The Magic Flute and Das Rheingold

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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.

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As it happens, I have seen five operas in my life, all on television: The Magic Flute and the four parts of the Ring Cycle. I loved the Ring Cycle. I hated The Magic Flute.

Maybe it's because of my love for "What's Opera, Doc?"

Dear Tom,

I don't know. I suspect it was that the Dominican in you found outright paganism more acceptable than Masonic frippery. :-)




That's certainly part of it.

My officemates and I had this agrument a while back: Does Les Miserables count as an opera?

Dear Brandon,

Not in the Classic Opera mode. It lacks certain cohesive elements that make for an Opera. However, as modes come to be redefined and rediscovered, I often wonder whether much of musical theater, as we now qualify it, constitutes the "New Opera." Heaven knows that if Nixon in China and Einstein on the Beach (Both of which I love in their own modes) are the apotheosis of modern Opera, then the mode will not survive much longer.



My father is a devoted Wagnerite, and so I did acquire the taste early on, mostly from orchestral excerpts of the Ring. When I was in college I developed a taste for Tristan und Isolde, and despite its unhealthy sexuality it holds a special place in my heart, if only because of Birgit Nilsson's ecstatic Liebestod in the 1966 Bayreuth recording under Karl Böhm.

But as time passed, I became less and less fond of either one, and more and more fond of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. It is delightfully lacking in those qualities of bombast, fatalism, and doom which seem to permeate both the Ring and Tristan, and instead is suffused with a lovely Gemütlichkeit, a kind of warm emotional maturity. From a musico-critical perspective, it integrates Wagner's style of Musikdrama with formal features of conventional opera in a way he had not previously done, and even tweaks them for his own purposes a bit: who could have foreseen Wagner writing a fugue for the street fight that ends Act 2? (That and the Tutto nel mondo fugue from Falstaff must be the greatest contributions of formal counterpoint to the lyric stage.)

Of course, it has its own special problems: its length, casting difficulties in their own way greater than any of Wagner's other works, the anti-Semitic characterization of Beckmesser, and Hans Sachs' final monologue, which we of the 21st Century cannot help but read through the lens of Naziism. For all that, Meistersinger is my favorite Wagner; he is no longer trying to solve the great problems of humanity (he was an awful, awful philosopher), and instead gives us a tale of how a wise old cobbler helps a boy get his girl, and in the process puts one over on his uppity colleagues in the singers' guild.

Dear Klaus,

I was wondering if someone might mention Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which is among my very favorite Operas, much less Wagnerian operas. I also have a tremendous fondness for The Flying Dutchman (partially because it is sooooooo much shorter than any of the others) and Parsifal.

The recording you mention of Tristan and Isolde is indeed magnificent and even definitive. It is one that nearly all formal classes in Music Appreciation and in Opera play as exemplary. And is there any, or has there ever been anyone, to match Birgit Nilsson (At least in the realm of Wagner).

I have to admit to having been previously more or less unaware of the difficulties present by Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. I'll have to look at that more closely as I was engaged in a discussion about that very fact with someone. I did not know if Wagner's anti-semitism was actually his own or attributed to him by his usurpation by the Reich.

Thank you for your comment, it's nice to hear from a fellow fan as I am beseiged by anti-Wagnerians in the local group of fans. I'll probably be Tosca'd and La Traviata'd to death!

However, next Opera for the local company is the ever-delightful Marriage of Figaro. I keep hoping for La Belle Hélène. Don't think I'll see that one for a while.

But thank you for the insights into Wagner. And I agree with your summation of his philosophical attributes--they match those of his mad rival in the philosophical world. However, Nietzsche contra Wagner is one of the strongest pro-Wagner argument/statements I have ever read.



Le nozze di lucky sonofagun. My favorite opera. :)

It is generally accepted that Beckmesser's serenade in Act 2 is supposed to be a parody of Jewish singing. But to be fair, Ernest Newman (who I think was a Jew) did not see that; in his monograph A Study of Wagner he writes:

"Really charming also in its way is Beckmesser's serenade in the 2nd Act -- an admirable parody of the Italianised German operatic serenade of Wagner's day, with its fairly obvious melody, the guitar-like strum of the orchestral accompaniment, and the dreadful dislocation of the verbal accent to suit the exigencies of the musical phrase." (Newman, Ernest. A Study of Wagner. New York: Vienna House, 1974, pp. 317-318.)

Wagner's own anti-Semitism, sadly, was quite real, although not as intense as that of the Nazis. Without it I don't think Hitler and his crew could have co-opted Wagner as successfully as they did.

I also recall (although I cannot provide a source for it) that it was Cosima who persuaded Wagner to include Sachs' final speech; Wagner was going to end the opera without it. At the time it was just a little jingoistic; nowadays we read future events into it and it becomes a symbol of dangerous aggressive nationalism.

Dear Klaus,

I'm looking forward to it. My personal favorite Opera (not that you really wanted to know), not because of Operatic Greatness, but personal associations is Rossini's La Cenerentola. The night my lovely wife consented to join me in Holy Matrimony we went out to see this Opera. And I'm sure glad it wasn't Rigoletto or I, Pagliacci. I have a feeling La Donna è Mobile would not have been a good start to the relationship. :-)

By the way, thanks so much for your comments here and below. It's really wonderful to be able to converse, even in pixels, with someone who loves Opera as much as you convey that you do in your posts. I am no expert, but I do enjoy what little exposure I get to it.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on February 21, 2006 8:26 AM.

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