In the September 2010 issue of "Opera News," Philip Kennicott proffered a multi-page perspective on the Ring cycle that I found to be not really fallacious as much as murky... and like Donner in Das Rheingold, I feel a need to draw the vapors away, and clear the mists.
Kennicott asks a question- presumably rhetorical- left unanswered- "... is [the Ring] really analogous in riches to the birth of modern consciousness in Shakespeare or the comprehensive psychological atlas of Proust?" Very few artistic figures are going to merit favorable comparison to Shakespeare, either in cross-cultural or cross-genre influence, not even Beethoven or Mozart. However, since the death of Goethe, Wagner is about as close as we can get- with influence in the world of Art-Music (obviously), visual art (Rackham's illustrations, for instance), the stage (e.g.: Shaw) cinema and literature (including Joyce and [ironically for the author of the article] Proust himself).
Not to minimize the significance of Proust, but the issue of whether he or Wagner has resonated more in recent times seems open-and-shut. Most reasonably educated people can recognize a couple of the most famous Wagner passages as the works of the Master of Bayreuth, in the same manner that some of the more famous passages of Shakespeare are identifiable as the writings of The Bard. That same set of people might be able to recall the title of Proust's magnum opus "Remembrance of Things Past," and perhaps (at a stretch) be able to name some of the seven parts of the multi-volume giant... but would come up empty on the issue of acknowledging any Proust quotes. Ultimately, the most ready comparison between Wagner and Proust is that the very length of their art-works has made them subject to similar thrusts of attempted humor- Anna Russell on the Ring cycle-- Monty Python and the Proust Summarization skit.
Kennicott tries this explanation for the endurance of the Ring cycle specifically (and presumably Wagner's art generally)To say that the spread of Wagner's works benefits from the energy of artists motivated by preservation on one hand and a desire to re-shape on the other is to state the manifestly obvious... but to say their efforts fall in the realm of causality- i.e.: that they are responsible for keeping Wagner's Art alive- is possibly post hoc, ergo propter hoc or at the very minimum, a circularity. Like all potential circularities, it can be turned round on itself. Are the energies of the artists responsible for the perpetuation of Wagner's Art, or is the appeal of Wagner's Art such that it engages the energies of the artists?Two forces in particular, forces that are almost exact opposites of one another, have kept the Ring alive. There is the reactionary fidelity to Wagner, which Wagner demanded and perpetuated, through his writings and in physical form, through the construction of Bayreuth. And then there is the long-standing willingness to break with that fidelity and reinterpret the work, as if the Ring were always about something else, always in need of the interpreter's explication.
The desire to view the traditional and revisionist camps as not only opposite but currently equal is a viewpoint that leads to some imprecision on the part of Kennicott. He states:On today's stage it would be more accurate to say that for every Schenk Ring, there are about half-a-dozen Chéreau Rings. The lack of options for people inclined to traditional staging is a large factor in the trans-oceanic voyages undertaken by denizens of the Eastern Hemisphere to Seattle or to New York's MET. For my part, I can say via personal testimony that a little people-watching (or, more accurately, people-listening) at the MET during the intermission of a Ring opera is as close as I've gotten to the feel of the contemporaneous translation room at the United Nations, hearing without too much effort not only discussions in English, but also in Spanish, French, German and (I think) Russian.For every Otto Schenk Ring, with its traditional staging and literal sets,
there is a Chéreau Ring, something radical and bizarre.
Often lost in the musings about Gesamtkunstwerk and (now nearly of equal frequency) the Cult-of-the-Singer is that we occasionally look past the primary appeal of Wagner- and that is that he was a supreme master of Orchestral composition. His mastery was such that, on most sincere lists of their kind, fewer that half-a-dozen composers are rated equal to or superior to him, in the entire multi-century history of Western Art Music. Virtually alone among opera composers, if Bill Maher were to get his wish and opera were to cease to be*, Wagner's music would still have a vibrant life in the Concert Hall- indeed, more of a life than most composers who wrote exclusively for the Concert Hall. Nowadays, most have moved past the claim that Louis Biancolli made roughly half-a-century ago, i.e. he opined "... it is possible to be a Perfect Wagnerite... without once setting foot in an opera house or hearing a complete opera..." Still, to consider the familiarity of Wagner's music among the wider public, reflect on the following: no 'short-list' of familiar classical tunes can be so short as to exclude the 'Bridal Chorus' from Lohengrin. We don't need to expand that list much more to include 'The Ride of the Valkyries' from Die Walküre. The Guinness Book of World Records once claimed that the overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was the most-recorded Classical composition. As long as a very small fraction of people who hear these works develop any curiosity about the larger context of these passages, the replenishment of the legions of Wagner enthusiasts seems assured.
[*In the early days of his broadcast career, when Bill Maher was on premium cable, he said '[I]f opera needs taxpayer support to survive, then maybe opera shouldn't be.']
Kennicott is not through yet, though. Like Hagen, he sees a vulnerability in Siegfried's backside. His perspective?Kennicott is not through piling on Siegfried, yet. He goes on to sayKeep your eye on Siegfried. If the status of Siegfried begins to change for the worse, the whole Ring could come crashing down with him. He is the cycle's most problematic figure, its most volatile element... [I]f in the future, audiences reject him, Götterdämmerung for the Ring could come at the end of Die Walküre.It's noteworthy that Wagner, arguably the most voluble of all artists in any creative field concerning the intentions of his art, has nowhere left us any statement that he intended Mime to be a Jewish caricature. In fact, that which he has left us is the instruction that Mime's depiction be FREE from caricature. However, those who have an inclination to make a discovery for their own agenda-driven purposes are going to convince themselves that they've found that which they have sought out. In so doing, they once again tell us more about themselves than they tell us about Wagner. This includes that characterization that the death of Fafner was a murder. Since Siegfried awakened Fafner (a mere murderer would have slain him in his sleep) and Fafner made a move to eat the kid, I think we can acquit Siegfried on the grounds of self-defense.[I]t's not only that [Siegfried] emodies the worst political and personal traits that bedevil Wagner's reputation as a man- the anti-Semitism evident in Siegfried's treatment of Mime, or the blithe and hollow murder of Fafner in dragon form.
Funnily, though, even if we were to grant all of Kennicott's premises concerning Siegfried, I'm not convinced that a 'rejection-of-Siegfried' would lead to an inevitable reduction in popularity for the final two installments of the Ring. Since I may have belabored the point of musical primacy too much already, I'll let someone else make the case:As an illustration of another example of the 'problematic character' subset, let's touch upon Calaf from Puccini's Turandot. On the surface, his goal to win Turandot overwhelms everything that results from his quest. The city-dwellers sing of a possible mass-slaying in the morning- Calaf exults "let the morning come!" Liu absorbs torture on his behalf... he's okay with letting the torture continue, even to the point of Liu's impromptu Chinese equivalent of hari-kiri to make the torture stop. Just one more bump in the road for our Calaf. This is all reprehensible on a literal level- but it's understood that the major characters of Turandot have their truer functions on the symbolic level. It's the best way of undertanding what's involved. In fact, it's the only way I can view the tale and still hold down my lunch. So, if we make symbolic and allegorical allowances for Calaf, we may want to consider making symbolic and allegorical allowances for Siegfried, coming as they do from probably the most symbolic and allegorical of opera composers.When we consider opera- any opera, not just Wagner's- it is clear that the deciding factor in determining whether the opera dies or survives is the music and the music alone. Most of the operas we know and love have implausible plots or cardboard characters or perfunctory words; many have two of these and some have all three, yet they go on being performed all over the Western world because of their music.[...] As against this, I would challenge anyone to give a counter-example and name an opera whose music is generally held to be worthless yet goes on being performed for generation after generation because the story or the characters or the words have some special appeal. There is not, I believe, a single one. Bryan Magee- Aspects of Wagner
In his concluding paragraph, Kennicott forwards this:It's inarguable to say that the Ring is (just) opera, just as it's inarguable to say that Chartes is (just) a Church. Both statements are equally true, equally flippant, and equally uninsightful.Siegfried must be reinvented if the Ring is to continue it its old form...otherwise... [the Ring] will become what it has always been, despite the mostly successful attempts of its partisans to claim otherwise. It will be an opera, just an opera- a lot longer, but essentially the same as any other.