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Beginners’ Götterdämmerung

29 Jun

The title isn’t meant to be patronising but, as Opera North’s Ring reached its conclusion, it struck me that this was, pretty much an ideal staging for anyone new to the cycle.  It’s 35 years since audiences in the North East had a chance to hear the Ring on their doorstep and many at the performance at the Sage in Gateshead that I saw on 28th June would have been experiencing Götterdämmerung live for the first time.

The staging, as for the other operas tells the story simply. It’s very easy to follow the plot, the emotions of the characters are conveyed directly.  There are passages in Götterdämmerung where it’s quite easy for the mind to wander.  It didn’t here and it was a joy to be in an audience that was listening and engaging with barely a cough or a fidget.  The humanity of the characters was clear.  This was an accessible, clear and very, very good version.  This isn’t to say that I don’t miss the insights of more amitious productions (I won’t easily forget Brünnhilde being brought in with the paper bag over her head in Richard Jones’s production) but I don’t think, for example, that I’ve understood the words of the Immolation Scene so clearly or experienced a more immediate performance of the Waltraute scene than I have here.

As in the previous three operas, the performances have been led by the outstanding work of the Opera North orchestra under Richard Farnes.  Just watching Farnes, you have the sense of someone genuinely leading and in control and it is the clarity and the sureness of the pacing that I will take away from the these performances.  The two orchestral show pieces came off outstandingly well, as they ought to, but I’ll also remember the pauses, the management of the dialogue between singers and orchestra, the way in which he caught the dramatic mood, particularly in Act II and those dialogues between the characters so that the emotions were utterly clear.  This was compelling conducting.  Others may get more incandescence, possibly subtler playing, but this was hugely satisfying.

I don’t know how far this cast would work in a huge, acoustically challenging barn and having to ride over the orchestra. Here, stood in front, with nothing between them and the orchestra, they were excellent.  Alwyn Mellor hasn’t the sheer heft of many Brünnhildes but she conveys the wisdom, the sadness and the anger marvellously and her last scene was as moving as I’ve seen it.  Mati Turu Siegfried delivered his best singing in the narration at the end and, throughout, was enthusiastic, confident and you felt able to relax that he would be fine.  Mats Algrem made a lowering, vicious, disturbed Hagen who sang was magnificent malevolence.  Jo Pohlheim made his mark as Alberich.  Eric Greene was a nondescript Gunther, but Orla Boylan was a worried, basically decent Gutrune.  Susan Bickley was luxury casting as Waltraute and the sincerity and openness of her singing made her scene one of the highlights.  Good Rhinemaidens and Norns and predictably excellent work from the chorus.

I do hope they manage to put this cycle together and do them all in 2016 as they seem to be promising.  It’s been great to watch it being built up, but you can only get the whole experience by seeing them in close proximity.  The commitment and intelligence and sheer skill of the performances shows how wonderful Opera North can be and, as in all the others, we came out on a Wagner high, leitmotivs going round our heads and debating aspects of the work.  You can’t legitimately ask for more.



Götterdämmerung – Susan Bullock stars

27 Oct

So it’s over. Götterdämmerungcame to an end on 24th October and I feel a mixture of huge satisfaction and admiration for the works, of exhaustion after four evenings of very hard work, regret that it’s all over and an element of frustration at the bits that didn’t quite work or were downright perverse.

The great things first. I thought Susan Bullock grew into a fabulously good Brünnhilde.  It may not be the fullest or most grateful voice, but how I admired her sheer stamina and feeling at the end of the immolation scene, that she could probably go on for quite lot longer had Wagner written the music.  She is an intensely communicative singer – singing the words, conveying the meaning and the emotion behind it.  She conveyed the intensity of her love for Siegfried, the sheer bewilderment and humiliation in the Gibichung’s hall and, at the end, the realisation of her role and the joy at the prospect of reunion with Siegfried.  Watching this portrayal grow has been one of the glories of this Ring.

Stephan Vinke is, again, a very strong Siegfried – not the most mellifluous, rather dry of tone but he has the stamina for the role and creates a believable innocent (one day I may do blog about the relative intelligence of tenor roles in opera – Siegfried runs Manrico pretty close). He acts alertly and struck me as highly convincing. His final words about Brünnhilde were very moving.

John Tomlinson makes a wonderfully black Hagen pretty much dominating the stage and his vast voice, black as ink, his completely believable acting, conveying the evil and bitterness of the role was a joy. I thought he created a sense of regret and bitterness in the scene with Alberich that I’ve not seen in other portrayals.  The voice may not be as fresh as it was a few years ago, but it still sounds pretty much ideal for this role.

I wasn’t greatly convinced by either of the Gibichungs – two of the least grateful roles in the cycle, but Rachel Willis-Sørensen struck me as having a voice that might well have a very strong future in Mozart and Strauss.  Rhinemaidens and Norns were all very strong indeed.  The chorus was strong and as exciting as it should be.

I’ve praised Pappano’s conducting and the orchestral playing.  I think that Pappano’s huge strengths are his consideration for the singers and the sheer clarity of the textures, the way that he brings out the themes and commentary as an organic part of the score.  He gets the dark, threatening side excellently but there were times when I missed the sheer energy and the huge climaxes that I’ve heard in more romantic readings. At the end of all the operas, I’ve felt a little earth bound, in the sense that I haven’t quite had the themes playing around in my head for the next 24 hours.

The virtues and vices of Warner’s production haven’t changed much since Walküre. There is the wonderful direction of the singers, achieving marvellous acting performances and an understanding of their motivation and real imagination.  There are some great stage pictures.  I loved the statue of Wotan looking over the end of the second Act, reminding you of his responsibility for Brünnhilde’s predicament and his inability to help.  Hunding snapping off his spear for the oath scene for a great touch.  There are some things that I just don’t get – why we see Alberich in his boat on a life-support system (why does he need a boat anyway?), what’s all the algebra about?  Why is the Gibichung Hall like the Tarnhelm?  What irritates me more, however are the bits that look to me like sheer clumsiness.  I like the idea of the gods’ statues being melted down in the immolation scene but getting the crowd to attach them to the ropes seemed obvious. I can see why you need to have a platform the last scene of Act II but it did bounce a lot which was distracting and looked amateurish.  Having a splash of water as the Rhinemaidens return to the Rhine is amusing once, tiresome and predictable on repetition.  It’s one of those productions which you feel could have been vastly improved if the design budget had been halved.

There’s never going to be a production of the Ring that gets all the subtleties and ideas in there or a cast that can completely satisfy you musically.  For all my complaints, this was a hugely engaging, enjoyable and satisfying four evenings, that I’ll remember for Bullock, Terfel, Tomlinson and Pappano in particular and for the intensity of the acting.  What I’m less sure about is whether I want to see it again.  The days of Rings every year seem to have gone for ever but I bet Pappano will want to have another go at it before he goes and I can’t see the house running to a new production for that.