9 July 2012
London

My review of Götterdämmerung – the final part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, as staged for the New York Metropolitan Opera by Robert Lepage.

Fittingly enough for the eve of the London Olympiad, July is shaping up to be month of marathon-length cultural events. After being dazzled last week by Gatz, the New York-based Elevator Repair Service theatre company’s amazing 8-hour rendition of The Great Gatsby, this weekend I got to see the screening of the final part of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s new version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the impressively named Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). As the name suggests, this baby is long, precisely punctuated and very, very German.

I saw screenings of Part 1, Das Rheingold, back in 2010, and Parts 2 and 3, Die Walküre and Siegfried respectively, in 2011, meaning that it’s taken me 18 months, stretched across three calendar years, to get to see the complete cycle, making it the single longest piece of art I’ve ever viewed. The Met will be performing all four operas in repertory later this year, so New Yorkers will be able to see the complete Ring in a more compressed time period, but there’s been something rather lovely and surprisingly satisfying about committing to the process of going. It’s long enough in time, theoretically, for me to have wondered at the beginning the cycle whether I’d still be living in London or even alive by the time it finished. It’s also interesting and sobering to think about the amount of life that’s been lived in the months surrounding each performance. Well, at least it proves that I can “do” long-term commitment – and as far as long-distance relationships go, Wagner isn’t a bad boyfriend to have.

As with Gatz, the pleasures of the Ring lie largely in the fact of its length, and of the richness of experience imparted by seeing something over a long period and allowing themes to develop, reassert themselves and be repeated over time. The enjoyment isn’t immediate or obvious – although all four operas have moments of stunning beauty and exceptional staging – and sometimes the meanings and overall themes feel oblique and unreachable, but the rewards, when they do eventually come, last longer and feel more satisfying, all the more so for having been so hard won. Watching productions like Gatz and the Ring have taught me to absorb theatre and film in the same  way that we read books: slowly, carefully, thoughtfully, and above all, patiently, with a view to the “big payoff” in the final lines.

Götterdämmerung was possibly the most satisfying of the four operas – not just because the story drew to a conclusion, but because the production, lead by the crazed genius of French-Canadian director Robert Lepage, felt the most dramatically assured. LePage’s gigantic 45-tonne set, nicknamed “The Machine”, drew a fair amount of critical bitching in the earlier operas, as a (literally) clunky modernist affectation and an unwelcome distraction to a much loved and fiercely guarded operatic work. In this opera, the set moved effortlessly between a sweeping range of landscapes – Viking palaces, riverbanks, icy mountaintops, crepuscular forests and burning funeral pyres – and mostly stayed in one place, rather than distracting with a lot of ongoing movement, allowing the orchestration and very fine acting and singing to carry the dramatic impetus.

Despite the action packed plot – there’s a river voyage, an abduction, an anguished love triangle, a boar hunt, a brutal stabbing, and a self-immolation, all decked out in a lot of chain mail – it’s a low-key, melancholy piece, as much a fading to black or a resignation as it is an angry belch of protest. The Gods whose twilight it is, and who formed such a key part of the earlier operas, are all offstage in Götterdämmerungreferred to only in passing, and the story is carried squarely by the frazzled mortals. Even Brünnhilde, the former Valkyrie and wild-child of the God Wotan, when invited by a fellow soul sister to return to the pack, re-establish her immortality and help save the Gods, turns it down to pursue the love of a beefy beefy blond jock, Siegfried, with a beard like Colonel Sanders and a twinkly wayward eye. Siegfried is mostly too stupid, too egotistical and too easily lead to be an enduring hero, and eventually Brünnhilde gets betrayed and forced into a coerced marriage, and the whole thing turns to shite quicker than you can spell Götterdämmerung, so you’re left wondering whether Brünnhilde’s penchant for humans was the right move. But perversely enough, this is what makes Götterdämmerung so appealing – there’s little magic and few special effects in the story, just humans struggling with their own imperfect natures, ambiguous motivations and bad decisions.

What’s most interesting to me about the Ring Cycle, having seen it from beginning to end, is just how different it is from its somewhat Nazi-soiled layman’s reputation. Here I was imagining that the Ring fetishised the Nietzschean ideal of the Superman and provided a justification for the crushing of the weak by the strong. As played in this production anyway, Götterdämmerung was a striking example of the futility and unsustainability of a world run by men. The male characters in the Ring plot and scheme, flex their ageing egos like saggy muscles, throw tantrums when they can’t get what they want, shirk their responsibilities, employ subterfuge to get what they want and hide behind outdated honour codes to hide their bad decisions.

The true hero of the Ring is Brünnhilde, who alone acts consistently and honourably, carrying her dignity ferociously ahead of her like a weapon, and refusing to compromise on her ideals, even into death. Sadly, she’s a woman in a man’s world, which means her only options are to destroy herself in the finale. It sounds pathetic and codependent, but as played by the magnificent Deborah Voight, she’s a heroic Joan of Arc, leading where the men can only dream of following. There’s nothing remotely Fascist about this reading of the Ring, and if anything the story seems to focus on the (female) restoration of the natural order after the destruction done to nature by the rampaging hordes of Gods and men. Hitler may have loved the music and the Ayran origins of the story, but the Ring is arguably more of a story for an eco-warrior generation than for a bunch of white supremacists who want to invade Poland. Bravo indeed.

It’s been a wonderful experience, and one that reminds me how privileged I am to get to live in a big city and see great opera for the same price as four Big Macs or one-half of a dental appointment. It’s also been a treat seeing the series with a friend who’s a true Ringspotter and able to bring the benefit of his extensive operatic experience to counter-balance my rookie perspective. I’m also becoming increasingly addicted to marathon theatre outings. Three handy hints on how to make it through:

1. Sensible shoes

2. Chocolate raisins

3. Aisle seats

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