Friday, August 7, 2009
DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN MEETS LAW AND ORDER
CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS IN WAGNER’S CYCLE
By James Karas
Where are the police when you need them?
Dozens of crimes were committed in full view of about 3500 people at Lincoln Center recently and not one person rose to object or called the police. They did rise with calls of ‘Bravo” and thunderous applause but no doubt it was not for the crimes. In fact at the end no one made even a nominal objection.
I am talking about the crimes committed again by those characters in Der Ring des Nibelungen during all performances including the final revival by the Metropolitan Opera of Otto Schenk’s production a couple of months ago. Leitmotifs be damned, the plot be excoriated – there is no respect for law here. We need Detective Lennie Briscoe and District Attorney Jack McCoy from Law and Order to pay close attention to the legal implications of what those gods, giants and dwarfs are doing. Most of them should be arrested before the curtain goes down and hauled off to Rikers Island.
Let us examine the legal conduct and misconduct with or without Messrs Briscoe and McCoy. The three Rhinemaidens are happily swimming around the bottom of the river when the lascivious dwarf Alberich appears. He immediately begins harassing the young maidens and asking for sexual favors and I do not mean the latest issue of Nibelung Hustler. With shameless resort to alliteration in the English translation he wants to “freely frisk and frolic” with them. This is criminal watching and besetting, importuning and harassment even if the ladies ridicule the horny dwarf away.
But Alberich does not stop there. Heaven knows what he would have done if he had caught one of the scantily dressed maidens on the slippery slopes of the riverbed. He tells one of them that he wants to “with ardent caress nestle against your soft breast” which without consent is sexual assault if not attempted rape.
When all his efforts end up in a fiasco he turns uglier by calling the pure maidens “worthless, sly, sluttish, dissolute wenches!” They are none of those things and this is defamatory libel, a criminal offence. The maidens can also sue for slander in civil court and get a pile in damages.
That is just the beginning. The hormonally-overactive Alberich switches gears and decides to forego sex for gold. He steals the hoard that the maidens are guarding in clear view of them. This is grand larceny with three credible witnesses to identify the stolen goods and the robber. We can eliminate the investigation part of this episode of Law and Order and go straight to trial where there can be no chance of acquittal.
From the bottom of the Rhine we go to the top of the mountains where we meet Wotan, God Numero Uno, and his wife Fricka. The couple has just built their dream house on top of a mountain and Wotan is just delighted. His more rational wife reminds him of how the joint was built. Wotan hired the Fafner and Fasolt Giant Construction Corporation to do the work. Price: his sister-in-law Freia. Fricka fully freaks out fearful that Freia will be forfeit to Fasolt and Fafner and this alliteration will continue.
She is right about Freia’s fate because no sooner is she through with the nauseating alliteration than the two lumbering giants, accompanied by their dramatic leitmotif, arrive asking for payment. Wotan never intended to pay them. Contract law means nothing to him and only others are bound by it. After some negotiating, the giants agree to accept payment in gold and Freia is off the hook. But the giants are not totally stupid. They take Freia as a surety until Wotan delivers the gold.
The contract which provides for the construction of a palace at the stipulated price of a goddess, namely Freia is clearly unenforceable. If Wotan had gone to his lawyer he would have been advised to refuse payment and let the giants sue. The trial judge would have thrown them out of court because the contract is unenforceable as being against public policy. Remember when Shylock demanded his pound of flesh from Antonio in The Merchant of Venice because he had a sealed contract? It took a whole scene of chicanery by a judge with no legal training to save Antonio’s skin when he could have relied on good contract law and thrown Shylock out.
Same principle applies in the case of Fafner and Fasolt v. Wotan. Fafner makes the same argument as Shylock: we have a sealed contract – what do you mean you don’t intend to honour it?
Instead of consulting a good lawyer, Wotan goes to the scheming and crooked (but not legally trained) Loge for advice on how to weasel out of the contract.
A lawyer would have found a solution and the gods may have postponed their dammerung. With Loge as his adviser, the only solution Wotan comes up with is to go underground and steal some gold with which to retire the giants’ debt.
Loge and Wotan go to the subterranean home of Nibelheim where the brothers Alberich and Mime have stashed the Rheingold.
The police and the Department of Labour should be called immediately. We have harassment, assault and abuse of workers on a level unseen since the chain gangs of black and white movies. The happy workers of Nibelheim used to make trinkets and ornaments; now they are forced by the brutal Alberich to work like slaves on his gold. The steelworkers’ or some other powerful union should be there organizing these workers.
Mime has made a magic cap for Alberich that can turn him into anything he wants. Alberich (not the swiftest of dwarfs) proudly demonstrates that he can become a monster as well as a toad. Well, Loge loses no chance and he captures Alberich qua toad, puts him in handcuffs, steals the gold and returns to the upper floors. This is unlawful arrest, unlawful detention and false imprisonment. It is followed by grand larceny as the gold that Alberich stole from the Rhinemaidens is in turn stolen from him. No law enforcement agency in view anywhere. Is there no law left in this land?
The lumbering Fafner and Fasolt return to Wotan with Freia in tow. It is like a meeting of Mafia bosses from The Godfather but it is to be noted that even criminals have manners: F and F have not laid a finger on Freia while they kept her as surety for payment.
The giants grab the entire loot and Fafner immediately kills Fasolt. Another murder in front of witnesses and the police does nothing about it.
It’s getting late and people have to go home so Wotan decides to do the same and finally spend a night in his new pad, Valhalla. Fafner and Fasolt forgot to provide access to the joint which is on top of a mountain. There is no evidence of the structure being approved by the Department of Buildings and there is another lawsuit available. But there is no time for that so Donner, Wotan’s son, and the god of thunder, decides to throw up a quickie bridge in the form of a rainbow.
This is a boatload of lawsuits waiting to happen. Donner is the god of thunder and has no qualifications or experience to build a mud hut let alone a bridge. He has no permit from the Department of Buildings and the material he uses would not fool the most crooked inspector. Look what happened when the best British engineers built the Millennium Bridge in London. It had to be shut down as soon as a few hundred people tried to go across the Thames. If we didn’t have three more operas to go, the gods would have fallen off the bridge right there and then and it would have been good-bye Die Walküre, farewell Siegfried and arrivederchi Gotterdammerung. We have to trudge along but some justice is done: we never hear of Donner again! In Gotterdammerung, Hagen does order that a goat be sacrificed for Donner but that may be more for dinner than in honour of this god.
On with the legal issues in Die Walküre.
Woody Allen’s description of his brain as his second favorite organ, may apply to Wotan as well. He seems to have used his favourite organ with the Earth Goddess Erda enough times to produce nine Valkyries and with a Volsung woman to produce a set of lovely twins named Siegmund and Sieglinde. Wotan’s sexual prowess was clearly not matched by his parenting skills and one is surprised that he was not hauled into Family Court on a regular basis. He should have been charged criminally for failing to provide the necessaries of life for the twins. In any event, Siegmund and Sieglinde do not know of each other’s existence and the young girl is forced to marry the lout Hunding. (Was Wotan there to give the bride away? we ask parenthetically)
Siegmund and Sieglinde grow up and the wounded Siegfried straggles into the Hunding hut and before Act I of Die Walküre is even nearly finished, the twins are madly in love with each other.
This opera should carry a warning label. A brother marrying his sister is incest and that presents a cartload of legal, moral and religious issues. What is worse is that Siegmund starts coveting his neighbor’s or at least his host’s wife before he learns that she went through a shot-gun wedding. In other words they have broken the Ten Commandments, the criminal code and society’s total disapproval of that type of relationship! And how does Sieglinde feel about knowing her brother in the biblical sense of the word? Her only regret is that she was defiled by Hunding before she met Siegmund! He too is shameless. “As Wife and sister you'll be to your brother. So let the Volsung blood increase” says he to her.
I have no idea who to call at this point but somebody better do something. Bring down the curtain, fast.
The only bright light in this moral swamp is, believe it or not, the cuckolded Hunding. He obeys the laws of hospitality be giving food and shelter to his enemy and then challenges Siegmund to a duel. Dueling is illegal but if it was good enough for Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, it will have to do for us.
Siegfried and Hunding will duke it out but the question is who will live to tell about it? The strongest will win, right? Not quite, because the gods have a stake in the duel and the final outcome will rest with them.
The legal and moral lines of battle are drawn as follows: Wotan is not too fond of Hunding and he wants Siegmund to win. He is his son after all.
Fricka, Mrs. Wotan, whose son Siegmund is not, begs to differ about the outcome of the fight. In fact she has “firmly promised to punish the behavior of that impudent, blasphemous pair who have openly wronged a husband.” Fricka is the goddess of marriage and even though we may suspect her objectivity, legally she is quite right.
Wotan’s wishy-washy defense of “Love's magic bewitched them” is met by Fricka calling him stupid and reminding him that the issue is the holy vow of marriage which has been vilely flouted. At least we are becoming cognizant of the legal and moral implications of our actions.
When it comes to adultery as a matter of philosophy and practice, Wotan is on very shaky grounds. As far as he is concerned, the word fidelity applies only to high end audio equipment and certain banking institutions. But in this case he is asking for it, as they say, and Fricka delivers a lengthy harangue that would send any husband seeking for cover. Needless to say, she wins the argument, humiliates Wotan and he agrees that Siegmund has to go. He orders Brünnhilde to insure that Hunding wins.
But Brünnhilde has no intention of obeying her father and she tries to save Siegmund’s life. She cannot and Wotan is furious with her for trying. Brünnhilde manages to save the pregnant Sieglinde who will eventually provide her with a nephew who will be named Siegfried.
In the meantime Wotan is fit to be tied and imposes punishment on Brünnhilde. He gives a sentence of mortality and life asleep until rescued by a fearless hero. This is complete denial of due process and procedural fairness. Wotan is prosecuting, defending and judging but in an opera of a mere five hours there is no time for trial by jury.
By now it is almost midnight and with Brünnhilde nicely resting in her ring of fire, the audience is ready for a snooze as well and it’s just as well that the curtain comes down.
Siegfried opens with an egregious example of cruelty to a foster-parent, Mime, including use of abusive and offensive language and assault by the boorish Siegfried. He brings a bear from the forest to frighten the daylight out of Mime and thinks this is jolly good fun.
In comes the aptly named Wanderer a.k.a. Wotan who would rather be anywhere after the drubbing he got from his wife. The serial philanderer’s mistresses must be on holiday so he is forced to spend some time with the dwarf Mime. He decides to have a Riddle Competition, an early version of Jeopardy, with a nasty twist – if you don’t know the answer you are kaput.
Siegfried reappears and continues with his crime spree. He kills a dragon and that may have been OK with the likes of St. George due to his relationship with God but anyone who kills, maims or wounds an animal these days without a lawful excuse is guilty of a criminal offence. In this case, the charge may be upped to murder because Siegfried talks to the dragon and if he had a bit more brains he would have realized that the talking dragon is a disguised person.
Siegfried then kills Mime. There is no defense for this and the fact the Forest Bird warned him about Mime will not stand up in any court. The only possible defense would be temporary insanity – how compos mentis can a man be if he kills on the advice of a bird? Breaking Wotan’s spear may also constitute an assault but this chap’s record is long enough without it.
One can just imagine the following cross examination of Siegfried in court:
Lawyer: Mr. Volsung do you talk to birds?
Siegfried: Yes, sir.
Lawyer: And do birds talk to you?
Siegfried: Yes, sir.
Lawyer: And what do they tell you?
Siegfried: They give me advice.
Lawyer: Can you give us an example of the advice you have received from a bird?
Siegfried: Well, the Forest Bird told me where to find a wife. It said I should go to the top of a mountain where I will find a woman asleep, surrounded by a wall of fire.
Lawyer: Thank you, Mr. Volsung. Your Honour I submit that the witness is loopy and in serious need of psychiatric help so he can get some grip on reality.
Loopy or not, Siegfried does find the sleeping woman who turns out to be none other than Auntie Brünnhilde. Her heaving breasts, his rush of hormones and his intent to “suck life from those sweetest lips, though I die in doing so” give fair warning that family tradition will be followed and the Censor Board should take heed. After a very long duet, the two retire for their honeymoon night.
We leave them alone for the night and return for Gotterdammerung the following evening.
We find them the morning after the night before coming out of their lair of pleasure and we must now consider the delicate question of conjugal rights versus conjugal obligations. The question here is legal, religious and moral. It was mostly a one-way street at one time: the husband had all the rights and the woman all the obligations but the man did bear some responsibilities to love, honour and protect the wife.
The tamed Katharina of The Taming of the Shrew has given a succinct description of the relative position of spouses:
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign, …
[women] are bound to serve, love and obey.
Well, that’s pretty clear. And if a woman does not like what her husband demands? That question was answered by Lady Alice Hillingdon as follows: "I am happy that Charles calls on my bedchamber less frequently than of old. As it is, I now endure but two calls a week and when I hear his steps outside my door I lie down on my bed, close my eyes, open my legs and think of England."
We cannot speak of denial of conjugal rights by either of the honeymoon couple here but we can more accurately discuss performance. Whatever attempts were made by Siegfried to exercise his rights and Brünnhilde to fulfill her obligations, the result was a conjugal disaster.
The opening scene of Die Gotterdammerung between Brünnhilde and Siegfried can perhaps be uncharitably described as the spiritualization of a rather disastrous carnal experience. They are both very kind but if she waited on top of the mountain for the hero to save her and give her sexual pleasure and if he slew dragons in order to learn what sex means they were both in for a big disappointment.
They step away from the honeymoon rock at dawn and Siegfried is fully armed. Brünnhilde takes the lead in trying to save our hero’s pride for his pathetic performance. She will send him to perform new heroic deeds, she tells him, and luckily he is too thick to get it. Like the smart woman she is, Brünnhilde blames herself: I am just not good enough for you! I gave you everything but you deserve more.
He tells her that she gave him more than he knew what to do with and even though she tried to teach him a few tricks, he is so dense he did not learn a thing: “More you gave me, wondrous woman, than I know how to husband: do not be angry if your teaching has left me still untutored!”
Let us not forget that she is his aunt and we hope that she ate lots of Freia’s golden apples and retained her youth. Otherwise we have to imagine an old woman and a young hunk rolling pathetically on the rocks. This is so embarrassing. Let us move on.
We now meet Dame Grimhilde’s boys, Hagen and Gunther Gibich in their mansion on the Rhine. Hagen’s father is Alberich so you know he is bad news. Hagen goes immediately into action: he wants to find a husband for his sister Gutrune and a wife for Gunther. Method: the administration of a noxious potion that will cause the victim to commit matrimony. In fact the potion is so powerful, promises Hagen, that it will make Siegfried, the only candidate for the position, forget that he has ever seen a woman before or that a woman has even come near him. After what Siegfried went through the night before, this may not be such a bad thing.
Gutrune serves Siegfried the potion and with unerring irony Siegfried drinks to
Brünnhilde intoning “to you I offer this first drink to faithful love!” and promptly forgets her. Under the influence of the potion (thus establishing a defense of temporary insanity or automatism) Siegfried promises to get Brünnhilde for Gunther if only he can have Gutrune for himself.
Matters get complicated as Siegfried impersonates Gunther and claims Brünnhilde for the latter. This is the crime of fraudulent impersonation with intent to gain advantage for himself and another person. Siegfried gets Gutrune and Gunther gets Brünnhilde and this is bigamy. Gunther makes no comment; Brünnhilde is in shock and Siegfried has temporary amnesia. He simply forgot that he was married. We may borrow a line from Oscar Wilde that is a propos. “The Divorce Court was specially invented for people whose memories are so curiously constituted.” So were the criminal courts.
Brünnhilde is furious and she wants revenge. Erase all memory of the love duet in Siegfried because the scorned Brünnhilde will betray Siegfried by giving away the secret to Hagen –the secret of how to kill Siegfried. This makes her an accessory to murder. Siegfried is taken hunting and quite literally stabbed in the back by Gunther. He wants to pretend it was an accident even though there were twenty of his people watching. The most incompetent detective will be able to break through that thin tissue of lies. The stabbing does have a salubrious effect on Siegfried: his amnesia disappears and he remembers Brünnhilde.
The end is near and none too soon. This world of lawlessness, immorality, incest, bigamy, treachery, murder and sexual incompetence is beyond repair.
Brünnhilde takes a torch and sets the biggest fireworks since the burning of Rome and everything is burned to the ground including her. Just as well – she would be guilty of mass murder and arson.
© James Karas 2009.