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Monday, July 25, 2016

The Wagner Project: Götterdämmerung

The Ring comes full circle.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Act II Scene II of Götterdämmerung as staged by the Mariinsky Theater.
That's Hagen standing on top of the Gibichung Hall. Photo by V. Baranovsky.
Twenty-two years after starting work on  his mammoth four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, Richard Wagner wound up right back where he started with Götterdämmerung. The last opera of the cycle tells the story he wanted to tell in the first place: the death of the hero Siegfried and the redemption of the world by the heroine Brunnhilde. Except now the ending was different.

Götterdämmerung is the longest, densest and most musically challenging of the four Ring operas. The story picks up where Siegfried left off, with Brunnhilde sending her not-too-bright boyfriend out into the wide world to perform manly deeds. He ends up at the court of the corrupt Gunther, who with help from his half-brother Hagen drugs the hero and convinces him to kidnap Brunnhilde and marry his sister Gutrune. At the planned double wedding, Brunnhilde swears revenge and shows Hagen how to kill Siegfried. Siegfried is brutally murdered and at his funeral, Brunnhilde rides her horse into his funeral pyre, ending the world.

Back in 1848 (when the opera was titled Siegfrieds Tod) Wagner had planned for Siegfried and Brunnhilde to rise transcendent from their funeral pyre and enter Valhalla, redeeming the world and the Germanic gods. Then Wagner read the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Now, the pyre was a signal to Wotan to burn Valhalla, kill all the gods and end the world. This also created staging headaches for directors who must manifest this apocalypse on stage in about four minutes of music.

In 1872, Wagner put the finishing touches on  He used the same style as in the third act of Siegfried, with "stacked" leitmotifs moving the story forward, overloading the ear at times and creating headaches for the conductors. The score of this opera is dense but utterly magnificent, with highlights including the Dawn duet from the long Prelude, Siegfried's Rhine Journey, the Funeral Music from Act III and the final Immolation Scene, which ends the world in the relatively sunny key of D Flat Major.

Now that the Ring was finished, the problems of staging the Ring were next. Wagner needed a theater, and after considering Munich and Nuremberg settled on the sleepy town of Bayreuth. After heroic fundraising efforts and a last-ditch appeal to his former patron Ludwig II, money was scraped together and the Bayreuth Festspielhaus was finally built. The four parts of the Ring premiered in 1876, launching the Bayreuth Festival, which only plays the operas of Richard Wagner and is still run by the composer's descendents today.

Here are the recommendations for recordings of the mighty Götterdämmerung. Since this opera is more about Brunnhilde than Siegfried, we've picked a selection of five really exceptional Brunnhildes...and one good Siegfried. Can't have everything.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Sir Georg Solti (Decca, 1962)
Well...maybe you can. This definitive studio recording of the Ring hits its peak with Götterdämmerung. The Vienna Philharmonic, to use its producer's words, "play like gods" for Georg Solti. Birgit Nilsson is in amazing form, as is Wolfgang Windgassen. Hagen and Gunther (the bad guys) are Gottlob Frick and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus cond. Karl Böhm (Decca/Philips 1967)
The Böhm recording made live at Bayreuth takes the Windgassen-Nilsson team and turns the heat up, thanks to the conductor's pedal-to-the-metal approach. A brisk and brilliantly played account in front of a live audience, which only adds to the electricity of this performance. Although this was the production where Wieland Wagner experimented with trimming off bits of his grandfather's score, this performance has no cuts.

Berlin Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon 1970)
Karajan's Ring comes to a harrowing close with this Götterdämmerung, featuring the powerful and underrated Brunnhilde of Helga Dernesch. Tenor Helge Brilloth is perfectly acceptable as Siegfried. Karl Ridderbusch is a subtle, insinuating Hagen, at his best in the long first act. Excellent.

Bayreuth Festival cond. Pierre Boulez (Philips, 1980)
There are three good reasons to hear the Pierre Boulez Ring. 1) Gwyneth Jones as Brunnhilde, sometimes variable but amazing in the last scene of this opera. Boulez himself, who brought a decade's experience at Bayreuth, a composer's ear and great clarity to the score, enabling one to hear the details of this work as never before. And you found a used or bargain priced copy of the vinyl or the CD, because this recording is out of print. It was also the first live Ring to be filmed complete and released on home video, and is worth purchasing on DVD.

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra cond. James Levine (DG, 1989)
James Levine was the man who made the Metropolitan Opera a center of pilgrimage for Wagnerians who wanted to see traditional stagings of the Ring without getting on the ten-year Bayreuth waiting list for tickets. This recording (made in association with the Met's superb Otto Schenck staging of the cycle) features the magnificent Met orchestra, the conductor's slpow but detail-oriented approach to the score, and the radiant Brunnhilde of Hildegard Behrens at her peak. Also, Matti Salminen is Hagen. There is no better singer for the part.

Gwyneth Jones as Brunnhilde in the final scene of the Pierre Boulez-conducted Götterdämmerung from Bayreuth. ©1981 Unitel/Philips and the Bayreuth Festspiele

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