I was not feeling well yesterday, so I stayed at home. In the course of the day I was able to see one full opera and part of another and what a tremendous contrast they were.
The Magic Flute is light, open, airy, and errant nonsense. There are dragons, and bird people, and initiates to the temple of Isis, and a magic flute carved from a thousand year old oak. The music is a Mozartian froth, even its most "chilling" moments are frothy, light, and full of a certain kind of joy. The message of the opera (if it can be said to have one) is utter lunacy, but the thrilling aria, mentioned in a previous post, and the delightful duet between Papageno and Papagena are wonderful entertainment.
Das Rheingold on the other hand is dark, brooding, doomed, and ultimately destructive. I begin to understand why those who have no acquired the taste early on do not care for Wagner. The Romantic Orchestral music is overlain with a truly bizarre variety of operatic snippets. In Rheingold, we have a plot to rival The Magic Flute, a bunch of witless Rhine maidens are guarding a lump of gold, they tease a nasty gnome, and idiotically let him know that the only way to get the gold is to renounce love forever. Well, they tease him enough so that he realizes that love ain't coming anyway, so he promptly renounces it and makes away with their gold, from which he will fashion a ring of power. Scene change--we're now outside Valhalla where we learn that Wotan has traded Freija to the Giants in return for the Giants building the fortress. The Giants come to collect their wages--enter Loge (Loki) who sets about making a real muddle of things. He sets in motion the actions that will end in the destruction of Valhalla at the end of Götterdammerung. The action so far takes place in two scenes of amazing static nature. It probably comprised about an hour and a half of amazing orchestration and truly odd operatic noise hovering above it.
Wagner, unfortunately, carries with him the onus of his own anti-semitism and that vicariously attributed to him by his adoption as the Third Reich's composer laureate. The only real good I can think of off hand is that he managed to alienate Nietzsche, perhaps the single most unlikeable philosopher of Modern Times (though Marx evidently could have given him a real run for the money). Wagner is huge, slow moving, monolithic. He is doing myth and he wants you to be aware of it. The Four Operas of the Ring Cycle approach sixteen hours in length, much of it bombastic, over-the-top tableau singing, despite the fact that toward the end there are some really interesting things going on. From the very beginning the angst is so thick you can cut it with a knife.
So why watch? I don't know--it's rather like the train-wreck of Opera, there is an incredible fascination with watching it unfold in all of its dreariness--the dire inevitability of the fall of the Gods coming at last to its final stages. There's something really satisfying about prophecy fulfilled. In addition, Wagner had an amazingly lush compositional palette, perhaps overly dramatic and ultimately what became known as German music. But the Magic Fire Music, the Ride of the Valkyries, Siegfried's Rhine journey, and other orchestral interludes begin to introduce some of the tonalities and sonorities that would drive both Schönberg and Debussy (in asymptotically opposed directions).
And it was nice to hear German sung in these two ways. In Mozart, German is like any other language, flexible, nimble, lovely in its way. In Wagner, German is like a bludgeon--it is sung so slowly and ponderously that one actually begins to realize that English is a Germanic language in large part--one can begin to understand Wagner's ponderous German. German is not just any other language--it is the language of fate, and doom, and useless gods, and war, and death, and trickery. (Of course it isn't--I'm merely relating the effect of the two operas.) So we have Champagne German and Ultimate-Destruction-of-the-Realm-of-the-Gods German. What an amazing contrast in less than 100 years. (But do keep in mind that Mozart was Austrian, not German--and there has always been a pronounced difference in music, literature, and culture between the two.)
Any way, it was most instructive and a most pleasant way to spend a not-so-pleasant day.