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Richard Wagner: Götterdämmerung
14 Dec 2007

WAGNER: Götterdämmerung

You will wonder what designer Rosalie could have been thinking when she put Brunnhilde in trousers twice as wide at the waist as the soprano wearing them, with a nippled plastic bustier above.

Richard Wagner: Götterdämmerung

Deborah Polaski, Wolfgang Schmidt, Anne Schwanewilms, Falk Struckmann, Eric Halfvarson, Hanna Schwarz, Bayreuther Festspiele, James Levine. Staged by Alfred Kirchner.

DG 073 4340 [2DVDs]

$39.98  Click to buy

Too, she has sheathed the norns in plastic tubing (surviving slices of the Midgard serpent?), and then there are the colored pompoms on the heads of the perpetually tumbling Rhinemaidens and the orange panniers on poor Gutrune (all the Gibichungs wear Halloween colors). One expects little questions like this when watching any Wagner production nowadays, but designer Rosalie – who apparently stole the spotlight (Manfred Voss did the superb lighting) from producer/director Alfred Kirchner when this 1997 Bayreuth Ring premiered – seems to have a real causa against the female anatomy. With Wagnerian leading ladies as svelte as Mmes. Polaski, Schwanewilms and Schwarz, it seems ungrateful to say the least to costume them as if they were steatopygous Neolithic goddesses.

The sets, too, are Rosalie’s work. Gunther and Gutrune in their Expressionist lounge chairs clearly signal rich, decadent, too-too to take seriously, but Hagen is in the usual black leather. (Just once I’d like to see Hagen performed as a loafing aesthete who surprises people with his long-concealed plots – it’s absurd to make him so sinister and have no one on stage ever suspect what he’s up to.) Sword and Ring and Tarnhelm are present if tacky in closeup, and Siegfried looks genuinely alarming when he’s in disguise, his head covered in the Tarnhelm and his shoulder in Gunther’s chic orange cloak.

Kirchner, however, is responsible for the staged action; it’s unusually clear and the acting choice. I liked ardent, enthusiastic Siegfried rushing so eagerly into Gunther’s palace that he overshoots the stage and has to walk back from the wings, Hagen making love to his own spear, the tumbling Rhinemaidens, the threatening movements of the crowd of soldiers such that Siegfried seems a simpleton (which he is) never to perceive its whiff of the Night of the Long Knives.

The set is the top of a globe, its lines of latitude and longitude implying the universality of the mystery. The rest of the stage is matte black against which the colorful singers stand out like symbols in a morality drama – which this is and they are. The trees of the forest are barren metal stalks, like expressionistic crucifixes, and they bow low to mourn dead Siegfried. A huge screen descends during the Immolation to display light-show fire that evolves on cue into light-show flood. (You should watch these scenes in a very dark room. Or all of it.)

The singing, despite a few stretches here and there (Schwanewilms’s Gutrune seems whiny, which has not been my impression of her on other recordings), is excellent. I don’t know how many different performances (or rehearsals) were culled for the final tape (there is no audience noise or applause), but Polaski’s somewhat chilly Brunnhilde is in floods of voice from love duet to immolation, which has not always been true of her on a single night, and Wolfgang Schmidt, who sounds as if he would have trouble managing Siegfried’s punishing demands in a larger house, continues to sound youthful and eager to the bitter end here.

The glory of this recording is the orchestral sound which, under James Levine, rises through the floor in Bayreuth’s unique configuration (a discussion of how the miking for recordings is done there would be of interest) and surrounds the singers, so that they seem to be breathing music and moving through an atmosphere of it. The various instruments (and not merely their leitmotifs) seem to be characters in the drama as important as the singers and not nearly so awkwardly dressed.

John Yohalem

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