Götterdämmerung: Euro crash

Andreas Kriegenburg’s Munich Ring is about society and community. How do people treat each other, how do large groups organize themselves, and how do we tell our own stories? The Ring, he suggests, is about what happens when people stop seeing each other as, well, people, and lose our connection with the natural world. Götterdämmerung is of a piece with this narrative, but in other ways weirdly unrepresentative, specific in its setting and clunky in its narrative where the others had been elegantly abstract. But fortunately this performance had a great cast, most of all Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde and Kriegenburg’s sure hand with the characters didn’t leave him, at least. Is that enough for a whole Ring?

Wagner, Götterdämmerung. Bayerische Staatsoper Ring-Zyklus B, 7/15/2012. 

Musikalische Leitung Kent Nagano
Inszenierung Andreas Kriegenburg
Bühne Harald B. Thor
Kostüme Andrea Schraad
Licht Stefan Bolliger
Choreographie Zenta Haerter
Dramaturgie Marion Tiedtke
Olaf A. Schmitt.
Chor Sören Eckhoff

Siegfried Stephen Gould
Gunther Iain Paterson
Hagen Eric Halfvarson
Alberich Wolfgang Koch
Brünnhilde Nina Stemme
Gutrune Anna Gabler
Waltraute Michaela Schuster
Woglinde Eri Nakamura
Wellgunde Angela Brower
Floßhilde Okka von der Damerau
2. Norn Jamie Barton
1. Norn Jill Grove
3. Norn Irmgard Vilsmaier

Dropping the mortals of Götterdämmerung into the world of decadent capitalism is nothing new (I think I may have even saw Peter Konwitschny in the audience). It’s also the logical continuation of the earlier installments—Rheingold’s pagan idyll interrupted, Walküre’s tribal combat, Siegfried’s Bildungsroman. But it is strikingly different in several respects. For one thing this Götterdämmerung is set in a very specific time period with a lot of specific references while the other installments worked with vague suggestion. For another, that time period is our own.
The use of the space is also very different. Instead of the beautifully irregular piles of supernumeraries we have a massive and severe modern edifice, a multilevel bank lobby of metal and glass with moving walkways and various office drones working in the background. One assumes that this is Frankfurt. Nature, in the form of a potted tree, a coat of amour and handy spear, and a Damien Hirst-like horse, is literally kept under glass. The people stare into their cellphones instead of at each other and spend the entire wedding taking pictures rather than watching.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We open with a great Norn scene that might have been the highlight of the whole evening, theatrically speaking. First we see projected on the proscenium a garbled second of CNN-like news, none of the visuals or sounds decipherable. Then the score starts. In a small, plain room, sit a group of people who apparently are survivors of a nuclear catastrophe. (Terror over the possibility of nuclear disaster is something of a German national pastime.) Rescue workers in protective suits wave Geiger counters at them and confiscate their radioactive family photos. The Norns, in their robed blonde god-wear, weave in between this scene with a ball of red yarn (a play on the German “roter Faden,” literally “red thread” but meaning the through-line or continual thread of a plot). The people aren’t looking at each other, they’re looking at their photos. Their homes, their families, their communities have been lost. This is the closest we will, in fact, get to seeing the Götterdämmerung, right here.
The mountaintop scenes are problematic, taking place in this small barn-like room in the middle of the stage. The giant main multilevel set is too big to shift, and the previous elegant, fast scene changes are no more. The many people onstage file around awkwardly, and later bring in with pieces for the main set, through narrow doors and with little of the grace seen earlier. This clunkiness might be part of the point, thematically speaking, but theatrically it’s a major drawback. Once we’re in the scene it’s alright. Nina Stemme and Stephen Gould are a much more mature-acting couple than Naglestad and Ryan in Siegfried, and “Zu neuen Taten” was, appropriately, more conventionally romantic and less youthfully exuberant, though still directed with a fine sense of detail.
Then we move into the glitzy-sleazy world of the Gibichungs, complete with giant projected ads on the set. The big unit-ish set means that the action departs literal representation much more frequently than it had previously (where we got almost every written stage direction in recognizable fashion), most notably an out-of-nowhere “Zurück vom Ring!”, but Siegfried does row his way over the backs of some capitalist drones. Meanwhile, Gunther gets a blow job, Gutrune is a slutty slut (who may have a dubious relationship with her brother—but since they’re rich moderns this one isn’t romantic), and the chorus appears as identically addressed slaves to the Euro.
Siegfried arrives in olden time clothes and gets redressed (as he does in the similar Konwitschny production) and his first loving vision of Gutrune finds her astride a giant €-shaped rocking horse. Siegfried has traded love for money. This may be just a touch heavy-handed, but the overall concept still kind of works. I get tired of the Capitalists are Evil schtick when we fail to acknowledge that the world of opera is itself firmly enmeshed in this system (less so in Europe than in the US, but I still didn’t see any of the Bay Staats sponsor BMW’s ads being mocked during the Rhine Journey), particularly when the person proffering it offers no substantive Plan B. And Kriegenburg doesn’t. But considering recent financial events, it feels remarkably topical.
Back at chez Brünnhilde, Waltraute displays a variety of nervous twitches suggesting that Valhalla is beginning to resemble an insane asylum of shut-ins. Siegfried straightforwardly arrives in Gunther’s blue suit with the Tarnhelm draped over his face, and almost seems to remember Brünnhuilde and realize what he’s about to do. But he doesn’t, and proceeds. In Act Two, Alberich shows up to find Hagen asleep with some hookers (who he later pays, proving he is not quite as completely evil as previously supposed), and we remember that the dwarf was the first person in the cycle to wear a modern suit, way back in Rheingold when he started enslaving people. Maybe capitalism is his fault? Hagen gets his cell-phone-wielding guys together and the wedding  celebrations proceed around a giant Euro sign. Brünnhilde is the only one who seems aware of her surroundings and what is happening, yet is unable to stop it.
Act Three takes place not in the country but in the wreckage of the wedding. It’s here that the concept becomes surprisingly unclear, as previously Kriegenburg has never done something like fail to provide a reason for why Siegfried is talking about a hunt. I’m not saying he needs to all the time but consistency is nice and the production seems to run out of steam at this vital point, while the moment-to-moment Personenregie is still exemplary. The actual conflagration itself is at first treated in very literal manner (with the exception of raining paper suggesting that the era of stories is ending), with a pyre just in the back of the set. During much of Brünnhilde’s heavy-duty singing, Gutrune distractingly tries to tote Gunther’s corpse upstage. Siegfried’s arm-raising to shoo Hagen away from the Ring is treated absolutely straight, but with Siegfried positioned stage center, feet pointing downstage, and with a creepy lighting effect, this most dubious of moments actually felt totally convincing. The rest, though, is debateable. As previously mentioned “Zurück vom Ring!” comes from nowhere, with Hagen panicking stage right over nothing in particular. Flames rise around Brünnhilde, she hands the Ring off to the Rhinemaidens (I think–this was in the upstage corner of the stage I could see less well), and then we are left with the panicky Gutrune. She is surrounded by some of the white-dressed picnickers from Rheingold and Siegfried, who embrace her in an affirmative meditation circle. If we can rediscover each other, we can create a new and more promising world. I think?
Gutrune is an odd character. In this production she starts off as an irritating vamp, but then in her solo scene, maybe one of the weirdest bits of the whole Ring, she transforms into a figure of some stature and possibility. As one of the only characters to survive the thing (THE ONLY of the mortals? I mean, the Rhinemaidens don’t really count?) and also one of the only ones to really grow and change, maybe she’s a logical choice for this gesture. But on the other hand, the Ring is not about poor Gutrune! Brünnhilde and Siegfried are grand, larger-than-life heroes, their love saved the world.
Waltraute: wrong about the give
back the Ring thing
Except, maybe, it didn’t, because everything is still burning up. Wagner’s ending is tricky, isn’t it? There’s tragedy in the plot and there’s hope in the music, and there’s ambiguity in the actual causes and consequences of the depicted events. Most directors, thankfully, are resistant to putting Fukushima or, if you want to be local, Dachau onstage to be followed by the music’s rebirth and redemption. I’m not sure if that’s something you could manage in a morally acceptable way, even it’s the direction in which the Vorspiel led. But putting Gutrune in the center seems like dodging the issue.
The circle of supers surrounding her encapsulate many of this project’s strengths and weaknesses. They look inward, to a closed system that could just as easily be a circular firing squad. What makes the faceless supernumeraries good, when we have seen that so many of the actual characters in this cycle are bad, even when they remember their human loyalties? To see the main characters so totally stripped of their metaphysical baggage, as people rather than symbols, can be refreshing. But it gives them individuality without symbolic stature, and meanwhile the anonymous masses somehow get to stand in for Universal Goodness. While the cycle creates many beautiful small moments, it tends to come up short in the big ones and leave us with little to hold onto,and the tender signs of humanity become an apologia for the lack of a larger vision. Gutrune may be minor, but there has not been a lot to say why Brünnhilde and Siegfried and Wotan and Fricka and all of them matter more. In the end I found the cycle’s minimalism frustratingly coy. It suggests and provides atmosphere, but despite many intriguing ideas it doesn’t have a strong and consistent connection to the central plot. Maybe that’s the point, that life is an unsolved and undirected puzzle and our only consolation is in each other, but that’s really unsatisfying.
The ideological sign-waving of this final evening felt like an attempt to inject some dramatic weight into something that almost floated away, but it leaves the cycle oddly misshapen.  Even without the Euro signs this production would have felt topical. Not only does the army of extras provide employment for a large number of freelance Müncheners, but its austerity is a fitting gesture in the current austere economy where few want to see the German government paying to reinforce the Bay Staats’s stage (even if they are still underwriting the daily business). And it has integrity of a sort: the indictment of bankers would ring far more false had this production not been an obviously low-budget affair. As a bang-for-its-buck enterprise, it exceeds other Rings to an exponential degree. In a confusing time it doesn’t presume to know the future.
But isn’t that the artist’s job, to tell us where we should be going?
Now for the music, if you’re still reading or if you are skipping to where I write about how Nina Stemme is the best. She is, in fact, the best.  She began somewhat tentatively but was soon letting out phrases of devastating size and power with a bronze, dark tone that is simply big. She is an unusually sympathetic and nuanced actress with clear diction, a great fit for this production, and made Brünnhilde a figure first of real joy and then of tragic rage and despair. The greatest weight of her voice is in the middle, and she has a habit of pausing before firing off her high notes (which are clearly her least favorite part of her range—this role lies very high for her), which tripped her up in phrases like this big one in the trio
But mostly just adds to the thrill. Her immolation found her audibly reaching her vocal limits but just pushing beyond them and never failing to find more somewhere. It’s a very moving effort, the more so because we all know it won’t last forever. I cannot imagine there is a better Brünnhilde today, I certainly haven’t heard one.
Stephen Gould has a weighty sound that matches Stemme’s well, and he makes a good effort musically speaking. His greatest asset is his scrupulous pacing, which left him still singing decently by the end of this very long role. His tone sounded managed, more pinched than usual, and he struggled with the high notes and skipped the “Mut” C entirely, but as Siegfrieds go it was an excellent performance. He is not as vivid an actor as Lance Ryan was in Siegfried but followed the directions ably. I have found him better in less strenuous roles, which is perfectly understandable.
Iain Paterson seems to be the world’s Gunther of choice at the moment. He sings it with great nuance and attention to the text, and in this production a wimpy sort of character (rather different from his more heroic take at the Met—I believe he is the only person who was in both the Munich and Met Rings). Anna Gabler has a round and darkish sound for Gutrune that was an interesting choice but didn’t always project. Eric Halfvorsen was a late replacement as Hagen (he is actually the fourth bass this production has seen in this single role–I guess we know which part of this Ring seems to be cursed) and sounded authoritative if not bone-crushing. His solo scene was appropriately malevolent, though the scene with Wolfgang Koch’s again excellent Alberich was perhaps less tense than usual. The Norns were not tquite first-rate with the exception of the second, Jaime Barton, a voice that would like to hear again and I probably will. The Rhinemaidens were much better and blended very well. It was nice to finally hear the chorus, who made up for three operas of absence by chest-thumping through this one with enthusiasm.
Kent Nagano’s conducting worked in this installment. The pacing can be slack and he seems far too laid-back to make enough of an impression in big pieces like the Funeral March, but like Kriegenburg he found a certain groove. The orchestra had its best night of the cycle and played very well, particularly the strings and lower brass, both of whom have real dense substance to their sound when required. I enjoyed his elegiac, chamber music approach to the Norns’ and Rhinemaiden’s music, and though he could have milked the ending for a bit more the last 30 seconds were exquisite.*
This was in many ways an impressive and beautiful cycle, and one with a remarkably good cast with real dramatic imagination and committment. But modesty may not be a virtue when working with the Ring, and Nagano and Kriegenburg could have both stood to show a little more vision, however lovely their miniatures were. While Kriegenburg took small-scale stage directions directly, he showed little interest in the larger trajectory of the characters, nor did he create one of his own that incorporated them in a convincing way. I’m willing to believe that our fascination with technology is a gateway to the Apocalypse, but I wish I had a better idea of what Siegfried had to do with it.


*One unsung hero of this cycle is the curtain-puller (so to speak). Every sing act has ended with a curtain of absolutely impeccable timing and perfect speed. This is NOT an easy job. I also want to thank the audience for taking a nice few breaths of silence at the end before clapping. Maybe community isn’t dead after all!

Photos copyright Wilfred Hösl

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1 Comment

  1. Glad to read that Nina Stemme continues to be God. I don't even like the "Ring," but I still can't get her Brunnhilde in the San Francisco Ring out of my head.