Sunday, May 15, 2016

End of the World

You might feel, after the 5 1/2 hours of Twilight of the Gods, or Goetterdaemerrung [literally, "getting darker of the gods"], the 4th and last opera in Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung, that it ends in this fine Washington National Opera production with a whimper not a bang. The production of course is non-traditional, and is itself a critique of the detritus and destruction left by our modern industrial society, so dealing with Wagner's stage directions for the final scene are going to be difficult in any case.

He called for the Rhine to overflow its banks and the world, especially Valhalla, home of the gods, to crumble. I've seen at least three previous productions of this opera, two of them quite traditional, and they only could approximate those demanding orders. I do remember getting a charge out of buildings coming down, either onstage at the Met or Covent Garden in London. Brunnhilde brings about the redemption of the world as she rides her horse, Grane, into the flames of the fire started to burn Siegfried's funeral pyre. The Rhinemaidens drag the chief villain, Hagen, to his death by drowning as his final cry warns everyone else to keep their hands off the Ring.

The staging of this scene was not too close to any of those overwhelming objectives: no overflow, no crumbling buildings, and no horse. So to me, it fell a bit flat although I enjoy seeing new conceptions of most operas, including The Ring operas. And this cavil should not obscure my conclusion that Francesca Zambello's production (co-produced with San Francisco Opera) is the best-staged Ring I've ever seen.

Catherine Foster was a glorious Brunnhilde and Daniel Branna a fine Siegfried, as well as Eric Halvorson playing Hagen as well as anyone I've seen.The other singers were also excellent, in their acting as well, including Jacqueline Echols as a Rhinemaiden and she was the Forest Bird in the preceding opera, Siegfried, and Jamie Barton, an up-and-comer who was one of the Norns as well as one of the Rhinemaidens. She won the Met national auditions a few years ago.

Hearing the leitmotifs, or themes, associated with each of the characters or ideas or moods makes these operas as wonderful musically as they are. The most famed leitmotifs are Siegfried's, Valhalla, the Valkyries', the Sword, the Ring, the Spear, the Nibelungs, and Siegfried's Horn Call and Funeral March, the last a great orchestral piece itself from Goetterdaemerrung as well as Siegfried's Rhine Journey in the first act.

One unusual aspect was that the first acts of these last two operas, which tend to be slow, as is the first act of Die Walkure, the second opera, played very well and held my attention dramatically as well as musically, although one very accomplished musician whom I ran into at this last opera pointed out that drama is not a terribly strong point in these operas, even if they are often referred to as music-dramas. The final acts of the last two operas instead seemed to drag a bit, despite their rather dramatic content: Siegfried's awakening Brunnhilde from her deep sleep in Siegfried and the death of Siegfried and subsequent end of the world as we know it in tonight's opera.

And lastly, one judge friend I encountered suggested that the big problem of the opera tetralogy and for Wotan, the king of the gods and the main character in the first three operas, is lawyers. Wotan somehow had made all kinds of treaties and contracts that are imprinted in runic letters on his spear and these circumscribe his ability to take actions as he sees everything leading toward the end of the world as he knows it.

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