WNO’s ‘Twilight of the Gods’: Great music, strange finale

WNO’s ‘Twilight of the Gods’: Great music, strange finale

Philippe Auguin, Washington National Opera Orchestra, best ever. Soloists in peak form. But the End of Valhalla as Arbor Day?

This hunting party won't turn out well for Siegfried. L-R: Ryan McKinny as Gunther; Eric Halfvarson as Hagen; Daniel Brenna as Siegfried. (Photo: Scott Suchman for WNO)
Michael Schwab's poster announcing the Washington National Opera's first complete Ring Cycle.
Michael Schwab’s poster announcing the Washington National Opera’s first complete Ring Cycle.

WASHINGTON, May 8, 2016 – Cycle 1 of the Washington National Opera’s long-awaited, first-ever complete Ring Cycle concluded Friday evening with a performance of “The Twilight of the Gods” (“Götterdämmerung”) that was musically brilliant but something of an anti-climax production-wise.

“Twilight of the Gods” (“TOG”) was written and composed by Richard Wagner as the grand musical and symbolic finale to his epic, four opera Ring Cycle, a tale, both majestic and petty, that details, episodically, the decline and fall of the old order (the gods) largely due to their own failings as well as the rise of their own subjects who once regarded the gods with fear and esteem.

Based on familiar Nordic and northern European mythologies and in a number of ways similar in plot flow as Tolkein’s later but somewhat similar “Lord of the Rings” saga, Wagner’s Ring Cycle is in some respects a morality tale illustrating what will happen when moral, religious and secular leadership becomes corrupt.

In many ways, the story reflects Wagner’s own attitude towards the periodic turmoil erupting in Europe throughout the 19th century. For better or worse, this has shaped many a production of the cycle in the years after Wagner’s death, making the Ring operas “relevant” again to new generations of operagoers.

Read also: WNO’s American Ring: A vastly improved ‘Rhinegold’ debuts

Designed and re-imagined as a critique of the current 1% meme in this country, the first three operas in the cycle actually worked better than the original productions performed here in the first decade of this century. TOG, however, stumbled dramatically in its final, climactic scene, transforming this opera’s dramatic close into a rather disappointing denouement, at least in this writer’s opinion. The destruction of Valhalla more closely resembled Arbor Day as “Twilight of the Gods” drew to a close

We’ll explore this in a separate “Ring” wrap-up piece later this week. Right now, however, we’d prefer to focus on the musical aspects of “Twilight of the Gods,” which were nothing short of spectacular. The consistently high quality of the soloists, the chorus and above all the orchestra in this final opera was, artistically, perhaps the finest performance by this company that we’ve seen in our over 21 years of reviewing.

For this, we have to give major credit and kudos to WNO’s music director Philippe Auguin, who conducted all four performances of Cycle I. Aside from an occasional glitch here and there—understandable when performing such a huge collective score—the orchestra in all four operas consistently performed at the highest level.

WNO music director and conductor Philippe Auguin. (Photo credit Dario Acosta Photography, via Mr. Auguin's website)
WNO music director and conductor Philippe Auguin. (Photo credit Dario Acosta Photography, via Mr. Auguin’s website)

This was particularly notable during the pair of substantial orchestral interludes that are an integral part of “Twilight of the Gods”: the music for Siegfried’s Funeral March, and the opera’s magnificent final moments in which the orchestra takes over for the singers and, in what amounts to a compact tone poem, describes in sequence the funeral pyre of Siegfried, the return of the Ring to the Rhinemaidens and the Rhine, the fiery destruction of Valhalla, and the tranquil close in which the river flows onward as the lives of mortals presumably settle into a new normal free from the influences of the oppressive old order of the gods.

Both these orchestral interludes are stirring stuff, the latter for its dramatic and picturesque portrait painting, the former for its sheer drama. Siegfried’s Funeral March is loaded with percussion, crashing cymbals and dramatic brass fanfares, and both Maestro Auguin made the most of this opportunity to deliver a brilliant moment of high drama.

We recall many decades ago being electrified by the Cleveland Orchestra’s magnificent brass section in works by Wagner and Richard Strauss, as conducted by the legendary George Szell. It’s these literally hair-raising, exciting musical moments that one remembers forever. And this was precisely that sensation that Maestro Auguin inspired his musicians to create in both Siegfried’s Funeral March as well as in the grand finale of “Twilight of the Gods.” The brass and the thundering percussion in the March was, without doubt, the most thrilling music we’ve ever heard from this orchestra, and we don’t mind indulging in a bit of hyperbole to describe it.

Read also: Christine Goerke’s Brünnhilde daves the day in ‘The Valkyrie’

The rest of the orchestra’s work was clearly on a par with this, making it a musical night to remember.

Happily, the same can be said for the work of the male chorus, the first and only choral work we have in the Ring Cycle. The singing here was crisp, tight, dramatic and enthusiastic. The chorus was dressed in military drab and both their singing and their stage maneuvers enhanced their soldierly presence even further. As in the instrumentals, these choral moments, too, were viscerally exciting.

Hagen (Eric Halfvarson, center) commands his forces, who certainly know how to sing Wagner lustily. (Photo: Scott Suchman for WNO)
Hagen (Eric Halfvarson, center) commands his forces, who certainly know how to sing Wagner lustily. (Photo: Scott Suchman for WNO)

The musical triad in this opera is not complete, however, without mentioning the extraordinarily fine singing and characterizations turned in by the vocal stars of this production.

Brash American tenor Daniel Brenna pulled out all the stops as the Ring’s swaggering and occasionally oafish hero, Siegfried, portraying him as an almost recklessly brave fellow to whom heroics are second nature. But, unschooled in subtlety, he can’t ferret out the duplicity of his apparently genial hosts in this final Ring opera, leading to the inadvertent disgrace of his beloved Brünnhilde and ultimately to his own destruction.

Read also: ‘Siegfried’: Catherine Foster returns to WNO’s ‘American Ring’

Mr. Brenna sang like a swashbuckling hero early on in the opera as he made the acquaintance of the scheming Hagen (Eric Halfvarson), his half-brother Gunther (Ryan McKinny), and Gunther’s lovelorn sister Gutrune (Melissa Citro). But later, as he slowly succumbs to Hagen’s treacherous attack, the truth of it all dawns on his character, Siegfried. The versatile Mr. Brenna responded to the moment with a completely different vocal approach, singing with great tenderness and love as Siegfried remembers, in his dying moments, his magical time with Brünnhilde.

Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde. Rehearsal photo. (Credit: Scott Suchman for WNO)
Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde. Rehearsal photo. (Credit: Scott Suchman for WNO)

As Mr. Brenna’s Brünnhilde, soprano Catherine Foster somehow managed to turn in a studied and coherent performance in this final Ring opera. Her character runs every possible gamut of emotions in “Twilight,” from the rapture of an almost divine love, to the hurt, disappointment and gradual anger of betrayal, to a radiant, noble fury as she takes it upon herself to honor Siegfried and prompt the destruction of her enemies and Valhalla itself in one final, heroic gesture.

It’s at this point in the opera where Brünnhilde must sing what is likely one of Wagner’s most challenging and lengthy narratives, in which she declares her undying love for Siegfried, her intent to join him in the afterlife, and her vow, effectively, to change everything by undoing the curse of the Ring and returning the world to justice and tranquility. It’s a huge, dramatic moment during which the soprano takes full command of this opera and its climactic narrative, and Ms. Foster admirably delivered the goods, alternating seamlessly from the lyrical to the dramatic in a magnificent performance.

Siegfried and Brünnhilde are clearly meant to be Wagner’s stars in this opera. But it would have been difficult for them to function without a fine supporting cast in this production. Veteran bass Eric Halfvarson sang a brittle, boastful and particularly nasty Hagen. He proved to be almost the spitting image of his equally unpleasant father, Alberich (Gordon Hawkins), who also turned in a fine cameo vocal performance in his one key scene.

Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, who sang the role of Donner in “Rhinegold,” returned in “Twilight” as Hagen’s legitimately born half-brother Gunther, portraying him as a weak, oily sort of fellow who’s more than happy to cooperate with Hagen to dupe Siegfried into handing his own trophy bride, Brünnhilde, over to Gunter without even a warning. Mr. McKinny approached his role keeping Gunther’s character traits in mind, portraying his character with a halting, vocal tentativeness.

Hagen (Eric Halfvarson) schemes with Gutrune (Melissa Citro). (Photo: Scott Suchman for WNO)
Hagen (Eric Halfvarson) schemes with Gutrune (Melissa Citro). (Photo: Scott Suchman for WNO)

Not so his desperate to get married to a hero sister Gutrune, portrayed in a rather original way by soprano Melissa Citro. Gutrune is usually presented as a weak, malleable character, but Ms. Citro plays her as a dumb blonde—but a blonde not so dumb as to resist the opportunity of marrying a hero like Siegfried even if it’s all a sham. Ms. Citro sings her character’s lines forcefully throughout most of her short appearances. But, as she discovers the true duplicity of Hagen’s and Gunther’s plot, her voice falters, revealing a surprisingly moral side to her character.

Smaller roles are key to this production as well. One standout in this opera was mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton who sang the role of Brünnhilde’s sister Valkyrie, Waltraute. Waltraute returns to her sister’s rock to beg her to break the curse by returning the Ring to the Rhinemaidens. She doesn’t really get anywhere with Brünnhilde, but still does so with a mellow, passionate yet refined vocal approach that shone brightly like a small jewel in this lengthy opera.

Finally, we have a pair of female trios in this opera whose characters begin and then help to close out Wagner’s epic tale. TOG opens with a scene devoted to the three Norns who weave and unweave the ropes of destiny – inventively re-imagined as a knot of mainframe computer cables in this production – as they deliver Wagner’s instant replay of the first three operas and then proceed to their chilling prophecy of the end game. This can be a tedious scene for one who’s already attended the previous trio of Ring operas. But Lindsay Ammann, Jamie Barton, and Marcy Stonikas make a terrific trio and make these moments both musical and memorable.

Marcy Stonikas, Lindsay Ammann and Jamie Barton are three computer-savvy Norns. (Photo: Scott Suchman for WNO)
Marcy Stonikas, Lindsay Ammann and Jamie Barton are three computer-savvy Norns. (Photo: Scott Suchman for WNO)

Later on, the Rhinemaidens, whom we last saw in “Rhinegold,” return here, urging Siegfried—As Waltraute earlier urged Brünnhilde—to break the curse and return the Ring to them and thence to the river to restore balance to the earth and to humanity. This initial, humorous scene with Siegfried stands as an amusing parallel with their earlier fake seduction of Alberich in “Rhinegold.” This time they confront a real hero who refuses their advances for entirely different reasons, refusing as well to believe their claim that if he retains the Ring, he will soon die.

As the Rhinemaidens, Jacqueline Echols, Catherine Martin and Renée Tatum equal the vocal skill of the three Norns with their tight, bright and often coquettish harmonies. They return near the end of the opera just as effectively, albeit rather more seriously. Both appearances offer a refreshing, light touch in an evening generally laden with deep symbolism and high seriousness.

In general, although we have a difference of opinion on this production’s rather anticlimactic finale, Cycle 1 of the Washington National Opera’s complete-at-last American Ring is nothing short of a musical triumph for the organization. The singing throughout was superb, from soloists to the excellent chorus in the final opera. The orchestral performance was likely this company’s best ever.

And, if there were ever any doubts, Maestro Auguin’s superb, sensitive and frequently stirring approach to Wagner’s vast musical canvas proves him to be a major interpreter of this composer’s work. What better way to deliver this complete and highly original Ring that area audiences have so long looked forward to attending.

Rating: *** 1/2 (3 1/2 out of 4 stars)


Tickets and information: WNO’s American Ring is being presented in three complete four-opera cycles, Cycle 1 (the one we’re reviewing), Cycle 2 and Cycle 3.

Ring Cycles attract international audiences, and tickets are generally sold in advance as a four-opera package by cycle. Remaining single tickets are released for sale at some point and some are available now. That means you may be able to construct your own, personal “Ring Cycle” if you act soon. For tickets and further info, visit WNO’s Kennedy Center website.

Performances of The Ring operas run through May 22, concluding with the final Cycle 3 performance of “Götterdämmerung,” aka “The Twilight of the Gods.”

The Kennedy Center is located at 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC.

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