The Twilight of the Gods

The Twilight of the Gods (Götterdämmerung)
[Part Four of the Ring Cycle. Sung in Jeremy Sams’s English translation]

Brünnhilde – Kathleen Broderick
Siegfried – Richard Berkeley-Steele
Hagen – Gidon Saks
Gunther – Iain Paterson
Gutrune – Claire Weston
Waltraute – Sara Fulgoni
Alberich – Andrew Shore
First Norn – Liane Keegan
Second Norn – Yvonne Howard
Third Norn – Franzita Whelan
Woglinde – Linda Richardson
Wellgunde – Stephanie Marshall
Flosshilde – Ethna Robinson

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera
Paul Daniel

Phyllida Lloyd – director
Richard Hudson – designer
Paule Constable – lighting designer
Andrew George – movement director
Paul Stannering – sound designer

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 April, 2005
Venue: Coliseum, London

The final instalment of English National Opera’s current Ring cycle is less a culmination or even an overall synthesis of previous dramatic and visual ideas, than a trying out of further such possibilities with the intention of securing a catharsis such as Wagner achieves, against the odds, at the climax of his tetralogy.

Some of the directorial procedures are appealing in spite of themselves. The appearance of Siegfried and Brünnhilde in their cottage, silhouetted against a ‘Western’ sunset, and the former’s joyful ‘off to the office’ departure before embarking on his fateful Rhine journey: both visual conceits are memorable despite their sheer inanity. Then again, the betrothals of Siegfried with Gutrune, and Gunther with Brünnhilde, as a Vegas-style wedding ceremony – complete with Hagen as a celebrity compere – is something that the brash immediacy of the musical context positively invites at this point. On the other hand, Hagen in Fascistic attire – summoning the squadron of Gibichung riot-police is not just crass but laziness in the face of one of Wagner’s most ominous inferences as to the corrupting influence of power and its destructive potential in the hands of those given the right to misuse it.

Of the previous instalments in Phyllida Lloyd’s Ring staging, only “The Rhinegold” had a demonstrable consistency in terms of the logic underlying its conception. It could reasonably be argued that Wagner himself, as the cycle progressed, and particularly after the 12-year secession during the composing of Siegfried, became ambivalent as to the educative aspect of a music-drama that had been so tellingly set forth at the outset. Certainly the descent into melodrama that informs stretches of “The Twilight of the Gods” is as far removed from the precision attacks on Capitalism of “The Rhinegold” or “The Valkyrie” as Wagner’s dramatic thinking had been from his predecessors and contemporaries; and it remains a source of speculation why Wagner, having systematically created “The Ring” dramas in reverse, allowed this most backward-looking part of the text to stand as the climax of his musical-dramatic concept.

In its frequent inability, then, to furnish “The Ring” with a credible overall interpretation, Lloyd’s staging can nonetheless be said to have gone far deeper into the essential uncertainty of ‘Twilight’ than many a more ideologically-consistent interpretation. And with Paule Constable’s subtle and often illuminating (no pun intended!) lighting, and also with Richard Hudson’s simple but rarely simplistic designs able to strike a balance between concrete and analogous representation, the outcome is a visual rendering that avoids overloading the music with superfluous images and largely refrains from intruding on its inner dynamism and seamless momentum. In short, not an interpretation that looks decisively to the future but one that pointedly conveys the uncertainty surrounding Western art music at present.

What is not uncertain is the general excellence of the singing. It would be good to report that Richard Berkeley-Steele’s Siegfried has overcome initial limitations in a powerful yet vulnerable assumption. It has not and is not – yet there is still much to admire, not least the fearlessness with which he swearsblood-brotherhood with Gunther in Act Two, or his petulant bemusement on subsequently confronting Brünnhilde. Fittingly, it is his eulogy to her after being fatally wounded by Hagen, fervently expressed, that confirms an identity with the role such as should emerge more completely in future productions.

There can be no real reservations over Gidon Saks’s Hagen. His stark yet burnished tone, ideal for the role, is employed with awesome power when needed but also a restraint which lends an ominous chill to his monologue of intent prior to the final scene of Act One. Lacking nothing in sheer ruthlessness, he makes the character more subtle and wide-ranging than is often the case. Almost as fine is Iain Paterson’s Gunther – all too human in the equivocations and wrongdoings that make him a victim of his own vanity. Sympathetic too is Claire Weston’s Gutrune – never the most interesting of Wagner’s put-upon females, here endowed with a fragile dignity that makes her helplessness in the unfolding of events the more moving. Sara Fulgoni delivers Waltraute’s lengthy monologue with eloquence in which defiance gradually gives way to desperation as her premonition of disaster goes unheeded.

Andrew Shore’s brief but crucial appearances as Alberich set the seal on a consistently perceptive account of the role – while those of the Norns and Rhinemaidens are brought off with a pensiveness and insouciance, not to mention security of ensemble, appropriate for their respective contributions. And, whatever its members’ attire, the ENO Chorus makes a lusty and characterful showing as the Gibichungs.

Otherwise, the evening belongs – as finally it must do – to Brünnhilde, in which part Kathleen Broderick surpasses her impressive best from the two previous operas in an assumption that grows in stature with every incident to befall Wagner’s greatest, because most human, ‘hero’. Her shocked dismay on being abducted by Siegfried in the guise of Gunther; her vivid remonstrating with both of them and subsequent sense of betrayal; her desire for vengeance when the truth of her humiliation becomes known – the eloquence and passion of her characterisation is undoubted. And, in this performance at least, there was no perceptible loss of intensity in the closing ‘immolation’ scene – where not even her risible transformation into a suicide bomber, and a final conflagration that fudged the question of collapse and renewal, seriously detracted from the conviction with which she held the stage.

The ENO Orchestra’s playing was without major flaw, and made up for in commitment what it lacked in sustained intensity. Having let the later stages of Act One hang fire, Paul Daniel sustained a febrile intensity during Act Two and, despite a less than awe-inspiring Funeral March, controlled the gradually cumulating momentum of Act Three with a keen sense of its function in the cycle as a whole. If rarely ‘his’ Ring as such, his seriousness and consistency of approach has often been impressive. Indeed, this production is sufficiently the sum of its parts to warrant revival as an integral staging: as part of a flawed testament to The Ring’s undying fascination as music-drama and relevance as an artistic statement.

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