Friday 26 October 2007

Götterdämmerung, Royal Opera, 24 October 2007

Royal Opera House

First Norn – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Second Norn – Yvonne Howard
Third Norn – Marina Poplavskaya
Brünnhilde – Lisa Gasteen
Siegfried – John Treleaven
Gunther – Peter Coleman-Wright
Hagen – James Moellenhoff
Gutrune – Emily Magee
Waltraute – Mihoko Fujimura
Alberich – Peter Sidhom
Woglinde – Sarah Fox
Wellgunde – Heather Shipp
Flosshilde – Sarah Castle

Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Keith Warner (director)
Stefano Lazaridis (designer)
Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)

It would be a poor Götterdämmerung indeed – believe me, they do exist – which failed to excite and to inspire, given the work’s position as the culmination of the Ring. I mean this not only in terms of being the finale, but also in the sense that this is where the tetralogy’s entire network of themes, musical, dramatic, and intellectual, come to a head. Some are resolved, some remain defiantly unresolved, perhaps even incapable of resolution; for, in the words of Carl Dahlhaus, ‘It is precisely in order to radicalise conflicts – so that “resolutions” are ruled out – that dramas are written; if not, they would be treatises.’ This was not a definitive Götterdämmerung, if such a thing could exist; it was not even a great Götterdämmerung, although there were some very good things in it. But it was a creditable culmination to a cycle, which, I am happy to say, has in many respects confounded my expectations.

The production was largely back on course, after its below-par attempt at Siegfried. There were too glaring exception to this, the first relating to the end of the first act. Hagen’s continued presence on stage, following the move from the Hall of the Gibichungs to Brünnhilde’s rock, did not augur well. We all know that in a sense he is ‘still there’: his dramatic shadow hangs over the rest of the act, and the music could hardly make this clearer. Actually to have him on stage added little, except confusion as to where the action was taking place. But this was as nothing to the final scene (in which, needless to say, he remained on stage). Anyone who did not know what was supposed to be going on would have been utterly confused, since we had Siegfried as himself, wearing the Tarnhelm, and Siegfried transformed by the Tarnhelm into Gunther, on stage at the same time. All of the singing came from – audibly and visually – from the former Siegfried. This was logically incoherent, and the whole mess could easily have been avoided by following Wagner’s directions. To add insult to injury, the magnificently brutal orchestral conclusion was ruined by having Hagen get up from his chair, and bang it down on the floor a bit closer to the centre of the stage. I have no idea what this was intended to symbolise I have no idea, but it seemed merely bathetic. With the orchestra screaming Hagen’s malevolent presence, we have no need of any such stage business.

Siegfried’s Funeral March was also, visually, a disaster. It would have been far better blacked out to let the orchestra have its say. Instead, we had the perennially un-heroic Siegfried of John Treleaven get up and wander around the stage to no particular effect, before haplessly falling over. From my seat, I could also see him get up once again and canter off stage, an especially unfortunate moment. Given that this, along with the closing bars, is one of the greatest moments in the entire cycle for the orchestra to speak of what is going on, what has passed, and what may come, it would not seem unreasonable to avoid such distractions, even if they were less haplessly acted than was the case here.

Otherwise, the action was generally well handled. A highlight – perhaps the only highlight – from the production’s previous run remained: the statues of the gods, their role in proceedings, not least during the oath-swearing of the second act, and their final immolation, symbolising Warner’s Feuerbachian reading of the entire Ring as truly the twilight of the gods. The increasing desperation of Götterdämmerung’s sorry characters, as they engage in ever-unanswered rituals, shone through with commendable clarity. For Brünnhilde actually to deliver her Immolation Scene benediction lullaby, ‘Rest, rest, you god!’, to the Wotan statue, wrapped, as it were, in swaddling cloths, was a most convincing prelude to the burning of Valhalla. And the utter confusion of location that had previously disfigured the third act had received necessary attention, so that now we were no longer baffled by what was happening where, let alone why.

It was clear even before Götterdämmerung that John Tomlinson’s presence on stage had inspired much of the rest of the cast to greater heights than they might otherwise have reached. His absence was certainly felt, but several performances nevertheless impressed. The Norns and Rhinemaidens were uniformly excellent, both singly and corporately, although the direction of the latter irritated somewhat, emphasising girliness over their symbolic status in terms of the natural world. (I was not at all sure what much of the audience found amusing during the first scene of the third act: jumping in and out of the Rhine did not strike me as intrinsically hilarious.) Lisa Gasteen was recovered, and gave a heartfelt performance as Brünnhilde. She may not scale the heights of some of the great singers of the past, but she sings musically and with dramatic credibility. Peter Sidhom’s brief appearance as Alberich left one wanting more, his bitterness palpably transferred to Hagen, in which guise James Moellenhoeff impressed. He does not have the sheer blackness of tone of, say, Karl Riddersbusch; but there could be no doubting his evil. Both musically and physically his was an extremely powerful portrayal; we should hear more of him. Last time around, I had thought Mihoko Fujimura a good Waltraute, but had not shared in the quite excited reaction to her from many. This time, I thought her truly excellent. Her attention to the text – both verbal and musical – was most impressive, as was the way she transmitted this dramatically. One shared in her pain, and thereby in that of Wotan, who had sent her. The confrontation between Waltraute and Brünnhilde was properly moving, all the more so for its failure, Brünnhilde blinded by the delusions of love and her attempts to perpetuate it beyond its natural life-span.

Emily Magee looked the part as Gutrune, and acted extremely well. Her interaction in stage terms with Hagen was appropriately disturbing. Yet her voice lacked focus and sometimes was simply out of tune. Once again, however, the real weakest link was Siegfried. There was little progress in John Treleaven’s part from Siegfried; indeed, I thought his voice sounded still uglier. It might seem vindictive to recapitulate the criticisms I made in my previous review, so I shall simply refer the reader there. One cannot fault Treleaven for effort, which was there in abundance, but he simply does not have the wherewithal for the role. However – and this is a criticism of casting as much as of him – whilst there are many reasons for the characters and even the audience to wish the Volsung hero dead, vocal quality should not be one of them.

Much of the drama, of course, lies in the orchestra, perhaps more so in Götterdämmerung than in any of the preceding dramas. For the most part, the orchestra of the Royal Opera sounded magnificent. There were a few slips, which may perhaps be ascribed to tiredness, but rarely were they of great importance. Antonio Pappano’s conducting was not immune from the fits and starts characteristic of earlier efforts, but nor was it disfigured by them, as had previously been the case. His command of the score has improved enormously, as has his communication to the fine players in his orchestra. The end of the Immolation Scene, sadly, was something of a disappointment. Whilst the orchestra sounded gorgeous, almost Straussian, the direction was uncertain. Although Wagner’s meaning is unclear, or at least ambivalent – Patrice Chéreau astutely called the ending ‘oracular’, counselling ‘mistrust and anxiety’ – this needs to be conveyed positively, rather than merely sounding as if one has lost one’s way. Nevertheless, much of the rest of this final act was very well shaped indeed, after having taken a little time to find its bearings.

The chorus was, without reservation, excellent. I am not sure that I have ever heard it on better form. The vassals matched those of Haitink, which is praise indeed. The strength of individual lines and of the choral mass complemented each other, rather than standing in opposition, as can often be the case. The acting of chorus members, and indeed their direction, was first-rate too.

Whilst this was not a great Ring, then, there were very good and even excellent aspects to it. As I said at the end of Das Rheingold, no one who heard Haitink’s truly great traversal of the cycle will ever forget that; no one would think of comparing the performances to the advantage of the present. However, the progress made from earlier performances has been more than I could ever have reasonably expected. Much of the credit for this lies with Pappano, who has clearly devoted a great deal of time to a task of extraordinary complexity. The production has, with some exceptions, gained greatly in clarity, and there have been individual performances of considerable stature, Tomlinson’s possessing undeniable greatness. If one considers that, for a Ring to be successful, it must have changed one, and led one to marvel anew at Wagner’s staggering achievement, then there was a great deal of success.