Silly not silly: Götterdämmerng at the ROH
The Royal Opera
Royal Opera House
Upper Slips CC16, £19
9 October 2018
I find it difficult to admit that I found moments even towards the end of this Götterdämmerung silly. The difficulty is due to shame, and the shame is due to the fact that feelings of silliness-induced scepticism transformed instantaneously into trembling awe.
Why trembling and why awe? I want to say it’s mainly the return of the Transformation motif, for inexpressible reasons a set of notes filled with the world and its pain. Of course there are other important factors. There’s the scarcity of Transformation in the previous seven hours of music; there’s the deep sadness of pretty much the whole of Götterdämmerung, the major tonality of Transformation scant redress for its rampant betrayal; there’s the fact that this monumental work of art is ending, as all must and ever; and there’s maybe a touch of tiredness and dehydration naturally attendant on this much opera.
And then there’s the combined efforts of the musicians to honour the demands placed upon them. I was sceptical about Pappano and the orchestra in Das Rheingold, won round in Siegfried and awed, tremblingly so, by Götterdämmerung. As in Siegfried, the performance here convinced me that the scrappiness of Das Rheingold was due to a desire to give every line within the texture its sung weight, even sometimes above the cohesion of the holistic sound; the blurriness of Rheingold in Götterdämmerung becoming a dense enmeshed web, startling for the complexity of its interweaving and its lightness and pliancy. The further you listen, the more you hear.
Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde crowns this glorious tapestry, her voice once again more like an aura than a sharp point, riding ahead of the mammoth sound of the orchestra with incredible power and strength. She doesn’t make it sound easy; after a few small mistakes in the first two acts she gives everything in the third, an abandonment yet completely secure and impossible to restrain, a force of nature almost frightening to behold.
Stemme received the standing ovation, but I thought Stefan Vinke was once again incredibly impressive as Siegfried, nailing the unrelenting mercilessness of his final scene and embodying the pathos of this heroic man-child thrust into a world of betrayal that makes him a fool. Stephen Milling, as well, is a superb Hagen, sometimes with a tendency to try to compete with the huge forces Wagner arrays beneath him but on the whole singing with a fantastic cutting sound, blading ruthlessly through the stuff around him.
So that’s a lot about the awe. What about the silliness? I think it’s partly Wagner’s fault, maybe even opera’s fault. How are you supposed to show a demigoddess riding a horse into a funeral pyre so great that it sets the heavens alight? On a stage? Without killing anybody? The final reveal of the burning wreckage of Valhalla, the sound of the gas jets audible over the stupidly massive orchestra, Loge stumbling forth with a very literal shard of spear in his heart, the whole thing looking like a project manager’s very expensive nightmare – that felt silly. That was the low-point but there were dips throughout: Siegfried’s seemingly Minecraft-based Rhine journey; Hagen’s massive menacing mechanised audibly wheedling Ikea sofa; etc etc, many, if I’m honest, no worse than the silliness of the other operas except seeming more so because this is the end.
But I feel churlish to complain. I still hold to my newfound respect for this Ring Cycle and the many things that it does well, staging an opera that can’t really be staged, and yet must. Whatever my moments of eleventh-hour hesitation, the beauty of the Transformation wins out.
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