Apocalypse Now: The End of HGO's Ring Cycle Is Nigh

Although Tolkien himself disagreed, certain scholars have pointed out many similarities between Wagner's Ring Cycle and J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Photo by Lynn Lane

The end of the world is nigh.

Like a Teutonic Book of Revelations, Richard Wagner’s Die Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods) arrives this Saturday at Houston Grand Opera with mighty musical thunder, like the booming whirlwind you would hear erupting from atop Mount Sinai.

The destruction he paints accompanies earthly flood; celestial and earthly conflagration; the collapse of the Gibichung palace; a warrior hero’s betrayal; a demi-goddess’s immolation on her husband’s funeral pyre; magic love potions; the nascent ascent of man; and the ultimate return to the Rhine mermaids of the cursed gold ring that set this whole cycle in motion three operas previously. You want “grand” opera, here it is — glorious, protean, transforming.

Only Verdi in the propulsive, shattering “Dies Irae” (“Days of Wrath”) from his Requiem achieved such aural catastrophe from a vengeful God.

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As we know, and as he informed us so often, Wagner was his own god. He might have strutted around his Bayreuth villa in lady’s pink silk underdrawers, perfumed in Parisian attar of roses, but never, ever, question his unique musical ability. He was a god of music.

There’s nothing quite like this mighty culmination to his masterpiece The Ring of the Nibelung. The fourth part of the astonishing tetrad stands apart from any other work for the opera stage, even among his own classics (Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal, Meistersinger von Nuremberg, The Flying Dutchman), or even among the three other operas in the Ring quartet: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and Siegfried.

Götterdämmerung’s colossal heft and shimmering tonal palette are awesomely unique. It encompasses the swelling and ebbing of the stately river, the enchanting harmonies of the trio of Rhine maidens, the pomp and awe of Siegfried’s “Funeral March,” the escalating love duet on the mountaintop, the crepuscular Norns weaving their rope of fate, the muscular chorus of Gibichung hordes, the somnambulist snaky darkness of evil dwarf Alberich, and the stratospheric radiance of Brünnhilde’s “Immolation Scene,” which leads to the destruction of the gods when the pyre sets alight Valhalla, their ethereal abode.

Any opera company in the world that expects to be a “major” player must do The Ring. Your company just isn’t grown up until it does. It is indispensable to your reputation, akin to an actor wanting to perform Hamlet, every character. We are proud that Houston Grand Opera marshaled its resources and began this epic journey in 2014. It’s a difficult undertaking in the best of times, and always financially draining. (NYC’s Metropolitan Opera spent $50 million to rejigger its stage with steel beams to reinforce Robert Lepage’s disastrous piano-keyboard Ring.) The orchestra is huge, with numerous, costly rehearsals; there are only a handful of specialized singers in every generation who can sing these difficult roles (sometimes the voices skip a generation); the production is DeMillean, no matter how minimal the director has envisioned it; and the entire Ring asks plenty of its audience.

The entire experience unfolds in 15-plus hours. This, of course, is spread out over many days, to allow the singers to eat as much steak and carbs as they can between shows, but there are Ring-heads who travel the world over to see another new production or revisit a beloved old one. Look around the Wortham and you’ll probably see many faces you’ve never seen at HGO before. If any of them sport a horned Viking helmet, then you’ll know they’re devoted Ring-heads. The beatific grin on their faces is another sure giveaway.

Götterdämmerung’s saving grace is that you don’t really have to know the details of the story. Wagner wrote his Ring librettos backward, starting with Siegfried’s Death, which would later morph into Götterdämmerung. But he realized the epic quality and background info were insufficient, so he wrote three prequels. He was never the most proficient librettist, or the most concise or consistent, so a lot of the story is explained — again and again — as we move forward. All the subsequent action that happened before Götterdämmerung will be told in full. Anyway, just follow the surtitles and everything will be clear.

But it’s not the words that make Wagner an opera titan; it’s the music. And this grandest of grand operas is nothing if not sublime. It is music of the gods. The production, from the Spanish New Age collective La Fura dels Baus, with auteur direction from Carlus Padrissa and video design by Franc Aleu, is hardly sublime, far from it, but it’s got a visual wallop as the epitome of state-of-the-art CGI projection and eye-popping stagecraft, if replete with questionable taste.

HGO has assembled the best of the best for the cast: Christine Goerke as leather-lunged Brünnhilde; heltentenor Simon O’Neill as stalwart, rather dim Siegfried; cistern-deep Andrea Silvestrelli as menacing Hagen; Christopher Purves as evil little Alberich; Ryan McKinny as hapless Gunther; and rising superstar Jamie Barton as Waltraute, pseudo-Amazon warrior. All forces are tumultuously conducted by resident maestro Patrick Summers, who seems to have a lifelong love affair with Wagner.

I wouldn’t normally recommend Wagner as a neophyte’s first opera, but Götterdämmerung, with its relentless drama, mythic power and that music — oh, that music! — just might convert. Give it a try. What have you got to lose except five and a half hours? It’s time well spent.

Houston Grand Opera will perform Götterdämmerung at 6 p.m. April 22, 25, 29, May 4; and 2 p.m. May 7. Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737, houstongrandopera.org.

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