On Opera

Hot Valks live!

While belly-laughs are not frequent, there’s terrific fun to be had in this massive soap-opera-style family melodrama

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Who said classical music is dead? Well, catch yerself on, because Serj Tankian, lead singer of Armenian-American metalheads System of a Down, is coming to park his love guns on your lawn. The guy who brought you Genocidal Humanoidz (Azerbaijanis? I didn’t check) has used lockdown to produce a “classical piano concerto”, so he has. Serj, 54, with a rueful grin, recognised the outré nature of his achievement: “I mean, who the fuck listens to 24 minutes of music as one piece today?”

Who the fuck indeed. No matter that Serj’s little noodlings could have been produced by an averagely talented six-year-old, it’s his ambition and expanded horizons we must applaud. And now that Serj has staggered over the fence, I’m sure the English National Opera will be jetting him over for the 230 minutes (relax! – it’s in three bits!) of The Valkyrie, opening later in November.

ENO has lately been terrifically keen on what we might call the London shitterati, to the experimentalist degree of basing an entire marketing strategy on luring in such eminences as Holly Willoughby, and hoping some of her blank-eyed Twitter retinue will be gulled into booking. (Not sure how that one’s going, frankly.)

I guess Wagner’s reputation, if only among morons, as the godfather of metal is just another of the crosses he must bear, along with his unfortunate historical fan club, the unsought progeny of Tolkien’s Oxford infantilisms, the games-for-teen-autists of sorcery and dragons, the mock-mythic effluvia of Game of Thrones.

But listen: that’s not his fault! (apart from Hitler, obv). And it’s a bit rough to have sent spent 20-plus years on The Ring of the Nibelung (The Valkyrie being part two, but don’t panic if you haven’t seen part one, it’ll be fine) surely the greatest one-man artwork in history, and a mere 150 years later nearly everyone — I mean you, the “culturally literate”, not just the morlocks — has the merest vague scornful inkling of it as some kind of fascist manifesto full of elves, dragons and colossal blondes in big helmets farting about in the Rhine.

Did Wagner simply choose an idiotic medium? The Ring, obviously, has always been a bit niche, and our old-skool music has signally failed to hold the attention of more than a sad, shabbily-dressed minority — with Wagner’s acolytes a wild-haired subset of that.

Whatever the reasons (laziness and fear, in truth) this 15-hour, four-evening survey of world history from primordial soup to apocalyptic nuts is actually pretty concise, at once philosophical disquisition, political analysis, psychological metaphor — and, yes, determined catalyst of national destiny, with Germany groping towards unity after centuries of religious strife and psychotic French aggression (he completed it in 1869, just before the traffic started going the other way).

The choice of a jamboree bag of Nordic mythology as the vehicle for this radical critique of history always risked being misinterpreted

The choice of a jamboree bag of Nordic mythology as the vehicle for this radical critique of history (plus ecstatic vision of redemption) always risked being misinterpreted, of course, and those dragons and dwarves can look a bit pitiful in certain lights; but massively in its favour in a world babyishly devoted to simple-minded certitudes is its joy in how complicated stuff is — in stark contrast too to the remedial intellectual level of Wagner’s Italian and French opera contemporaries. And while belly-laughs are not frequent, there’s terrific fun to be had in this massive soap-opera-style family melodrama.

En route, Wagner invents the all-knowing orchestra, music with a disturbing ability to be the thing it describes — a forest, a hellish mine, heaven, evil, ecstasy — embedded in a web of musical motifs that finally make every phrase bulge with meaning, a continuous music-drama of stifling imaginative power to induce addictive trances: and not just in beastly little Tory MPs squirming about in their damp seats as the Valhalla theme fills them with dreams of supreme power.

Nothing changes in opera: its message — “only love can save us” — percolates from the early 17th century, and the Ring echoes Mozart’s message in Figaro that compassion, our highest aspiration, is born from sexual love. The Valkyrie is the dramatic hinge where humans, used (as ever) by gods as tools to further their creepy designs, suddenly wake up into moral consciousness and teach their masters a lesson in ethics.

This love-tutorial is very simple: head Valkyrie Brünnhilde is telling Siegmund all about his glorious post-mortem future in Valhalla (as long as he agrees to throw his upcoming fight-to-the-death). Can I bring my girlfriend? he asks. Unfortunately not, but there will be heaps of hot Valks there. Then thanks, he says, but I’ll stay here with her and take my chances. Brünnhilde returns to Wotan with the alarming message that the helots have shown themselves nobler than the gods.

And Wotan, realising it’s all up with his gang, understands that the future requires his exit; his tortured journey to self-knowledge — the god becoming almost human himself — is the core of the story.

So it’s very odd, when you think about it, that you see so many politicians, financiers, clerics at the Ring, when the whole thing is devoted to calling for their liquidation. I suppose all we can hope is that one day, given a sufficiently lucid production, they will all get the message, and slaughter themselves right there in the stalls.

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