- Die Walküre and Modern Memory
I begin with a story, told in the third person as a way of protecting the middle-aged. Perfect Wagnerites, after all, are perhaps most tolerable when young. My story begins not on the Rhine or on the Hudson but along the Danube. It finds an American student abroad: a young Wagnerite seated in a Viennese coffeehouse named, singularly inappropriately, the Café Aida. Two college friends sit beside him. It is late July, 1976. They peruse an issue of the International Herald Tribune. The centennial season of the Bayreuth Festival has just opened with the long-awaited new production of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung, now in the hands of Patrice Chéreau (director), Richard Peduzzi (designer), and Pierre Boulez (conductor). The paper carries a review of the performance - no, the event. It records the general shock of the audience. It displays a photograph from the opening performance of Götterdämmerung, act 2. The Hall of the Gibichungs is now a tenement on the waterfront; the Nibelung villain Hagen resembles Lee J. Cobb. He wears a rumpled grey suit but carries a spear. He - i.e., Karl Ridderbusch - is unshaven, and this at least a decade before stubble began to signify anything other than dirt. The banks of the river Rhine, the review recounts, have been transformed into an industrial landscape, replete with a hydraulic dam. The Rhinemaidens are factory prostitutes. The gods are scions of a decadent industrial elite. Siegfried wears denim.
Cut now to the following Monday morning at five A.M.: dawn on the day of the conclusion of the second Ring cycle, the second performance of Götterdämmerung. Indignant but exhilarated, two of the Ivy League perfect Wagnerites have decided that Wagner needs them. They have spent a long night on the train. From the early-morning scene at the Bayreuth train station (where everyone but them is drinking beer), they make their way up the green hill to the festival hall. This is the correct route of the Bayreuth pilgrimage, but the climb is supposed to be taken slowly, in the pious company of other devotees, circa three P.M., following the ritually prescribed visit to the Master's home and grave in the town below. Now the hill and its festival theatre are empty. The box office will open at ten. The performance has been sold out for years. Yes, years: this is the centennial production. A few other scavengers are about, mostly students. At ten sharp, the box office behind me appears to remain closed.
But now an apparition seems to form on the empty roadway in front of me, leading up to the theatre. It is a procession of silver-blue Mercedes [End Page 703] sedans - indistinguishable one from the next, at least in my memory. I think there were four of five of them. As they approach the curb, it becomes clear that they are all driven by solitary women - stately, elderly women. Not, clearly, the normally designated drivers of these vehicles, we surmise. No, these are Valkyries - or rather Valkyries emeritae: they have been sent forth from Valhalla on their high-tech noble steeds by the guardian gods of Old Germany; they are on a mission. I find myself at the passenger-side window of one of these emissaries, addressed by the grande dame behind the wheel. Her silver-blue hair matches the car, as it does her triple stand of pearls and her floral dress. Her left hand grips the steering wheel. Her right hand holds two tickets. If you want these, have them, she says to me, 'we will have nothing to do with it!' ('wir werden damit nichts zu tun haben!'). This is indeed a report from Valhalla, I tell myself. These Mr and Mrs Wotan will likely have some difficulty with any rendition of the twilight of the gods. Certainly they will not tolerate the débâcle imagined in a decayed industrial landscape by a young, French, gay director, one moreover who had told the press that until he received the current assignment he had never heard a note of Wagner and...