From the Depths to the Heights and Back Again: Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Winds Its Weary Way Around Town (Part Five)

The Three Norns (Elizabeth Bishop, Ronnita Miller, Wendy Bryn Harmer) from the Prologue to Wagner’s ‘Goetterdaemmerung’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

From the Cosmic to the Intimate

The fourth and final installment by the Metropolitan Opera of Wagner’s tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung concluded on April 27, 2019 with Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”) and the “resolutions,” so to speak, of the various participants’ dilemmas.

What do we mean by resolutions? Does anything ever get “resolved” in the Ring? Does the world really come to a watery end? Are the characters redeemed by their actions? Is Siegfried the long sought-after hero who finally returns the Ring to its rightful owners? Most of these questions are answered in this concluding segment. But, then again, many are not.

Oh, come on now! Why all the double talk? For goodness’ sake, do we have a satisfying ending or not? These are the continuing problems of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Indeed, one of the countless side aspects of this work is that its so-called “conclusion” is up to individual interpretation. That’s what makes the saga so compelling to singers and irresistible to stage directors. And why us Wagnerites love the drama in the way that we do.

Having listened to many of the complete recordings of all four Ring operas, including some hard-to-find broadcasts (most of which can be seen or heard on YouTube), I’ve come to the realization that there can be no “ending” as such. For instance, in East German director Harry Kupfer’s “Road of History” version at Bayreuth (revived in Barcelona), the cycle concludes in the same way that it began: with richly-dressed theatergoers at a dinner party watching the cataclysm on television. It’s unnerving how Kupfer had the foresight to anticipate, in a manner of speaking, the horrific events of the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Certainly many if not all of the intertwined stories in the Ring can be summed up in one line: things go from bad to worse to not-so-good and not-so-bad. Isn’t that how real life evolves? Well, maybe. The ancient Greeks, bless their souls, had a way of explaining human events by imposing moral truths onto an immoral world. Wagner took that statement to heart and created an ethos all its own. He purposely kept the story line circuitous and, for the most part, analogous to myths and legends.

The hero’s journey was one of his angles, the hero being the unruly Siegfried. In this final work (originally called “Siegfried’s Death,” the text of which was the first to be written, followed by a prelude entitled “The Young Siegfried”), the fall of the gods would come about by their own misdeeds; their redemption would be through human intervention.

The Immolation Scene – Bruennhilde (Deborah Voigt) riding atop Grane (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

We know that Wagner ended his saga with Das Rheingold. However, he began the composition of the music chronologically. By closing the chapter on his characters and setting fire to the Hall of the Gibichungs — the flames of which reached all the way up to Valhalla itself — the world’s sins could be washed clean by the overflowing Rhine River. Redemption, if that’s the term, could be achieved by returning the Ring to its source.

Fate Marches On

As the opera begins, the Three Norns, those enigmatic daughters of Earth Mother Erda, recount the tragic history of the past (the withering away of the World-Ash Tree, the piling up of its logs around Valhalla, Wotan sitting and waiting for the end time) and attempt to prophecy what’s to come. The Norns tug and pull at the Rope of Destiny, hoping to untangle the mess that Dark Alberich’s curse has placed on it and on humanity. Suddenly, the Rope snaps which leaves the Norns mourning the fate of the world. They slink back down to Erda.

Dawn breaks. Brünnhilde now leads Siegfried out from the cave, where their love has been consummated. No one knows how much time has passed. Since “mythological time” is not “real time,” we can presume that events after Siegfried have moved along at a faster than normal clip. The restless hero is eager to partake of further adventures. His bride, now semi-mortal, has enough tricks up her sleeve to cast a protective spell around her man. Only Siegfried’s back is vulnerable, for he would never turn away from a foe. This is key to understanding what takes place in Acts II and III. As the orchestral passage known as “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” is played, Brünnhilde is left alone on Valkyrie rock to await the hero’s return.

Bruennhilde (Christine Goerke) bids farewell to her hero, Siegfried (Andreas Schager) in the Prologue (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Moving on to Act I proper, we meet Gunther, heir to the Gibichung throne, his lovely sister Gutrune, and their half-brother Hagen, the illegitimate son of Alberich and the Gibichung’s mother Grimhilde (“grim” is right!). Gunther pays heed to Hagen’s advice to take a highborn wife. Gutrune, too, should crave a worthy husband. This would add to their fame and fortune. But who should Gunther wed? There’s a bold maid who sleeps on a fiery rock, Hagen tells him. She would be the perfect mate! And for Gutrune? Why, the hero Siegfried would serve that purpose handily. He could be enticed to marry Gutrune by drinking a powerful potion of forgetfulness.

Lo and behold, who do we hear but Siegfried and his hunting horn. Answering the call, Hagen welcomes the brash youth and his horse, Grane, to the dark, imposing strains of Alberich’s curse (shivers!). After reiterating some basic plot points — mostly to recap for the audience’s benefit about Siegfried’s dragon slaying, the Ring, the gold, and the magical Tarnhelm — their conversation turns to matrimony. Hagen offers the hero a refreshing drink, which not only quenches his thirst but makes him forget the past (to be exact, certain aspects of his past). It also ignites his lust for the charming Gutrune.

Promising to provide Gunther with a bride of his own, Siegfried is tricked into helping to bring the wild woman Brünnhilde down from her perch. Hagen seals the deal by presiding over Siegfried and Gunther’s swearing of blood brotherhood — not realizing that our hero’s death warrant has been sealed with this oath.

Gunther (Evgeny Nikitin) heeds the advice of Hagen (Eric Owens) to take a wife (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

In the next scene, Brünnhilde is thrilled to welcome her sister Waltraute to Valkyrie rock. She’s not so thrilled by what Waltraute has to say: that Wotan is beside himself with sorrow. All he and the other gods and warriors do is sit around Valhalla waiting for the place to catch fire. The only way to salvage the situation is for Brünnhilde to throw the Ring into the Rhine. Mirroring what Wotan once told Fricka, her response is “Are you mad? No way!” The Ring is a token of Siegfried’s love. He gave it to her when he moved on to new adventures. See, she wears it proudly! Waltraute is dismayed.

With her sister’s exit, the Valkyrie is heartened once again to see the surrounding flames shoot up and part. Her hero has returned! Siegfried, my love! But wait! It’s not her beloved. It’s Gunther (actually, Siegfried in disguise, by means of the Tarnhelm). Speaking in low, halting tones, the stranger claims Brünnhilde for his own. She shows him the Ring of power in a last ditch effort to frighten the intruder away. A violent struggle ensues with Gunther overpowering the maiden and grabbing the Ring as his prize.

Ordering her to go into the cave and await his presence, Brünnhilde sadly marches to her fate. The next step is for Siegfried to pretend that Gunther has wooed the wild woman, but with the sword Notung placed between the pair as they lie in bed. That way, he can claim that he never violated his blushing “bride to be” (a false claim, to be sure, since the couple has already spent many a blissful night together).

Which Ring is Which?

In Act II, Alberich re-emerges in a dream-like sequence wherein he charges Hagen to brace himself for battle against the bold Siegfried. The Ring is all he cares about and forces Hagen to swear allegiance to him, that he will destroy the youth and recapture the Ring for themselves. Siegfried suddenly materializes (thanks to the power of the Tarnhelm) to proclaim that Gunther is approaching with his new bride in tow. Hagen summons the Vassals with a blast of his horn. The overwhelming power of a full male chorus (all the way up to high B), the first such number in the cycle, dominates the proceedings.

With everyone gathered for a grand old time, what could possibly go wrong? A double wedding, the imbibing of spirits, the slaughter of steers, goats and boars. A merry banquet indeed for our brave lads! Gunther introduces his downcast bride who bristles at the sight of Siegfried arm-in-arm with another woman. What gives? There’s a commotion among the men and women gathered. All of a sudden, the celebration turns into accusations of chicanery. Siegfried wears the Ring. But Gunther wrenched it from her hand. How can that be?

Sensing an opening, Hagen takes Brünnhilde’s side in denouncing the hero as a liar and cheat. Gunther hasn’t a clue as to what everybody is arguing about. Obviously, he wasn’t the one who snatched the Ring from his bride. As noted, it was Siegfried in disguise. To make matters worse, the vengeful Valkyrie proclaims herself to be his lawfully wedded wife. Unwittingly, Siegfried admits that he won her for his blood brother Gunther, but claims that Notung lay between them in the cave as they slept. Ah, clever rascal, that’s true as far as it goes. But that wasn’t so when they first met, back at good old Valkyrie rock. (Why do I hear myself singing, “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill”?).

Bruennhilde (Goerke) swears an oath on Hagen’s spear (Owens), along with Gunther (Nikitin) in Act II of ‘Goetterdaemmerung’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Accusations and recriminations bounce back and forth, which lead both Siegfried and Brünnhilde to swear an oath on Hagen’s spear that they are speaking the truth. “May I be struck down dead if I have broken faith,” Siegfried pledges. Act II ends with a rousing trio for Brünnhilde, Gunther and Hagen as the Valkyrie spews forth the secret of how to vanquish the deceitful Siegfried. It takes all of Hagen’s guile to convince Gunther to agree to the hero’s slaying. It’s the Ring, stupid! That’s all that matters.

The first scene of Act III brings back those flirtatious Rhine Maidens. Curiously, they wonder when Siegfried will come around to visit them. No sooner said than done: the exuberant dragon slayer enters by way of having followed a stray bear. They tease him good-naturedly until one of the maidens notices the Ring. They ask him to hand it over, but he refuses.

Diving back into the water, the maidens splash around playfully until Siegfried decides to offer them the booty. Warning him of its power and the evil curse that’s been placed on it, they chime in unison that today he will meet his doom. Siegfried scoffs at their threats, but the Rhine Maidens insist that before the day is out a wise woman will grant their wish and return the Ring.

The Rhine Maidens (Renee Tatum, Disella Larusdottir, Jennifer Johnson Cano) warn Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris) of the Ring’s power in Act III of ‘Goetterdaemmerung’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Hagen, Gunther and the hunting party gather for some feasting and drinking. After a long day out in the woods, Hagen asks the hero if he can truly understand birdsong. Siegfried turns to Gunther who has grown serious and taciturn. Gunther knows what’s about to happen, but he can do nothing to prevent it. The cheery Hagen plies Siegfried with ale which gets the hero to relate some of his tall tales: about the mean-spirited dwarf Mime, about his slaying of the dragon, and how he tasted the dragon’s blood which gave him the ability to understand birds. Everyone is entranced by his stories; everyone, that is, except Gunther. Having laced his drink with special herbs and spices, Hagen offers some more refreshment — the ploy being to bring Siegfried’s memory back.

It works! Siegfried tells the story of how he got through the flames that surrounded Valkyrie rock. Once there, he witnessed a wondrous sight: a woman warrior. He awoke the sleeping warrior with a kiss to find Brünnhilde alive and kicking. Gunther is thunderstruck by the news. At that moment, Hagen points to two black ravens hovering above. They are Wotan’s ravens, the god’s only link to the outside world. As they take off, he demands that Siegfried tell him their song. As Siegfried looks up to the sky, Hagen plunges his spear deep into the hero’s back. “Vengeance is what they say!” Hagen shouts at him.

The Vassals are shocked. “What have you done?” they cry in disbelief. Gunther repeats their query. Hagen responds: “Meineid recht Ich!” – “Perjury have I avenged!” Then he slinks off, back to the Gibichung palace. The Vassals hear Siegfried’s dying words. To the same music that his beloved Brünnhilde greeted the rising sun, Siegfried pronounces her name. He greets her in death. The orchestra plays the familiar “Siegfried’s Funeral March,” punctuated by the sledgehammer blows of the tympany. The pounding continues as the hero’s theme is heard in all its glory. The Vassals solemnly place the dead hero’s body on their shields and take him away.

In the last scene, Gutrune is alone. She is frightened and has premonitions of doom and gloom. Hagen calls out to her to light the way, her hero has returned: dead on arrival. Reviving his sister, Gunther is wracked with guilt. She accuses him of murdering her husband, but he points to the real culprit, Hagen. Back and forth they rage, until Hagen finishes Gunther off with a single blow (just as Fafner had done to his brother Fasolt). When Hagen reaches out to take the Ring from Siegfried’s hand, the dead hero’s arm rises in a threatening gesture (an eerie coup de théâtre). All recoil in horror.

At this definitive moment, Brünnhilde strides in, solemnly and deliberately. She demands that they heed her words. Gutrune hurls accusations at her, but the Valkyrie silences her cries. Gutrune was only his lover, but she, Brünnhilde, was his adoring wife. With that, Brünnhilde begins the passage that will lead up to the Immolation Scene. What happens in this scene? Practically everything! Wagner labored long and hard over this sequence, which underwent numerous revisions until he finally settled on the right manner of how to end his saga.

In sum, the Valkyrie orders the populace to prepare for a conflagration. Siegfried’s body will be cremated as befits a hero, along with her own and that of his wonder horse, Grane. The steed is brought in (most productions substitute a fake horse for the real thing — it’s, uh, less “messy” that way). Brünnhilde absolves Siegfried of all blame for the chaos that’s left behind. He was true blue, his only crime being his childlike ignorance of human cunning and deceit.

Bruennhilde (Goerke) bemoans the loss of the hero, Siegfried (Schager) before the Vassals in Act III (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

What of Wotan, who is guilty of multiple crimes against his own flesh and blood? She pardons the god as well. Bidding him eternal rest, she takes the Ring from Siegfried’s finger and places it on her own. Hagen greedily eyes her every movement. In some productions, he paces restlessly about the stage, waiting for the perfect opportunity to steal the bauble from her person. No way, José!

Brünnhilde now addresses the Rhine Maidens, who are to take the Ring from her ashes after it has been purified by the flames. The waters of the Rhine will wash away the curse. With that, she grabs a torch and charges Wotan’s ravens (which, according to Wagner’s instructions, are supposed to be flapping about the palace) with sending word to the gods that the end is nigh. “Go tell Loge to shoot his flames up to Valhalla!” With her last breath, Brünnhilde speaks directly to Grane (there’s a bit of psychological insight in speaking to her horse). She leaps into the funeral pyre, delighting in death.

So much happens musically in this final episode that it would take a voluminous book to relate all that occurs. Suffice it to say that Valhalla burns (you can hear the characteristic motif in the orchestra), Hagen tries to steal the Ring from the Rhine Maidens, but he’s drowned for his efforts. The Gibichung palace collapses, but the populace is spared (at least, that was the composer’s intention). And the violins intone what most announcers describe as the “Redemption through Love” theme, which in reality belongs to Brünnhilde’s transformation (or “apotheosis”) from warrior maiden and wife to healer and deliverer.

Burning Down the Opera House

American soprano Christine Goerke resumed her strongly realized, granite-like vocalization and emotionally straightforward interpretation of ex-Valkyrie Brünnhilde. Some garbled diction and under-the-pitch top notes aside (which proved less troublesome here than in her broadcast of Siegfried), Goerke closed the saga with that marathon session known as the Immolation Scene. Again, the shading of words and her declamatory statements before the big moments (a wistful “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott” – “Rest now, you god”) were moving in their sincerity of feeling. This was straightforwardness taken to the extreme, especially in Act II when she pulled out all the stops to hurl some mighty imprecations at her clueless “husband,” Siegfried.

The crowd loved her performance, which in person, I am told, was urgently felt and nobly personified throughout. Such dedication to the task at hand deserved a ringing endorsement. But was it the big barnstormer that everyone had expected? The online reviews were all over the map. This was a marathon outing, no doubt about it, so we will reserve judgment and leave the final verdict to others.

Gutrune (Edith Haller) comforts her brother Gunther (Nikitin) as they listen to Bruennhilde’s ravings (Goerke) in Act II (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Tenor Andrea Schager’s more “mature” sounding Siegfried, while unlike in shading and tone from Stefan Vinke’s youthfully exuberant embodiment, convinced listeners that here was a fully-formed personality, as viable in its own way as his predecessor’s. Schager’s death scene was particularly touching, as it should be, with his voice ringing out impressively. And, as was previously mentioned, he hit the high notes squarely and securely, no mean feat in itself. The voice gained strength and firmness the more he sang, a truly noteworthy undertaking.

Eric Owens, a past Alberich and a recent convert to Wotan, took on the villainy of Hagen, the Nibelung’s bastard offspring. Lacking the lowest notes and that high bass thrust that made the likes of Gottlob Frick, Bengt Rundgren, Matti Salminen, and Hans-Peter König so captivating, Owens nevertheless reveled in his character’s treachery. Still, he disappointed by making too many phrases sound “samey-samey,” with little to no differentiation between them. A perfectly distinguished Alberich, his lighter than expected timbre and affable air did have their moments (his second act call to the Vassals, however, was not one of them). Overall, while expectations ran high, most of them went unfulfilled. His lowkey acting, however, was above reproach.

Similarly, Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin was miscast as the easily manipulated Gunther, the head of the Gibichung clan. Long an able-bodied villain (i.e., the magician Klingsor in Parsifal, and a forceful Alberich in his own right), with the vocal deftness of a snapping turtle, Nikitin represented overkill in this part. Gunther is not a “bad guy.” He’s incapable of making good decisions; when he does make them, they go wrong at every turn. His basic sins are his vanity and gullibility. A singer with a more flexible tone and supple weight (Welsh baritone Iain Patterson was excellent in this part) is needed, not one with Nikitin’s forte-at-full-throttle capabilities.

Soprano Edith Haller’s lighter-voiced Gutrune, Gunther’s shy sister, brought coloratura-like shading to her role. Properly girlish and giddy at the same time, Gutrune is the one who wishes for (and takes) the drugged Siegfried as her husband, not realizing that he’s spoken for. Her scream at the sight of Siegfried’s corpse was hair-raising. Dripping black venom with every syllable, Tomasz Konieczny brought his sonorous inky-toned portrait of Alberich to brief life (is he really there, or a figment of Hagen’s imagination?). Mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster contributed a solid, emotionally pleasing assumption of Waltraute, Brünnhilde’s sister, who pleads with the ex-Valkyrie to return the accursed Ring to the Rhine Maidens.

The Three Norns, those Nordic-Germanic equivalents of the Greek Fates, were taken by mezzo-sopranos Ronnita Miller (especially memorable) and Elizabeth Bishop, and soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer. Returning as the beguiling Rhine Maidens (as boisterous as ever) were soprano Amanda Woodbury and mezzos Samantha Hankey and Tamara Mumford.

Swiss-born maestro Philippe Jordan presided over the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra throughout the four Ring operas in a “lean, mean fighting machine” manner: competently led, responsive to the work’s lyricism and drama, with smoothly projected “singing” string tones, but poorly executed brass (too many stray or sour notes). Jordan did exceedingly well in painting a sonic picture, certainly better than one could expect from such an empty-headed production as this. His conducting brought unity and strength to the most demanding of moments (the Act II ensemble, for example, was particularly well balanced). It was comparable to, if no less individualistic than, Fabio Luisi’s lighter interpretation from a few seasons back.

Former Met musical director James Levine, in his later years as the company’s orchestral force, favored slower tempos and leaden sonorities, sometimes down to a crawl, by pulling the musical line out of proportion to the whole. On the positive side, Levine made the brass section ring out majestically; the strings vibrated with tactile life and proved most affecting in the melodious postlude that wraps up the saga.

Perhaps the Metropolitan Opera’s new music director, Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will be given the opportunity to add his vision of Wagner’s Ring cycle to the company’s repertoire and turn it into a future conducting triumph. With any luck, in a brand new production that does better justice to the work than this superficial white elephant does.

We’ll be waiting with bated breath.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

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