A trio of otherworldly weavers labours to bind together the fraying strands of fate. The ruthless leader of a barbarous tribe hungers for world dominion. A mighty sword-wielding superhero is slain by the kinsman of a treacherous dwarf he himself had once slaughtered. A valiant celestial warrior rides her winged charger into the flames of her lover’s raging funeral pyre.
The gods were in the details, so spellbinding, so spectacular that what Wagner initially envisioned as an operatic one-off became, in fact, the concluding chapter in his monumentally episodic saga, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). The implications, the subtext, the backstory all were simply too immense to limit to a single tragic tale.
Reprising its landmark Götterdämmerung first presented in 2006 as part of inaugural Four Seasons Centre celebrations, the Canadian Opera Company bravely reasserts its tenacious hold on Wagner’s towering monument to Romanticism. Mounted by Tim Albery, one of a quartet of original directors each helming their own visionary Ring Cycle installment, this decidedly modest Twilight of the Gods, though somewhat constrained by its downsized design and stagecraft, fairly blazed with artistic passion when premiered. Seen a full decade later, the impression is unchanged. Intimate, frighteningly focused, intensely emotional, Albery’s Götterdämmerung long lingers in memory.
The story, a grim tale of disintegration and rebirth, is graphically told here with startling economy, as unrelenting as it is transformative.
The three Norns, weavers of destiny, muse on the past while braiding the Rope of Fate. Wotan, disillusioned by his failure to command the world of gods and mortals, has made preparations to end his rule. Valhalla shall soon be set afire kindled by the felled branches of the holy World Ash Tree, the once divine source of his now shattered spear. Suddenly the Rope snaps. The Norns fear for the future.
Dawn breaks. Brünnhilde bids a tender farewell to Siegfried. Inflamed by the lure of a new quest, the restless hero entrusts the Ring, a symbol of his devotion, to her safe-keeping.
Many leagues distant in the Gibichungs’ cheerless palace on the banks of the Rhine, Hagen, counsellor to the belligerent band, urges Gunther, his Nibelung half-brother, to marry Brünnhilde, confident Siegfried can be controlled with the aid of an enchanted potion. Gunther’s sister, Gutrune, shall become the mighty hero’s bride. Glory and Siegfried’s trove of fabled Rhine gold shall be theirs. Amid great fanfare and excitement, Siegfried arrives in search of adventure. The trap is sprung. Siegfried is drugged and instantly falls in love with Gutrune. He and Gunther drink a cup of their mingled blood, sealing a ritual oath of loyalty.
Later that night, Brünnhilde is paid a fleeting visit by her Valkyrie sister, Waltraute. The news from Valhalla is troubling. Their father Wotan’s strength continues to wane. Only by surrendering the Ring can Brünnhilde ease the curse that weighs so heavily upon him. Brünnhilde balks. The precious golden band was gifted to her by her even more precious husband-to-be. Waltraute thunders off into the darkness. Siegfried arrives wearing a magic helmet, the Tarnhelm, that has transformed him into Gunther. Snatching the coveted Ring from Brünnhilde’s finger, the metamorphosed Gibichung takes her for his own.
Haunted for long sleepless hours by thoughts of lost Nibelung gold, Hagen welcomes Siegfried’s return and, as planned, Siegfried promptly claims Gutrune for his bride. The entire Gibichung clan is summoned to attend a double wedding. Gunther arrives with Brünnhilde who, spying the Ring on Siegfried’s finger, promptly realizes she has been the victim of a cruel deception. Cursing him, she bitterly informs an ever alert Hagen that the magic she so lovingly bestowed to protect Siegfried from harm can be breached with a well-aimed blow to his back. A seemingly casual hunting party is arranged and as Siegfried and his Gibichung companions pause to refresh themselves, Hagen murders Siegfried, thrusting a spear into his spine. A savage quarrel erupts. Hagen and Gunther viciously dispute one another’s right to claim the Ring as his own. Hagen strangles his sibling in a fit of frustration. Time stops. Gutrune is made to realize the enormity of the evil the Gibichungs have spawned. Brünnhilde orders Siegfried’s body to be placed atop a blazing pyre. Transferring the Ring from his finger to hers, she mounts her flying warhorse and spurs it into the flames. The Rhine bursts its banks. A great flood engulfs the world. Hagen is drowned. The Ring is returned to the Rhinemaidens. Valhalla burns as a new dawn glimmers on the horizon.
Dark, mythic, primal, Götterdämmerung unravels like some deep subcortical dream. But there are more prosaic forces at work here as well. Countless commentators, George Bernard Shaw among them, a man who knew a thing or two about dramatic resonance, have been struck by the overt air of political allegory.
Wagner, rabble-rouser, activist, close friend of Russian-born anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, narrowly escaped arrest in Dresden for actively participating in a nasty, nationalist-inspired uprising as a young man. The brush with repressive state authority left him deeply embittered and alienated. Wagner’s demons are arguably more ferociously on show in Götterdämmerung than virtually anywhere else in his canon.
Siegfried and Brünnhilde, the last earthly representatives of the old godly society, individualism personified, are brought into fatal contact with a newer, harshly regimented order of being, the grubby, business-like world of the grasping Gibichungs. Gemeinschaft vs Gesellschaft — polemics as poetry.
A terrible sense of inevitability permeates Götterdämmerung. Led by an ineffectual weakling with preposterously grandiose plans, manipulated by a Machiavellian monster, The Gibichungs assemble in their throne room, an ominous, fluorescent-lit corporate command post on set designer Michael Levine’s scenic map, hungry, black-suited predators flocking to their own destruction.
Greed and blind ambition have a disturbing way of exceeding even the worst expectations Wagner seems to warn. The corrupted corrupt the corruptible. Humanity loses its humaness.
Appearing in the role of Siegfried, tenor Andreas Schager brings a ringing note of pathos to his depiction of Wagner’s man of action, a once shining hero made redundant in a sour godless age. Deprived of all semblance of reason by a potent Gibichung drug, briefly restored to sanity by a second devious draught, the once invincible champion all but drowns in a breaking wave of bittersweet remembrance. Schager’s inexpressibly poignant treatment of Siegfried’s rambling Act III recit, Dankst du es mir, so sing’ ich dir Mären aus meinen jungen Tagen (“If you would like me to, I will sing you stories of my boyhood days”), streaked with euphoria, veiled with regret, strikes straight at the heart.
Soprano Christine Goerke crafts an intensely empathic Brünnhilde conveyed on a decidedly human scale, a merciful emissary from Valhalla, strong-willed, independent yet disarmingly vulnerable. Goerke owns this repertoire and has proven as much at the Met and on the COC mainstage in Die Walküre and Siegfried in previous seasons. Her presence from curtain to curtain throughout Götterdämmerung is nothing less than triumphant. But it is the small, intimate moments that boost her pivotal on-stage appearances into the realm of electrifying — the quick, choked back gasp when she first sees Siegfried in Gutrune’s arms; the furious, frantic blast of unspoken rage as she tears at her disused Valkyrie robe.
Bass Ain Anger sings a lean, muscular Hagen, taut, honed, deadly as a spear point. It is no simple thing to command an opera stage by virtue of sheer stillness yet that is precisely what Anger so tellingly achieves at the launch of Act II. Hagen’s fevered, dream-like encounter with Alberich, his Nibelung father, powerfully voiced by Robert Pomakov, is nothing less than riveting in Anger’s brilliantly restrained reading.
Baritone Martin Gantner fills the Gibichung hall with stunning wickedness as Gunther. Ensemble Company graduate Aviva Fortunata, covering the role for an ailing Ileana Montalbetti in the performance attended by OperaGoTO, thrilled as the Gibichung’s chieftain’s sister, Gutrune. Alone in the darkness, wrapping the vastness of the Four Seasons Centre around her, the fine, rising lyric soprano gave haunting expression to the tortured visions raging in Gutrune’s mind.
Lindsay Ammann and Karen Cargill are First and Second Norns respectively, Third Norn sung mid-run by Fortunata substituting as previously noted. All are and were spine-tingling.
Danika Lorèn and Lauren Eberwein are slinky Rhinemaidens Woglinde and Wellgunde. Ammann doubles as fellow flouncy river nymph Flosshilde.
Conductor Johannes Debus leads the magnificent 100-plus player Canadian Opera Company Orchestra in a rapturous 4½ hour odyssey through Wagner’s sprawling, infinitely demonstrative score. Instrumental harmonies are plush, chromaticism boldly defined, motifs vivid and brightly patterned. Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Götterdämmerung’s buoyant orchestral interlude bridging the Prologue and Act I is gorgeously rendered with a particularly acute sense of vibrancy.
The Canadian Opera Company Chorus does spirited, tireless work, as stirring a band of violent thugs as ever graced a mythical Gibichung board room.
To experience great opera is to undertake a quest, a journey to the core of meaning and pure emotion that leaves us, like all successful art forms, inexorably changed. With this heaving, turbulent production, the Canadian Opera Company has mounted a memorable tour de force. Götterdämmerung dazzles.