On a really sunny day and with the quarter finals of the World Cup looming, I set off to the darkness of The Lowry in Salford for a six and a half hour performance of the last of the Ring Cycle, Götterdämmerung. Having lost my Wagner virginity last year with Opera North’s exhilarating production of Siegfried, I no longer feared the lassitude-inducing length of opera’s ultimate endurance test but rather looked forward to it. Armed only with a Reese’s peanut butter cup and a G&T cleverly disguised as a bottle of water, I set off to the theatre with a spring in my step and a song in my heart (The Ride of the Valkyries if you must know, though my version was accompanied by the vision of Colonel Kilgore in a Huey).
I left Siegfried (Mati Turi) in the arms of his beloved Brunnhilde (Alwyn Mellor) and that’s where Götterdämmerung picks up the story. As night lies over Valkryies’ rock where the lovers repose, the Three Norns (Fionna Kimm, Heather Shipp and Lee Bisset), daughters of the earth goddess Erdra, sing of the past, present and future of Valhalla and the fate of the gods. Götterdämmerung means ‘twilight of the gods’ and marks the collapse of a social order by violent and catastrophic means. As Brunnhilde and Siegfried awake from a night of passion, she sends her jolly, if naïve, bear of a man in search of adventure. He places the ring (of cycle fame and key to the future of the world) in betrothal on her finger. And so the Götterdämmerung is set in motion.
Opera North’s production is, again, a partial performance with the orchestra on the stage under the expert baton of Richard Farnes, with the singers to the front. It gives the whole opera a directness and a power that engaged my senses throughout the long evening. Visually, it was supported by designer Peter Mumford’s elegiac video backdrops of Rhine water, forests and the fires of Valhalla.
With an almost Homeric devotion to stupidity (doh!), Siegfried falls in with the conniving Gibichung clan of old. With a swift sup of a memory-erasing draft, he has forgotten Brunnhilde, promised her to Gunther (Eric Greene), betrothed himself to Gunther’s sister, Gutrune (Orla Boylan) and been duped into bringing the all powerful ring to the duplicitous Hagan (Mats Almagren). Siegfried and Gunther set off to bring Brunnhilde back to the Gibichung fold. As she waits for Siegfried’s return and unaware of his plans to deceive her, Brunnhilde is visited by her Valkyrie sister, Waltraute (Susan Bickley) who tells her of the stale entropy of Wotan (their father and king of the gods). She must give up the ring to the Rhinemaidens to save Valhalla and save the world. But Brunnhilde’s love for Siegfried is bound by the ring and she will not relinquish it. This is a wonderfully wacky tale but Wagner gives it touches of true humanity, driven by love, greed, jealousy and lust. With the help of the Tarnhelm, Siegfired disguises himself as Gunther to win her as a wife and gain possession of the ring. As the twilight of the gods begins to unravel, Siegfried turns briefly into Sid James to remind us that his sword is still sheathed in Brunnhilde’s scabbard.
Act Two opens with the return of the ghostly appearance of Alberich (Jo Pohlheim) who urges Hagen to claim the ring and its power for himself. All Scorpius scary and lit with Ensor menace (you don’t get many opera reviews that contain references to a 1999 science fiction programme and a Belgian expressionist painter in one sentence), it is a brilliant and all too brief cameo.
The massed ranks of the Gibichung vassels are gathered to welcome Gunther and his heartbroken new bride Brunnhilde who has been betrayed by the equally duped Siegfried, adding a great voice to the proceedings as we head to the now inevitable tragic denouement of Act Three.
If I have any criticism of this marvellous production, it is the comparative weakness of the third act. It starts wonderfully enough with the introduction of the seductive, playful and threatening Rhinemaidens (Katherine Broderick, Madeleine Shaw and Sarah Castle) who try their utmost to wrestle the ring from Siegfried’s fat finger. On a hunting trip with the other men, he has been lured into a trap and, in an enthralling sequence, he is murdered by the evil Hagen. For good measure, Hagen also kills Gunther. My problem is that, as the number of voices are diminished by death, including Hagen’s, it is left to the lone voice of Brunnhilde to sing her way to the return of the Rhinegold ring and the firey fall of Valhalla. What should have been a crescendo simply wasn’t.
That said, it was a gripping performance by all. But the last word must go to the orchestra who played their hearts out with an energy and gusto I have rarely had the privilege to listen to and to see.
Review by Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent
What: Götterdämmerung by Richard Wagner
Where: The Lowry, Salford
When: July 5, 2014 and
More info: http://www.operanorth.co.uk/productions/gotterdammerung