Posts Tagged ‘James Morris’

Great moments in opera: Die Walküre

March 26, 2010

Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) is the second part of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, following on from Das Rheingold.  Dramatically, it is a bit of a mixed bag: the three Acts feel disjoint, and the rationale behind the action is at times quite opaque, at least to me.  Musically, it is far lovelier than was Das Rheingold.  The first Act especially, in which we are introduced to the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, achieves a sense of hushed and intimate intensity that is quite beautiful.

Since the end of Das Rheingold, the god Wotan has been busy: he has fathered two mortal offspring, Siegmund and Sieglinde, who have then been separated as children and grown up separately.  At the opening of Act I, Siegmund stumbles unknowingly into the home of Sieglinde and her husband Hunding.  The twins, though not recognizing one another, nevertheless sense a deep connection and misinterpret it as romantic love.  This is most unfortunate, since it means that we are obliged to contemplate an incestuous love affair as part of the story — and not on the margins of the story, either, since the fruit of their union, Siegfried, will be the central hero in the subsequent parts of the Ring.

Anyway, it soon comes out that Siegmund is fresh from killing Hunding’s friends and relations, seeking to avenge Hunding’s own slaughter of Siegmund’s family many years before.  They vow to fight one another on the morrow.  Siegmund has just one problem: he has no sword.  Conveniently enough, the room in which he is being held has a great tree in the center — the World Ash Tree — with a sword embedded in its trunk.  He learns from Sieglinde that many years before a powerful man — their father, Wotan, in disguise — had put the sword there, declaring that only the one destined for it would be able to pull it out.  Siegmund tries his hand at it and, sure enough, he succeeds.

Here is the section in which Siegmund and Sieglinde declare their love for one another.  Dramatically this is pretty nasty stuff, but the music has a lyrical beauty that is rare in Wagner.  The section begin with Siegmund’s song Winterstürme wichen, in which he sings about spring, blossoms, fresh winds, birds, and other things that trip readily from the tongue of a lover.  Sieglinde answers him in kind with Du bist der Lenz.  They then exchange pleasantries about shining faces, noble halos, spring moonlight, and dreams of love.  At the end of this clip they creep up to the realization that they have the same father, and that each is therefore the other’s long-lost twin.  The singers here are Peter Hofmann and Jeannine Altmeyer, in a 1976 Bayreuth production conducted by Pierre Boulez.

In Act II we meet for the first time Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie from whom this part of the Ring takes its name.  She is a goddess who rides a horse in the sky.   The plot in this Act is convoluted and not very clear to me.  By the end of it, Siegmund is dead (killed by Hunding, his sword shattered by Wotan) and Sieglinde has been taken by Brünnhilde to Valhalla.  Sieglinde is pregnant.   Meanwhile, Brünnhilde has brought the wrath of Wotan upon herself by disobeying his orders.

Act III opens with the famous Ride of the Valkyries; personally I find this section laboured and bombastic.   Once it ends, Brünnhilde gives Sieglinde the fragments of Siegmund’s shattered sword and bids her take refuge in the woods, awaiting the birth of her child.  Then, in the final scene, Wotan punishes Brünnhilde for her disobedience.  He strips her of her divinity and puts her into a deep sleep, promising that she will remain there until awoken by a mortal man, to whom she will then belong.  She begs him to surround her with terrors as she sleeps, so that only a great hero will be able to find her, and he concedes.  She falls asleep and Wotan, summoning the god of fire, places a great ring of flame around her.  There she will remain until the end of Siegfried.

The closing moments of Die Walküre, when Wotan bids farewell to Brünnhilde and sets the fire around her, are among my favourites in the Ring.  The orchestral music, sometimes played separately as the Magic Fire Music, is quite extraordinary.   Here it is, in a 1990 production from the Metropolitan Opera.  Wotan is sung by James Morris and Brünnhilde by Hildegard Behrens.

Die Walküre is nearly four hours long, and I must admit that at times I found it tough going. Any hope I may have had of penetrating the philosophical or political meaning of Wagner’s drama is slipping away as I struggle to master even the literal sense.  The music is not nearly as rough and ugly as it was in Das Rheingold, but the slow action and sometimes perplexing logic driving it are trying my patience.  I am determined to see the Ring through to its conclusion, but I am beginning to have wistful dreams about a certain Wolfgangus Theophilus.

Great moments in opera: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

February 25, 2010

Fresh from Tristan und Isolde, and preparing myself for Der Ring des Nibelungen, I listened for the first time this week to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and I fully expected it to fall into line with the others: monumental and tragic, but also ponderous, dramatically slack, and at least twice as long as it needed to be.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Die Meistersinger is a comedy!

It is true that, if brevity is the soul of wit, Wagner would have to be accounted one of the least witty men in history, but Die Meistersinger has surprised me with its good humour, spacious geniality, and gentle exuberance.  It is still very long (about 4-1/2 hours in performance) but it has a good story and a set of good characters that were a pleasure to watch.

The story, briefly, is about a young man, Walther, who seeks entrance to the guild of the Master Singers in 16th century Nuremberg.  The beautiful young woman whom he loves, Eva, will bestow her hand in marriage upon the winner of a singing contest, but only members of the guild are eligible to participate.  The guild Masters complain that Walther’s manner of song is unconventional and ugly, breaking all of the established rules, but one member, the cobbler Hans Sachs, sees the merit in Walther’s composition and helps him to gain admittance to the guild.  He sings beautifully, of course, and he and Eva live happily ever after.

It is not difficult to discern the self-regarding allegory at the heart of Wagner’s story: Wagner himself is Walther, and the guild Masters are the musical establishment, deaf to the glories of his new manner of song.  To his credit, he did not write a simple-minded celebration of artistic radicalism; at one point Sachs reminds the irate Walther that conservatism protects and sustains much that is good and praiseworthy.  And even if the opera is one giant criticism of those who opposed Wagner’s artistic vision, he was magnanimous enough not to indulge himself in shrill denunciations.  The work is genuinely light-hearted and charming.

I read, with some surprise, that Die Meistersinger was a favourite of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.  The founding of the Nazi party was celebrated by a performance of the opera, and its music was used in Triumph of the Will.  For the life of me I cannot see why it should have tickled Hitler’s perverse fancy, unless it be on account of the brief episode near the end when everybody sings the praises of German art.  Pretty benign stuff.  This is a good reminder — which will be even more important to keep in mind when we come to the Ring cycle — that the meaning of an artistic work is only partly due to its history of appropriation.  Hitler does not get to tell us definitively what Wagner means.

The music of Die Meistersinger is unlike anything else that I have heard from Wagner.  It is bouyant, sometimes lyrical, and always good-natured.  The use of leitmotifs is pervasive, and in certain scenes (such as at the end of Act II), used to superb effect.  I was amused to hear the Isolde leitmotif from Tristan und Isolde making a cameo appearance as well.


Enough talk.  Let’s hear some music!  The most famous music from this opera is the orchestral prelude, which can be heard here.  I have selected two other episodes that I particularly enjoyed.

The first comes from Act II.  Beckmesser, the most curmudgeonly of the town’s Meistersingers and a rival with Walther for Eva’s hand, practices his song beneath her window on the night before the competition.   Earlier in the day Beckmesser had “marked down” Walther’s song, rejoicing at each transgression of the rules.  Here Sachs gives him a taste of his own medicine, striking his cobbler’s hammer each time Beckmesser makes a mistake.  Beckmesser is sung by Thomas Allen and Sachs by James Morris; the production is from the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  English subtitles are included:

In Act III, the central characters prepare for the festival at which the singers will compete, and they pause to sing a lovely quintet.  This doesn’t advance the story at all, but it is sure pretty.  Here is some footage from the 1963 Bayreuth festival, with Josef Greindl, Anja Silja, Wolfgang Windgassen, Erwin Wohlfahrt, and Ruth Hesse singing.  Text and translations here (scroll down to where Sachs sings “Die selige Morgentraumdeut-Weise”).


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