The remains of the day
09/13/2003 - and 8 November 2003
Richard Wagner: Götterdämmerung
Leah Marian Jones (First Norn/Flosshilde), Jane Irwin (Second Norn/Waltraute), Rachel Hynes (Third Norn), Elizabeth Byrne (Brünnhilde), Graham Saunders (Siegfried), Peter Savidge (Gunther), Mats Almgren (Hagen), Elaine McKrill (Gutrune), Peter Sidhom (Alberich), Inka Rinn (Woglinde), Marianne Andersen (Wellgunde)
Scottish National Opera orchestra
Richard Armstrong (conductor), Tim Albery (director)
Götterdämmerung in theory should be the most conventional part of the Ring, since it has the form and substance of a grand opera on a national quasi-historical theme, like those of Meyerbeer and early Verdi. Wagner was one of several composers who thought about writing an opera based on the Nibelungenlied in the 1840s, and Götterdämmerung (first performed in 1876) is still identifiably of that time with its plot of dynastic and sibling rivalries, lust and revenge. Unfortunately, most of the plot, recognisably that of the poem and its Nordic congeners, comes in a two-hour first act which a competent librettist would have trimmed into a pretty expansive three-act opera. There is some more plot in act two, though anyone familiar with the sources can see it coming and anyone not familiar with the sources might well have bailed out after the first act anyway. It's not really surprising that when free tickets for a performance of the SNO production were given out in Edinburgh to people aged under 26, a large proportion of an already small audience left after the first act. Those who are still around for the last act, in which Brünnhilde once again submits to fate and redeems the world, have probably bought into Wagner's contained, self-justifying, endlessly extensible vision of limitless grandeur in destruction.
Attending a Ring cycle is in fact already an act of excess, and for many act one of Götterdämmerung must be the massive steak six courses into the banquet. In Tim Albery's lean, graphic-novel style production, though, after the Norns, magical with a luminous blue rope that frayed and broke, it was something scrappier, deliberately prosaic and short of the symbolic resonance of the earlier parts. Brünnhilde, accepting her (female) "humanity", straightened Siegfried's tie as he left the ring of fire to go off to his job of having adventures, and made instant coffee in a mug for Waltraute, while Gunther and Gutrune were corporate lackeys, and Hunding a slimy office thug. Things picked up with Hagen's dream at the start of act two, when Peter Sidhom's energetic Alberich seemed to bring out the evil in Mats Almgren's Hagen; and the Rhinemaidens in miniskirts, propping up a wavy bar and oozing urban ennui, brought back an elemental twist before the sinister carouse and Siegfried's murder, done as a corporate stab in the back.
It wouldn't be fair to say that this cycle ran out of steam around the point that Wagner switched its direction from redemption by love to apocalypse, but Albery and his cast seemed happier with the fantastic that the everyday. Graham Saunders as Siegfried had a gift for comedy in Siegfried, but he was comparatively colourless in the complexities of the plot. Elizabeth Byrne as Brünnhilde, the other pillar of the cycle, had an inner strength that made up for a lack of vocal bravura and flamboyance in her characterization. Always the good-girl Valkyrie who didn't try to jazz up her uniform, she submitted to a business suit for her wedding and plain black dress for the immolation, and acted with due understatement but maintained a sense of direction and intensity that was in the end shattering by stealth. Perhaps her redeeming power was the ability to maintain her personal integrity in the thick of everyday awfulness, a truly human heroism.
Although it doesn't make every moment and gesture magnificent, this Ring is remarkable for delivering Wagner's drama as written, with river, fire, ring, Tarnhelm and spear (and expensive things like Valhalla on fire suggested symbolically) in a way, and with musical values, that seems to have satisfied most Wagner devotees, while also providing enough interpretation and insight to be accessible to newcomers and sceptics. Not everyone will love the Ring after seeing this production, but almost everyone will understand it better and be able to form an opinion of it based on what Wagner intended it to be.