The first full cycle of the Royal Opera’s Ring has come to its fiery end and what a jumbled odyssey it has been. While earlier instalments failed to get the story across in a meaningful way, Götterdämmerung springs into energetic life and ends the saga on a terrifically strong note. So much of Keith Warner’s overall production is dramatically limp, with a bland and sterile intellectualism replacing any theatrical or philosophical insight.
Like his vision of Nibelheim, it’s often looked like a crude experiment where the heart and brain of the work have been transplanted, the new organs not always functioning properly. On the other hand, even without Bryn Terfel’s towering performance as Wotan and in spite of some messy staging, Die Walküre still packs an enormous punch and now this final instalment comes along and blows everything out of the water (including a large fish at one point).
Visually, Götterdämmerung is full of surprises, from an exciting film-assisted Rhine journey to a Gibichung Hall with stretch-limo sofa, an Act 2 platform that bounces perilously and a fire-drenched finale. Not all the visual surprises are pleasant ones though and, as the world of the Gods goes up in smoke, the setting recalls the muddle and clutter of some of the earlier episodes.
But what the production has above all is intense and totally enthralling personal journeys for each of the characters. Replacing John Tomlinson, who has his hands full with three cycles as Wotan, Kurt Rydl is a formidable, dark-toned Hagen with a strangulation fetish, while Peter Coleman-Wright is a richly-sung and cruel Gunther (imprisoning his bride in a nest of spikes on their wedding day, he could certainly learn a thing or two about how to treat his women). John Treleaven may not be the finest Siegfried around but, although distinctly unheroic, he is likeable and fits well into the concept of the production, his singing stronger than it was in the preceding opera.
Emily Magee is a sexy and attractive Ophelia-like Gutrune and Mihoko Fujimura makes her mark as Waltraute in a riveting scene with Lisa Gasteen‘s Brünnhilde. Apart from some difficulties with the top of her voice this time round, Gasteen has been a strength of the entire Ring production throughout its various runs. Act 2 of Götterdämmerung sees her at her very best as, her godhead torn from her, Brünnhilde is plunged brutally into the world of humans and her bewilderment turns to lust for revenge.
A few brass wobbles on the opening night aside, I have never heard this score sound so ravishing and thrilling, and the Royal Opera Orchestra played magnificently under Antonio Pappano‘s baton. The men’s chorus were on top form too and shook the building with their mighty outpouring in the 2nd Act.
There are weaknesses. The Norns, though well sung, never convince us that their rope is anything other than a piece of day-glo string and, at the end, the group of youths (presumably here to replace the old order) look like gauche stage school students wondering what they’re supposed to do next. Siegfried’s Funeral March sees the hero rising from the dead and flapping around pointlessly before slipping off the side of the stage a little too obviously. Setting Norns and Rhinemaidens front of curtain smacks of provincial panto and there’s far too much throwing over of chairs and breaking of sugar glass to signal strong emotion.
But unlike Das Rheingold and Siegfried, the naff moments are far outweighed by stretches of brilliance and absolute clarity. Act 2, the finest part of this whole Ring, is quite astonishing and as exciting as almost anything I’ve ever seen in the opera house. If Warner and his team could bring something of this Götterdämmerung to the earlier operas (and get the message that less is more), this could turn out to be a memorable Ring after all, and one worth preserving.