildly imaginative sets, costumes (devised with his daughter, Amanda Freyer, co-costume designer), lighting (co-created with lighting designer Brian Gale), etc. While it’s true that Freyer’s far out aesthetic “alienated” many opera traditionalists, Brecht’s alienation technique was intended to emotionally distance audiences from productions they observed. In this way Brecht theorized viewers would use their intellects to discern lessons to be learned from Lehrstücke, or teaching plays, intended to bring spectators to a higher awareness. Thus, the formal, modernist mode Freyer uses for the almost 20 hour Ring Cycle aims at making audiences think, as well as feel, and perhaps to reflect on the contemporary relevance of the catastrophic collapse of the gods in our own age of ongoing turmoil.

Returning to content, Wagner’s Ring Cycle also has much to say about Germany’s collective psyche. In Siegfried Kracauer’s brilliant 1947 From Caligari To Hitler, A Psychological History of the German Film – arguably the best book of cinema criticism ever written – Kracauer showed how the procession of movie monsters and tyrants of the pre-Hitler, Weimer screen were forebodings, predictions and projections of Nazism from Germany’s collective unconscious. These terrifying premonitions included 1914’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Dracula drama Nosferatu and Lang’s 1931 M. starring Peter Lorre (a frequent Brecht collaborator) as a psychopathic pedophile and serial killer. But as the Ring Cycle’s obsessions with world conquest and domination based on ancient Aryan legends reveal, the Germanic fixation on “tomorrow the world” was reflected in mythology, epic poems and operas long predating the advent of films.

Much has been made of the $32 million budget of Freyer’s Ring adaptation, and detractors have tried to use its price tag against him as a sign of extravagance. However, if put into perspective in the L.A. entertainment scene, this is less than the budget of the average Hollywood movie. In any case, L.A.’s first ever complete production of the Ring Cycle has generated lots of buzz and 115 cultural, artistic and educational institutions have joined forces to create Ring Festival LA, which is presenting related “symposia, panel discussions, lectures, art exhibitions, concerts, films, theater, educational events and tours” through June, according to Festival leader Barry Sanders. Placido Domingo, the Eli and Edythe Broad General Director of L.A. Opera, calls this “the largest, most significant cultural festival in Los Angeles since the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival.”

The Festival’s myriad events and venues are too numerous to list here, but for details see: see: http://www.laopera.com/tickets/pdf/2010_RingFestival.pdf and www.ringfestivalla.com. My personal favorite (excluding the quartet of operas themselves, which are returning) has been the May 7 and 8 screenings at the L.A. County Museum of Art (co-presented by the Motion Picture Academy and Goethe-Institut) of Fritz Lang’s 1922 adaptations of some of the similar myths Wagner drew upon. Lang’s Die Nibelungen are movie masterpieces that were to the silent screen what Avatar is to today’s audiences in terms of technique, budget and also theme, with the clash between the more “civilized” Burgundy knights and the “primitive” Huns.

Barry Bremer

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Lang was a sort of 1920s James Cameron – and Freyer! As Lang biographer Robert Armour noted in his 1978 book, “The scale of the filmed saga is immense. No costs were spared in the production, which was in a grand manner seldom permitted since.” 35 mm prints of Lang’s two part epic, Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge, were projected in glorious black and white on the Bing Theater’s big screen, so audiences could see these classics as originally intended. (The prints included a presumably non-Wagner musical score, and an interpreter translated aloud the film’s German titles, printed like script in a medieval illumined manuscript.)

According to Armour, the sources used by Lang and his wife, screenwriter Thea von Harbou, included Wagner, 19th century dramatist Friedrich Hebbel and a 13th century anonymous Austrian epic poet. It’s interesting, if esoteric, to compare Wagner’s version to Lang’s, which Armour contends “is more closely related to Hebbel’s than to Wagner’s, in which Siegfried and Brunhild are the lovers and Kriemhild is omitted in…” Lang was also influenced “by the versions that were much older… Lang’s view of this myth contains… less mention of the struggles of the gods than Wagner’s.” Although interestingly (plot spoiler alert), like Götterdämmerung, Kriemhild’s Revenge also ends with a fiery fortress decimating the high and mighty, as Kriemhild (Margaret Schon) exacts revenge on Hagen (Hans Adelbert von Schlettow) for murdering her beloved Siegfried (Paul Richter). Kriemhild is so hellbent on vengeance that she even disgusts her second husband, Attila the Hun (aka “King Etzel,” played by Rudolph Klein-Rogge). Hell hath no fury as a fräu or fräulein scorned!

In any case, along with its expansion, redesigns, reinstallations and superb exhibits like its just closing Renoir (Pierre-Auguste, not Jean) show, screenings of vintage films like Die Nibelungen help to solidify LACMA’s status as a world class institution of art. (LACMA is also exhibiting the show “Wagner’s Sources” through Aug. 16.)

Similarly, the presentation of Freyer’s unconventional Ring Cycle helps to push L.A. Opera towards the front ranks of world opera. Starting this May fans won’t have to see the Ring Cycle on the installment plan, minus intervals of months between the mounting of each production.

Starting May 29 and through June 26, opera lovers will be able to choose between three different Ring Cycle cycles in order to see the four part work in its entirety within days.  And yes, Placido Domingo also returns as Siegmund in Die Walküre. As for moi, the entire experience has turned me, musically, into a Wagnerian.

For the dates and times to see Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung performed May 29 – June 26, 2010 at L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., see: www.laopera.com or call: (213)972-8001. For related Ring events see: www.ringfestivalla.com and http://www.laopera.com/tickets/pdf/2010_RingFestival.pdf.

Ed Rampell

Published by the LA Progressive on May 13, 2010
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About Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell was named after legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. Rampell is a L.A.-based film critic/historian and author. Michael Moore is on the cover of Rampell’s book Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States.