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Wagner The Narcissist?

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday 13 May 2014 | 12:24:00 am


by David P. Goldman

The curtain rises in silence to reveal a stage composed of parallel white planks. With the first bars of the prelude”an insistent, agitated gesture in the lower strings”the planks dissolve into a single image of storm clouds. The floor of the set rotates vertically into a backdrop, from which a snowstorm emerges in three dimensions. The planks are now the towering trees of the nocturnal German forest.

A fugitive threads his away among them, his faltering steps mimicking Wagner’s ambiguous downbeat, pursued by armed men with lanterns. With another rotation, the trees have become the slanting roof beams of a rude house. The fugitive enters, and sings, “Whosoever hearth this be, here must I rest”; the orchestra falls silent as his unaccompanied voice completes a long-awaited cadence in D minor.

So begins the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, of which the opening alone is worth the price of admission. Those first moments of Robert LePage’s production, sadly, are as good as it got. That is not LePage’s fault, though, but Wagner’s. Wagner produces a few transformative moments, bracketed by long periods of musical stasis. This alternation of ecstasy and ennui is not a question of incapacity”the young Wagner could turn out good style imitations of Mendelssohn”but a matter of compositional choice.

For Wagner, the exaltation of impulse is elevated to a universal principle, as I explained in an earlier essay, “Why We Can’t Hear Wagner’s Music,” published last November. The love interest in Die Walküre involves the incestuous union of fraternal twins. When Siegmund stumbles into the house of Hunding, he learns that his host’s young and unhappy wife is none other than his twin sister Sieglinde, lost in a raid on his boyhood home. Although they do not know it, the twins are Wotan’s children, and their birth is part of the god’s plot to reclaim the stolen treasure of the Nibelungs.

It seems odd that Wagner would make incest the theme of what he intended as a grand philosophical discourse in music. But Sieglinde tells us why. As she explains to her twin brother, she has fallen in love with him at first sight: “I saw my own image in a stream, and now it is given to me again; / Just as it came up out of the water, / You offer my own image to me now!”

Siegmund replies, “You are the image I harbor in me!” As Gail Finney writes, “The obvious allusion to the myth of Narcissus in this context reveals the underlying nature of the incestuous bond: Erotic energy is transferred from the narcissistic individual to the object most like himself, his sibling.”

Wagner scholars explain the composer’s self-conscious narcissism in a number of ways. One recent biographer, Joachim Köhler, attributes it to Wagner’s unresolved attraction to his older sister Rosalie. It is also possible to interpret this blood bond as a metaphor for racial cohesion. The enamored twins, Mark Weiner argues in Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination, “experience and enact the metaphor of the community recognizing itself in the reflection of its bonds, which are based on the physiology of similar appearances.”

Without dismissing either reading, it seems evident that there must be more to Die Walküre than Wagner’s unresolved childhood sexuality or his ideological interest in racial affinity. The opera still engrosses modern audiences who would be repelled by either proposition. National self-worship and incestuous romance have long been unfashionable; personal self-adoration, though, has become the past century’s favorite pastime.

Wagner remains the consummate bard of narcissistic love, of passion for our own alter egos. That is a side of his genius that his detractors miss. “Wagner’s heroines, once they have been divested of their heroic husks, are indistinguishable from Madame Bovary,” Nietzsche sniffed. But Flaubert’s provincial housewife did not elope with her long-lost twin brother. The great novelist kept his protagonist at a critical distance, and there is a touch of black humor in her suicide by poison. Where Emma Bovary pursued a fantasy of romantic love in what ultimately is a cautionary tale, Wagner recreates the sensuous reality of self-love.

Wagner wants to counterpose a love of pure impulse to the covenantal order of traditional society. He despises covenantal order; as Nietzsche wrote, “Whence arises all evil in the world, Wagner asked himself? . . . From customs, laws, morals, institutions, from all those things on which the ancient world and ancient society rests.”