Germany Double Feature: When Horses Fly, You Better Wear a Helmet – Part I

Dear Readers:

I am doing something a little different today:  Instead of multi-part posts, I plan instead a “double feature”.  Both on the theme of Germany.  My susceptible brain has received two German-themed stimuli in the last couple of days:

Rammstein get hung

(1)  I saw the new Rammstein music video “Germany” which is a corker.  And I have this review of the vid from the Russian press, by reporter Anton Krylov.  As Krylov points out, Rammstein were completely silent for 7 years before issuing their latest work, eagerly anticipated.  And, well, any new Rammstein song is a cultural phenomenon, it goes without saying.  So, I wish to share Krylov’s impressions of the vid and also add my own thoughts.

(2)  But first, I also happened to attend the opera-in-the-movie-theater yesterday; and wouldn’t you know it?  It was Wagner’s Walküre.   The Metropolitan Opera is doing their Ring Cycle again this season; they picked the second opera in the series to show live in the movie theaters.  All I can say is that I pity the poor fools who don’t know the story and were forced to watch just this one opera in isolation.  In fact, there was a nice old lady sitting behind me in her IMAX reclining and vibrating seat (with the cup-holders) who was in that precise situation.  I overheard this conversation at the conclusion of the five-hour marathon:  “What did you think, Grandma?”  “It was very long, that’s the longest show I have ever sat through.”  “Did you like it?”  “The story is very strange.”  “So, you didn’t like it?”  “I loved every minute of it.”

As did I, in spite of the fact that I absolutely loathe that Tinker Toy Lego set, that monstrosity born in the mind of Krazy Kreakle Robert LePage.  Wagner’s Valkyries bobbing up and down on teeter-totters?  Give me a break!  With the theater technology we have today, they could put had the girls on invisible rises and projected flaming flying horses behind them.  Sheeeeshh….

So, my friends, here is the plan:  Today (Sunday) I will post my (hopefully brief) review of this Walküre production.  Tomorrow (Monday) there be an intermission while I do my monthly statistics.  Resuming Tuesday with my review of Krylov’s review of the Rammstein vid.  Got that?  Then let us proceed…

Something New Has Happened In the World

Okay, for starters, when I think of Germany, I don’t think of a beautiful giant Negress super-model.  Is that racist?  Nor do I think of Hitler — to me, that madman was just a flash in the pan, born of Westie imperialist conniving.  No, when I think of Germany, I think of Wotan and his Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde, with her horned helmet, her spear, and her Wonder-Woman shield.

What Germany means to me

In this Met production, the honors are done by bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, who is a super-duper Wotan; and Christine Goerke, who is a boisterous and compelling Brünnhilde.  All of the singers were great.  Normally one doesn’t cheer for the villain Hunding; but in this production he was sung by one of my favorite baritones, Günther Groissböck, with whom I fell in love in an earlier season, when he sang Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier.  Hunding’s part is not a big one, but he made me feel sorry for him when Wotan just egregiously tases him, towards the end of Act II.

Wotan only briefly possessed The Ring, but it still ruined his life.

In a backstage interview during the intermission, Groissböck explained, to Live in HD host Deborah Voigt, that Hunding is not really a villain at all; he is just a simple man who doesn’t think much, and just lives by the rules of that time.  Which include beating your wife and avenging a kinsman’s death.  “Imagine this,” Groissböck argues, in his delightful German accent:  “You’re just an ordinary working guy, you’re out hunting down your enemy all night, you come home, exhausted, you find that same guy in your house, sitting in front of your TV set and flirting with your wife while she hands him a beer!”  Any normal man would kill the interloper on the spot; but Hunding, bound by the Code of Hospitality of the Germanic tribes, treats his enemy to a dinner and a blanket, promising to kill him in the morning after a good night’s sleep!

Bari-Hunk Günther Groissböck

Wagner’s infamous incestuous twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde are sung by Stuart Skelton and Eva-Maria Westbroek, both in great voice, both good actors and exhibiting a real onstage erotic chemistry (although, as I have tried to explain to newbies to Grand Opera, one must bend one’s imagination a tad to see these actors, in one’s mind’s eye, as skinny and distressed teenagers).

The theme of incest, unpleasant as it is, predominates in this opera.  And is the cause of the famous blow-out marital spat between Wotan and his wife, Fricka (sung by Jamie Barton) which opens Act II.  Some backstory here, for those not familiar with Wagner’s insane saga:  After having given up the Ring to the tender care of Fafner the Dragon, Wotan has left his comfy berth in Valhalla (abandoning Fricka) to roam the world in search of solutions to his Problem.  And by the way, this explains why Wotan ages as the cycle wears on, even though the other Gods remain impeccably youthful.  See, it was already explained in Das Rheingold that the “Immortal” gods start to age and die as soon as they are separated from Goddess Freia (who is Wotan’s sister-in-law) and her Golden Apples.

Hence, every time Wotan leaves Walhalla to try a different lifestyle, he ages, just a bit.  No Golden Apples in Germany.  Wotan spends several human life times in several disguises.  In one guise he morphs into a werewolf named Walse, sort of like in the Twilight sagas.  By day a man, by night a wolf.  As a wolf, he mates with a human woman (ugh!) and she bears him the Wälsung twins. Who, I reckon, are one-half god and one-quarter wolf.

Fricka is not buying Wotan’s B.S. any more

The twins are separated as children, Sieglinde is kidnapped by Hunding’s clan and forced to marry him.  When long-lost brother Siegmund shows up, the twins are reunited but also fall in lust and run away together.  They only have sex once, but it’s enough to get Sieglinde pregnant, since she didn’t use any protection.

The incestuous union of the twins is the source of the major blow-out between Wotan and Fricka.  As the Goddess of Marriage and the Hearth, Fricka cannot tolerate such goings-on.  Wotan is more liberal in his views:  “Just because something never happened before, doesn’t mean that it is wrong.  Every now and then something new just happens in the world.”  In this argument, one can hear the echoes of Wagner’s quarrels with his first wife, Minnie!  Minnie/Fricka wins the argument, of course.  A clever wordsmith, she traps Wotan in his own arguments and assumptions.  It is said that women, on the whole, have better debating skills than men, since they possess better verbal skills.  Although Wotan is no slouch either, when it comes to logorrhea.  But he concedes defeat way too soon, in my opinion.  It would have been a much shorter opera if he had just pulled up his suspenders and told Fricka:  “I’m the man in this castle, and what I say goes.  So, just shut up!”

I Am The Least Free Man In the World – Boo Hoo!

The crux of Wotan’s Problem, as every Wagnerian knows, lies in this:  In the upcoming Apocalyptic battle between the Gods of Valhalla versus Alberich’s Army From Hell, the Gods are doomed unless Wotan can get his hands on the Ring.  But he cannot take the Ring back himself, as that would violate his own contract with the Giants (when he gave them the Ring as payment for building Valhalla).  In this crazy universe with its crazy rules, Rule #1 is:  Wotan makes the rules, but Wotan cannot violate his own rules.  Oh, to be sure, he can bend them.  But just not far enough.  The only way out of this mess:

“Who, oh who, can that Free Man Be?”

A free man must arise in the world [horn section:  blast out the “Siegfried” leitmotif], a man who was not created by the Gods for this purpose.  A man who does not know the Gods, does not do their bidding and who, of his own free will, will slay the Dragon and get the Ring back.  Sort of like a secret agent with plausible deniability, that’s what is needed here.

And once Wotan has the Ring back in his greedy-wolf paw, he can defeat Alberich’s evil army of dwarves and coppersmiths.  Wotan’s original plan was to have his son Siegmund be that Free Man.  But of course, Fricka busted his bubble pretty quickly, by pointing out that Siegmund is no free man at all.  Siegmund was created by Wotan, in his Wolf guise.  Wotan manipulated the whole situation, put Siegmund into that crisis with Hunding’s kin, and then also supplied the weapon for him (= the magical sword, Nothung).  Annihilated by Fricka’s debating skills, Wotan concedes defeat, and issues the order to Brünnhilde:  My beloved son Siegmund must die!  This is the scene where even Hitler wept…

A crazy set for a crazy story!

Every good Wagnerian knows by heart Wotan’s lengthy soliloquy in Act II, in which he narrates to his daughter everything that happened so far, and why he must give in to Fricka’s logic.  “I am trapped in a web of my own making,” Wotan laments.  Towards the end of his soliloquy there is a lot of crazy talk and even suicidal ideation:  “All I wish now is for the end!”  Oh dear!  Papa is in quite a funk, and even his favorite daughter’s rambunctious “Ho-yo-to-ho!”s cannot break him out of his clinical depression.

So, we all know what happens next: Brünnhilde, ordered by Dad, to give the victory to Hunding, rebels and tries to give the victory to Siegmund instead. (He’s her half-brother, by the way).  Wotan, bound by his own oath, intervenes personally in the battle, sees that the victory goes to Hunding, has his beloved son Siegmund die in his own arms (again, Hitler wept!), rudely tases Hunding, and then rushes off to punish Brünnhilde for her insubordination.

What About A Free Woman?

Most of Act III is taken up with the ensuing debate between Wotan and Brünnhilde. It’s a typical scene between an enraged father and his rebellious teen:

Wotan:  “You disobeyed me!  You’re grounded!  blah blah blah blah”…

Brünnhilde: “Was it really so horrible, what I did? I only did what you secretly wanted me to do…”

Neither Wotan nor his daughter (nor Wagner, for that matter?) seems to have realized exactly what they are saying here:  Wotan needed a free agent, a “free man” who would even go against him in order to carry out his secret aim.  But what about Brünnhilde herself?  She fits that role to a tee!  Why not just let her run off to slay the dragon?  Since it’s a proven fact that she won’t act as Wotan’s pawn.

But no…  She’s just a girl, so she can’t be The Hero.  Her punishment is the worst one possible that Wotan can think up for a girl:  She will be forced to marry a mortal man.  Who will be her Lord and Master and force her to spend all day at a spinning wheel.  Oh horrors!  Not the spinning wheel!  (Speaking of spinning wheels, next season the Met promises us Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman”, and I can’t wait to see this new production!)

Brünnhilde glimpses some images from the future…

In the ensuing “bargaining” that takes place, Brünnhilde manages to get her sentence mitigated:  Instead of being left helpless on the rock for any coward to find (and rape) her, Wotan’s favorite child will be surrounded by a ring of fire.  Only the true hero of Wotan’s dreams will be fearless enough (and stupid enough) to simply walk through that fire to get the girl.

And here we see that the Golden Apple does not fall far from the Tree!  Brünnhilde is a master of scheming.  She connives to shape the Future, just like Dear Old Pop.  Already, in her little goddess brain, she is plotting her own escape.  That Free Hero who will rescue her is none other than Siegfried himself!  (She’s his Aunt, by the way, I wonder what Fricka will have to say about that?)  Brünnhilde has already set that outcome in motion:  During all the chaos that ended Act II, she managed to gather up the shards of the broken sword (=Nothung) and whisked Sieglinde away on her flying horse, informing the latter (Sieglinde, not the horse) that she is pregnant with Siegmund’s child.  (How does Brünnhilde know this? She just does!)

See, these gods and goddesses have some (limited) ability to see into the future.  Not sure how that works, from a strictly sci-fi point of view.  Only the Norns and Erda the Earth Goddess know the entire Timestream from start to finish.  The Gods can see into bits and pieces, possibly even just Alt-futures.  However it works, both Wotan and his girl can see just far enough into the crystal ball, to know that it could really happen that way, if they play their cards right:  Siegfried will grow up, slay the dragon, rescue the girl, and then (presumably) deliver the Ring intact to dear old Grandpa, who is also his Father-in-Law!  A perfect, if convoluted, scheme!

And, once again, what would Wife Fricka think of all this scheming?  We already know the answer:  She would not approve!  Wotan already ruined the lives of his Wälsung kids; and not that far into the future, their boy Siegfried will also be ruined; corrupted by the Ring, then murdered.  Stabbed in the back by Alberich’s son, Hagen.  Enough already! There is no real solution to this mess, until you gods get it into your bone-heads that the Ring must be returned to the Rhein River!

Redemption By Love

In order for that to happen, we need a hefty dose of Redemption By Love.  Here is the leitmotif:  Arguably one of the most thrilling tunes ever composed by a Meister Tunemaker!  It is heard only twice in the entire Ring Cycle (the second time at the end of Götterdämmerung, as the world dissolves around us in flood and fire while tossing us a bone), and yet is arguably the most important tune ever crafted in the history of European music.  We hear it for the first time at the beginning of Act III, when belted out by Sieglinde.  I have watched this scene a million times, and yet it still has the power to send chills down my spine; and Eva-Maria Westbroek crushed it nicely!  The setting is this:

The Maestro

Brünnhilde has just rescued a clinically depressed Sieglinde, who just saw her brother stabbed to death, her ex-husband tased, and then found herself whisked away on a flying horse.  Brünnhilde (in conference with her eight Valkyrie sisters) decides that the best place for Sieglinde to hide out is in the “woods to the East” — see, that’s where Fafner the Dragon lives in his lair, guarding the Ring and the rest of the Gold Hoard.  It sounds like a scary place, but it’s actually the safest place for Sieglinde, since “Wotan never goes there”.  Problem:  Sieglinde doesn’t want to go anywhere, she just wants to lie down and die. Brünnhilde bucks her up by informing her of the little Bun in the Oven.  And suddenly, as if struck by Divine Inspiration (see, she fell for the Wotan/Brünnhilde scam too!), Sieglinde leaps to her feet and belts out the “Redemption by Love” song:

O hehrstes Wunder!
Herrlichste Maid!
Dir Treuen dank’ich
heiligen Trost!
Für ihn, den wir liebten,
rett’ ich das Liebste:
meines Dankes
Lohn lache dir einst!
Lebe wohl!
Dich segnet Sieglindes Weh’!
O radiant wonder!
Glorious maid!
Thou bring’st me, true one,
holiest balm!
For him whom we loved
I save the beloved one:
May my thanks
Yet bring laughing reward!
Fare thou well!
Be blest in Sieglinde’s woe!

And that, my friends, is what Germany means to me! But next we shall see Germany through the eyes of actual Germans!

[to be continued]

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