Thursday, July 7, 2011


“This will stick with you. This will mark you. You will judge everything else by it.” –overheard conversation in the audience, after the finish of Götterdämmerung

Götterdämmerung, as performed by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, was unlike anything I have ever seen before. Movies, popular music, the other Ring operas, all other media… nothing comes close.

The music was fantastic, but since I am a musical/opera dullard compared to most of the theatergoers, the things I noticed most tended to be set design. Here are some notes I jotted down in the back of the program during the intermissions.

The production wasn’t set in a classical Valhalla world, but in a sort of updated American version of that world that reminded me of 1905 Chicago. The story is multigenerational over the four operas, so by the start of Götterdämmerung, we’ve made it to the Internet. The Norn, the daughers of earth goddess Erda who weave the rope of fate, were instead connecting cables inside the Internet. A cable breaks and they descend, in terror, to Erda.

I thought the design of the Gibichungs’ penthouse was inspired. Containing a sleek, modern bar and an expensive white couch, with pillows and barstools made of faux-leopard skin (and with a huge steel framework of windows and doors), the room did a great job of telling us about these people. They are the kind of rich people who have everything material, but nothing else.

There was not a single dull moment in Act II. I think that was my single favorite act of the entire Ring Cycle.

When Hagen calls together the vassals, about 70 black-clad men came onstage, the first chorus in the entire Ring. The scale of it was just incredible. They brought out all these vassals and another 30 or so maidens. The vassals were dressed in sort of standard goon fare—police armor, black clothing and so forth—which put an interesting spin on their vocal parts. It’s nice to see people dressed like that getting a voice for a change, and they also get a little characterization. They’re totally loyal to Gunther and zealous about it; they want nothing more than to protect him.

The fact that the double wedding/betrayal/counter-betrayal scene takes place in front of all the vassals also raises the stakes considerably. It’s not just Gunther’s personal sense of honor that’s at stake here, it’s his honor as witnessed by his entire kingdom. That gives enormous force to the accusations. There’s a lot to be lost or won here.

Hagen’s music is so damn evil! It’s just so black and brooding and dreadful, and Hagen himself is a complete villain!

And Brünnhilde… WHOA. This was Nina Stemme’s debut performance as Brünnhilde, and she absolutely nailed it. She has an incredible voice and the range to sing everything, but just as importantly, she can act as well. Brünnhilde is supposed to think that Siegfried is betraying her in the double-marriage scene, and she is pissed. And I’ve never seen a character in any medium sell anger this well. I was genuinely scared all the way back in the seats. You could see it in her face and body language and hear it in her voice. She absolutely sold the anger.

And the bitch of it is, they’re both right (in a way). Siegfried and Brünnhilde are arguing over two different topics,

Siegfried’s scene at the end of the first act, where he pretends to be Gunther to win Brünnhilde for Siegfried, was masterfully creepy. In this production, the Tarnhelm was a piece of chain mail instead of a helmet that Siegfried covered his face with, and it was incredibly creepy. He even changed his voice, sounding deeper and more menacing. 

The one other thing in the production that really worked were the anachronisms. The court of the Gibichungs was a more militaristic one than the original, and the guards mostly sported automatic rifles... but some had crossbows. When Siegfried goes hunting, he takes his sword Nothung and a M-16. There were a lot of wonderful anachronisms like that in the operas that made me smile (notably in Siegfried, where Mime and Sigfried live in a trailer park and forge Nothung in a jumped-up barbecue). 

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