Without question, Houston Grand Opera's production of Wagner's tumultuous closing to his epic four-part Ring cycle, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), is an unparalleled musical achievement. And by that, I mean from any opera house in the world.
Under maestro Patrick Summers, who leads an unbridled, exceptional ensemble onstage and in the pit, the aural glories of this work unfold in sweeping layers. He supplies a tremendous arc to this demanding, complicated piece, one of the marvels in all operatic repertoire. It flows like the Rhine – so memorably foretold in the first part, Das Rheingold – in perpetual motion that swirls and eddies and breaks into rapids and cascades in our ears. It contains pomp and majesty, devastation and redemption, abiding love and dastardly vengeance, musical descriptions of nature at its finest and at its most furious. In times of introspection, it slows like a deep pool at river's edge where we can contemplate our own reflection. In times of passion, it sears with clarion brass and booming percussion. Maestro Summers mines every dramatic, textural drop out of this mighty score and marshals his troops to lead them onward like a victorious general. What a stupendous sound they make! In every way music can move us, this is HGO's finest hour – or five hours, if you will.
This tall tale – of gods and supermen and superwomen, of lowly gnomes and flying horses, of mythic earth mothers who spin their rope of fate and prophesize doom, of frolicking seductive mermaids who only want their gold ring returned – passes by under Summers's adroit baton as if in a blink. Would we could blink more, to obliterate the god-awful production from Barcelona's experimental collective La Fura dels Baus.
Hard to believe, but each subsequent production of this Ring cycle has visually gotten muddier, more diffuse in concept, more distracting to watch. Except to cue the singers, maestro Summers must have his eyes closed to plow around what's happening onstage. A decade or two ago, this type of directorial nonsense, meant to bring the old warhorses of the rep up to speed, to make them relevant to contemporary taste, to imbue them with social significance, was called Euro-trash. The term has lost none of its impact. Updating tradition is one thing, but throwing the entire symbolic kitchen sink at Wagner is disrespectful at best, and harmful to the very purpose these knuckle-headed auteurs want to achieve, which, I assume, is to bring in patrons, not drive them away screaming.
The Baus stagecraft is state-of-the-art, no doubt about that, for its high-def CGI animation could bless any film. The beloved Rhine is wondrously visualized by gigantic bubbles, overlapping waves or ripples caused by a thrown pebble. And its meta theater approach, based in part on Japanese Noh technique, uses stagehands who scurry about in full view dragging their electrical cables behind them like shadows, as they maneuver the video screens into place or position the hydraulic cranes meant to symbolize the aerial gods or Brünnhilde's horse, Grane. Those screens stay busy, way too busy. The land of the Gibichungs is steampunk Gothic out of Flash Gordon, with fantastic gears and gizmos whirring away in the background (or foreground), belching toxic fumes, while the drama onstage tries to stay focused as best it can while multiple directorial conceptions grind ceaselessly around it.
But when Baus does something right, it can be stunning. Like the opening of Act III. We're on the banks of the Rhine. Siegfried is out hunting and has gotten lost. He walks on a metal scaffold that bisects the stage. Below him, the river, greenish blue, swirls with fantastic creatures, such as weird octopi and skeletal fish. Stagehands line the sides of the stage. Each wears a harness that holds a clump of what looks like giant bamboo. They wave this back and forth like reeds fanned by the river breeze. He meets the trio of flirty mermaids. We're both underwater and above. The mermaids romp in acrylic tubs full of water, submerging themselves, then come up to sing. They splash water on him when teased. Behind them in the live background, more reeds flow in the wind. The lighting is autumnal, with shafts of sunlight streaming down into the current. Otherworldly, precisely stylized, perfectly updated to modern sensibility, this is Baus at its best and most provocative. Simple and elegant.
During the double wedding ceremony, animals are sacrificed to appease the gods. They are carried in upstage, slung on poles. But wait, they're not animals, they're people, outfitted with tails, perhaps, or markings that indicate animals. This takes place during the dramatic recognition scene where Brünnhilde realizes that beloved Siegfried has thrown her over for Gutrune, a Gibichung. When the animals are killed, they fall out of their trussed positions and precariously hang upside down. Rivers of blood stream down the wall, obliterating the names of the gods their blood is meant to sanctify. It's highly effective, adding visual punch to the ensuing drama in front.
And Brünnhilde's “Immolation Scene,” perhaps the grandest of all arias, certainly opera's most iconic, at least starts out primly. She is surrounded, hemmed in, by those ubiquitous video screens, which creates an enclosed space for the drama and a great acoustic shell for Christine Goerke, but surprisingly they remain blank. For an instant, we assume the mechanisms have failed, the computers have gone down. What a relief. Now we can concentrate on what she's saying, the orchestral color, her vocal color, the matter at hand, without annoying visuals to interrupt us. For the first time all evening, we get to be alone with Wagner, uncluttered and clean.
What are the creators trying to say? We are bombarded with deep thoughts about the environment; experimental, old German expressionism; Dickensian poverty; Nietzschean philosophy; the evils of technology. (The Gibichungs are portrayed as debauched scientists in leather gloves and lab coats. We know they're debauched because they drink champagne in the daytime and smoke cigarettes.) The weight of Baus's conflicting ideas, coupled with the conflicting ways of staging those ideas, crushes grand old Götterdämmerung and saps the life out of Wagner. Instead of a unifying concept, we get pixilation.
Ah, but the orchestra and those voices! What a concept.
Probably the most consistently well-sung Wagner anywhere in the world, top to bottom, this is stellar music making. Goerke is internationally lauded as the finest interpreter of leather-lunged Brünnhilde. She is a wonder to hear. Most wondrous of all, she's only gotten better since heard last season at HGO in Siegfried as the Valkyrie princess. She's a gifted performer – watch as she playfully pats the head of Grane before riding off into immolation – and this role is the sine qua non for dramatic sopranos, and if there's anything left to be learned about singing this demanding part, she's at the head of the class. She's opera's national treasure, and now is ours. While I'm not a fan of Simon O'Neill's voice – all treble without much tonal variation – he is one of the world's leading heldentenors, and can toss off this treacherous role with effortless ease. He doesn't need to plant his feet or grab onto a prop for support before ringing out those high notes; he just opens his mouth and out they come. While no picture-perfect übermensch, he's a hero in our eyes.
Mezzo Jamie Barton, former HGO Studio alum, is already an international phenom with that dazzlingly creamy voice and commanding stage presence. In a double role, she sings Waltraute, Brünnhilde's warrior sister, and the Second Norn, one of three earth goddesses who open the opera to give us the current state of affairs about that accursed ring everybody is dying to get their grubby hands on. She is a stand-out in both, but as Waltraute she shines most bright. Her account of father Wotan's fall into despair is an achingly beautiful mini-scene that displays her glorious voice to full effect. With power to spare, she soars over the lush orchestration in her attempt to persuade her sister to give up the ring. Although staged on a titled circle that resembles a titanic water bed, she cuts through the silliness of the staging to penetrate the wrenching heart of her tale. It's a glorious performance from this gifted young artist.
Though saddled with questionable directorial touches – like putting on lipstick before meeting Siegfried and thumbing through a magazine instead of listening to what's going on – soprano Heidi Melton makes the most out of the scheming Gibichung, Gutrune, who brews a love potion for innocent Siegfried to make him fall for her. And radiant bass Andrea Silvestrelli, as evil Hagen, out to destroy Siegfried to get the ring, is also in a class by himself. His resonant, deep-six voice resounds through the theater, and even when his character is doing nothing, you can't take your eyes off him.
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The remainder of the cast is splendid: contralto Meredith Arwady, as First Norn; Christopher Purves, as sniveling Alberich, the Nibelung dwarf who started all this trouble when he stole the gold from the Rhine maidens; Ryan McKinny, as milquetoast Gunther, Brünnhilde's false husband; and those lithesome mermaids, soprano Andrea Carroll, mezzo Catherine Martin and mezzo Renee Tatum. They have so much fun in the water, they could have starred in an Esther Williams aquacade.
As with a car accident, you have to look at this production even though you really don't want to. In the theater, you don't have much choice. And some of the images are truly eerie and beautiful; it's just that the remainder is so much drivel, or filler. Don't even get me started on those egregious costumes by Chu Uroz, who should have his union card revoked instantly. I do believe these are the most plug-ugly costumes I have ever seen onstage. They do not flatter (those matching flounced wedding dresses for Brünnhilde and Gutrune will make you go blind), they do not reveal character, they are out of the Ming the Merciless pattern book.
Whatever the artistic merits of HGO's Götterdämmerung, by successfully bringing off the complete Ring cycle with such flair, the company is to be applauded. When accompanied by the wizardry of orchestra and singers, HGO merits a thunderous standing ovation. Opera is not dead when a production reaps such praise and scorn in one evening. “Ring-heads” will be debating the entire series until the Rhine overflows.
Götterdämmerung continues at 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 25; Saturday, April 29; Thursday May 4; and 2 p.m. Sunday. May 7. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit hgo.org. $20 to $385.75.