What was Wagner ‘s conception of the good life? Take Valhalla: as the music rolls out for the grand procession across the rainbow bridge Loge tells us that all is not well. This is Irony, the gods are doomed, yes, yes. But until that unhappy day, what are they actually going to do, this lot?
Wotan of course has plenty to occupy his mind. What about the others? Run the universe, presumably, but there is almost nothing to indicate what that involves. We get only one detail of home life in Valhalla. From Wotan and Brünnhilde we learn that there are lots of feasts attended by heroes who have died in battle. The heroes are looked after by ‘wishmaidens’ whom it is difficult to imagine, given the palpability of this heaven, will remain maidens for very long. So all in all, we have a dim impression of godly stuff going on in the background, storms to whip up, battles to intervene in, while in the foreground life centres on men who having fought, now qualify for feasting and fucking. As a dramatic conception, Valhalla is much cruder than (say) Camelot. Heaven for the under-18 rugby team.
But surely there is nobility somewhere in the whole caboodle? We are not supposed to admire Valhalla, the defence might run, but see it for what it is, a Bad Idea which in the course of the cycle will be exposed. At the end of the opera, when Valhalla burns and the waters of the Rhine overflow, Hope and Love are invested in the new race of truly human beings.
Yes, but what are they going to do? What goals do Wagner’s heroes pursue? Why don’t they attain them? And what happens to the women in their lives?
|The Flying Dutchman||The Dutchman||a. Find the love of a good woman, and thus –
b. Get some decent weather for a change
|Doomed to roam the seas forever in perpetual storm, his last hope gone.||Senta||Betrays hero. Throws herself from a cliff into the sea.|
|Lohengrin||Lohengrin||Join Brabant as resident superman, expose evil, smite villains.||Betrayed by Elsa, goes back to the swannery.||Elsa||Betrays hero.
Dies instantly of grief, guilt etc.
|Tannhäuser||Tannhäuser||Save his soul, win singing competition, marry Elizabeth.||Dies rather than return to the fleshpots of the Venusberg.||Elisabeth||Cannot compete with Venus. Dies of grief, sanctity.|
|Valkyrie||Siegmund||Defeat enemies, overcome loneliness through love of good woman. (Cf Dutchman, Tannhäuser.)||Dies in battle (victim of gods)||(1)Sieglinde
|Dies giving birth to Siegfried
Imprisoned in fire by father for defying his wishes.
|Siegfried||Siegfried||Be extremely heroic.||Flourishes!||Brünnhilde||Released from fire by Siegfried|
|Goetterdämmerung||Siegfried||Continue being extremely heroic.||Betrayed by Hagen, dies. Brünnhilde, believing herself betrayed by Siegfried, connives at his murder.||Brünnhilde||Learns the truth about Siegfried’s death, rides horse into funeral pyre.|
|Tristan and Isolde||Tristan||(a) Serve King Mark faithfully
(b) sleep with his wife
|Slain by traitor.||Isolde||Expires from a surfeit of chromatic harmony.|
|Parsifal||Parsifal||(a) Wander simply through the forest
(b) Defeat magician, resist the lures, wiles etc of flower maidens & Kundry.
|Resists erotic blandishments. Lives on as head of all-male establishment.||Kundry||Laughs at Jesus. Tries to seduce hero. Dies.*|
*Or, as Kobbé has it, “Kundry, gazing up to him in gratitude, sinks gently into the sleep of death and forgiveness for which she has longed.”