After 18 plus hours of Richard Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung, the Dresser was thoroughly impressed with all aspects of Washington National Opera's production as conceived and directed by Francesca Zambello. Zambello's The Ring of the Nibelung was a tour de force and the Dresser was fortunate to have partaken of the opening nights of The Rhinegold (April 30) and The Valkyrie (May 2) and the closing performances of Siegfried (May 20) and Twilight of the Gods (May 22).
Twilight of the Gods (Götterdämmerung) is astonishing if not for the failed lovers Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme) and Siegfried (Daniel Brenna) but for the numerous new characters in family groups not heretofore introduced in the three earlier operas. Except for the appearance of the Nibelung dwarf Alberich (Gordon Hawkins)--maker of that cursed ring--this opera could almost stand alone. Even so, the story of the characters populating The Ring cycle is repeated through out Twilight of the Gods.
It does, however, deepen one's understanding to know ahead of seeing the last opera of the cycle:
- how the Valkyrie Brünnhilde ended up on a rock surrounded by fire--she defied her god of gods father Wotan by not facilitating the death of Siegfried's father,
- the circumstances of Siegfried's birth and his relationship by blood to Brünnhilde--Siegfried is Brünnhilde's nephew and/
- that the gold Alberich used to make the powerful ring he stole from the Rhine maidens.
The prologue and the first act of three are presented together in this production and run two hours sitting time. However, there wasn't a boring minute.
The Prologue has two components. First we see the Norns, three daughters of the earth goddess Erda. Actually, they are initially camouflaged in Michael Yeargan's blue-green set and emerge out of the scenery to pleasing effect. And the Norns sound like Shakespearean characters as the first Norn asks (referring to the fire from Brünnhilde's rock), "What light shines there?"
The purpose of the Norns who are spinning the rope of destiny (though Zambello's updated production calls the rope cable) is to provide an overview of what has, is, and will happen to the main characters of The Ring cycle. New information emerges in their conversation such as Wotan lost his eye drinking at the spring (of water) that nurtured the ash tree from which Wotan made his powerful spear. According to the Norns, he traded the light of an eye for the wisdom contained in the water. Moreover, Wotan's act of cutting into the ash tree also killed the tree and it was this tree that Norns used to help them weave the rope of destiny. Now they are using a pine tree and that will prove fatal.
The Norns also know that Wotan has ordered the heroes to cut up the ash tree and bring that wood to Valhalla. At Valhalla, Wotan has killed the fire god Loge for getting him into such a mess that began when Loge advised Wotan to use Wotan's sister-in-law as a way to pay his debt to the giants Fafner & Fasolt who built Valhalla. Now Wotan awaits the return of his ravens announcing the end of the world, which means Wotan will burn down Valhalla and this will be end of the gods. The audience sees none of Wotan's actions. The Dresser advises that if, Dear Reader, you go to see a production of The Ring opera (and surely Zambello's highly successful production will be mounted again, perhaps in San Francisco), do not sleep through the Prologue of Götterdämmerung. It goes by very fast.
Now the second part of the Prologue is much simpler and picks up from last act of Siegfried. Brünnhilde and Siegfried wake up together in a lover's embrace and she tells him, despite her fears of losing him, to go into the world and do what heroes do. He gives her the cursed ring as his troth of marriage and leaves.
Act I has three scenes. The first introduces the Gibichung family who will tear apart Brünnhilde and Siegfried under the counsel of their half brother Hagen (Eric Halfvarson) who is the son of Alberich (Gordon Hawkins). Gunther Gibichung (Ryan McKinny) and his sister Gutrune (Melissa Citro) want the Nibelung ring. Hagen tells Gunther to marry Brünnhilde and Gutrune to marry Siegfried. Because Gunther is no hero and could not penetrate the ring of fire surrounding Brünnhilde, Hagen suggests a magic potion which will make Siegfried forget his commitment to Brünnhilde. In scene two, the trio will manipulate Siegfried who, in scene 3 will go in disguise as Gunther (using the shape-shifting Tarnhelm) and claim her in Gunther's name. What also happens in scene 3 is that Brünnhilde's sister Waltraute (Jamie Barton) visits her to plead that she return the cursed ring to the Rhine maidens because failure to do so will be the end of the gods. Brünnhilde says no because she is now a mortal concerned with guarding Siegfried's love.
What's interesting about meeting the Gibichungs is that their home presents like Trump Towers and Gutrune comes across with her long blond hair as a Trump bimbo.
Act II, running 60 minutes, has a prelude and five acts. Whether Alberich is a dream or a spirit is unclear, but he appears in scene 1 to his son Hagen to urge him to get the ring from Siegfried. Siegfried returns to Hagen (scene 2) from the devious quest to take Brünnhilde from her rock as the prize for Gunther. In scene 3, Hagen calls together all the Gibichung vassals to witness the dual weddings (Gunter and Brünnhilde; Siegfried and Gutrune). However (scene 4), Brünnhilde sees the Nibelung ring on Siegfried's finger. She asks Gunther if he gave it to Siegfried and Gunther says no. Then Brünnhilde claims Siegfried as her rightful husband, but he denies her accusations. Brünnhilde knows then Siegfried has betrayed her. In the concluding scene, Brünnhilde, set on revenge, tells Hagen where Siegfried's one vulnerable spot lies (his back). Enticed by what he hears about the power of the ring, Gunther decides to join in the assassination.
Act III, running 75 minutes with it three scenes, opens (scene 1) on the banks of the destroyed Rhine with the three Rhine maidens mourning their habitat. Siegfried appears and the maidens plead for the ring. He toys with them and shows his ignorance about the curse. Scene 2 is a hunting party at a break, featuring Hagen, Gunther, and Siegfried along with some of the Gibichung men. Hagen gives Siegfried a potion in his drink to counteract the first and then Hagen asks Siegfried to tell his story as a ploy to kill him. Hagen will be "insulted" by Siegfried recounting his relationship with Brünnhilde. Gunther, however, will be shocked and in grief. In the final scene, Hagen lies to Gutrune saying Siegfried was killed by a boar but she cries murder and accuses Gunther. Gunther and Hagen quarrel over the ring still on Siegfried's finger. Hagen kills Gunther and the dead Siegfried raises his hand freaking out Hagen. Brünnhilde arrives calling for a funeral pyre to be built for Siegfried. She blames everything on the gods and returns the cursed ring to the Rhine maidens. Then Brünnhilde walks into the flames to die in the suttee tradition of the Hindu widow who choses to die with her dead husband. The curse is lifted from the gold ring and the formerly parched Rhine overflows its banks making for a happy ending for the world.
Throughout this opera, the performances of Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde and Daniel Brenna as Siegfried remained at the highest level. Their singing and acting made for very credible characters.
Frannie Lindsay's "Solace for a Weeping Birch Tree in Spring" contains echoes of Twilight of the Gods--
"the birdless gray" calls attention to the absence of the Forest Bird (we meet this bird in Siegfried, the third Ring opera) who warned Siegfried that Mime was planning to kill him with a poisoned drink. The Dresser was intrigued that Hagen pressed Siegfried on his ability to understand the language of the birds and Siegfried brushed that off saying that he no longer listens to birdsong because he has the voice of a wife to listen to. Meanwhile, ravens loom over the world ready to report back to Wotan that the end of the world has come in which case he will burn down Valhalla.
The weeping birch counterbalances with the decimated ash tree.
The cathedral points to Valhalla, the home of the gods.
"Elderly parent of shadows" summons Wotan whose powerful spear coming from the mighty ash tree was smashed by Siegfried.
"Honest dark" counter balances with the eternal fire that surrounded Brünnhilde as well as plays up the evil being exacted by Hagen.
"Let me do some of the weeping" summons the genuine grief from Gutrune when she hears and then sees Siegfried is dead.
Here, the Dresser will pause to consider Brünnhilde's final act which was to chose death by walking into Siegfried's funeral pyre. Was this an act of bravery in the mode of having been a warrior maiden? An act of aching love that will never be healed? Or was this what good girls do to please daddy? After all, Wotan was planning to burn down Valhalla as soon as the ravens reported back to him. But, Brünnhilde gave back the ring and the curse was lifted, making the Rhine flow again.
SOLACE FOR A WEEPING BIRCH TREE IN SPRING
A month ago, less, you were barren
as everything else: all of the birdless gray, each nest
vacant as if condemned; Brattle Street's blackened drifts;
no crocuses making the usual fools of themselves.
And no particular hope for you either.
I wouldn't go near your bombed-out cathedral.
Then April's last coy week: the concrete
beneath the snow grimly beautiful;
your hesitant, pellet-like buds. From them
have come your capable leaves reaching down
to lift up the world. Windy church I can enter
when I am the least
willing to pray; wild, impersonal mercy.
Elderly parent of shadows,
there is so little else that casts them. Do you
miss their honest dark the way I do?
This year, be once more that place
where nothing will ever be lost.
But you are still so old.
Let me do some of the weeping.
by Frannie Lindsay
from If Mercy
"Solace for Weeping Birch Tree in Spring" copyright © 2016 Frannie Lindsay
Production Photos by Scott Suchman