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Friday, January 27, 2012

How to Survive the End of the World

A quick guide to Götterdämmerung.
by Paul Pelkonen. Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.
Promotional image of Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde in the Met's new Götterdämmerung.
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
Gött-er-dämm-erung. Even the name sounds intimidating, pronounced with an "er" on the first syllabule and a slightly elongated nasal "a on the third. The English title, "Twilight of the Gods" also sounds kind of scary.

So you've decided to see it. Whether you're a die-hard Wagnerite with six Ring cycles under your belt or a novice going to the opera for the first time, here's a quick survival guide to one of Wagner's most imposing operas. Well, not that quick: Götterdämmerung is really long.

This is the last chapter in the Ring of the Nibelungs, a four-opera cycle dealing with the legends of Siegfried, Brunnhilde and various dwarves, giants and gods feuding over possession of a magic ring that allows its holder to rule the world. It's also a powerful evening of opera, with rape, betrayal, murder and redemption coming in surprisingly quick succession over the course of a long opera.

Here's an opera-goer's synopsis:

Although it is performed in three acts, the first part of Götterdämmerung is really a combined Prologue and Act I. At two and a half hours, it is long as a Puccini opera. There are no stops for applause, and no bathroom breaks. You can't leave the theater until intermission. In other words, pee before it starts.

The opening scene (a prologue to the Prologue) with the Norns may sound boring. It's not--there's some really neat music, but it's basically set-up for everything that follows. Wagner wrote this scene originally to explain everything that was about to happen to the audience--who Siegfried was. He later wrote prequels to the libretto for the original Siegfrieds Tod--and it is those prequels that make the first three parts of the Ring.

Next the tenor and soprano take the stage and sing a big love duet with lots of "Heils." As this is high, exposed music, you can soon assess whether these are singers that are worth your time or whether it's time to start rooting for Hagen. The duet is followed by the Rhine Journey, a mini-tone poem for orchestra that covers the scene change.

The action then moves to the Gibichung Hall. The descending theme of the Gibichungs marks the proper start of Act I, although the music never stops. This is your chance to see if the bass singing Hagen has a black, rounded tone in his instrument, necessary to express what an evil bastard this character is. Then Siegfried shows up, and promptly drinks a potion of forgetfulness. He then falls in love with the first available woman, Gutrune.

The toughest stretch of Act I comes in the scene known to Wagner geeks as "Hagen's Watch." The opera's bad guy sits himself down, and in a long bass aria, explains who he is and what his evil plan is to the audience. There is then a long orchestral passage while the scenery transforms before your eyes, from the Gibichung castle on the shore of the Rhine, back to Brunnhilde's fiery rock. 

Wagner follows these two slow passages with a long dialogue between Brunnhilde and her Valkyrie sister Waltraute, about how their father Wotan (king of the Gods) wants to kill himself and end the world. Things pick up again with the arrival of the drugged, disguised Siegfried, who is wearing the Tarnhelm, Elmer Fudd's original magic helmet. Disguised as Gunther, the poor tenor has to pretend to be a baritone in order to kidnap his soon-to-be-ex. This deception sets up the crisis in Act II. 

Here's the good news. If you've made it through these two long scenes, the rest of the opera (though long) is easy.

Act II is an hour, and gripping from start to finish. Hagen sings the Summoning of the Vassals, bellowing over a huge orchestral outburst. This brings the chorus onstage. There's a big wedding procession, and then Brunnhilde realizes that Siegfried was the one who kidnapped her. Her reaction isn't good. The act ends with a vengeance trio as Brunnhilde, Hagen, and Gunther (Hagen's wimpy brother) plan to murder Siegfried.

Act III is basically three scenes. It starts with the still-drugged, newly married Siegfried confronting the Rhinemaidens (with some pretty music) and is followed by the hunting party where Siegfried gets stabbed in the back. The tenor takes about five minutes to die. Next: the funeral music, which allows the orchestra to show off.
Finally, we come to the Immolation Scene. This is essentially a 20-minute scena for the soprano that sums up and wraps up all the plot points of the Ring before she jumps on her horse and rides it into Siegfried's funeral pyre. Hopefully, there's some cool conflagatory business going on for you to look at.

Once that conflagration happens it's home-stretch--there's just five minutes to go in the Ring. Sit back, enjoy the cascading chords as they resolve around you, and be proud--you've just made it through one of the toughest German operas ever written. Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.