In what can only be seen as a remarkable coincidence, the opening night of Götterdämmerung fell on the same day as jury selection for the much-anticipated “Twilight of the Enron Gods”—the massive fraud trial of the collapsed giant’s principals (and principles) Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling. Like power in Valhalla, their empire was based on stolen property, greed and the willful blindness of godless and god-fearing manipulators of the mighty and their wannabes.
Director Tim Albery’s post-modern vision for the final installment of Wagner’s teratology fails to ignite the emotional and passionate cornucopia that lurks intriguingly in every note, scene and utterance of the formidable cast and orchestra who are charged with bringing this incredible drama to life. To be sure, there is much fire on the stage, but largely metaphoric as red lights (“sailor take warning”) burn directly into the pupils of the audience during the one-special-effect Prologue, only to be shone onto the visages of the liberated mortals, mirroring the heavenly World Ash Tree pyre’s flames while—in a true last act—they devour Wotan and his followers above. Their demise is efficiently reflected on the brows of the “people,” but that magnificent moment feels bloodless and as cold as Hagen’s soul.
More crimson at every turn, including the Rhinemaidens’ knitting balls, Gunther’s office couch, staff swivel chairs and computer monitors (could they have been plasma?), not to mention the blood brothers’ (Siegfried/Gunther) ruby cocktail (a distressing symbol in the rekindled HIV/AIDS infection rates of modern times), to the base elixir of Gutrune’s life-altering potions for the fearless Siegfried (white wine a thematic impossibility despite it being a better cover for devilish pharmaceuticals).
To underscore the carmine inferences, the players are largely draped in greys, blacks or whites. The happy exception is the comic antics of the synchronized Rhinemaidens who open Act III with choreographer Patti Powell’s hilarious send-up, which includes lots of leg and a sitting kickline while the metallic blue-white wigs provide equally welcome visual relief.
Sadly, even as Wagner’s masterpiece lumbers purposely to its prophetic conclusion, even as voices tire and Richard Bradshaw and his intrepid band reveal their own mortality: ensemble slips, intonation wavers and the requisite inner-tension (needed more than ever to foil the campy prelude) is glimpsed but too seldom realized.
It fell to the voices to deliver the evening’s most memorable moments. As Siegfried (reprising the role from the third opera, cross-reference below), Christian Franz surmounted nearly all of the Herculean tasks with deceptive ease, integrity and thoughtful care. Mats Almgren’s COC début as Hagen was an artistic tour de force both vocally (unerring pitch, mesmerizing dark caramel hue) and theatrically (producing more menace with his countenance than the orchestra a few feet below), deserving return visits to the new hall so that all present may fully appreciate his special talent.
The smaller venue may also play to Frances Ginzer’s considerable strengths. Her Brünnhilde offered much finesse and introspection, but when called on to decry fate or her betrayers, an unwelcome edge crept into the voice, detracting rather than reinforcing the outrage.
Kudos to Richard Paul Fink who owns the role of Alberich.
Guang Yang, doing double duty as Second Norn and Waltraute, brought zest, effortless projection and dynamic surety to every measure; more, please!
The sombre-suit, white-shirt men’s chorus (particularly in the middle act, the jewel of the production) was a constant pleasure. Their gleaming spears belied the century, producing one of lighting designer David Finn’s most telling effects. The verve in their “Greek Chorus” declamations—particularly the searing tenors—provided much-needed contrast to the too often staid proceedings around them.
With nearly five hours of high art, the pacing—of necessity—must be carefully plotted. The bulk of the work goes to the orchestra; challenged to find the ebb and flow of phrasing then carry along performers and audience alike into and through Wagner’s demanding and often dank soundscape. Of the strings, the cellos were most consistently able to sustain the long lines and spit out the passagework when required (Bryan Epperson’s brief solo contributions were god-like unto themselves). The woodwinds never intruded; the pit brass solid and supportive but, regrettably, never encouraged to add harmonic weight to their sheer volume (notably in the funeral march, where the result was brilliant rather spine tingling); their onstage colleagues were less secure than the shape-shifting hero.
The notion of power was ably illustrated by production designer Michael Levine’s stark set. The tangle of thick threads above the pair of sturdy towers were a constant reminder of the power grid—the loss of which changes lives in an instant. More subliminal were the rows of fluorescent industrial lights—in one configuration appearing like a trapeze convention—but most often underlining the notion of Big Box business, where some multi-national companies have more resources than many sovereign states (cross-reference below). Their “ring” is the gold so systematically extracted from bargain hunters—a pittance of which is paid to their “heroes” for the pleasure of subsistence. These gods of commerce could never fall. They, like the Enron brain trust that has pleaded not guilty, have merely been misunderstood, as their version of the truth, of course, will reveal. JWR