The Royal Opera – Götterdämmerung [Treleaven, Gasteen & Tomlinson]

Götterdämmerung [Third day of Der Ring des Nibelungen, in a prologue and three acts]

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

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano

Director – Keith Warner
Designer – Stefanos Lazaridis
Costumes – Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting – Wolfgang Göbbel
Movement Director – Claire Glaskin

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 17 April, 2006
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

“Alles weiß ich, alles ward mir nun frei!” – All things I know, everything has become clear to me! – so sings Brünnhilde towards the close of her culminating narration. Whilst Brünnhilde may have gained clarification in Wagner’s drama, I’m afraid this writer cannot claim the same for Keith Warner’s production of the final part of Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Back in December 2004 I welcomed “Das Rheingold”, finding some impressive directorial touches which did not detract unduly from Wagner’s dramaturgy. The subsequent instalments, however, did not live up to these initial impressions.

In this “Götterdämmerung”, perhaps predictably, various visual ‘symbols’ from the previous music-dramas re-presented themselves, but it was not always at all clear what these signified. Why all the ropes? Why the doors? What does the rectangle (in various guises) really mean? Why is one rope red? And the red ribbon? And so forth. Wagner has provided enough enigmas and potentials for confusion without a director imposing more of his own.

Suffice it to say that this production provided – as with the previous dramas in the cycle – moments of illumination coupled with scenes of mystification. And I really don’t feel that an audience should spend its time pondering what the ‘significance’ – or otherwise – of various visual symbols might be when Wagner’s own dramaturgy and music provide symbolism enough.

Additionally, there were some touches that have been seen in other Ring productions of comparatively recent vintage. At the start, the wall that bears various hieroglyphics – including Greek lettering and mathematical symbols and formulae – first encountered at the opening of “Siegfried” – is visible. In fact, this vision also opened the subsequent acts, with whoever was on-stage being obliged to shift it upward. The three Norns – excellently sung individually and in ensemble – appeared in front of this with the (red) rope being passed between them. This made nonsense of Wagner’s text (translated via surtitles) which indicates that the rope is wound round a rock and a fir-tree.

But the Norns’ impassioned singing and the excellent orchestral playing made for a vivid start to the drama; though perhaps the rather suave conducting and playing was somewhat too warm for the Norns’ bleak predictions. Pappano’s reading of the wonderful ‘dawn’ music was fine enough, though a full sense of rapture was not fully conveyed. Brünnhilde bidding Siegfried to depart was not inexpressive, but, at this stage, Lisa Gasteen was not sufficiently emotional. Whilst she seemed to be rather better, overall, than she had been in “Die Walküre” and “Siegfried”, the vulnerable – or human – side of the character did not come over as strongly as it might. Gasteen seemed better-suited to the more venomous outpourings of Act Two, though her tender addresses to her father – not inappropriately sung to a statue of Wotan – were gentle and moving.

John Treleaven presented a personable hero, though he doesn’t really have the ideal ‘Heldentenor’ strength for this taxing role. He has stamina, to be sure, but everything was sung in a somewhat monochrome manner at a consistently loud dynamic. He muffed a top C in Act Two, but as if to compensate, prolonged that note unnecessarily in Act Three. In “Siegfried” he proved affecting in softer passages, but in “Götterdämmerung” even his death-scene lacked adequate pathos and a feeling of regret. This scene was not helped by having Siegfried stagger to his feet following his stabbing, and wander off towards the back of the stage during the magnificent funeral music. Pappano pressed ahead towards the end of the duet, and did not entirely avoid agitation instead of voluptuous exultation.

In terms of the staging, this scene is that in which Siegfried presents Brünnhilde with the fateful ring, but in Warner’s production, he had already done so at the end of “Siegfried”, thus necessitating the object being passed back and forth between the protagonists – to distracting effect. ‘Rasch’ – quick – is Wagner’s tempo indication for ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’, but Pappano’s reading of this was too swift, with some passages veering towards the trivial-sounding. But the transition to Act One proper was well-handled, with a carefully graded ritenuto and dark brass heralding the change of location to the Gibichung Hall. The setting for this was a large three-sided white rectangular space, with two-way mirrors serving as windows to the rear; these, in turn were small rectangles. One pane of glass seemed to be broken; whether this was intentional or not is impossible to conjecture.

Rather intriguingly this construction resembled three sides of the Tarnhelm – of which more anon – perhaps suggesting that the events taking place therein are possibly illusionary. A pity that Gunther and Gutrune were presented as that cliché favoured by modern productions – an incestuous couple. And even Hagen had a snog with Gutrune later on. In the persons of Peter Coleman-Wright and Emily Magee, the Gibichung pair is well-cast, both gaining in strength as the drama progressed. Emily Magee, in particular, displayed a most attractive soprano, especially in her contributions to the second and third acts.

With John Tomlinson, one can confidently state that his was Wagnerian singing of a quite superior order. He is well-versed in the role of Hagen. He projects the text with a clarity that others would do well to emulate, and his baleful tone is just right for this personification of malevolence. After Gunther and Siegfried (now drugged to give him selective amnesia) have departed for the latter to woo Brünnhilde on the former’s behalf, Hagen stays behind to guard the palace. ‘Hagen’s watch’, as this scene is often called, was darkly projected by Tomlinson, and superbly accompanied. It is, though, another inappropriate touch to have Hagen remain on stage for the remainder of the act. I first saw this directorial addition in Götz Friedrich’s second Royal Opera production, and it is a pity that Warner spoiled the effect of music which is clearly Brünnhilde’s by having Hagen and onlookers still hanging around.

Inexplicably, the next scene, where Waltraute visits Brünnhilde, took place in the Gibichung Hall, where Wagner’s story-line has Waltraute visit her sister on the rock where she awaits Siegfried’s return. Again, we have seen the opening of this scene staged before with the sisters refusing to look at one another, but Mihoko Fujimura’s impassioned delivery was enthralling. Possibly one might ask for a slightly darker vocal colouring, but she was thoroughly convincing both musically and histrionically.

The final scene of this long act (just over 2 hours in this performance) finds Siegfried returning to Brünnhilde in disguise as Gunther. His disguise is effected by means of the Tarnhelm. Forged by Mime way back in “Das Rheingold”, this object enables people to change shape and move instantly from one location to another. Customarily presented on-stage as a piece of chain-mail, in this production the Tarnhelm is our friend the white rectangular box placed over the wearer’s head. In this staging, it was dramatic nonsense to have both Gunther and Siegfried confront Brünnhilde. The whole point of the scene is that Brünnhilde subconsciously recognises Siegfried through his disguise – this gives rise to the drama in the second act. In any event, Gasteen was superb in conveying anger, impotence and resignation. John Tomlinson was obliged to manipulate an armchair – to what purpose was not clear – but crashing it down on the last chord of the act was not a good idea as Wagner’s chord is emphatic enough without this percussive addition, especially as the two were not co-ordinated.

Suspended in mid-air in a rowing-boat, Alberich appeared to his son Hagen at the start of Act Two. Peter Sidhom suggested total obsession with the recovery of the ring, and Tomlinson’s implacable delivery created just the right amount of dramatic tension between the characters. Hagen’s summoning of the vassals – purportedly to war, but in a grim joke, really calling the men to greet Brünnhilde as Gunther’s bride – is one of the most thrilling scenes in all Wagner – in all the operatic repertoire, for that matter. The chorus was good, though not as numerically large as one finds at Bayreuth, for instance, but somehow the scene lacked the last ounce of frisson. There should be a real explosion of energy – a sense of release – when the chorus enters. This quality was missing. Although the men described themselves as ‘armed’ in preparation for battle, they seemed to be carrying what looked like computer joysticks. Odd weaponry indeed!

Another scenic device seen in the other segments of this Ring production was a large rectangular platform. This emerged with Brünnhilde atop surrounded by a kind of ‘crown of thorns’ made from barbed wire – an arresting and not inappropriate sight. A shame, though, that the mechanical workings of the platform were all-too-clearly visible. Gasteen hurled out her curses and accusation with power not limited, and the drama was unsparingly projected from strong singing, both solo and choral. The orchestra’s response was good, too, and with a real sense of all the elements working together to create true music-drama. But tension sagged rather in the closing trio, with Coleman-Wright perhaps not having sufficient weight for Gunther’s lines at this point.

The final scene was poorly presented, as the entrance of Siegfried and Gutrune, upstage, was masked by the position of the platform. Hagen’s knowing look to the audience on the last chord was reminiscent of Harry Kupfer’s Bayreuth staging.

The final act opened with a realistic setting of a riverbank, on which a rowing boat (borrowed from Alberich?) and various other objects were strewn. These included the grotesque-looking horse’s-head skull that substituted for Brünnhilde’s horse Grane, and a segment of the red rope. The trio of Rhinemaidens be-sported themselves delightfully. Strangely, though, Siegfried revealed himself to have been under a covering in the boat, instead of entering and encountering the water-nymphs. He was incongruously dressed in his white wedding suit, albeit with a coat which he would later discard after having been stabbed.

Hagen, Gunther and the hunting party entered and there was certainly a rise in dramatic tension as the scene continued, culminating in Siegfried’s death via Hagen’s spear. The funeral music made its poignant point, though the articulation of the semiquavers was faulty – as it so often is (the second should be held longer than the first) – and the visual distraction of having Siegfried amble off into the background didn’t exactly help.

And so to the final scenes where the strands are tentatively drawn together and the possibility of a more positive future suggested. After Hagen’s dispatching of Gunther and Brünnhilde’s explaining to Gutrune that she was married to Siegfried before Gutrune had even met him, Brünnhilde commands the great funeral pyre to be built, into which Siegfried will be cast, to be followed by herself.

Lisa Gasteen projected a range of expression for this Immolation scene which was by turns heroic and inward, finally revealing a degree of vulnerability, which would have been welcome at other points in her portrayal of this remarkable character. With the concluding minutes of destruction – an obstacle course for any director – Warner’s symbolism seemed to have been unleashed with a vengeance. There was real fire, to be sure, but also a re-appearance of the stabbed Fafner, and other personages and artefacts.

Finally, a large circle/ring (get it?) descended onto which a young woman climbed and then ascended skywards (kitsch or what?). Whether or not this was supposed to be a ‘resurrected’ Brünnhilde was impossible to tell.

So, a decidedly mixed experience, which might apply to this cycle as a whole. I concede that some of the visual symbolism might make more ‘sense’ when the dramas are presented consecutively – as they will be in the Autumn of 2007 – but much is puzzling in Keith Warner’s direction and his imaginative design team. My impression is that their combined talents have served to undermine – confuse even – Wagner’s drama, rather than illuminate it.

Antonio Pappano’s conducting has been variable throughout. It was at its most consistent in “Götterdämmerung”, though he has yet to master the art of Wagnerian transition and of how to unleash the ‘big’ moments.

Cast, conductor and orchestra were warmly applauded. The production team was greeted by a mixture of boos and bravos.

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