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Wand’rers and other refugees

We searchers on an endless quest! The RING tells the eternal tale of the waxing and waning of our ideas and world views. The message is as relevant today as it was 150 years ago: the game may be finished, but it’s never over.

The Valkyrie
First day of A scenic festival in three days and in an eve by Richard Wagner
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Director: Stefan Herheim
With Brandon Jovanovich, Andrew Harris, John Lundgren, Lise Davidsen, Annika Schlicht, Nina Stemme u. a.
Premiere on 27 September 2020

Rings have always been a symbol of eternity. Beginning merges with end in the circular shape. And so it is in Wagner’s tetralogy, in which the Nibelung has to abjure love before he can smelt the ring from the stolen Rhinegold. The ring represents the dark desire for power and yet, right up to the final redemptive downfall, it is also the highest token of a supreme love.

Beginning and end meet up in the Rhine, just as fire and water are united not simply at the end of TWILIGHT OF THE GODS but in a figure of speech in the first scene on the preliminary evening of the RING cycle, when the Rhinemaidens utter the pledge that binds the opposed elements: »Accept our light-hearted games: flicker the river, flicker the flames of the flood«.

»The survivors tell the tale again from the beginning.«
 

After the Rhine has burst its banks, the last lines of director’s instructions in TWILIGHT OF THE GODS paint a picture of flames: »Bright flames appear to be flickering in the hall of the gods. When the gods are engulfed by the fire the curtain falls.« Even though the flames only »appear« to be flickering, the gods are nonetheless engulfed. This means that the velvet veil descends on a scene that puts an end to »appearances« in the literal and figurative senses of the word. More than anything else it is the image we have of the gods in our mind’s eye that dies a spectacular death at the end of 15 hours of stage action.

And so it is that, in its final moments, the music reveals a hope for a depersonalised love, beyond certainty and definition, now that we have been witness to the failure of love in all its concrete manifestations. The first, drawn-out »E flat« in THE RHINEGOLD has become the »D flat major« on which the TWILIGHT OF THE GODS ends. But that’s not the end of the game. Many of the main protagonists may be dead, but there are still enough bit players surviving to tell the tale again from the beginning – one note lower down on the scale: Alberich and the Rhinemaidens live on, as do the »deeply moved« men and women. A game has finished, but it’s not over.

Wagner himself made specific mention of the playful urge as a core characteristic of the young Siegfried, writing »that he uses playfulness to convey to the audience the key myth, just as we use play in narrating a fairy tale to a child. Everything is absorbed via sharp, sensory impressions, everything is fully grasped. And then when the serious Siegfried dies, the audience is fully cognizant of everything that had to be hinted at or made a condition, and then – I’ve won the game!« It’s not only the mythical game being played out onstage that has the audience listening like a child listening to a fairy tale; it’s the game being played by the creator himself that is up for winning or losing, a game that toys with reality and illusion and whose rules Wagner changed on many occasions and in multiple locations throughout the RING’s quarter-century-long gestation period.

That the suitcase is a core element of our production has less to do with Richard Wagner’s own dramatic flight, exile and travels – 200 towns across 16 countries – and more to do with the peripatetic theme inherent to the work. Wotan, king of the gods, is watching his power and prestige shrink: »The world calls me ‘Wand’rer’« is his bald statement in SIEGFRIED. He wanders on the hogsback of the earth, being overtaken by everything that he light-heartedly set in motion, and finally loses his physical presence, like so many of the fleeing, questing, displaced persons who feature in the tetralogy.

György Lukács talked at the beginning of the 20th century of a »transcendental homelessness« and to this day it remains a very real - and not at all metaphysical - refugee situation. At a loss to know how to respond to our »neighbour’s« reality, we haul our collective history and individual life stories around with us in a suitcase, searching for a new, mythical place we can call home – constantly invoking the playfulness of art and the art of playfulness, which look backwards at our origins and forward to where we are going, as Schopenhauer expressed it, with a linguistic play on the World Ash Tree and its cycle of leaf growth and die-back: »Espy the deep truth of your own essence, especially the bit that is charged with a thirst for existence. Espy it again in the internal, life force of a tree that stays constant as generations of leaves unfurl and then fade, a tree that remains unimpressed by all the waxing and waning going on around it.«

The »power of the tree« that Schopenhauer sees as being unimpressed »by all the waxing and waning going on around it« suffers a reverse at the hands of Wotan even before THE RHINEGOLD has properly begun, when he breaks a bough off the World Ash Tree and uses it to fashion the shaft of a spear engraved with laws. The tree spends the entire span of the tetralogy wilting and sickening until its severed sections are burning furiously. Yet Wagner, too, continues to believe in a power that supersedes everything else, when describing Siegfried to King Ludwig II as being »at the core of the great tragedy that is the world. […] An apocalypse is coming. God will ensure that the world is born again, because he is the personification, or deification, of the will to create a world.« Worlds wax and wane somewhere on the spectrum between will and imagination – and on both sides of the curtain we run to them and run from them.

 

Dr. Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach is involved as freelance dramatic advisor in the new production of the RING at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. He has worked closely with director Stefan Herheim for 20 years (Bayreuth and Salzburg festivals, London, Amsterdam, Oslo, Berlin, Glyndebourne, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Paris) and often collaborated on projects with director Karoline Gruber (Leipzig, Düsseldorf, Vienna). After holding a junior professorship for American Studies at Hamburg University and lecturing at a number of art colleges and music academies, he worked briefly as head dramaturg at the Aalto-Theater in Essen.