Norse myths performed

For last year’s NaNoWriMo I laid the groundwork for What Else is There?, my YA historical novel about Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir. It is set in Iceland, Greenland, and America about 1,000 A.D. Approaching the end of the story, I am meanwhile exploring references to Norse mythology in books and other media. In the past two days I saw an intriguing juxtaposition of Thor, the Marvel Comics movie on that Norse god’s story, and the Metropolitan Opera’s Siegfried a sophisticated, but no less funky, narrative side by side.

Siegfried, one of the Metropolitan Opera’s simulcasts, played at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH. It was a five and a half hour performance, the third in Wagner’s four episode Ring Cycle. Siegfried kills the dragon Fafnir to get the ring – which dooms anyone who owns it and is the inspiration for the Lord of the Rings ring. Siegfried has never learned to fear, so doom is not an issue. Along with it he claims the Tarnhelm, a scrap of cloth that imparts the wearer with invisibility – obviously the inspiration for Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak – and other magical powers. In the third act Siegfried struggles through a ring of fire to release Brunnhilde from the spell that has kept her asleep for the past sixteen or so years. He does it by cutting open her chain mail armor with his sword, thus reducing her from a goddess to a mortal, who of course falls immediately in love with him. Brunnhilde may be the inspiration for the helmet-with-horns opera singer often characterized in cartoons. Although the Vikings wore helmets, there were no horns. These were an invention of some costume designer for the opera at some point and became symbolic of the Vikings.
Jay Hunter Morris, who played Siegfried, is from Paris, Texas. He is a virile young blond tenor who was perfect for the role. During the intermission interview it was obvious that he’s psyched to be at the Met in this incredibly demanding role. He presented himself as just an ordinary Texan, complete with the accent, yet he is the star, singing in German for this sophisticated audience.

The stage set is dominated by a large device of planks that are tilted different ways, depending on need. Video images projected on them effectively depicted stone, water or fire. Much maligned by NYT critics, I found it to be dramatic and appropriate. Attention to detail, for example the water’s changing reflections, helped create convincing visual metaphor.
The previous night by coincidence, I watched Thor, the contemporary movie. It started off very silly. Pretty predictable story line, but interesting depictions of Loki, and of Odin – played by Anthony Hopkins whose career spans from demented mass murderer to Norse god. Bifrost (the rainbow bridge) and Yggdrasil the World Ash Tree are unusual concepts in the original myth, and the movie did them justice. There was a momentary appearance of Odin on Sleipnir, his eight-legged horse, perhaps brief because any longer would have been difficult to make convincing.

Both versions had ludicrous elements. In the opera, Siegfried’s battle with the dragon was not well conceived or choreographed. When Odin banishes Thor in the movie, he falls to earth right in front of researchers trying to find an Einstein-Rosen bridge that becomes an analogy to the Rainbow Bridge of myth – how convenient. But both strive to depict, in their own idioms, the grand ideas in myths that reach toward us from a thousand years ago.

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