It Ends: The Wiener Staatsoper's Ring Cycle

After having waiting 20 hours and witnessing 18 hours of opera over two weeks, I have finally finished the Wiener Staatsoper's production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. I will finish up my own cycle of four reviews by dedicating this post to Götterdämmerung. It is well worth making general observations about the production of the Cycle as a whole (though some of these have slipped in already), particularly on account of the orchestra, but I will do this in a separate post. First: Götterdämmerung.

General information & synopsis:ötterdämmerung


Christian Thielemann | Dirigent
Sven-Eric Bechtolf | Regie
Rolf Glittenberg | Bühne
Marianne Glittenberg | Kostüme
Thomas Lang | Chorleitung

Stephen Gould | Siegfried
Markus Eiche | Gunther
Eric Halfvarson/Attila Jun | Hagen
Tomasz Konieczny | Alberich
Linda Watson | Brünnhilde
Caroline Wenborne | Gutrune
Janina Baechle | Waltraute
Zoryana Kushpler | Erste Norn
Ulrike Helzel | Zweite Norn
Idikó Raimondi | Dritte Norn
Ileana Tonca | Woglinde
Ulrike Helzel | Wellgunde
Zoryana Kushpler | Flosshilde

Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper
Chor der Wiener Staatsoper
Zusatzchor der Wiener Staatsoper
Bühnenorchester der Wiener Staatsoper

The trend that I observed in Siegfried continued into the Wiener Staatsoper's production of Götterdämmerung: the design concepts improved (though only a bit) and the singing was somewhat less impressive. Many of the singers were, of course, the same, and some of the most valuable performers were either absent or marginalized. Overall, Götterdämmerung was more watchable than some of the other productions but due to its length, the flaws in the singing were more apparent.

The set design for Götterdämmerung, in contrast with the preceding three operas in the Ring Cycle, was much more abstract. While it was still not convincingly innovative of impressive, this shift to a truly abstract theme gave the design a sense of direction the previous shows lacked, escaping the wishy-washy zone in between abstract and concrete. It is much more difficult to differentiate the sets by act or scene in this opera compared to the other three as they changed, albeit subtly, much more often than that. There were three main set concepts, however, which I will explicate. The first was for the three Norns before the  actual first act. This consisted of a small forest set back into the stage of short fir trees reminiscent of a nascent Christmas tree farm. In the front there were three trees around which the Norns wove the rope of fate (which took the form of just a white rope). As the Norns descended to seek aide from Erda, the forest remained on stage for the initial interactions between Brünnhilde and Siegfried. This was a sort of bleed-through transition to the second primary theme: the green tiled walls. This was a two tiered box that framed the stage, cutting upstage and downstage in half. The upper part was a long, squat rectangle of green glass tiles akin to those that might be in a shower window. The bottom was a taller rectangle that functioned as a door, sometimes closed as a solid green wall and sometimes opening and leaving only the upper section of green glass as the action changed. (It should be noted that this upper section of glass also changed, seemingly turning into a projection screen for parts of the show.)
It was in front of this backdrop that the initial interaction between the Gibichungs occurred and that most of Siegfried's contact with them happened, as well (for these scenes a plush bench shaped sort of like the "@" symbol was on stage, leading to interesting staging possibilities). This frequently changing green-walled structure is the primary reason that it is hard to divide the set elements into easily identifiable sections. For instance, in Siegfried's interaction with the Rheinmaidens, a boat structure took center stage with him walking on the boats while the Rheinmaidens flitted beneath them, only popping up occasionally. The final scene (save for the very end, which I will touch on in a moment), was definitely the most abstract of the sets for the entire cycle. The stage was opened up very deep (perhaps the deepest that I've yet seen at the Staatsoper). In a V shape that narrowed as it went toward the back of the stage, were rectangular pillars about half-again as tall as the performers. This sparse stage, depicting in a dark-greyscale, kept the focus on the important action, like Siegfried's death and the general revelation and denouement of the entire cycle. I was perhaps most impressed with the ending tableau of the opera, right up until the very end. Having a projection of spinning fire with The Wanderer raised up on a platform into the center of it holding the two broken spears of Wotan (himself, of course), was incredibly powerful in its symbolism. While I liked then returning to a bluish-purple palette to depict the resolution of the Rheingold and the river itself, I was a bit skeptical about having two unidentifiable figures embracing in the background. There are many interpretations that can be taken from this (Siegmund and Sieglinde, Siegfried and Brünnhilde, Adam and Eve, etc.), but I'm not sure that its true to Wagner's already substantial work to add unanswered questions after almost twenty hours of opera.

The singing demanded by Götterdämmerung is, of course, some of the hardest in all operatic repertoire. Still, if the singing for the other three operas in the cycle might have fallen into the category of "good, not great," the singing here falls into the category of "fairly good." It was impossible not to feel like the cast had slipped compared to its three predecessors.

Both the three Norns and the Rheinmaidens (sung by four singers collectively) felt somehow not quite as solid as they had before. While even unison singing in opera ensembles is not meant to have the uniformity of tone demanded by choral music, these two groups felt unduly competitive and as though the voices weren't working together. They were also somewhat less audible than in their previous outings. Their tone quality was fine. Some might complain that it was not quite full enough and so forth. Personally, however, I think this is appropriate for comprimario roles (such as an role in a Wagner opera is really a "comprimario" role...) which should feel less prominent than the main characters, especially when they have interaction with them directly.

My reviews of Janina Baechle as Fricka were generally positive. I noted that she would not be a great fit in a more dynamic, dramatic role. However, like in Salome, playing a powerful, established woman in a supporting role (mother, protecting goddess, not a young lead or a young, headstrong character) she did a great job. The voice was more suited for Fricka than it was even for Herodias, and she was truly appreciable in this capacity. Recasting her as Waltraute was, however, a mistake. First, the issue of recasting in the same cycle is problematic in itself. In the cast of the Norns and the Rheinmaidens the roles are small enough, the make up and the costumes different enough, and the voices obscured by ensemble enough that casting some of the same women makes sense and cuts costs without damaging the production. For a role like Waltraute, however, the memory of Janina Baechle as Fricka is simply too fresh in the mind. This factor aside, however, Baechle's large, womanly, and throaty voice did not fit a woman in the flush of her youth, fresh from yanking heroes from death on battlefields. The characterization simply did not seem to fit.

Baechle's mishap as Waltraute was primarily a casting error. Unfortunately, Caroline Wenborne's Gutrune was more than that. Though she sang with a sense of truth, it felt like she couldn't quite handle the role. Her voice was decidedly small compared with the rest of the cast, and there were definitely times it got lost in the shuffle. Her acting was also hard to place. The timidity she exhibited fit Gutrune's character, but it came across as insecurity on the stage rather than insecurity of the character. In short, it felt like she was a girl on stage with adults (which, again, Gutrune sort of is, but the performance came across as the singer being the girl, not the character).

Tomasz Konieczny, in the role of Alberich, was one of the performers who, over the course of the cycle, seemed to be slipping from a position of original glory. I make no secret of how much I enjoyed his Mandrycka in Eugene Onegin, as he fully embodied the elegant nobleman with his rich, dark voice. While this voice, along with his costuming, thus felt a little out of place in Das Rheingold, his performance was very solid and his excellent voice gave an overall good impression of his work in the role. It was hard to place what happened, but over the course of the cycle Konieczny's voice became more grating, taking on a harsh metallic tone. It was not unmanageable until Götterdämmerung, but this, combined with further abstraction of his actions (he seemed truly crazy and spastic in this, which to some extent he is, but his actions were so remote and abstract compared to the other characters that it just seemed entirely out of place), made him hard to listen to in this particular opera. Whether Konieczny was tired, purposely manipulating his vocal quality for the role (for a director or of his own volition), or some other factor is impossible to know, but the performance was damaged by it. There are times when vocal effects are necessary to pull of a role, but even unpleasant characters can be depicted without making the voice grating the entire time.

The same complaint raised in the recasting of Janina Baechle crops up even more poignantly with Markus Eiche's shift from the role of Donner to that of Gunther. Unfortunately the issue was even more acute in this case. In a cycle with many longhaired, larger women with large voices, Baechle could blend a bit, especially re-costumed. Eiche, however, as a man, and one with distinctive neck-length grey hair, was very starkly memorable as Donner from Das Rheingold. Though in both cases, Baechle and Eiche, their performance in their second role also did not seem to fit, it is worth noting that it's not unreasonable for them to have these roles in their repertoire, but simply damaging to the production as a whole to have them perform them back to back. Eiche's characterization of Gunther was actually excellent. In this regard, he was definitely fit for both Donner and Gunther. Donner was heroic and strong, Gunther brotherly and, in a way, romantic and high-minded. Eiche really convinced us of his love for Brünnhilde and his fraternity for Siegfried, adding emotional poignancy to the opera. The issue, however, was his vocal projection. Without Froh to share his lines, Eiche had a lot more singing as Gunther and was more exposed. This left it clearer where his vocal size sat compared to the tremendous voices of the leads. There were definitely more than a few times where he was overpowered by the orchestra or his own colleagues. Also, while the voice maintained an attractive quality, it gave the sense that he was singing through the role, rather than really at ease with it. This stripped the voice of interesting quality, leaving us a tenor with a fairly large voice trying to blandly keep up tension through a Wagnerian opera.
Eric Halfvarson, of course, was struck by some kind of malady that forced to step in and sing from the side of the stage just ove the pit. Halfvarson's acting was good, if not great. While he definitely portrayed all the essential elements of Hagen's rather nasty character, sometimes it felt like the motivations for these elements got lost. Still, he did a good job and looked excellent for the part. When he was singing, the voice did not, unfortunately, have quite the size, or perhaps not the cut, to always make it over the orchestra. The quality was generally fairly good, however. The steel in Halfvarson's tone felt appropriate for Hagen's villainous disposition. Perhaps the complaints already listed are attributed to sickness. Nonetheless, it didn't really seem like Halfvarson's voice suffered any for his ailment. Attila Jun's stepping in did allow for every line to be heard, but Jun was also much closer to the audience and essentially right on top of the orchestra. Jun had a darker, more wooden tone than Halfvarson, but his outing was too short to form a good opinion of how he would play the role, himself. Though an accepted practice, it felt strange to have Jun on the side of the stage with Halfvarson lip-syncing the part. In a way it might have been better to just lt Jun go on, though there are myriad reasons neither he nor the opera would want to do that. My suspicion is that Jun would add a larger, more formidable feel to Hagen but lose some of Halfvarson's menace.

As Siegfried, Stephen Gould brought almost exactly the same set of tools to bear as he did in Siegfried. His voice was very large and definitely carried throughout the hall. He still had to force out some notes at the top (somewhat unsurprisingly for a Wagnerian tenor of his vocal size). His passaggio and middle voice were still not perfectly blended. He occasionally used a shouty tone. Nonetheless, he was sincere, heroic, and innocent. This last trait, his innocence, was what brought home the performance. His singing and the inherent character of Siegfried made him the vaunted hero of the cycle. His physical acting, however, made him seem gullible and naive as he expressed his unequivocal affection for Brünnhilde before falling right into the trap set for him by Hagen, Gunther, and Gutrune. When under the spell of the potion he maintained the same sincerity, which made it all the more heartbreaking for him to pay with his life for his unknowing betrayal coming to light.

Linda Watson's Brünnhilde in Siegfried didn't seem to fit her nearly as well as Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung. In Siegfried her behemoth voice of unparalleled evenness and rich sound felt out of place for the Brünnhilde awakening to the new sensation of love in contrast to battle. This, combined with static acting and direction cast an unfavorable light on her compared to Katarina Dalayman, the role's original occupant. Here in Götterdämmerung, however, Watson's heroic voice fit a Brünnhilde whose passion has only grown and whose passion must now be brought to bear against betrayal and deceit. Also, though she still was not running around the stage acrobatically, her greater time on stage and the greater plurality of emotions she was required to express eliminated the feeling of stasis that was present in Siegfried. Her final scene was quite impressive, heightening the drama as the cycle drew to a close. Watson was definitely an exception to the downward trend in singing throughout the cycle.

That wraps up my review of Götterdämmerung but leaves some ends untied. For instance, a general overview of design and singing would be appropriate. Perhaps more importantly, I will deal with Christian Thielemann and the orchestra in this separate post. I do pause here to say it was impressive that the entire Wagner orchestra was on stage for the bow at the end of this Götterdämmerung. They definitely deserved it.


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