Houston — Götterdämmerung (usually translated as “Twilight of the Gods”) is the final of Richard Wagner’s four opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (translated as The Ring of the Nibelung but usually refered to as simply “The Ring”). The production capping Houston Opera’s season commitment to the cycle is magnificent. Perhaps it is the best Götterdämmerung that I have ever seen—and that is a lot of them.
Wagner wrote this monster opera fest over 26 years, finishing in 1874. Usually, an opera company will produce one of the four each year, culminating with Götterdämmerung. This is what happened in Houston. Not only is the cycle long (15+ plus hours of music) but Götterdämmerung, the longest of the four, takes five hours and that is without the two intermissions. To avoid keeping the audience in their seats until after midnight, Houston started the opera at 6:00 p.m., much earlier than their usual starting time of 7:30. (The final matinee on May 7 is at 2 p.m.)
Calling this one of the best productions of this singular opera pushes on many other distinguished versions in the world’s great opera houses, but it is true nevertheless. Many opera companies stick fairly close to Wagner’s instructions and settings, but this opera, based as it is on fantastical immortals, is frequently on the receiving end of avant-garde directorial shenanigans. It has been set in outer space, World War I, at a circus and with a minimal set of ramps defined by neon lights.
This production is cleverly designed and staged by Barcelona's experimental gymnastic collective, La Fura dels Baus (similar to Cirque de Soleil). Director Carlus Padrissa transports the action into sort-of modern times. Business suits appear along with ancient vaguely Norse outfits. We see smokestack factories and Steampunk-inspired devices.
Franc Aleu creates some striking images to project and manipulate; some arre more understandable that others but they all were interesting.
The glory of the production is the large troupe of acrobats in La Fura dels Baus that take all the extras’ parts. For example, they create a living floor to ceiling curtain by being suspended in layers and holding on to the person above by right hand to left foot and left hand to right foot. This creates a curtain of human X patterns. At the end of the first opera (Das Rheingold) and at the end of Götterdämmerung, the curtain opens revealing Valhalla, the home of the gods. A coup de théâtre for sure.
The story is way too complicated to go into here. It deals with the feats and foibles of the legendary Norse gods and goddesses with some other elements tossed in, just to complicate matters. You can look it up online or, get a fabulous telling of the plot famously done (to dirt) by the great comedienne Anna Russell (here.)
The one immediately recognizable image from all of opera happens to be a character in the Ring. That is the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, the daughter of Wotan (the king of the Gods). She is always depicted as she appears here: a stout woman in a brass breastplate, a helmet with horns, holding a spear.
Brünnhilde is one of the major characters in the Ring, appearing in all the operas of the cycle except for the first. Thus, having a great Brünnhilde is an absolute necessity and they are quite rare. For this production, Houston found the definitive Brünnhilde of this generation in Christine Goerke. There are not enough superlatives to describe her mastery of the role, with her vocal fireworks and completely believable portrayal, so I will not even try.
She was born in 1969 in New York State. Her vocal abilities were recognized and she was accepted into the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artists Program in 1994. Brünnhilde has become a signature role and we were fortunate to be able to hear her sing it. (Goerke will sing it again in the Met’s production of the Ring cycle in the 2018/2019 season.)
As Siegfried, her ill-fated suitor, Simon O'Neill has the vocal trumpet required to get through this demanding role. His high notes are glorious and appear to be effortlessly produced. Unlike the perfect Siegfried in Houston’s production of the opera by the same name last season (Jay Hunter Morris), O'Neill doesn’t have the same college-jock charisma. However, his voice is equal to the job.
In two different roles, Mezzo Jamie Barton, is equally impressive in both. She sings both Waltraute (Brünnhilde's equally clad sister) and the Second Norn (three supernatural beings that weave the rope of fate).
One of the villains of the cycle is Gutrune Gibichung. Lacking a husband, she makes a potion that makes Siegfried forget about Brünnhilde and fall in love with her. As portrayed by soprano Heidi Melton, the deception aside, she is not such a bad trade. Her scheming brother Hagen, who is the eventual murderer of Siegfried, is sung by the impressive bass Andrea Silvestrelli. His voice is deep and sounds out over the thickest of orchestral forces.
There are many ancillary characters in the Ring but no minor roles. Each one requires a singer able to meet the significant demands of Wagner’s taxing score. Houston assembled a superlative cast; no small task.
Alberich, the evil dwarf (a Nibelung) is sung by a slimy Christopher Purves. By the way, he causes the whole saga to unfold way back in the first opera (Rheingold) by stealing the precious gold that makes the river Rhine glisten.
One interesting touch was to put the three mermaid Rhine maidens, whose job it was to guard that gold, in three separate aquariums. It is reminiscent of the colorful Beta fish, each in its own bowl because they would fight each other if in one. Soprano Andrea Carroll, mezzo Catherine Martin and mezzo Renee Tatum slithered, dove, surfaced and generally frolicked in their separate containers.
Most of Chu Uroz’s costumes worked but others didn't (enough said).
However, even among this stellar cast and fascinating production, the take-away was the magnificently paced conducting of Musical Director Patrick Summers. He had a wonderful orchestra to work with and the combination swept the opera forward at such a pace that the five hours felt much shorter.