Review: Astonishing End to Seattle Opera’s “Götterdämmerung” – August 14, 2009

Seattle Opera concluded its first cycle of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” with “Götterdämmerung”, the longest and most ambitious opera in opera’s standard repertory. The daunting requirements of this piece tax any opera company producing it. Not only did Seattle Opera succeed admirably, it seems certain that no opera company has ever achieved the razzle dazzle technology and theatrical effect of the Seattle Opera’s final scene.

However, the finale follows six hours of the extraordinary music of Wagner’s masterwork.

Production Notes on Act I

The first act of “Götterdämmerung”  (lasting three minutes short of two hours at Seattle Opera’s pacing) is the longest act in all of the standard repertory of any opera with two or more acts. (The third act of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger”,  the only act that is in that ballpark, is usually about ten minutes shorter.)

The act’s first scene, with lightly falling snow, is the one that alerts us that this will be  a very bad day, indeed. We meet the three Norns, who, by interpreting the patterns of weaving in an infinitely long rope, read the the fate of the world. That rope extends from a rock face portal that we last saw in the first scene of “Siegfried’s” third act.

Through that rock portal the earth goddess Erda had left Wotan, king of the gods, to return to her deep, eternal sleep.  This is also the place, that soon after, Siegfried broke Wotan’s spear by which he ruled the world, when Wotan tried to block his path leading to the Sleeping Beauty.

[Below: the Norns interpret the fate of the world by reading the weaving of a rope; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of Seattle Opera.]

Stephanie Blythe, whose formidable mezzo voice has produced some of the most memorable vocal experiences of this “Ring”, appearing as both the “Rheingold” and “Walkuere” Frickas and later in the act as Bruennhilde’s sister, Waltraute. In this first scene Blythe is the Second Norn, whose sisters the First  (Luretta Bybee) and the Third (Margaret Jane Wray) join her in this trio’s mysterious (and melodious) conversations.

[Below: From the left, the First Norn (Luretta Bybee), the Third Norn (Margaret Jane Wray) and Second Norn (Stephanie Blythe) are shocked when the rope they are reading breaks; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

The next scene is more upbeat. Not only has Siegfried (Stig Andersen) met his first woman, Bruennhilde (Janice Baird), but virginity is no longer an issue for this heretofore sexually inexperienced pair. Leaving Bruennhilde with the cursed Ring he won from the dragon, Fafner, Siegfried leads her horse down from the mountain to begin his exploration of the world of men (and a woman of whom he should have been more wary).

[Below: Bruennhilde (Janice Baird) lends her horse Grane to Siegfried (Stig Andersen) for his Rhine Journey; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

For the third scene, we encounter the first significant manmade structure of the Seattle “Ring” – the massive, wooden hall of the Gibichungs. Here reside the Gibich king, Gunther (Gordon Hawkins), his sister Gutrune (Marie Plette), and their half-brother Hagen (Daniel Sumegi). All share the same mother, the woman who conceived Hagen after a loveless encounter with Alberich.

Sumegi, an Australian bass-baritone, has been an impressive Fafner in the Seattle Ring’s “Rheingold” and “Siegfried”.  I had seen him in a number of smaller roles at the San Francisco Opera in the 1990s (he was retained as cover for several major stars, including Samuel Ramey, during that time in San Francisco).

As expected from his dark, appealing voice for the Fafner roles, his Hagen was excellently sung, and acted with the sinister flare that one expects from this character, who admits that deep in his heart he is purely evil.

[Below: Daniel Sumegi is Hagen; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

As Siegfried arrives, we hear another iteration of the leit motiv of Alberich’s curse. Hagen and the Gibichung siblings have conspired to slip Siegfried a lethal love potion to focus his attentions on Gutrune. Siegfried is persuaded to enter into an oath of blood brotherhood with Gunther, in which the consequence of breaking the oath is death.

[Below: the Hall of the Gibichungs, in which Siegfried swears a fatal oath; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Ironically, Siegfried makes a toast, before quaffing the drink, proclaiming that if he forgot everything else, he would still remember Bruennhilde. Then he promptly forgets his fiancee on whose ring finger is the most powerful element in the universe.

[Below: Siegfried (Stig Andersen), under the spell of a magic potion, agrees to marry Gutrune (Maria Plette); edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Back at Bruennhilde’s rock, her sister valkyrie Waltraute (Stephanie Blythe) has defied Wotan’s past orders forbidding contact with her, and describes to her the resignation to the fates of a depressed Wotan.

[Below: Bruennhilde (Janice Baird, left) is visited by her sister Waltraute (Stephanie Blythe); edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

At first joyful to see Waltraute, Bruennhilde is annoyed by her practical suggestion that the end of the world can be averted if Bruennhilde were to give the ring on her finger back to the Rhine Maidens. But Bruennhilde will have nothing to do with the suggestion, which would deprive us of us of the second and third acts, two of the greatest acts in opera.

For the final scene of Act I, which takes place on Bruennhilde’s rock, Hawkins (the Gunther) plays Siegfried appearing in the guise of Gunther, but Hawkins lip syncs words sung by Andersen (the Siegfried), producing an effective scene.

Andersen is obviously just to the inside of the passageway – just out of audience view – that leads backstage from Bruennhilde’s rock (used especially effectively for the “Walkuere” and “Siegfried” curtain calls earlier in the week). When Hawkins’ Siegfried (as Gunther) stepped into the passageway, Andersen’s Siegfried (as himself) stepped out of it, pulling the Tarnhelm that had disguised him away from his head.

Bruennhilde, to her great surprise, is overpowered by him whom she believes is a stranger.

Production Notes on Act II

Done right, the beginning of Act II, in which two of the dark forces of the “Ring”, Hagen and Alberich, appear together, can be memorable. Seattle Opera did it right, with an electrifying performance by Richard Paul Fink as Alberich, countered effectively Sumegi’s somnolent  Hagen.

[Below: Alberich (Richard Paul Fink) outlines his expectations of his son, Hagen (Daniel Sumegi); edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Yet, as foreboding as the father-son discourse might seem, Hagen in the very next scene adopts an uncharacteristic cheerfulness as he leads one of the greatest of German operatic choruses, inviting all of the Gibichung vassals to the double weddings of Gunther and Bruennhilde, and of Siegfried and Gutrune, directing them to slaughter farm animals and game as sacrifices to Wotan, Froh, Donner and Fricka.

[Below: Hagen (Daniel Sumegi) invites the men of the Gibichung lands to a double wedding; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

One of the recurring themes of opera, as it is stage drama, is the dramatic situation created by mistaken identities. It is hard to conceive of one that is more dramatic and whose consequences are more severe that the confusion created by Bruennhilde’s capture by the person she thinks is Gunther and her recognition of her husband, Siegfried, as the intended groom of Gunther’s sister.

[Below: Gunther (Gordon Hawkins, left) is dismayed at the charges made by Bruennhilde (Janice Baird, center) about Siegfried (Stig Andersen, second from right) and his proposed marriage to Gutrune (Marie Plette, right); edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

A jilted lover, especially one with information that it is dangerous for that former mate to have, can create havoc, but provide great theater. When Bruennhilde joins Gunther and Hagen in an alliance for vengeance, we know that Siegfried is doomed  by the final act.

Production Notes for Act III

For the first scene in Act III, we return to sets (redressed) that in “Walkuere” was the scene of the Todesvekeundig and fight between Siegmund and Hagen and in “Siegfried” was the Neidhoehle, where Fafner the dragon had guarded the Ring and treasure. Towards the front of the scene is a pond in which the Rhine Maidens appear to Siegfried.

There are limited opportunities in the Wagner’s “Ring” for comic relief, but in the Seattle Ring, the Rhine Maidens are joyous, with opportunities to splash and do aquatic pratfalls. Thus, the audience gets some light-hearted moments amongst the gloomy tasks ahead.

And the Maidens are in a gloomy mood indeed when Siegfried ignores their entreaties. They reveal to him that by the end of the day, he will be dead, and that Bruennhilde, who will possess the Ring, will restore it to them.

[Below: Siegfried taunts the Rhine Maidens  from left, Flosshilde (Jennifer Hines), Wellgunde (Michele Losier) and Woglinde (Julianne Gearhart), with the Nibelung Ring; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Armed with Siegfried’s vow that he should be struck down if he is found to be unfaithful to Gunther or Gutrune, and with Bruennhilde’s information as how indeed to strike him down, it only takes a reversal of potion to create the situation where Hagen can argue justifiable homicide.

[Below: Siegfried (Stig Andersen, left) begins to remember details of his love affair with Bruennhilde, as Hagen (Daniel Sumegi, holding a drinking horn) provides him with a potion to recover his memory; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

The carcass of the hunting party’s game is dumped from its litter, and Siegfried’s body is placed on it to return to the Gibichung Hall.

The first scene curtain falls as Robert Spano and the Seattle Opera Orchestra play the Siegfried’s Tod music – one of the greatest orchestral pieces of the 19th century. The Ring, still on Siegfried’s finger, is the cause of a fight between Gunther and Hagen, which the former loses along with his life. But Bruennhilde (helped when a post mortem movement of Siegfried’s arm frightens Hagen) recovers the Ring.

[Below: Bruennhilde (Janice Baird) tends to the body of Siegfried (Stig Andersen); edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

With the gleaming high notes of the great vocal end of the Ring, Bruennhilde’s Immolation, the valkyrie who has decided to end the curse, has Siegfried’s body placed at the base of a mountain of firewood from the great world ash. As she sings of returning the Ring to the Rhine Maidens, Hagen circles around her. She takes two torches, and gives one to one of the men to set the Siegfried’s funeral pyre ablaze.

The Ring ends with a massive orchestral passage in which the several important Ring leit motivs cascade sonically one upon the other. What Seattle Opera has done to portray the immolation that destroys Valhalla and the realm of the gods is breathtaking.

The  Gibichung Hall disappears into the sky and the entire stage returns to the first scene of “Rheingold” in which the Rhine Maidens swim, frolic and somersault through the Rhine. Bruennhilde and Hagen face off, then disappear below as the Rhine Maidens get hold of the Ring.

Then the Rhine Maidens disappear and we see the flames reaching Valhalla, where we again see Wotan (Greer Grimsley), Loge (Kobie van Rensburg), Fricka/Waltraute (Stephanie Blythe) and Donner (Gordon Hawkins), among other soon-not-to-be immortals. Next, we see clouds, and, for the final image, the forest clearing that was last seen as the home where Mime raised Siegfried.

Even with this description, I believe it is impossible to imagine what an effect the succession of these tableaux,  each of which appears to use the entire Seattle stage, shown in tandem with a luxurious leit motiv played by full orchestra, has on the audience. There are some occasions when on must attend a performance live to experience the full effect.

Notes on the Baird Bruennhilde and the Casts in General

The cast change since the 2005 “Ring” that gained the most advanced publicity is that of the Bruennhilde, Janice Baird, who performed the role in three operas, “Walkuere”, “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung” with only a day’s rest in between. This is a herculean feat, that is rarely seen. (Olga Sergeyeva of the Kirov Mariinsky Theater “Ring” presented in Orange County, California in 2006 and reviewed on this website is the only other person I have seen do this.)

Baird rewarded her newly won Seattle following with a lithe and lively, physically attractive, wonderfully acted series of Bruennhildes. Importantly, since all three operas end in ringing finales, she came through with a big voice that soared above the orchestra. I was not the least surprised that when she made her solo curtain calls she brought the house down.

That said, since I am a proponent of what I call bel canto Wagnerian singing, I had reservations about how the voice measured up if applied against a standard of constantly beautiful tones, caressing the melodies that Wagner wrote so abundantly for Bruennhilde’s part.

Any reviewer will have opinions of a performance, in the best cases based on long experience and knowledge of the subject matter being reviewed. Since there are different ways to do things excellently, I find reviewers who outline the criteria by which they make judgments as the more useful than those that, without explanation, condemn a conductor as, say, “idiomatic”, or who quip that a singer falls short of a mark without explaining to their readership as what exactly they mean.

In the Seattle cast, in addition to the awesome dramatic singing of Grimsley’s Wotan, there was a remarkable amount of my ideal of bel canto Wagnerian singing – Skelton’s Siegmund, Andersen’s Siegfried, Petersen’s Mimi, Fink’s Alberich, Silvestrelli’s Fasolt and Hunding (although not quite in his best voice), Sumegi’s Fafner and Hagen, Collins’ Froh, van Rensburg’s Loge, and Hawkins’ Donner and Gunther. Even this is not meant to be the exhaustive list of those who know how to make a Wagnerian melody sound beautiful whether they are snarling or singing a song of love.

Baird, at this stage in her career, at least to my ear, who will begin a performance with a sharp-edged vibrato, lacks the beautiful sound in the earlier part of her performances that she often achieves in the big moments. Yet what she does achieve in  her performances, unquestionably provides pleasure to the Seattle audiences and adds to the Seattle “Ring’s” success. The perfect is always the enemy of the merely stupendous.

For reviews of the three previous operas of the Seattle Ring, see: Wagner, Wadsworth and Lynch Team for Seattle’s Magical “Rheingold” Revival – August 9, 2009

and Seattle Opera’s Memorable “Walkuere” Revival – August 10, 2009 ,

and An Imaginative “Siegfried” Continues Seattle Opera’s Spectacular Cycle – August 12, 2009 .

For a review of a previous performance of “Götterdämmerung””, see: Mariinsky “Götterdämmerung” in Orange County – ‘Hehrstes Wunder’ October 11, 2006.

Anyone who can grab up any remaining tickets to the 2009 second and third cycles should do so. Anyone with the ability and interest to attend complete “Ring” cycles (who, of course, will have other concept “Rings” over the next couple of years to enjoy), who was unlucky enough not to attended this extraordinary “Ring” should make plans for its return to Seattle in the Wagner Bicentennial Year, 2013.