Wagner's Erda is one of the composer's most powerful and poignant characterizations. WILLIAM R. BRAUN watches and listens to a group of great interpretations — and examines the evolution of Erda's relationship with contemporary audiences.
Ernestine Schumann-Heink (1861–1936), a standard-setting Erda at Bayreuth, Hamburg, Covent Garden and the Met
Metropolitan Opera Archives
The "Erda voice" has become a shorthand term for a particular type of singing. We expect Erda to be a mezzo-soprano, with downward alto tendencies, who can span her intervals seamlessly and implacably, dispensing the wisdom of centuries lived as the Earth Mother. But the real case of Erda has much more to it. Although she has only two scenes to play in Wagner's Ring, one in Das Rheingold and one in Siegfried, Erda goes through an emotional arc greater than that traveled by Siegmund or Siegfried, who have much longer roles to play. Moreover, the case of Erda in the Ring is much like the case of Wagner writing the Ring. To follow Erda's music and Erda's story is to feel the sense of the Ring itself.
For quite some time, the Erda voice was synonymous with the voice of Ernestine Schumann-Heink, who was known for her Wagner singing in Hamburg, at Covent Garden, at the Met (where she sang her company farewell appearance as Erda in 1932) and at Wagner's own theater in Bayreuth. Schumann-Heink's recording of some of Erda's music set a standard of all-enveloping, impeccably sustained tone that defined the role for the twentieth century. Soon a Met Saturday radio broadcast of Kerstin Thorborg's Erda (from 1937, under Artur Bodanzky) showed the influence of Schumann-Heink in a matronly sound without a shred of self-doubt. In 1951, Met radio audiences heard Karin Branzell (under Fritz Stiedry) continue the imperious, commanding line of Erdas. By the 1960s, the role was defined by Věra Soukupová (in a complete live Ring from Bayreuth under Karl Böhm, released on commercial recordings). Soukupová added a logical extension of Erda's omniscience. Her call of "Höre, höre" (Listen to me) in Das Rheingold has a bit of a threatening quality, like a management-level supervisor who feels that she really shouldn't have to come down from the main office to deal with this sort of sloppiness.
But the "Erda voice" really is appropriate only to Das Rheingold, the first of the four Ring operas. Here Erda appears, about two hours into the action, when Wotan has just decided to dig his heels in and keep the ring that he has wrested, by trickery, from Alberich. Wotan is the king of the gods, and he really shouldn't be behaving the way he does. He has made a shifty moral equivalence. He is supposed to pay a toll to the giants who constructed his palatial new home. The mutually-agreed toll was the surrender of the goddess Freia to the giants. Wotan never really intended to carry this through, and even if he had, his wife never would have allowed it. He simply decides, on the basis of nothing much, to pay the giants with Alberich's gold instead. The ring is supposed to be part of the hoard of gold, but since it grants unlimited power, Wotan arbitrarily decides to keep just that part of the treasure. The stage picture suddenly darkens, a bluish light appears from a rocky cleft, the top portion of Erda rises from the bowels of the earth, and she sings a warning to Wotan with outstretched hand. Yield the ring, she advises. Irrevocable destruction comes to anyone who tries to possess it. She then descends again. Wotan, in an unseemly gesture and in front of his wife, tries to grab her so that he can obtain more information, but she escapes him.
It's all very straightforward so far, very Earth-Mother-like. But we don't see Erda again until the cycle's third opera, Siegfried. She has returned to her all-knowing, all-watchful slumber. And when Erda finally reappears, in Act III of Siegfried, the "Erda voice" no longer applies. Everything has changed. Even someone hearing the Ring for the very first time will hear some of the compositional devices Wagner used to show what has happened to her. In Das Rheingold she sang a long, self-contained paragraph, beginning and ending in the same key. In Siegfried Erda is not only unable to sing in any one key, she can't even fit herself into the prevailing tempo. At the start of Act III of Siegfried, just before Erda and Wotan meet again, there is a long, energetic orchestral prelude. Wagner combines a distinctive long-short-long rhythm (which always signifies arrival on horseback in the Ring, though we seldom see this nowadays) with the upward-rising music we heard at Erda's initial appearance in Das Rheingold. When Wotan begins to sing, he maintains this tip-of-the-toes springing music. But the first two times Erda responds to his entreaties to awake and speak to him, she all but stops the music. As her cavern glows with bluish light, her music consists of only a single chord for each bar of music, at a considerably slower tempo. Wagner's harmonies, always pianissimo, move from four bars of woodwinds alone to four bars of muted strings alone and back again. It's as if we could see the earth spinning, with half of it always out of sight. This music comes to be associated with the end of the world as we know it. And at the end of the next opera, Götterdämmerung, this will literally occur.
As the scene continues, and Erda becomes more fully awake, it becomes clear that things will never be the same. Wotan thought that he was once again coming to Erda for advice. In the previous opera, Die Walküre, we learned that he paid a visit to her after the warning scene in Das Rheingold. She gave him more of her wisdom, but, he says, she "exacted a toll." This was Wotan and Erda's sublime daughter Brünnhilde. But now Erda has no advice. Instead she is full of questions and confusion. In Wagner's text, Erda turns his very locution against him. In Die Walküre, before Wotan punished Brünnhilde, he explained what her misdeeds were. "You were supposed to carry out my orders alone, but you gave orders against me," he sternly spells out. "I made you the bearer of my shield, but you turned that shield toward me." Now Wotan tells Erda that he has put Brünnhilde in the shackles of powerful sleep. Erda upbraids him: "You who taught defiance now punish defiance? You who were responsible for a deed now scorn the deed?" In the course of Mozart and da Ponte's Don Giovanni, it is often noted, the great seducer never completes a seduction. And although Wotan is the king of the gods in the Ring, several characters successfully challenge him. He yields the ring when Erda warns him. His wife, Fricka, as he says, "saw right through my trickery," forcing him to switch his patronage from Siegmund to Hunding. In the very next scene of Siegfried, just as he departs from Erda, he will be defeated once and for all when Siegfried's sword breaks Wotan's spear. In the Wotan–Erda dialogue, both characters realize that, in W. B. Yeats's words, "the center cannot hold." She realizes that she no longer has any understanding of events; he realizes that he no longer cares to.
The emotional power of the scene is increased by an important corollary: Erda's reawakening was also Wagner's reawakening. The compositional virtuosity here is unlike anything earlier in the Ring. There is very little new thematic material, but the already-established motifs are used in ingenious ways. "You are not what you profess to be," Erda challenges Wotan, as an eerie version of the music associated with the transformative power of the ring slinks across the orchestra. Many of the motifs in the Ring are sounded in various keys throughout the cycle, but the specific key of E Major recurs repeatedly here. Wagner took a page from Mozart's book, in which outdoor scenes, such as the famous seaside farewell trio in Così Fan Tutte, the cemetery scene in Don Giovanni and Ilia's song to the breezes in Idomeneo, take place in E. This is the home key of the earth's surface in the Ring, where the Forest Bird sings to Siegfried only in this key.
The excitement and the enjoyment Wagner felt in composing the Erda–Wotan scene was a result of his joyous triumph at returning to the Ring itself. He had set it aside after Act II of Siegfried,unhappy with the standards of production of his earlier operas in repertory houses. It took more than a decade, and the prospect of building his own opera house, for him to return to it. Reawakening is everywhere, because Wagner had reawakened as the Ring's creator. Later in this same seventy-five-minute act, Wotan's grandson and Erda's daughter will reenact the scene. And nearly thirty minutes after Brünnhilde is awake in literal terms Siegfried will continue to command "Erwache! Erwache!" He now means it in the spiritual sense of a Buddhist mindfulness. "You have to be really awake," he is telling her. "You have to understand."
Singers have long brought special insights to the roles in the Ring. It still happens today, of course. In the notorious La Fura dels Baus production from Valencia, Catherine Wyn-Rogers is a quite individual Erda at the start of her scene in Siegfried. Womanly, steady, she is not upset at Wotan's intrusion. She is confident at first, and she doesn't waver until she hears that Brünnhilde is now confined in sleep. But in the past decade, as DVDs have replaced CDs, stage directors have more often been the people who add to our understanding of Wagner's dramaturgy.
Patrice Chéreau's 1976 Bayreuth production was a doubly important event, because it marked the centenary of the first performance of the complete Ring, for which the Bayreuth house was built. Chéreau's work was highly controversial at the time, but with some distance on the production (which was revised until the film was made in 1980, the final year of the run) it has become clear that Chéreau had an intense understanding of Wagner's text and music. Erda is veiled when she first appears in Das Rheingold. She shows her face before the E-Major passage when she refers to the watchfulness of the Norns, then veils herself again before she leaves. When Wotan grasps at her he catches only the veil, not the goddess. Chéreau's gift is to make visually manifest the single most important musical-dramatic moment in each scene. In Siegfried, Erda is once again veiled at the start. The veil comes off at Erda's moment of crisis, when the news of Brünnhilde makes her realize that her omniscience is over. And she does not unveil herself this time. Wotan has trapped a corner of the veil under his spear, the symbol of universal law, and as she moves away she is inadvertently uncovered. She has become old, nearly bald, and as Wotan sees her he has his own realization, that he will no longer make any attempt to direct the events of the world. It is already too late.
Susanne Resmark (Erda) and James Johnson (The Wanderer) in Kasper Bech Holten's Siegfried for Royal Danish Opera
© Martin Mydtskov Rønne 2012
Chéreau's ideas, and his knack for codifying the essence of a scene, were expanded in Kasper Bech Holten's 2006 production at Royal Danish Opera. Holten's production is so inventive and so full of ideas that his Erda–Wotan scene in Siegfried, one of the most astute pieces of opera direction on video, has gone under-appreciated. Holten had shown us the Rheingold Erda in a beautiful silk pantsuit and cloche hat, with a long golden braid of hair. She was friendly and concerned for Wotan, never severe but rather intimate and confiding. By the time of Siegfried she is dying. She has a home health-care aide in her apartment. She has only a few thinning wisps of hair. She cannot walk on her own. Wotan arrives, pounding on her door to Wagner's pounding, galloping rhythm. He is dressed for a reunion date, sporting what he thinks is a nice jacket, and he has brought flowers and champagne for a last fling. In a prime example of opera direction attuned to music, Wotan does not see her at first. Instead, as the end-of-the-world chords spin after each other, he sees the empty hospital bed. Erda has previously covered her remaining hair with a turban and her horrible institutional underwear with a nice robe. But at "You are not what you profess to be" the turban and robe come off. She forces him to look at her, then, taking a hand mirror from her dressing table, at himself. It's a step past Chéreau: Erda's challenge to Wotan is no longer inadvertent. We realize for the first time why, after Siegfried shatters Wotan's sword in the very next scene, Wagner gives us a crippled, incomplete version of Erda's theme. The goddess of the earth and the king of the gods are bound together to the very end.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN is a pianist and writer based in Connecticut.