Waltraute’s argument

Enough has been written about the great clanking machine which is Robert Lepage’s Wagner Ring Cycle at the Met. But the ‘Machine’ itself is not the only aesthetic crime in this production, nor even the worst—judging from the Götterdämmerung we saw in HD broadcast at our local cinema a few weeks ago.

One moment in the performance, however, has lingered in memory for its stunning beauty and dramatic truth, a moment that also thereby neatly framed and exposed the emptiness in the general conception.

In Act One, Brünnhilde, who holds the accursed Ring as a token from her lover Siegfried, is visited by her sister, the Valkyrie Waltraute, who begs her to return the Ring to the Rhinemaidens. In a long passionate exposition she tells Brünnhilde of Wotan’s despair, his loss of power in the shattering of his spear, his cutting down of the great World Ash and preparation for general destruction—disorders in the cosmic scheme which are connected directly, according to Waltraute, with her sister’s selfish desires in holding the Ring.

This plea, we know in advance—as does Waltraute—faces major, perhaps insurmountable, resistance. In the final act of Die Walküre, Brünnhilde had justified her disobedience in protecting Sieglinde—incestuous bride of Siegmund, pregnant with Brünnhilde’s future lover Siegfried—by claiming to have acted on Wotan’s secret desire. Wotan nevertheless dooms her to an enchanted sleep behind a wall of fire, awaiting the kiss of only the bravest of heroes, the identity of whom we could foretell even then (from the Siegfried leitmotif), as Wotan kisses his daughter for the last time.

Brünnhilde now, in Götterdämmerung, is in no mood to save the father who disowned her, or to surrender her lover’s gift.

But here enters the unaccountable and serendipitous waywardness of live performance. Waltraute in this production is played by Waltraud Meier, the Wagnerian mezzo, one of the great Kundrys and Isoldes of recent memory. She is magnificent to start with. Tall, striking, costumed in full Arthur Rackham mode from greaves to winged helmet and in all other respects seems to have wandered in from another production, from another time, from another moral universe. She manages to represent her character as believing in the argument she is making, which in this production is equivalent to saying that it is the only argument being made. We do not have the answer Wagner wanted us to have to this passionate defence of tradition and authority, because it is not on offer. What is on offer—in Deborah Voigt’s clueless and bad-tempered Brünnhilde, and Jay Hunter Morris’s goofy pop-culture superhero Siegfried—lies somewhere between a post-modern ironical wink and sentimental inconsequence.

Inevitably, Art takes its revenge on anti-Art by inverting the intended direction of catharsis. Pity and terror at the end of this production must be reserved not for the dead hero, Siegfried, and for a grieving Brünnhilde, but rather for the dying Wotan, who has never appeared in person, and the devastated Valkyrie Waltraute, whom we cannot forget.