Since we were due to be thinking a lot about Die Walküre this week, it seems like a good time to talk about this incredible stage of the Ring cycle. I think for many people it's the most dramatically compelling and emotionally powerful part of the Ring cycle; it's often the one that if you're introducing someone to Wagner for the first time, you might tip them in on. So that's why I'm delighted to have here: Anthony Negus, and Paul Carey Jones. Anthony of course was conducting and is conducting our Ring cycle and Paul was to take up the role of Wotan this season.
I was very taken by something that Ernest Newman wrote about the way that the cycle progresses. Obviously there’s this idea that it is a great symphony, that Das Rheingold is the exposition: the ideas, the themes, the motifs being laid out in a fairly sparse way; but then he says that Die Walküre is “the moment where Wagner abandons himself to the sheer joy of music making”.
This is where things really take flight and really take wing; and I just wondered, as a conductor you’re man with the overview of the entire four nights, the entire four dramas - where does Die Walküre fit into all that, and how is it different from conducting Rheingold?
Each part of the Ring is very different. Now I can say that having done several Ring cycles seven years ago. The first act of Die Walküre is a really tricky one because I remember a sitz probe [seated rehearsal] for Die Walküre - I think it was when we did the complete cycle - and I spent most of that sitz probe on Act One, up to the scene where Siegmund is left alone. And the reason for that is it's much more episodic and much more exposed. Once the lovers, once they've sort of really got swinging into their love scene, something else takes over and it happens - and if you know the score and you can mould it well, you let it happen; and I've always found I needed to rehearse those recitative-like sections with Hunding, and the opening scene, more than the rich passages, where, as Newman says, Wagner “abandons himself to the joy of music making”.
So it's a very interesting contrast. And Rheingold I found infinitely more rewarding this time around, when we did it [in 2019] than the first time. And I just think Rheingold is a far richer score than people sometimes tend to think. But Die Walküre: the emotion becomes deeper and more wonderful, and so it is a joy. The second act is a huge journey. As you know, Wagner wrote about it, that was a bad time, he was going through a very tricky time; but it is a stunning act, and I find that challenge to conduct Act Two a very, very exciting one; and in Act Three, of course, you are really buoyed along from the word go, frankly.
The other thing of course, this is where Wotan only comes in in Act Two; I've always been fascinated by, and it's what I want to ask Paul about: I'm fascinated by the sheer physical and technical challenge for a singer, of singing a role like that. I'm not enough of a specialist on the voice to know; is it physically exhausting to have this whole of Act Two to carry, and then to come back at the end of Act Three with this tremendous final scene? How did you pace it; physically is it demanding; is it well written for the voice?
Paul Carey Jones:
It is. This is the thing that even many singers don't appreciate about Wagner, because we're quite rightly told as young singers, it's sort of like Superman and kryptonite: “don't touch Wagner until you're 35, 40”, whatever it is, until you're ready for it; and it is dangerous stuff. It is material that as a singer you shouldn't come to until..it's not so much the maturity - although that is a factor - but it's that you have to be absolutely on top of your technique. Because of the way it's written, and the extent of it, Wagner will zero in on any technical, even slight technical deficiencies of your voice, and they will be magnified and you'll get into trouble.
So you have to have gone through a process of making sure that your technique is solid enough. And I suppose the maturity thing does come in, in the aspect that your voice has to be ready for it, because you can't push your way through this material. You have to sing it technically correctly; you have to sing it beautifully to get through it at all. The reason, aside from anything else, the reason for that is that the challenge is really emotional, I think. Especially in Die Walküre. The emotional content of the role is so strong, and the power of that orchestra to tap into that emotion is so overwhelming, that if you just approach it without a plan on how to map that out of the course of the evening, then you'll get yourself into trouble very, very quickly.
And one reason for that is that on the surface it seems that Wotan is very angry a lot of the time. And I think if you just throw yourself at it, you end up being angry, getting angry towards the middle of Act Two, and then you've got another two and a half hours of being angry. There's nowhere to go. So your task really in coming up with a plan is to find the different flavours of anger, and even more importantly any emotion, any color, any thought, any motivation which isn't anger - which (1.) helps you get through it as a singer; but (2.) makes it far more interesting. There's so much going on here, and it's so easy to produce just a superficial version - and that works very well - but the more detail that the singers can find in these roles and these dramatic situations, the less boring it gets. And in fact it's not boring at all - you realise that every single moment of this is crucial to the whole structure overall.
Obviously the most important basic thing is to study the score and look for what Wagner asks for. We find that constantly he asks Wotan to speak in a kind of muted voice, because after all, in the scene - I'm not going to call it the monologue because it's a duologue with Brunnhilde - but she is part of him at this stage. And he sings this almost as though to himself. And it's only later - i mean he has a huge outburst at the beginning, isn’t that right Paul, I mean a tremendous outburst of absolute pain and anger and frustration, because Fricka has just got the better with him, and he's got to give up, his caught in the dilemma. But then he tells the whole story in this muted voice. So the more places we can find where there is that quieter tone, the more effective are these huge great outbursts.
All the different Walküres you've conducted over the years, including that Jonathan Dove version [at Longborough in 2000-2004], and now the second [full] production here at Longborough; how's your understanding of the work matured and grown and changed; has it evolved?
Clearly I'm changing, you know as the years go by. I look back and I still find... I was listening again to Furtwängler's recording of Don Giovanni and realising: my god - all those inner rhythms, which I've been so frustrated about hearing performances because I couldn't hear - everything was so fast. Suddenly they came in and made sense. So it was that; then it was Reginald Goodall’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which was a complete revelation for all of us; and then it was Klemperer. And out of all that, I got this feeling that you have to find the smallest note values, the smallest quickest note values, and make sense of them. What you have in the Todesverkündigung scene is [sings] in the violas. And usually you hear [sings]. These are all melodic. And if you do conduct it with that understanding that every melodic strand counts, then little by little, you have to then piece it together and make it part of the whole.
There's also of course, with Die Walküre, we've talked a lot about how the musical side of things and the technical side of things, but there's - we have touched on the immense philosophical and emotional complexity of the second act, Wotan’s great act, really in the whole drama I would say. These three extraordinary exchanges that shape it: a long exchange with Fricka where he finds himself crushed, potentially realising the trap he’s caught in; then the great emotional outpouring to Brunnhilde; then of course the final scene in which he says very little and does very little, except an enormous force at the very end of the act - in which Brunnhilde sort of takes what she’s learned and begins to see the world in a bigger and more different way, as she talks first to Siegmund, and then of course has to flee Wotan.
It is an astonishingly complex act. The standard sort of jokey dismissal that’s made by the Wagner sceptics, of whom I fear there are still people, is that this is just a couple of domestic rows basically: it's a middle-aged patriarch having a nervous breakdown, essentially, taking it out on the women in his life. On the other hand my great colleague Michael Tanner said these two dialogues are the moral and psychological heart of the whole drama. Paul, what do you think; how do you understand what's going on inside the mind of a god after all?
The very first session I did with John Tomlinson on Wotan, I asked him that very question. We were working on the start of Rheingold and I was talking about the “being asleep” business. And I'd read a lot about the philosophy of it, and what “Odin's sleep” in Norse mythology meant, and all this sort of thing; and I ran all this by John and said, what do you understand by this state he's in at the beginning of Rheingold? And John said “well...he's asleep.”
And his point was that whatever the baggage, whatever the background and the weight of philosophical meaning, with the mythological meaning, of symbolic meaning that is carried by these characters - when you're playing them, you have to tap into the human aspect of them. And that's the way into the Ring I think for us as performers, and for us as the audience. And that's what makes it powerful, is when we recognise in this immensely powerful, mythological setting, we recognise situations from our own lives. So the relationship between Wotan and Fricka is very recognisably a human husband/wife relationship, in a marriage that is broken down.
The relationship between Wotan and Brunnhilde is that of a father and daughter; that with Siegmund, his only, favourite son; you know, there's a lot more to it than that - but that's got to be your starting point and your finishing point really. And that's the way in.
There's something to be said for this idea that it's a domestic squabble between Wotan and Fricka, because that's what he thinks it's going to be when she turns up. So he reacts with tired resignation of, yes, this is just going to be the same old thing that's been going on for decades. And of course, this time it's not. There's almost a moment, there are turning points, fulcrums in the Ring. They are set up over the course of a very long time, but they happen in all, you know, when things turn they turn almost on a sixpence. And the moment, if you can identify it, in that Wotan/Fricka conversation - the penny drops for him somewhere around where she mentions the sword, where he realises the depths of trouble that he's in - is immensely powerful, if you set it up properly, and if you pay attention to the human detail of the relationship between them. And this is the thing: by a human aspect what I mean is that when we talk about the consequences of that danger that he's in, the consequence is that he's going to have to kill Siegmund, or allow Siegmund to be killed - his son.
So whatever the mythological, symbolic meaning of these things, the philosophical meaning of these things - in the moment, you know, you're asking yourself: I'm a father, this is my son; because of my actions, he's going to have to die. And it's as simple as that. And that's what makes it powerful.
Clearly the appearance of Erda begins to change him from being this rather brash, you know, he's pretty brash: he started off with a terrible bargain with the giants, there's no getting away from that. And he's caught with that. But Erda starts to loosen up something within him, and namely in Rheingold Wotan says: [German]: “How terror and pain grabbed me, and I have fear and anxiety grasp my senses. I've got to go down to Erda to learn what I can do.”
So in Die Walküre of course, he has now been to Erda, and he's made love to her, and she's given birth to Brunnhilde. So a long time has passed. And in his scene with Fricka, he tries to explain to her, with the same music that he did in that Rheingold excerpt: [German]. “I have to find this person who can bring about what as a god I am not empowered to do, because of all my contracts”. And Fricka says “you're trying to pull the world over my eyes”. And then the real turning point comes when she says “take away the magic from the sword”, and you get this restless theme in the orchestra [sings]. Wotan now becomes a rich, fully-fledged human being. And Wagner read Schopenhauer. Just in time to compose Act Two. Everybody has to accept that Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation was the most important book for Wagner from that time onwards, and it affected all the male [characters], particularly Sachs [from Die Meistersinger] and Wotan, and fills them out with a new depth.
There is a question there. I was reading recently the late Roger Scruton’s book on the Ring and his idea that Wotan - it's easy to see the narrative of the Ring as Wotan’s attempt to forestall the end of the gods - but Roger Scruton suggests that actually he's heard it from Erda that it's going to come, the end is going to come. And it's not a question of how you can avert the end, but how he can make the end a good end, and not a shameful end for the gods, as she's prophesied at the end of Rheingold. A sort of fatalism there.
And then Brunnhilde finally manages to break down those barriers, which Wotan has kept throughout that scene. I mean, the way she works upon Wotan in that final scene of Die Walküre is just amazing. Finally, he cannot resist any more, the barriers come down, and then his love, devotion pores out, and is able to be released. So that is another huge, huge turning point. Wouldn’t you say Paul?
Yes, and again, thinking about this human side of the characters - this aspect I mentioned earlier, of preparing for the role, of trying to find alternatives to anger. My feeling for Act Three is grief, rather than anger. Grief at the death of Siegmund. Real, unbearable grief of a father who's had to let his favourite son, his only son, die. And he is now going to have to, because of the obligations of his position, is going to have to punish, essentially to kill, his favourite daughter.
Those are real, it's a real - whatever else you bring into it - it's the most powerful human situation, emotionally speaking, that you can imagine.
But he does shut off those feelings from himself for a long time. He's desperately torn within himself, but he has a way of shutting down, and therefore I think the fury is really real against Brunnhilde. Though I quite agree that in the way you approach it, it's not a good idea to keep fury as your primal motivator, because it will affect the voice in the wrong way.
And then again in that great, that series of massive orchestral climaxes in the farewell scene - perhaps we're finally glimpsing this sort of depth and scale of love that he's had to deny himself, you know, this is exactly the price you’ve paid; you're actually feeling the full intensity of that emotion, and the emotion that his entire being, his entire meaning, means he has to renounce.
Renounce is a good word, as we have to remember that there's always renunciation involved, and a lot of the music has renunciation as well. But the two big climaxes: the first one is in D major, where Brunnhilde has had the inspiration about the fire; and then the big, the warmest and most wonderful of course comes in E major, where you get the theme of her love [sings]. And that is always the challenge for the staging, to get those moments really genuine. Down to basics obviously, you know, where does the embrace come, and so on; where does the point come where suddenly [gasp] it's released, and so on. But it's all there to be discovered.
I think that's a very perceptive comment that you made there Richard as well, that it's only when Wotan has renounced power - because he renounced love to chase after power, effectively - it's only when at the end of that act when he's accepted the renunciation of his own power that he can truly tap into the depth of his feelings for Brunnhilde, in other words that he can regain love.
It's very clear to me playing it. I mean people can argue either way, but from my point of view, in his shoes, it's very clear to me that at the end of Act Three of Die Walküre he is already The Wanderer. That's the beginning of his journey that we see the end of in Siegfried: he's not going home to Valhall. He's not going back to what was before. He is already, over the course of that act, renounced everything that went before, and given up.
That was something I wanted to talk to you about. It may be too soon from Longborough’s perspective to look forward to Siegfried just yet; but the transformation of Wotan into the Wanderer, who is this sort of ambiguous, playful, perhaps more more other-worldly figure, you might say than the Wotan of the first two dramas. There's the element of playfulness, the element of mystery, the element of wisdom, and again this great sense of resignation. Does it become a fundamentally different role?
Yes, and no. It's very important that he's the same character, that he's recognisably the same character. That immediately as the audience sees him in Act One of Siegfried they recognise him as Wotan. Not so much in disguise, but I just think that he's not been home and changed his clothes in 20 years. He's let himself go. And this is the struggle that's going on within him.
As he says to Erda in Act Two, [German]: “can this be stopped?”. I think there's an aspect of that: he's worried about what comes next, but he is also resigned to it. Trying not to interfere, wrestling with these rules by which he lives, trying to find a role. He spends half of Siegfried, it seems, being asked who he is. And this is a man who throughout Die Walküre has spent a lot of time name-dropping himself in the third person: and yet he's constantly asked in almost every scene of Siegfried, “who are you?”, and he never answers. Until that very last confrontation with Siegfried. So he's going through an identity crisis, you know: what’s the point of him existing? What you have to do I think as the performer is join the dots between Die Walküre and Siegfried. And work out in your own head what he's been doing in the interim.
This I think is the difference between the rest of the gods: that Wotan changes. Wotan develops. Whether it's for better or worse or both, but over the course of the cycle, this is what makes him such a fabulous character to play as an actor. As the cycle goes on the other gods sort of fall by the wayside, and disappear. We're not even sure what happens to them. And quite clearly, Wagner doesn’t really care. Wotan is different because he's changed and he’s developed and he wrestles with these great changes in world events.
I think one of the big changes in Wanderer from the Wotan of Die Walküre is that he's learned to hold himself in check. This is particularly interesting in the scene with Alberich in the second act where you really do get, and I felt this very strongly in Chereau’s production, which I watched recently, where there's a very powerful Alberich in Becht, against McIntyre, and they are really, really balanced against each other.
In Die Walküre at the climax of the scene with Brunnhilde, the so-called monologue: [German]. “I only want one thing, the end”. And then you have a long, wonderful pause; and then you repeat, “the end”. And Alberich is looking for the end, and you have the blackest moment. Now the most equivalent to that is in the scene with Erda in Siegfried, where [German]. He says to her “do you know what Wotan wills?” and then he goes on to have his euphemistic picture of the eternal youth. [sings]. “I give way to eternal youth”, in other words Siegfried and Brunnhilde. And he has the most rose-tinted vision, I think, of what's to come; but then he's brought down to earth again by meeting this very insolent grandson.
It's the moment in the drama, in Siegfried, when Siegfried has carried out his heroic deeds, he's establish his heroic credentials, he's got the Ring, he's got the Tarnhelm, he's slain Fafner the dragon, now the glorious prize lays open ahead of him: he can ascend the rock and claim this this woman; he's never seen a woman before. And as he sets out to do so, at that point Wotan makes his intervention in Siegfried’s life - and with his spear bars the way. And as we know after the exchange, it culminates in Siegfried refusing to have his way barred by the old order, by the old man, by the old laws. He breaks Wotan’s unbreakable spear, and the basis of the entire world order on which the Ring has been based so far; and strides off up the mountain to get the girl.
[Wotan] spends his whole time trying to seek a way of ensuring the outcome he wants to happen but without helping. Because he's not allowed to. And in the moment of that outburst, he finds the solution, because what he says - and I don't believe this is planned at all in his own head - he says: I'm not gonna let you go through here, I'm not gonna let you go around the corner, you know, turn right..” - he gives a very detailed set of instructions of what he's not going to allow Siegfried to do. And of course, you know, Siegfried’s a teenager and if you want to make sure a teenager does something, the one sure fire way of getting them to do it is to tell them they're not allowed to do it; and he tells him in great detail what he's not allowed to do - which is exactly what he then goes and does. So he stumbles upon, in that pure moment of pure outrage, he does stumble upon the method by which he can help make the thing happen without actually getting involved, or in fact trying to stop it.
And then after the spear has been smashed, he goes away without fuss. He says, “carry on, I can’t prevent you”. And that is one of the most deeply affecting moments, I think, in Wotan - that final moment.
It is fascinating - I always feel that up until that point, until that moment, there’s the rage but still this element of pride in Wotan, this dignity and the sense of his status as a god. There’s that moment when Siegfried notices the woodbird is no longer around and Wotan says yes it senses the ruler of the ravens - a flash of the old Wotan of Rheingold there. And pretty much after that scene we never see him again, just this chilling vision that Waltraute gives us in Götterdämmerung of him just sitting there, silently, grim-faced, surrounded by his terrified family and hall of heroes, just waiting for this grim news to come back from the ravens.
And that wonderful moment when Waltraute is leaning upon his breast and he images she’s Brunnhilde, and he murmurs these words, that if she should return the Ring to the Rhinemaidens then everything will be ok. And that’s what gives Waltraute the spur to go to Brunnhilde.
Coming back to that confrontation with Siegfried - having spent the whole of Siegfried being asked who he is and not answering, Wotan then spends that scene with Siegfried - having decided finally, in the in the previous scene with Erda, what it is that he wants - he spends the scene asking Siegfried “do you know who I am?” essentially, you know, who helped you do this, who helped to do that. And it's clear the Siegfried has no idea, not only doesn't know but doesn't care who he is - and it's that fundamental question of the theological side of the Ring: do god's exist if no one's praying to them anymore? And Wotan realises that this guy not only doesn't know but doesn't care who he is, and that means he's done.
I’ve been struggling to think throughout the operatic repertoire of another character who is developed as complex, as broadly, on such a huge scale with such depths as Wotan, and of comparable complexity. Not only is he a participant in three massive dramas with all these dimensions, all these aspects and contradictions in his personality. I was trying to think of another operatic character that came close to that. Can you think of any comparable operatic roles, in terms of technical difficulty, scale, or pure psychological complexity, that you can really put alongside Wotan?
I can only think of Brunnhilde. She also has three dramas, and my goodness she goes on a vast human journey. So in a way I think it's very hard to find any other characters which have quite such an extended richness of development. I admit that I can't think of anybody. If we explore Mozart's characters then we get wonderful facets, and beautiful human qualities - but it's a different kind of you know; it's all on so much larger scale with these Wagner characters.
No I think you'd have to combine several; there are times where he's very Macbeth-like, especially in sort of the Rheingold/Walkure era. And then there's also in that relationship with Brunnhilde there's a strong element of [King] Lear and Cordelia.
The more I work on it the more that occurs to me. Somehow working on it with Lee [Bisset] particularly makes me think of that. I think as soon as you put Brunnhilde in human form, she's such a sympathetic, likeable human being that suddenly you see Cordelia in front of you, and you understand where Lear’s madness comes from. But no, the point about the Ring is essentially it's starting from the beginning of existence, either the big bang or the beginning of humanity, wherever you choose to take it, and bringing us all the way up till now so - and unless you you build another drama around that same timescale, then there's no way I think of exploring the same depths.
I think only Shakespeare really is dealing with human nature and philosophy on the same level, and I don't suppose even Wagner himself would be too insulted by that comparison. I hope not.
I think we've used up our time today, but thank you both very much, this has been absolutely astonishing. I cannot wait to see how these ideas and all your thoughts, all your planning, all these years of experience you bring to it will play out on stage hopefully next summer. I think none of us can really wait to see that. Fingers crossed and in the meantime, thank you Paul, thank you Anthony; and until we meet at Longborough.