Phyllida Lloyd’s Ring Cycle reaches its triumphant conclusion with that marathon epic, Twilight Of The Gods (Götterdammerung). This cycle, surely one of the most taxing challenges for any director, has proved more revelatory than any I have seen – eschewing mere sensation for genuine insights into the characters, their motivations and their vulnerabilities.
Not that there haven’t been shocking moments, and turning Brünnhilde into a suicide bomber, as happens at the end of this production, is bound to create controversy. The cynical are already calling this a stunt to trump anything that may be attempted by the Royal Opera House, where Die Walküre has just come to the end of its run, with mixed reviews.
I don’t buy that theory, because though I still have very mixed feelings about anything that might suggest the glorification of a suicide bomber, if there is one operatic character to whom that might seem a logical act, it is Brünnhilde. And when the whole of her world has already fallen to pieces – her hero Siegfried has been tricked into betraying her and then murdered, and the annihilation of Valhalla is pretty well inevitable – it does make a kind of sense.
It helps of course that Kathleen Broderick is such an exciting, compelling Brünnhilde, erasing all cliché images of vast, Teutonic women wearing horns and a breastplate. In The Valkyrie her tiny frame was almost unbearably moving as she was abandoned to her fate by Wotan. When first encountered In Twilight she has been living in domestic bliss with Siegfried, her black battle-dress cast off in favour of chintz and gingham. This pretty picture obscures the warrior goddess beneath, even her voice seeming diminished in this guise, but her true character emerges when the full horror of Siegfried’s betrayal and death hit her. Her reversion to the wild, avenging Valkyrie is stunning and her voice as thrilling as in the previous two productions.
Richard Berkeley-Steele once again plays her hero. The youth first seen in Siegfried has grown up somewhat, but is still an innocent abroad: one of the most delightful visual and aural moments of this production is Siegfried’s Rhine journey, as he rides, skis and sails in front of a kaleidoscopic, full screen video projection, full of the joy of new sensation. His death, literally stabbed in the back by the dastardly Hagen, is the first of the real tear-jerking moments, especially as it is followed by the glorious music of his funeral march. As with Brünnhilde, this is a Siegfried that has to be seen and will not be forgotten.
This isn’t just the Brünnhilde and Siegfried show, however. Gidon Saks is brilliant as the darkly twisted Hagen, son of Alberich, determined to regain the Ring. An unmissable Nick Shadow in The Rake’s Progress, he surely runs the risk of being typecast, but his rich bass-baritone and saturnine looks are marvellous here.
Iain Paterson is also good as Hagen’s half-brother Gunther, and one of the few cast members whose diction was half-way decent. It’s sad that most of the words were lost, and in a five-hour production that’s no joke – can I put in another plea for surtitles at this point? Sara Fulgoni is one that would have benefitted; her voice was impressive as Waltraute, Brünnhilde’s sister, but all sense escaped me.
Claire Weston makes a good stab at the rather thankless role of Gutrune, hampered by her get-up as a rather chunky Ivana Trump look-alike. The Rhine Maidens on the other hand look and sound gorgeous in their slinky teal blue dresses, even when required to pole-dance.
The production, if one had seen the previous operas in the cycle, satisfactorily pulls together many of the previously explored elements. The only new setting, Gunther’s court, is puzzling at first – why do we seem to be in a high-tech clinic? – but ultimately works well. The moment when Gunther’s henchmen, against a backdrop of phallic nuclear weapons, throw off their sinister black uniforms to emerge as colourful, innocent wedding guests is a terrific coup de théatre.
The prologue has the three Norns sitting in the rest-home chairs seen in Siegfried; Brünnhilde’s mountain-top may have been made more comfortable but the harsh metallic floor maintains the link with the past.
The Prologue and Act One are far too long, of course, at around two hours – two hours in which not a great deal happens, and the music, with the exception of the Rhine journey, is undistinguished. I’ve said it before, but Wagner really did need an editor. If anyone in the audience gave up at that point, however, they missed all the treats in Acts Two and Three, which were mesmerising.
And of course in many ways the crowning glory was in the pit, where Paul Daniels worked his usual magic with a score that is hard to beat in the good bits, even if you do have to sit through a lot to reach them. The vast orchestra did us proud, as always, and deservedly received their ovation.
Covent Garden has a very tough act to follow. With or without stunts, this is a brilliant Ring Cycle for the 21st century.