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Twilight Transparency

Kennedy Center Opera House
11/07/2009 -  & November 15m, 2009
Richard Wagner: Götterdämmerung
Fredrika Brillembourg (1st Norn and Flosshilde), Elizabeth Bishop (2nd Norn and Waltraute), Carter Scott (3rd Norn), Iréne Theorin (Brünnhilde), Jon Fredric West (Siegfried), Alan Held (Gunther), Gidon Saks (Hagen), Bernadette Flaitz (Gutrune), Gordon Hawkins (Alberich), Jennifer Lynn Waters (Woglinde), Brandy Lynn Hawkins (Wellgunde)
Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Stephen Gathman (Chorus Master), Philippe Auguin (Conductor)
Mark McCullough (Lighting Design), Andres Dorf (Assistant Director)

I. Theorin (© Karin Cooper)

Washington National Opera has concluded its Fall season with an immensely powerful concert version of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods), the final epic of his famous cycle The Ring of the Nibelung. This production boasts an exemplary cast of enormous Wagnerian voices all down the line, brilliant orchestral playing, and a superb conductor. As there is no stage director to “muck up” the proceedings with some bizarre concept, Wagner’s convoluted drama becomes transparently clear and emotionally riveting in the capable hands and voices of this remarkable assembly of artists.

I had decided before writing this review that I would not waste space trying to explain the dramatic details of this opera, as that could take a good deal of space. However on the Press Notes given to reviewers by the staff of WNO I noticed there was one sentence labeled: SYNOPSIS. “No way,” I thought, “Can they reduce this epic tale to one concise sentence!” But indeed, they have; and so, with complete credit given to the WNO, I quote: “SYNOPSIS: In this epic conclusion of Wagner’s Ring cycle, Brünnhilde and Siegfried embark on a quest to restore Alberich’s ring to the Rhine, bringing about the devastation of Valhalla and the gods.”
Well, that about says it all, and what could be simpler? If you do not know the Ring cycle or want more story line, I respectfully refer you to search Google or (ahem!) Wikipedia.com.

Fredrika Brillembourg, Elizabeth Bishop, and Carter Scott as the First, Second, and Third Norns were quite impressive, and immediately set a high vocal standard for the rest of the cast to follow. All three women have quite hefty voices, and although Ms. Brillembourg is a mezzo, and Ms. Bishop and Ms. Scott are both sopranos, their individual vocal timbres provided a classic coloration of contralto, mezzo, and soprano. Ms. Scott, whose repertoire includes the role of Puccini’s Turandot, could easily assume the role of Brünhilde. She had an electrifying quality in all that she sang. Brillembourg and Bishop were equally distinctive, and so what can sometimes be a tedious opening scene for Götterdämmerung became a compelling and memorable beginning to the performance.

Indisputably dominating the entire concert were the superb and vocally thrilling performances of soprano Iréne Theorin and tenor Jon Fredric West as Brünnhilde and Siegfried. These artists are both at the top of their “game.” It is hard to imagine other Wagnerian singers of the current generation that could possibly match either of these singers in these two particular roles.

Mr. West, a true heldentenor, is probably the rarest opera bird of all. WNO could have really used him as Bacchus in their recent production of Ariadne auf Naxos. He completely embodied the character of the boy hero Siegfried. His characterization was so complete, that it lacked nothing a staged production could have provided. His singing was of a caliber one seldom hears anymore. Mr. West has a “ring” on every note throughout his entire range, and the brilliance of his high notes must be the envy of every Wagnerian tenor around the globe. He immediately brought to mind the legendary Lauritz Melchior. As the younger generation is fond of saying…”He was Awesome!”

I hate to re-use adjectives in an article, but no less “awesome” is the Brünnhilde of Iréne Theorin.
This lady is spectacular! She has the type of voice that raises the hair on the back of your neck.
It is a powerful and beautiful instrument possessing a shining, silvery color, and it has a thrusting edge of steel. This vocal quality, coupled with her intense and probing characterization, make her a superior Brünnhilde. Ms. Théorin seems to never run out of steam, while Wagner makes constant demands on the extremities of the voice in this part. Among her finest moments is Brünnhilde’s scene with her Valkyrie sister Waltraute, who comes to tell of impending doom.
Elizabeth Bishop returned to the stage as Waltraute for this scene, looking magnificent in a red gown, and giving a full display of her vocal prowess. Ms. Théorin is a tough colleague to match, but Ms. Bishop held her own ground splendidly.

The greatest moment of Götterdämmerung, and perhaps of the entire Ring cycle is the finale of the opera…Brünhilde’s Immolation Scene. After the murder of Siegfried, Brünnhilde calls upon the Fire god Loge to ignite Valhalla. She mounts her noble steed Grane, and taking the accursed ring she leaps into the fire, destroying herself and returning the gold to the Rhine. This is a long and demanding scene, which comes at the end of a long and demanding opera. Ms. Théorin was indeed up to the challenge, and delivered the goods powerfully! Her voice, apparently having endless reserves, rode climax after climax with never a hint of weariness or wavering intonation. She was also commanding in her quiet moments, coloring her phrases with a myriad of delicate shades. Iréne Theorin is a most extraordinary singer, and is unforgettable as Brünnhilde!

The villains of Götterdämmerung are a nasty bunch and they were also strongly portrayed. They include the brother and sister Gunther and Gutrune Gibich, and the father and son Alberich and Hagen (Gunter’s half brother). Alan Held as Gunther, Gordon Hawkins as Alberich, and Gidon Saks as Hagen made an astounding trio of enormous bass voices. Gidon Saks was frighteningly evil as Hagen. Alan Held was a model of corrupt ambition and greed. And Gordon Hawkins was ugly and insinuating as the foul dwarf Alberich, who originally stole the gold from the Rhinemaidens. Bernadette Flaitz as Gutrune had a high standard to follow as set by the other women of the company. She had no trouble in carrying the banner high. Her voice was also of a true Wagnerian quality and her acting was equally convincing.

Last, but not least, in this large list of fascinating characters are the three Rhinemaidens, Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde. Don’t you just love those names? Returning to the stage from her duties as First Norn was Fredrika Brillembourg as Flosshilde. Jennifer Lynn Waters and Brandy Lynn Hawkins as Woglinde and Wellgunde joined her. These Rhinemaidens are a charming albeit naïve trio of water nymphs who are continually pining for the stolen Rhinegold. They unsuccessfully try to have Siegfried give the ring back to them, and prophesy that he will soon be murdered for keeping the ring. Wagner writes some charming and haunting music for these nymphs, and this lovely trio of young singers delivered it beautifully.

The chorus appears only in Act II. The WNO chorus, as is usual under Stephen Gathman’s thorough preparation, sang with vigor and command, making a very strong impression in their few brief scenes. The orchestra was brilliant from beginning to end, becoming more impressive with each act. The string sound was very warm and the brass was imposing and frequently thrilling. The winds were equally adept. This extraordinary sound came from an orchestra that does not play a great deal of Wagner. The audience enthusiastically applauded them before and after each act.

French conductor Philippe Auguin replaced WNO’s music director Heinz Fricke, who dropped out of the production for health problems. This was Maestro Auguin’s debut at the WNO. His conducting can only be described as masterful. His baton technique is impeccably concise and clear. He employs no podium histrionics and yet elicits great playing and wonderful style from the orchestra. What no stage director will ever tell you, but all the performers know well, is the fact that when rehearsals are over and the curtain finally rises on a performance, all of the drama is controlled from the pit and the maestro. He is the man in charge and all eyes are on him. In fact Wagner’s music dramas can be quite static, but there is enormous drama in the music. Maestro Auguin has a keen sense of this drama and he conveyed it to the orchestra, the stage, and the audience with strength and fiery emotion. WNO was indeed fortunate to have him.

It was a great disappointment to the Washington National Opera to cancel a fully staged production of Götterdämmerung, mandated by the current state of the economy.
They can only be lauded however for giving us such an artistically superb concert version.
I frankly did not miss the staging, sets, or costumes at all. With a production standard of this caliber I could easily sit through the entire Ring cycle in concert.

Micaele Sparacino



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