Just as a great design was coming into focus for me a sharp detail began to splinter. The problem was with vornehm, a perfectly innocuous German adjective. The snobbish Antonie Buddenbrook, or Tony, a principal figure in Buddenbrooks, the magisterial family saga by Thomas Mann, uses it often, always with great approval. Approximate English equivalents are not hard to think of. People who are vornehm might be called refined or noble—though never classy (right idea, wrong tone). A townhouse or an apartment or a lifestyle that is vornehm might be called elegant but never grand. Where was the English word that would cover the full range of meanings—the sense of understatement as well as of sterling quality? I consulted the dictionary, found many other alternatives, and came away no happier.
Translators of Buddenbrooks, take note: The word vornehm is one of Tony's leitmotifs, chiming though her dialogue as one sign of her invincible social pretensions. Of course Mann establishes this aspect of her character by other means as well. But to piece together a cluster of associations, as an English reader of Buddenbrooks may or may not have the wit to do, is not the same thing as recognizing a definite pattern; to glean is not to know. To compound my exasperation, I was fretting not only over Mann's novel, which I had just re-read in the original, but about an adaptation of the novel for German television, in eleven episodes, directed by Franz Peter Wirth, originally shown in 1979, and newly released in this country on DVD. (Along with Hans W. Geissendörfer's Magic Mountain and Franz Seitz's Doktor Faustus, Wirth's Buddenbrooks makes up the box set The Thomas Mann Collection, from Koch.) In the opening pages of the novel, Mann meticulously distinguishes between the up-to-date styles of the progressive generation and the antique, eighteenth-century finery still favored by their elders; on screen, everyone was dressed the same. How dull, and what a pity! From that point forward, every slightest deviation from Mann's text was apt to catch my notice. To what extent, I wondered, did small betrayals imply a great one? Or did the various adjustments—arbitrary or inevitable, as the case might be— in some sense serve a worthy end? The English subtitles were a chapter unto themselves, riddled as they were with outright error. I speak German; it made no difference to me. But I had to wonder: What's going on when I watch films in Swedish, Russian, Bengali, Japanese? Faut sméfier, as Raymond Queneau's hell-raising heroine Zazie mutters in the wilds of Paris; faut sméfier, faut sméfier. Wadjaback! Can't trust 'em. Can't trust 'em. And the worst part is that often you don't even know when you're being led astray. Some mistakes are more obvious than others. And some apparent mistakes are not mistakes at all.
Crystal vision is not granted us every day. Holy Fools think nothing of it; the state of wonder is where they live. But for the rest of us…Words playing on thought like sun and shadow on a landscape— liquid, even, impalpable, revealing all just as it is: This is the mode of epiphany. The world I live in is one of text and typos, of translations and interpretations, of performances and improvisations. Words slip and slide. Actors forget their lines, or never got them right in the first place. At times it seems that you can count on nothing but the flaws.
Though my mother tongue is English, most of my schooling was in German. In poetry class, our Norton Anthology was Theodor Echtermeyer's nineteenth-century classic, Deutsche Gedichte (German Poems), revised in the mid twentieth century by Benno von Wiese. The survey began on page 23 with a few dozen lines of the Old High German fragment Das Hildebrandslied (The Lay of Hildebrand), a Teutonic Oedipus Rex set down in the early ninth century. Tantalizing stuff: Two champions meet on the battlefield unaware that they are father and son; we leave them frozen in mid stroke, their shields in pieces. Next came a few incantations, and the blessing of a honeybee, as whimsical as devout. These bits were as intelligible to us as Caedmon's Hymn or Beowulf to our counterparts in the English-speaking world, but by page 28 we were on to Middle High German, and there the sailing was smoother, beginning with the tender lyric "Dû bist mîn" ("Thou art mine"), which any dunce could decipher. Moving ahead, Enlightenment and Sturm und Drang figures like Klopstock, Bürger, Herder, and Lenz had their turn. The titans Goethe and Schiller weighed in with 71 pages each, and Hölderlin had a place of honor. Among the Romantics, Novalis, Brentano, Eichendorff, Uhland, Müller, and Mörike were heard from. The section "Von der Romantik zum Realismus" (guess) brought Rückert, Heine, Storm, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Nietzsche, and Wilhelm Busch, onlie begetter of Max und Moritz, the juvenile deliquent's Crime and Punishment. The 20th century began on page 565, with Gerhart Hauptmann's "Trost" ("Comfort"). George, Hofmannsthal, Rilke, Hesse, Kraus, Trakl, Werfel, and Benn took the floor, as did Brecht and Celan, but it was Ingeborg Bachmann (1926–73), who had the last word, on page 698, with her incantatory "Anrufung des Grossen Bären" ("Invocation of Ursa major").
No doubt the ground has shifted since I was a boy. Still, the flap copy on a book that lately fell into my hands struck me as ever so slightly off the wall. "No poem in German literature is as well known and studied in Germany and continental Europe as the eight-hundred- year-old Das Nibelungenlied," an anonymous scribe for Yale University Press declares, beating the drum for Burton Raffel's new translation. Oh, really? From briefest lyric ("Ein Gleiches," twenty-four words in eight lines) to sprawling epic (the two-part Faust, in 12,110 lines, excluding stage directions and a smattering of prose), any number of Goethe's poems have a stronger claim on posterity than the gloomy, anonymous Lay of the Nibelungs. For the record, Echtermeyer/Wiese accords the Nibelungs not a syllable. Apart from professional medievalists, no one reads the Nibelungenlied anymore. No one knows it. No one studies it. No one cares.
Ah, but people once did. In an introduction to Raffel's translation, Edward R. Haymes, a specialist in Middle High German epic, notes the existence of thirty-five manuscripts, tentatively dated from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. (Of the roughly contemporaneous Beowulf, a single copy survives.) After two centuries of neglect, the rediscovery of the Nibelungenlied in the 18th caused a sensation across Europe. In the early 1800s, Henry Fuseli, the Swiss-born British romantic, illustrated it in images straight from his nightmares. In 1861, the playwright Friedrich Hebbel came out with a dramatic trilogy in verse called Die Nibelungen, a reasonably faithful adaptation of the Nibelungenlied, and not the last. (Cineastes will recall Fritz Lang's double feature of 1924, also called Die Nibelungen, all dragons, swords and sandals, a far cry from Mor Dr. Mabuse.) An operatic version— Sigurd, by the Frenchman Ernest Reyer—opened in Brussels in 1884 and went on to hold the stage in Paris for fifty years. But in retrospect, it all adds up to a footnote to Richard Wagner's epic in four operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs), decades in the making. By 1853, the composer-librettist had completed the text, recited it in public, and published it, at his personal expense, in an edition of but fifty precious copies. Under pressure from his patron, the mad "fairytale king" Ludwig II of Bavaria, the first segment—Das Rheingold (The Gold of the Rhine)— was staged in Munich in 1869. The sequel Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) arrived on the same stage the following year. The premieres of parts 3 and 4—Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods)—followed in 1876, when Wagner inaugurated his purpose-built Festspielhaus in the Bavarian market town of Bayreuth with the first complete Ring cycle.
While the titles might suggest otherwise, the Nibelungenlied and Der Ring des Nibelungen overlap very little. As in the poem, Siegfried, mightiest of heroes, wins the Amazonian Brünnhilde for the weaker Gunther; when the trick comes to light, Brünnhilde conspires with Gunther's henchman Hagen (in Wagner, Gunther's half-brother) to murder Siegfried. That, in a nutshell, is the action of Götterdämmerung. But the characters in the opera resemble their counterparts in the poem hardly at all, as personalities or as symbols.
The Nibelungenlied is a source, not the source, of the Ring. The gods, the dwarves, the giants, the incestuous twins who lend the first three installments of the cycle such mythic resonance—all these have their origins elsewhere. In the end, the links are too tenuous for the Nibelungenlied to be of serious interest to a Wagnerite even as background. Reading it must be its own reward. As to who the Nibelungen are, that remains one of the great muddles. According to some sources, they are a race of dwarves who mine the earth for a matchless hoard of treasure, as in Wagner. In the Nibelungenlied, they are the royal house of Burgundy—no dwarves—established in the city of Worms. How they have wrested control of the hoard, as they seem to have done, who knows? Nothing hinges on the answer.
One of Wagner's great themes in the Ring—its spiritual agenda, so to speak—is the resetting of the cosmic clock. Could it be that the time for the Nibelungenlied has come again? Yale's anonymous flapcopy writer is not the only one who would have us think so. A forward by Michael Dirda, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for Book World at The Washington Post, promises a fantastic adventure: "The great literary works of the Middle Ages—and Das Nibelungenlied is one of the very greatest—are as exciting as they are often desolate and heartbreaking." To drive the point home, he adds: "Something like The Godfather with swords." Breathless with anticipation, we race to Adventure 1 of Das Nibelungenlied (the sections are not books or cantos or chapters, mind, but adventures, 39 of them), and right away we hit the wall.
We know from ancient stories filled with wondrous names how heroes fought for glory, won their fight for fame,
their flowing feasts and pleasures, their tears, their moans,
their noble quarrels and courage, and here once more is more of the same.
Form or content—which is the more dismaying here? The doggerel or the threat of "more of the same"? (By Raffel's count, the Nibelungenlied comes to 9,516 lines, against 11,925 for the Odyssey and 15,963 for the Iliad.) Hope springs eternal: Stories develop, or at least they can.
But prosody is forever. Burton Raffel, distinguished professor of arts and humanities emeritus at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, is a translator with whom one hesitates to tangle. He has negotiated the trickiest and the most exhausting peaks, from the lyrics of Horace to poems in modern Indonesian, from Beowulf and the romances of Chrétien de Troyes to the quixotic Gargantua and Pantagruel and on to the gargantuan Don Quijote not to mention Balzac's Dickensian Père Goriot), with The Canterbury Tales to follow from The Modern Library, prospectively in November 2008. He has written three books on the craft he prefers to call an art, one under the suggestive title The Forked Tongue. Of one of Shakespeare's dullards one of Shakespeare's pedants remarks, disparagingly: "Sir, he hath never fed of the dainties that are bred in a book; he hath not eat paper, as it were; he hath not drunk ink." Raffel, one gathers, eats paper with relish, and drinks ink that way, too. His critiques of the work of his fellow practitioners are nothing short of gladiatorial. "That is my own translation," he writes in an essay about Don Quijote in English, having eviscerated the competition, "and I'm afraid I can't help affirming that this is both what the passage says and what it means." En route to a J.D. at Yale, Raffel spent two years on the law review; if his grandstanding suggests a star prosecutor, perhaps it's no wonder. Still, that was a long time ago.
In Raffel's notes on his translation of the Nibelungenlied, we find him similarly pleased with his performance. He anatomizes—in excessive detail, there being next to nothing to anatomize—the poem's prosody, rhyme scheme, and stanza form. Next come the claims of fidelity, then the excuses. "Both meter and rhyme in Das Nibelungenlied are completely intrinsic—fundamental, indispensable…" Not so much so, however, that one cannot play fast and loose with them even while making a show of doing otherwise. The Nibelungenlied rhyme scheme is A A B B, straight through. Raffel owns up to the fact that most of his quatrains "necessarily" deviate from the pattern, in as many permutations as the mathematics of the thing allow. His discussion of rhyme is another snow job, based on the scarcely relevant French distinction between rime riche and rime faible. As an example of the former, moon/June will do; as examples of the latter—courtesy of Raffel—I can offer "count"/"dismounted," "welcomes"/ "robes," "away/land." Or maybe not. "I have (in desperation, I admit) in a few instances simply ducked for cover and run," Raffel writes. To my ear, those instances are not few but legion—though how to distinguish between Raffel's rimes faibles and his acts of desperation is anyone's guess. Outside a poetry workshop for beginners where those who grasp at straws are granted poetic license rather freely, most readers of English will recognize that this Nibelungenlied rhymes only accidentally and occasionally. What looks like poetry (or verse, at any rate) reads like wretched prose.
Still, it does tell the story, which, crunched to essentials, runs something like this: In the Netherlands, Prince Sigfried—more Lancelot and Little Lord Fauntleroy than Wagner's rambunctious savage— hears tell of the beauteous Krimhild of Burgundy and goes forth to woo her. (The spellings of names of characters in the poem—as distinct from those of their counterparts in Wagner, are Raffel's.) Sigfried strikes a bargain with Krimhild's brother King Gunter, who has his unrealistic sights set on Brunhild, queen of Iceland, a virago to strike fear into the heart of Grendel's mother. Invisible in his magic cloak, Sigfried subdues Brunhild in combat, but back in Burgundy, she proves too much for her husband to handle, so Sigfried lends a hand once more. Gunter is grateful but uneasy. "
But please, don't make love to my wife," the king replied, "and I'll be more than happy with anything else you happen to do. Maybe you'll have to kill her. I won't mind if that's what it comes to. The woman's fierce, I find her terrifying."
Sigfried relieves Brunhild of her ring and girdle (draw your own conclusions), winning Krimhild for his pains. Eventually, in a scene Wagner copies not in the Ring but Lohengrin, the ladies wrangle over precedence at the door of a cathedral. Krimhild goes so far as to call Brunhild Sigfried's kebse, a word for which there is no good modern equivalent. "Comfort woman" might work; in the hood, you'd say "bitch"; Raffel does the job with "whore." Humiliated and disabused, Brunhild bands with Gunter's henchman Hagen to lay Sigfried low; the body is dumped at Krimhild's door. Years later, the inconsolable widow reluctantly accepts the hand of Etzel, king of the Huns (a fictionalized, toothless Attila, long past his prime). When the new cou-ple is blessed with a son, the queen's kinsmen are summoned to the festivities, where Krimhild wreaks Gothic revenge and is mowed down in her turn. One version has the furious swordsman Hildebrand strike Krimhild a blow clean to the waist. Inexplicably, she feels no pain and mocks him. Undaunted, Hildebrand casts a ring at her feet, commanding her to pick it up. Krimhild stoops—and falls to pieces. Raffel's text omits this flourish, though we do read how Hagen decapitates the infant Ortliep in Krimhild's lap, and how Krimhild, in turn, traps Hagen and Burgundians by the thousands in Etzel's great hall and sets it on fire. The men are parched by the heat, but Hagen has his wits about him. He bids them slake their thirst with blood fresh from the wounds of the dead. A first Rhineland warrior drinks; "It wasn't what he was used to, but to him it tasted very good." The rest follow suit. In the morning, Krimhild learns that quite a few (six hundred, the narrator tells us) are left standing, much to her surprise.
The queen replied that no such thing could ever have happened, since no one must have lived through the flames and fires of Hell. "I think it's far more likely they're lying dead, charred and collapsed."
Her amazement is as nothing to the reader's.
Like the wooing of Brunhild, these set pieces stick in the mind. So, though less grisly, do a very few other episodes. On the way to Etzel's court, Hagen encounters two water sprites (shades of Wagner's Rhine Maidens), who "waver over the water in front of him, like birds," prophesying that none but the priest traveling with the king will make it home alive. To prove them wrong, Hagen tosses the man into the churning Danube, only to see God's hand pluck him out and whisk him safely to shore. The commoner Volker, Hagen's brother in arms, swordsman and fiddler extraordinaire, strikes a memorably heroic note. The rewards of the Nibelungenlied, such as they are, lie in flashes like these: primal, inconceivable, as awe-striking in their different ways as magma tearing through the patio of a formal garden. For the rest, the action plays itself out against an incongruous backdrop of chivalry run riot, where a knight on a state visit can spend eons spinning his wheels, hoping against hope for a glimpse of his lady fair (not to mention a proper introduction), frittering his youth away in pageantry, jousts, gift-giving ceremonies, and the parading of finery. ("Clothing wars erupted," we are told at a point like dozens of others.) This stuff is filler, and it goes on forever. But even the real action seems absurdly diffuse, as the cornered Hagen complains to Etzel:
"There isn't much connection," the heroic fighter said, "between Etzel, alive, and Sigfried, long since dead.
He loved Krimhild long before she set eyes on you. Wicked, cowardly king, what evil things do you plan to do to me?"
The sentiment in this quarter is that any time spent on the Nibelungenlied is time wasted. That said, Raffel's performance sets the teeth on edge from first page to last. Note in passing the grotesque enjambment, and the spacey typography that results, sickening to a sensitive eye. The worst of it, though, has nothing to do with niceties of rhyme and meter and everything to do with tone. Both as a translator and a critic of translations, Raffel sets little store by an antique patina. He likes his English contemporary and colloquial. "In Burgundy there lived an incredibly noble girl," he writes as the narrative begins. A girl? Incredibly noble? For all I know, the original employs just as gaseous an adverb, but on what poet's tongue could it have sounded so flat, so anachronistic, so off-key? A translation of an epic from a culture so remote from our own cries out for some hint of the exotic, if only to validate the discrepancies, large and small, between an alternate world and our own.
Assessing translations is always fussy business, all the more since they may serve such different purposes. In theory, the fewer filters we interpose between ourselves and an original, the better. In practice, comparing rival translations can be a pleasure in itself. Years ago, Penguin Classics launched "Poets in Translation," under the general editorship of Christopher Ricks, with volumes devoted to giants like Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Martial, Seneca, Petrarch, Dante, and Baudelaire. After a while, corporate silently pulled the plug on the series, but the titles that saw print are worth hunting down and devouring cover to cover. The editors were liberal in their selections; on occasion, they would include poems inspired by the muse at hand. The John Keats of "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" made the cut—long after readers had had a chance to form their own opinion of Chapman's dogged, metronomic style. For me, first looking into Pope's Iliad was quite another matter. Echoing Keats in thrall to Chapman: "Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/When a new planet swims into his ken." As it happened, I had owned a copy of Pope's Iliad since college and had dutifully hung on to it through many moves. Still, I had a hard time warming to the prospect of twenty-four Homeric cantos in relentless heroic couplets; wouldn't that be rather a lot of a good thing? Emboldened by the samples in the Penguin Homer in English, I took the plunge and never reached the saturation point. As I would later discover, the Odyssey published under Pope's name, in actuality a patchwork from many hands, falls far below this standard. But in the Iliad, Pope's supple, elastic line kept the story moving so swiftly I often had to slow myself down simply to grasp wha was happening. The rhymes, always riches, never faibles, fell into place neatly but unobtrusively, no trouble to the poet, no trouble to the reader. It all added up to thrilling music: ceremonial, august, yet ablaze with passion. Here's Hector, bidding farewell to Andromache:
Yet come it will, the Day decreed by Fates;
(How my Heart trembles while my Tongue relates!)
The day when you, Imperial Troy!
Must bend, And see thy Warriors fall, thy Glories end.
And yet no dire Presage so wounds my Mind,
My Mother's Death, the Ruin of my Kind,
Not Priam's hoary Hairs defil'd with Gore,
Not all my Brothers gasping on the Shore;
As thine, Andromache! Thy Griefs I dread;
I see the trembling, weeping, Captive led!
In Argive Looms our Battels to design,
And Woes, of which so large a Part was thine!
To bear the Victor's hard Commands, or bring
The Weight of Waters from Hyperia's Spring.
There, while you groan beneath the Load of Life,
They cry, Behold the mighty Hector's Wife!
Some haughty Greek who lives thy Tears to see,
Embitters all thy Woes, by naming me.
The Thoughts of Glory past, and present Shame,
A thousand Griefs shall waken at the Name!
May I lie cold before that dreadful Day,
Press'd with a load of Monumental Clay!
Thy Hector wrapt in everlasting Sleep,
Shall neither hear thee sigh, nor see thee weep.
I read, brushing tears from my face before I knew that I was crying. Homer is Greek to me, yet I have heard him true and clear.
Unlike poetry, the art of drama exists, in effect, exclusively in translation. No matter how well a script reads, it's still a script. Only a performance— in real time, before a living audience—is properly a play, or, as the case may be, an opera. In Wagner and the Art of the Theatre (Yale University Press), Patrick Carnegy sets out to show how far stage realizations may stray from a creator's intentions—and how vital it is that they do so. "There are still those who contend, with Cosima," Carnegy writes, referring to Wagner's widow, "that the composer knew exactly what he wanted, and that productions with any aim other than the perfection of Wagner's intention are therefore nothing but intransigence and apostasy. A purpose of this book is to show that they are mistaken, not least in their understanding of what Wagner's ideas about stage performance actually were. It was not fixity but fluidity that was a guiding principle of his theatrical conceptions. The operas may have been defined by the words and music of his scores, but the composer knew only too well that performance has its necessary freedoms."
The book is in three parts. First, Carnegy studies Wagner in his own context, describing nineteenth-century theater practice in forensic detail. Part 2—the most exciting—concerns what we might call the Division of the Spoils in the half-century following the Master's death, from the period of Cosima's enforced orthodoxies to the aesthetic revolutions at the birth of the modern age; Part 3 covers the scene since World War II, with an emphasis on a selection of influential productions especially of the Ring and Parsifal.
Carnegy's scholarship verges on the encyclopedic. His Faust as Musician: A Study of Thomas Mann's Novel "Doctor Faustus" (New Directions, 1973) speaks as profoundly to philosophy, psychology, and political history as it does to literary matters. He explores his latest subject in customary depth, not always, it must be said, at warp speed. The phrase "As we shall see" crops up for the first time (I believe) on page 5 of the main text; "as we have seen" makes the first of countless appearances (again, sauf erreur) on page 7—and if a reader is getting the idea that Carnegy repeats himself from time to time, that isn't wrong. Certainly the text might have been streamlined here and there, and some of the interested public will wish that the author had made more generous use of illustrations. Much of the pleasure of such a volume will always be in seeing how scenic problems were worked out before technology we now take for granted was even thought of. And Carnegy, too, has some fine examples. A schematic for Lohengrin in 1854 shows how the white knight in his swan-drawn boat appeared to the audience first in the person of a little boy crossing the back of the stage and only then as the full-grown heldentenor: a trick of stage perspective that is no less enchanting for being naïve. Elsewhere, we see a cluster of enslaved Nibelungs—local gymnasts of Bayreuth, their hoard consisting of loose junk from a local ironmonger's shop. That works. But how bad things could get in the good old days is seen in a photograph of the Tannhäuser bacchanal. On a happier note, there are technical drawings for a half-dome cyclorama by the Spanish artist and photographer Mariano Fortuny.
But Carnegy's intellectual agenda goes deeper than can be shown in pictures. In particular, he is out to examine the perennially vexed topic of Wagner and the German heart, mind, and soul. In different periods and for different reasons, especially in Germany, it has suited stage directors to divorce Wagner's operas from any political subtext, to view them as expressions of a timeless mythology. At other times and for equally valid reasons, they have felt the moral imperative to confront the political content head on. Carnegy teases out their motivations with great acuity, making the powerful case that Wagner's message of upheaval continues to resonate whether or not an audience grasps or chooses to grasp it.
Some of the productions he describes have been the subject of endless commentary—the centennial Ring at Bayreuth, for instance, directed by the French wunderkind Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Pierre Boulez. Others—the Leipzig Ring of 1973–76, directed by Joachim Herz and conducted by Gert Bahner—have been largely neglected. In any case, the substance—God, the devil, take your pick— is in the details; any attempt to summarize Carnegy's tour d'horizon would be an exercise in futility. Suffice it to say that few readers will ever again regard an evening of Wagner as an exercise of art for art's sake. Some will be troubled when the author ascribes significance— indeed, lasting value—to a production he does not pretend to understand. What counts is that it can be said to "interrogate" the opera at hand. Questions are the thing, not answers, even if the import of those questions is itself matter for speculation. Carnegy kowtows, for instance, to the iconoclastic Ruth Berghaus, who famously proclaimed that she did not "stage the libretto," since that would be redundant, but gaily injected all manner of incongruous and often facetious notes. Unhappily for Carnegy's narrative, key examples of her work have been lost; the scraps of evidence he can marshal add up to little more than hearsay. But then, in performance studies it is ever thus. We seek accountability and must settle for impressions. As the writing of books and the existence of libraries more or less proves, we live in a literate culture, which in theory means that we need not be at the mercy of memory, which plays tricks. But placing performances side by side—even when documen- tation exists—is not so easy as checking quotes or verifying contracts. Critics or plain civilians hoping to distill a director's vision of a work as complex as the Ring or Parsifal must make bold leaps, synthesizing masses of detail that as likely as not will be inconsistent, incoherent, or deliberately contradictory. To compare different interpretations in any but the most general terms complicates the problem exponentially. In the end, our thinking in these matters is governed by intuition, shored up as best we can manage by memories distorted by errors and wishes—just as would be the case in an oral culture. Intentionally or not, Carnegy demonstrates how slippery the whole business is with his discussion of Hans Jürgen Syberberg's film of Parsifal, enacted on a giant death mask of the Master. The imagery is a veritable witches' brew of Wagnerian symbol and allusion; at the climax of the second act, the hero—hitherto played by an angelic moppet of a youth—is replaced by an earnest little Joan of Arc. The film, Syberberg has written, and Carnegy quotes him, embodies "reflections of a post-Hitlerian existence and fragments of memories from Germany before our end arrives." Apocalyptic sentiments, indeed. What to make of it all is an open question; Carnegy's far-ranging critique opens many doors of inquiry. Pat answers, no.
In conclusion, Carnegy reminds us—citing the centennial Ring at Bayreuth—that time does not stand still. This is his last paragraph:
The sheer diversity of Wagner stage interpretations at the beginning of the twenty-first century only confirms the capacity of his operas for perennial self-renewal. It is a measure of their enduring vitality that they can elicit such a wealth of enthralling and provocative responses. All the Wagnerian problematics are of course in the end swept away by the overwhelming power of the music. And if it was always the total dramatic conception—words, music and staging—that mattered to Wagner, it in the end it is to the music that we return. Boulez surely has it exactly right when he says that he and Chéreau wanted their staging not to be an end in itself but always to lead back into the 'invisible theatre' of the music—and, it should be added, on into the imaginary theatre of the mind.
Carnegy surely errs in suggesting (with Boulez and Chéreau) that the music exists apart from the words, but let that pass. The invisible theatre of the music, the imaginary theatre of the mind: This is the place we retreat to when we listen to recordings.
Clearing the decks for a listen to the seventeen or so hours of a complete Ring is never easy. But following the action with libretto or score in hand, we notice things that never register in the theater. While the telling of stories is a cornerstone of Wagnerian drama, some stories register more easily than others. In the first act of Die Walküre, both Siegmund and Sieglinde relate the misfortunes that have brought them to their fated encounter.
Sieglinde's narration—"Der Männer Sippe" ("My husband's kinsmen")—is easy to follow; the events she describes are simple, the tempo is stately, and for the moment the larger action is at a standstill. Siegmund's narration—"Friedmund darf ich nicht heissen" ("I may not take the name Peaceful")—is a very different affair. His tale (which precedes hers) is chaotic, he tells it in a state of mounting excitement, unwittingly exposing himself in the process as his host's mortal enemy. He speaks of a forced marriage, of his failed attempt to rescue the bride, of the bloodbath— events without apparent relevance to his own destiny. Yet in a strange way, Siegmund's story rhymes with the one later heard from Sieglinde, who likewise speaks of a wedding and of a bride married against her will. In context, the two brides nearly merge—yet one lies slain while the other still lives. Obliquely, Wagner is touching on cosmic strains of violence, rape, and injustice. Yet in the theater, that larger perspective is invariably lost. Nor, in the theater, are we likely to prick up our ears when Siegmund calls his enemies "die Neidinge." We never hear of the tribe again, but Neid (envy) is ever-present, motivating crime after crime. Cursing the ring, the dwarf Alberich wishes Neid on all who do not possess it. "Hasse die Frohen," he counsels his son Hagen in Götterdämmerung: Hate those who are happy. Fafner, the giant-turned-dragon who follows Alberich's exam- ple and settles for gold, hoards it in Neidhöhle—the Cave of Envy. In the end, it is envy that drives the tragedy of the Ring; envy is the cardinal sin. To grasp this is to pierce the essence of the work, yet this is a discovery we are more apt to make at home than at the opera house.
And so we keep returning to the invisible theater of the music, the imaginary theater of the mind. Fresh temptations to study the Ring in our solitude keep coming, notably from the apparently inexhaustible archives: performances studded with legendary names, each trailing historical claims to be (by some narrow criterion) the first, the most, the only, the best. A live Bayreuth performance conducted by Joseph Keilberth, vintage 1955, has long enjoyed legendary status as the first Ring in stereo, taped by Decca as a test run but suppressed in favor of the first Ring from the studio, also from Decca, conducted by Georg Solti before he became Sir Georg. At last released from the vault, the Keilberth Ring now makes its tardy debut, on Testament, a distinguished historic label (distributed by Harmonia Mundi).
Every maestro of yesteryear, it seems, has his partisans. No one will deny that Joseph Keilberth (1908–68) enjoyed a highly respectable career. These days, largely on the strength of this Ring, he is being touted in some quarters as one of the unsung giants. Other voices, meanwhile, dismiss him as "just a Kapellmeister," though in other mouths that ancient honorific constitutes the highest praise. Is this the Ring of one's dreams? Certainly not of mine. The problems start with Hans Hotter (1909–2003), who sings the pivotal role of Wotan, chieftain of the gods, ensnared in moral chains of his own making. True, Wagnerites everywhere rank him among the titans. By all accounts, his stage presence was mesmerizing (he stood very tall), and the intelligence and penetration of his interpretations are never in doubt. His peremptory timbre was unmistakable. In the theater, the impression must have been overwhelming. Once in a great while, this performance hints at an artist of truly exceptional powers. The beginning of Wotan's great monologue in Act 2 of Die Walküre is steeped in hushed mystery; and the allusion to the woman his archenemy Alberich has bribed to bear a son gives off a frisson of involuntary revulsion. Still, to these ears (I never saw him), everything falls to pieces in Hotter's flagrant wobble, the gasping for air, the desperate top notes. There are singers who can pass off vocal distress as characterization; Hotter did not possess that art. In their heyday, well documented on disc, Friedrich Schorr, George London, Thomas Stewart, Theo Adam, and James Morris did not require it. To my mind, any one of them had incomparably more to offer in this music: more beauty of sound, more truth of expression, more depth of meaning, more personal fascination.
Nor is Hotter the only disappointment. Gré Brouwenstijn, a Dutch soprano collectors may remember for her radiant Elisabeth in the Covent Garden Don Carlo of 1958, makes a frazzled Sieglinde; perhaps for those of us who heard Jessye Norman sing the part in her prime, only the memory will do. Ramón Vinay, the Chilean baritone turned tenor, and a heartbreaking Otello for Toscanini, seems similarly out of sorts as Siegmund, Sieglinde's long-lost twin and lover. In the quartet of bass roles familiarly known as the Bösewichter (or baddies: Fafner in Rheingold and Siegfried, Hunding in Die Walküre, Hagen in Götterdämmerung), Josef Greindl delivers brute power aplenty but not much else. Elsewhere, the picture is brighter. As the fractious Nibelung brothers, the bass-baritone Gustav Neidlinger (Alberich) and the tenor Paul Kuen (Mime) take care to sing rather than bark their parts, even as they give full value to the words; a pity that Kuen smudges most of Mime's wheedling grace notes. Among the gods of Das Rheingold, the mezzo soprano Georgine von Milinkovič excels as a wonderfully youthful, feminine Fricka (back as a scold in Die Walküre, she is less convincing); as Loge, the tenor Josef Traxel injects a bright, ecstatic note. Ludwig Weber, a bass of distinction, is heard too briefly as Fasolt, the amorous giant; his choice to express the loss of his love not nostalgically but with bitterness gives the character an added depth. To the part of the feckless Gunther, the baritone Hermann Uhde brings authority and command, the better to expose the hollowness at the character's core; a tremendous performance. The Rhine Maidens (Jutta Vulpius, Elisabeth Schärtel, Maria Graf ) are a lively three; in their final appearance, in Götterdämmerung, their flightiness shades into the manic, to purposefully chilling effect. According to the score, Wagner wanted a boy soprano for the Forest Bird in Siegfried; seldom if ever does he get one. Now and then, big names have sung it (Joan Sutherland for Solti, Kathleen Battle for James Levine), but the piping innocence and high spirits Ilse Hollweg brings to the music would be impossible to improve on.
Apart from Wotan, the really heavy lifting in the Ring falls to Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie, and Siegfried, who knows no fear. Astrid Varnay, an American soprano of Swedish birth, and the German tenor Wolfgang Windgassen, who take the parts here, need no introduction. Sub specie aeternitatis, Windgassen never equaled Lauritz Melchior, the heldentenor to beat them all. But by the time Windgassen came along, Melchior was safely past his prime, and the younger man had the field—the Bayreuth of the postwar renaissance at any rate—virtually to himself. The phenomenal Varnay was not quite so lucky. As a recording artist at the beginning of the LP era, she lost out to Birgit Nilsson: the industry needed a Brünnhilde, an Isolde, an Elektra, but there was no room for two. Still, impresarios and the public knew well that Varnay was Nilsson's equal. (In 1951, at a performance of Die Walküre in London, Kirsten Flagstad—once Varnay's baby sitter— made a point of passing the torch to her.) Varnay and Nilsson often performed together, switching off as Sieglinde and Brünnhilde, alternating as Isolde. They were alike in that they knew their worth, they were always on friendly terms, and in the archival age we live in now, their discographies are equally boundless. Any preference for one over the other must be understood to be a matter of taste.
To cut to the chase, both Varnay and Windgassen are astounding here. Brünnhilde's part is by some margin the more complex, and Varnay encompasses it all, from her exultant battle cries in Die Walküre to the great song of lamentation and transcendence at the close of Götterdämmerung. A special glory of her performance comes in soft, intimate passages, as in her two great scenes with Wotan: even at conversational volume, at pitches in a soprano's lower range, the sound has a luster that expresses depths of heart and mind. Conversely, Varnay can hone her sound to the point of a spear: no small advantage when Brünnhilde swears her fierce oath of revenge. Such is her absorption in the mesh of word and song that even the awakening Brünnhilde's hazy exegesis of the love she conceived for Siegfried literally at the moment of his conception in his mother's womb nearly comes into focus. (For all the allure of the music, the passage strikes me, within the Ring, as uncharacteristically, unbearably talky.) Elsewhere, the sheer lucidity of Varnay's diction touches a chord of emotion in lines that seem almost incidental. Towards the end of the endless first act of Götterdämmerung (two hours—even Wagner knew it was too much), Brünnhilde's sister Waltraute flies to Valhalla, whence she came, in deeper despair than before, and Brünnhilde realizes that she will never see her again.
Blitzend Gewölk, vom Wind getragen, stürme dahin: zu mir nie steure mehr her!
(Lightning clouds, borne on the wind, storm away: never bend your course my way again!)
Blending composure and a hint of doom, Varnay invests the passage with great gravity. We sense that destinies are riding on the gusts, and so they are. Already, the false Gunther is crossing the wall of fire to invade her solitude. Even by Wagner's highest dramatic standard, those last moments of the act are exceptional: archaic, laconic, blunt, raw.
The false Gunther, as we know, is the spell-bound Siegfried, singing in a pushed-down register that inevitably sounds harsh and unnatural. Windgassen gives the lines a gruff, grim power. But this is not the place for a heldentenor to shine. The songs the young Siegfried sings as he forges his sword, his confrontation with the disguised Wotan, his wooing of Brünnhilde, his departure from her mountain top, his oath by the point of Hagen's spear; the narration of his youthful exploits; his death—these are the high points of his heroic journey. Siegfried is not a thinker, as Wotan and Brünnhilde are; and his emotional life is less eventful than theirs. But the role requires endless stamina and finer shadings than may at first appear. Windgassen scales the peaks with apparent ease, rejoicing in the din of the orchestra at its most oceanic. Yet he etches the dying hero's last moments with visionary lyricism. Windgassen's Siegfried has more than just a touch of the poet.
And Keilberth? He seldom draws attention to himself, as many name conductors like to do, yet what he can make you aware of is often uncanny. Wagner's marking for the prelude to Rheingold—those famous 136 bars of unadulterated E-flat major—calls for "Ruhig heitere Bewegung": movement of calm serenity. But the first four bars— eight double basses holding open octaves on the base of E-flat—do not move at all. Don't ask how, but following the score, I could feel the pulse, and knew to the nanosecond when to expect the B-flats of the bassoons. Further on came solo lines that were simply bewitching; I think of a flute caressing the melody associated with Freia, the goddess of youth and beauty. I wished that the orchestra had not swamped Traxel's Loge as he launched into his final anthem, but the shimmer and depth of those last pages of Rheingold were spine-tingling. On to Die Walküre, and a prelude of thrilling drive: impetuous, spacious, bows bouncing off the strings. The Ride of the Valkyries came off with wild intensity, while the quieter passages that follow were pure chamber music. The forging scene in Siegfried was dizzying in the sheer density of detail; there were pizzicati in the forest scenes of the second act that sounded, magically, like the snapping of glass wands. The orchestral reprise of the Rheingold song later in the act— without question one of Wagner's happiest inspirations—came flooding forth like sunshine. Siegfried has been called, with some justice, the scherzo of the Ring; this performance shows why. Siegfried's Rhine Journey, a high point of Götterdämmerung, flew by, crisp yet fluent; the Funeral March achieved tragic solemnity without a trace of false pathos. Does this Ring win Keilberth a place in the ranks of the immortals? In the end, the question makes no sense. Why is this about him? No one Ring says it all. The listener who goes away empty fails the test.
Complaints? Oh, I can think of a few. The brass goes haywire here and there, as will happen in a long, live performance. There are blurry patches in the strings, which could just as well be the engineers' fault as the conductor's. The stage action gets awfully loud at times, as if the teamsters were nursing a grudge. But in the end, the majesty of the whole eclipsed the flaws.
Can the same thing happen in the theater? It can and it does. As often as not, it is true, epiphanies come wrapped in fresh irrelevancies, fresh distractions. Conservatives today complain—and they are not alone—that stage directors have come to rule the roost, burying the classics beneath their private obsessions, at best tangential, more likely perverse. At times, the filters are so thick, we despair of seeing through them at all. Yet in the end, what fools we would be to forego the rewards to avoid the aggravations. At the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, a Russian Siegfried impersonates Gunther in the plumed and beaded headdress of a pueblo shaman, and we sense in his shadow the dread of the whole spirit world. At the Met, the director Jürgen Flimm puts the First Prisoner of Fidelio in a clerical collar, the music department casts a towering Afro-American, he sings, and we know—we know—that Beethoven meant his brief solo not as the statement of fleeting hope born in the moment but as a believer's hymn, radiant with the amazing hard-won grace of generations. We see through a glass darkly. Yes, yes. We know in part. Then, in a flash, the filter blows open like a window, and for an instant, the glass itself turns crystal.