19 Jul 2009

Götterdämmerung at Aix-en-Provence — A Human Symphony

This year’s program at the Aix-en-Provence Festival includes Götterdämmerung, the much-anticipated final installment of the Ring co-sponsored by Festival d’Aix-en-Provence and the Osterfestspiele Salzburg.

Its minimalist design by Stéphane Braunschweig (stage direction and sets), Thibault Vancraenenbroeck (costumes) and Marion Hewlett (lighting) notwithstanding, this production delivers a compelling musical drama that focuses on the human condition.

This production of the Ring is an important step forward in the interpretation of Wagner’s musical drama. Absent are the clichés of characters dressed as Nazis (or as Eastern German soldiers in the recent Knöll production in Venice). Absent is the bewildering “balance” between science fiction and poetry as in the recent La Fura production in Florence or the absurdly ridiculous staging in Lisbon that employed a circus ring. Absent, too, are cardboard reproductions of medieval German forests, rivers and royal palaces as imagined by late 19th century intellectuals.

Rather, we finally have a psychological reading of the Ring that emphasizes the interpersonal relationships of the dramatis personae. The staging is minimalist. The sets consist of three walls, a window and a staircase, along with a few abstract. The props are three chairs, a leather armchair and two beds. Lighting and acting (what a quality of acting!) do the rest, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats for nearly 6 hours.

A key element of Götterdämmerung, as with the Ring as a whole, is the sequence of leitmotifs associated with a character, a place, an event, an object and so on. The Prologue begins with the sequence expressing primal nature and the Rhine (No. 2), Erda (No. 42) and then the Annunciation of Death (No. 83B). A new leitmotif (No. 154) is introduced as the Norns appear weaving the ropes of destiny, discussing past events, the doom of the gods, the curse of the Niebelung’s Ring, questioning the nature of a distant gleam of light (is it fire or is it dawn?).* The Norns then disappear and dawn breaks. With the radiant tonality of daybreak, Brünhilde and Siegfried emerge after a joyous night of love-making. We could not be more directly assured that we are no longer in a world of gods, giants, dwarves, dragons and demigods. We are in a universe of men and women where mist and the darkness are contrasted against light and the radiance. Light and radiance win. Thus, after nearly 6 hours, the turmoil of the downfall of the gods segues to the leitmotif of redemption by love — the old order is shattered, a glorious new world is revealed.

Earlier productions stressed that the men and women in Götterdämmerung stand alone with their problems (intrigues of power and wealth) and their passions. Valhalla (with its gods and goddesses) is at a distance. In this production, Wotan appears silently at the very end as the Wanderer to witness the demise of “his” world — the old order. The human psychological content of the Ring, and especially of Götterdämmerung, is central to this production as conceived by Bruanschweig, Vancraenenbroeck and Hewlett.


Another key to a successful production of the Ring is the orchestra. Wagner thought of the Ring not as a cycle of operas (a rather normal practice in 19th century Germany) but as a festival drama (where each and every word had to be understood) with a symphony orchestra concealed in a pit under the stage (not to be seen by the audience). Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philarmoniker transform Götterdämmerung into a symphony of humanity searching for a better world — independent of the intrigues of the gods, of the kings, of the dwarves, of the demigods and the like. A similar symphonic treatment had been attempted in the mid-1970s by the Washington National Opera in a production of Die Walküre (with Roberta Knie at the height of her splendour). But the staging was the traditional primeval Germany wrought in cardboard. And, with due respect to Antal Dorati, the Washington National Symphony never possessed the high standard of quality as that of the Berliner Philarmoniker. Sir Simon Rattle and his orchestra have greater skills than most other orchestras in finding the right musical colours, the gentle nuances, the always vivid imagination, especially the ability to slide from a chamber music Wagner (e.g. Solti, Böhm) to a highly dramatic , black, tragic Wagner (e.g. Boulez, Sinopoli, von Karajan, Fürtwangler). This is a Ring, and a Götterdämmerung, that demands many listenings to appreciate the symphonic rigor and impact produced by Rattle and company. A detail: there are six harps, as required by Wagner, which are placed just at the centre of the orchestra under the stage. “Normal” productions make do with two harps, often in a side box.


This Götterdämmerung benefitted from great acting and singing. At the age of 55, Ben Heppner is a naïve Siegfried. The role is taxing, but his voice maintained a magnificently crystal clear timbre and exhibited superb phrasing, a moving legato and the ability to reach high C and F. Next to him, Katarina Dalayma as Brünhilde displayed full vocal and dramatic power. Her performance was particularly impressive in the holocaust of the final scene. An ever young and attractive Anne Sophie von Otter appeared as Waltraute, the desperate Walkürie tortured by the looming end of the world. The vocally and dramatically promising Emma Vetter was a whorish Gutrune. As Hagen, an impressive Mikhail Petrenko presented a character that was devilish, astute, even more evil than his father Alberich (Dale Duesing). The Norns and the Rhinemaidens (Maria Radner, Lilli Paasiviki, Miranda Keys, Anna Siminska, Eva Vogel) were all top-notch.

In short, if you missed this Götterdämmerung in Provence, it is worth traveling to Salzburg for performances to be held there next Easter. Moreover, a recording of this production is in process. Look for it in your music store.

Giuseppe Pennisi

*[Editor’s Note: The description and numbering of leitmotifs are based on Ernest Newman, The Wagner Operas 591-594 (Princeton Univ. Press 1949). The numbering of the leitmotifs, however, varies from source to source. Compare Ernst von Wolzogen, Guide through the music of “The Ring of the Nibelung” by Richard Wagner (Feodor Reinboth N.D.). It should be noted, however, that Barry Millington cautions against labeling leitmotifs because the context in which they appear rarely admits a consistently unequivocal meaning. Stewart Spencer & Barry Millington, Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung — A Companion 14-24 (Thames & Hudson 1993).]