Friday, June 10, 2011

Stuttgart Ring: Götterdämmerung

Is Götterdämmerung an intimate interpersonal drama? Yes, according to Peter Konwitschny... but also a parable about the perils of being too proud and preoccupied in the affairs of your own household, or larger community constructed as homogeneous. I admit to being confused at first by the refugee Norns, but then it all started to make sense. I think. The production was visually eclectic, with late twentieth-century costumes, but elements of the medieval for the Gibichungs, e.g. torches, bear hunting, a giant mead hall. (They also had bottled beer which I can only assume was regionally-appropriate.) A nineteenth-century landscape painting also showed up behind Brünnhilde's Fels. The orchestra was, as in previous installments, wonderfully adept at bringing out the details of the dense score with warm, shimmering sound. The singing was fine and characterizations thoughtful, but the standout was Eva-Maria Westbroek as an unexpectedly fascinating Gutrune.  Konwitschny (who came out at the curtain calls, scooped conductor Lothar Zagrosek off his feet in a bear hug, and was vigorously applauded) had, I suspect, a lot of fun playing around with the opera's ideas about gender, as well as those about community. On the whole, I thought this paid off very well.

Act I. Via

All of the protagonists of this Götterdämmerung are in some way isolated. The Norns are headscarf-wearing women with shabby suitcases whose "sisterhood" is spontaneous, a bonding together of those who have nothing and no one else. Brünnhilde and Siegfried (Luana DeVol and Albert Bonnema) have their domestic idyll (immaculate kitchen, and sex on the kitchen table) far from the haunts of man, with the fire flickering around them. When Waltraute (convincingly panicked Tichina Vaughn) appears, Brünnhilde is at first elated by her sister's approach (her own Valkyrie armor was dug out of a recess to be given to Siegfried as he leaves.) But their conversation is a travesty of being unable to access each other's worlds; Brünnhilde (in dress, apron, and sensible shoes) tries to play hostess, and is offended by her sister's indifference. The woeful miscommunication and manipulation of the Gibichungs, then, appears as a parallel, rather than a sharp contrast, to the world of the mountains. The relations among the three siblings are fraught with tension awkwardly expressed, and still more awkward attempts at reconciliation and rapprochement.  Hernan Iturralde gave a wretchedly pathetic Gunther, who became progressively more likable as events spiraled out of his control. Roland Bracht's Hagen covered equal insecurity with the urbane brutality of a businessman. Gutrune--and I never imagined I would say this--emerged as my favorite character, in the hands of Eva-Maria Westbroek. Her Gutrune was a warmhearted, intelligent woman used as a political pawn, but eager for a measure of independence, and new experience, through a relationship with Siegfried. (Really Shameful Confession: I have usually thought of Gutrune as having about half a brain, and less personality.)

Doom, then, is impending from the outset, and Siegfried's sinister costuming in a suit instead of his furs was only a symbol of what the emotional dynamics made inevitable. The horror of his disguised appearance before Brünnhilde was impressively registered and sung by DeVol. When she is brought, with her hands tied, before the Gibichungs, Siegfried welcomes her with a Bundt cake; Gutrune is holding Notung (at her side, at first, but balanced and ready for a blow when threatened.) Watching Westbroek's face during the subsequent scene, I think, could have told a stranger to the opera what was going on. Brünnhilde is abandoned when the festivities begin, still bound and despairing outside the hall. Gutrune brings her another cake, leaving it on the threshold when she won't take it. In the scene between the brothers and Brünnhilde, DeVol comes across as more worn down than fulminating with rage, wearily reminiscing about her relationship with Siegfried. She is no more than dully horrified when Hagen states his plan; for her the worst has already happened. The Rhinemaidens appear on a miniature stage, where Siegfried sits for their conversation and his subsequent narrative to the Gibichungs. The bear he's been chasing is sentient, and bites off the Norns' thread when Siegfried refuses to give up the ring. (When the Rhinemaidens threaten with the Norns' music, they also don their headscarves.) Siegfried is the adored hero for whose favor all strive; when Hagen kills him, he sinks forward into Gunther's arms. Not only schmerzergriffen at Siegfried's side, Gunther cradles the dying man with anguished tenderness. The Gibichungs cover him with their coats, both, I think, as an act of compassion, and as a desperate attempt to obscure the significance of what has happened.

The stage on which the Rhinemaidens have frolicked rotates, with Hagen standing alone at its edge, during the Trauermarsch. The hall of the Gibichungs turns out to be behind the backdrop of river and reeds, which continues to sparkle incongruously until Brünnhilde yanks out its switch on her entrance. Poor Gutrune's nightmare was, actually, horrifying. She painstakingly arranges her wedding veil as the top layer of Siegfried's makeshift shroud. I was gratified that Brünnhilde and Gutrune got a moment of reconciliation: after Gutrune realizes the deception that has been practiced, she rushes to embrace Brünnhilde, and sobs uncontrollably in her arms. Poor thing. Brünnhilde returns her embrace, but then ushers the still-assembled Gibichungs out, slowly, as she sings the mourning worthy of her hero. I think the world only ends in Brünnhilde's head. After all the others are gone (including the dead Gunther,) she takes Siegfried's hand, and raises him from beneath the Gibichungs' garments, and he walks offstage. Brünnhilde is left alone to sing. A projection screen falls, and all the audience sees for the last minutes of music is the libretto's description of the crumbling universe. Now, I don't want to whine about this. If your Götterdämmerung is about communication problems, having the world end would seem oddly tacked-on. But what does happen? Are the Gibichungs changed by their experiences? What does Brünnhilde do? I was a little disappointed that Konwitschny left these questions hanging and turned up the house lights instead. But maybe that's an answer in itself.


  1. Thank you for such an interesting and informative text.

  2. I like the idea of the interaction of Gutrune and Brunnhilde. I have always felt sorry for G; she's such a pawn. I have to admit that I am more and more fascinated by this saga, and so will probably get hold of all of them in July, when I have time. Perhaps a more traditional production, though. Maybe with Christa Ludwig. I don't think you can go wrong with her.

  3. @FanaticoUm Thanks for the comment! I recommend the DVD.

    @Christie The G/B dynamics were much more developed here than I recall them being in the Schenk production. Indeed, poor Gutrune... Westbroek made her really heartwrenching here by being a Real, Interesting Person as well as a pawn. I can only applaud a potential Ring-watching project, but have you been warned that there's no going back from addiction? :) The Met DVDs have Schenk's fantastically pseudo-medieval production, and Christa Ludwig's Fricka. And That One Cannot Go Wrong With Christa Ludwig is pretty much an axiom of mine. :) Also fun, and fascinating, are the DVDs of the Chereau production, which retells the narrative in terms of late-nineteenth-century societal conflict!

  4. Thanks for all these reviews, what a cool project!

    Bier of choice in Stuttgart is known as Dinkelacker, was it that? As a Brecht student, Konwitschny would simply have to use the local brew instead of just non-estranging neutral bottles.

  5. @Zerbinetta I think you're right! There weren't close-ups of the bier, and I didn't recognize the label, but I looked up Dinkelacker and the resemblance is convincing. I hadn't realized till viewing this DVD how Brechtian Konwitschny was... more exploration clearly in order!

  6. Ha! I knew it! Dinkelacker isn't that great beer, BTW, it's OK. Beats the Heineken that appears in David Alden's Ercole amante, but inferior to the Radeberger in Herheim's Rusalka or the Löwenbräu in everything at the Bay Staats.

    Konwitschny was at the Berliner Ensemble in the 1970's, so he got the Brechtian legacy more directly than most. I haven't seen this one but I recommend the Don Carlos and the "schoolroom" Lohengrin. He also just premiered an Aus einem Totenhaus in Zürich that is causing a bit of a scandal, I've been reading the reviews recently, it sounds fantastic.

  7. Konwitschny! He might be the most consistently interesting director in opera these days. I've only seen bits of this production. My MA advisor recounted the immolation scene to me, and he wondered if Konwitschny was responding to the Wagner purists (who would surely have disliked this production), as if to say, "Here's what you wanted. Here is your Brunnhilde and Wagner's unadulterated staging." Based on the Teutonic landscape back drop and hilarious fur toga, Konwitschny may also be trying to suggest that the high drama (or melodrama) and aesthetic of the traditional Ring may not have a place in our modern, bundt cake world. The scene with Siegfried "putting on his shoes" (i.e., tying dead animals to his feet) absolutely kills me. He really knows how to make the traditional approach to the Ring look ridiculous (and, I think, exposes a lot of it as affectation). I second Zerbinetta's recommendations of Don Carlos and Lohengrin (though, again, I've only seen bits!).

    He may not be everyone's cup of tea, but Konwitschny is always thoughtful and he gets very engaging performances out of his singers. I think he shows us what regieoper could be. /Lovefest.

    P.S. I am a friend of Elizabeth-a.k.a.-Sophie's, and I maaaay have been lurking around your blog off and on for a little while now...

  8. @Zerbinetta! Aha! I didn't know that about Konwitschny's Brechtian connections; thanks.

    @Caitlin I agree with you about the effect of the landscape: here's your sublime German wilderness... and here's your "hero" tying dead animals to his feet. This is the first Konwitschny I've seen in its entirety but have seen no excerpt that hasn't intrigued me. Also, hi! :) I've long been interested by the bits of your operatic researches/adventures related by E.

  9. Having witnessed this production myself, on Mezzo TV last night, I cannot but admire your account of it. Very accurate and true to the story (and its intentions). I think I agree with you: it all paid off very well. I liked it, for sure: the sets, the simplicity and functionality, the singing. It was very cleverly done and gripping, as far as I'm concerned. At first, it took a little time for me to get used to the, less than heroic, acting and singing of Siegfried (Albert Bonnema), but my appreciation grew and I think the characterisation went along quite well with the other participants. The set rotation was a nice touch, as was the 'interference' of some characters with the sets themselves, like Brunnhilde switching of the river and reeds projection when she thinks time has come to do so. Nice to see Eva-Maria in her Stuttgart years, and I do agree, somehow she always manages to give her character a (likeable) personality even when, on paper, it might not necessarily be the case.

  10. @Rob V. Thanks, Rob! I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it, and it's nice to have affirmation of my tentative Konwitschny interpretations.


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