“Götterdämmerung” makes an electrifying climax to Houston Grand Opera’s high-tech Ring cycle

Mon Apr 24, 2017 at 2:13 pm
By Steven Brown

Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung” at Houston Grand Opera. Photo: Lynn Lane

Houston Grand Opera’s first production of the complete  The Ring of the Nibelung no doubt lost some cumulative impact because of being spread out across four seasons.

But as Götterdämmerung’s first performance unfolded Saturday night, it still generated the electricity of a true climax to the cycle–and not merely because Valhalla’s apocalypse was at hand. Theatrically and musically, Götterdämmerung put the preceding three dramas in the shade–or maybe one should say, in the twilight.

The staging by the Spanish theatrical company La Fura dels Baus, brought fresh impact to the multimedia ingredients that have been the calling card of this Houston Ring. As the Norns, suspended in midair, spun their cord of destiny, it enveloped them: The rope they held linked up with much more that floated in the three-dimensional video screens that nearly filled the stage behind them, and with still more that was projected onto the scrim in front. With the crucial cord drifting limply in space, no wonder the world situation was such a tangle. Those massive video screens moved around the stage continually during the opera, as they have throughout the Ring, to create new vistas and mix live action with taped imagery. (Shortly before the end of Act 1, one screen switched from Aleu’s video to a software company’s logo. But everything went smoothly after that.) 

Transplanting Hagen and the Gibichungs into the world of modern-day commerce, designer Franc Aleu’s video sometimes surrounded Hagen with massive industrial operations bristling with towers and conduits. The vistas bore a family resemblance to those of real-life oil refineries outside of Houston — not that La Fura and director Carlus Padrissa, who designed the production before HGO signed up for the U.S. premiere, could have anticipated that. Maybe that serendipity reflects the timelessness of Richard Wagner’s vision.

When it came to Wagner’s timeless music, HGO’s cast tapped directly into its drama and emotion.

Soprano Christine Goerke, who has portrayed Brünnhilde ever since Die Walküre, brought Wagner’s music a passion and vividness she had only hinted at until now. After sounding ample but unfocused in the prologue’s love duet with Siegfried, her voice took hold in the Act 1 scene with Waltraute. It conveyed hesitance and questioning as Brünnhilde awaited Waltraute’s story, then flashed with scorn as she refused to give up the ring. And Goerke’s singing kept gaining color, vibrancy and abandon throughout the long evening.

When Brünnhilde swore on Hagen’s spear-tip that Siegfried had betrayed her, Goerke’s voice rang out with as much brilliance and clarity as the orchestral trumpet that traded outcries with her. A couple of the Immolation Scene’s highest notes may not have rung out at their true pitches, but the apocalyptic impact registered nevertheless. And amid all that, Goerke also brought out Brünnhilde’s humanity as the victim of forces beyond her control. When she sang, “Alles weiss ich” — I know everything — it was hushed and almost conversational, revealing that she was resigned to her fate.

As Siegfried, tenor Simon O’Neill also hit his stride vocally after the prologue’s duet. But once he did, his voice’s brilliance and bite exuded Siegfried’s vigor. O’Neill filled Siegfried’s story-of-my-life monologue in Act 3 — which turns out to be his last glimpse of glory — with swagger and confidence. After Hagen literally stabbed Siegfried in the back, O’Neill delivered Siegfried’s last vision of Brünnhilde in tones that showed the thwarted hero’s waning strength ebbing.

The central couple was surrounded by compelling portrayals. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, a powerful Fricka earlier in the Ring, made an equally formidable Waltraute. Not only did her voice well up commandingly when her monologue foreshadowed the final catastrophe, but she brought weight and intensity even to the quietest moments. Playing the Second Norn in the opening scene evidently warmed her up well.

Bass Andrea Silvestrelli created a virtual tone-painting of Hagen’s villainy through his snarling, booming voice. But when Hagen reminded Gutrune that one of her potions would work on Siegfried, Silvestrelli went the other way, singing quietly and insidiously into her ear.

In one scene as Hagen’s equally black-hearted father Alberich, baritone Christopher Purves was all but immobile, suspended above Hagen’s head. Yet his singing alone seized attention. He heightened his voice’s innate ring and impact by veering into a growl at pivotal moments. Each time he asked, “Are you asleep, Hagen?” he gave the question a different inflection.

Can a healthy, red-blooded voice be too much of a good thing? Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny’s Gunther sounded almost too masculine for a character who’s mocked as a coward. But Gunther’s cries of despair firmly registered. As Gutrune, soprano Heidi Melton — who doubled as the Third Norn — came into her own in the final scene. Her voice ranged from hushed foreboding to outcry as Gutrune realized what Hagen’s plot meant to her.

Andrea Carroll, Catherine Martin and Renee Tatum made a mellifluous Rhinemaiden trio. As the Third Norn, contralto Meredith Arwady sounded alsmost like a basso profundo as she plumbed the vocal depths. The men of the Houston Grand Opera Chorus sang lustily as Hagen’s vassals.

Costume designer Chu Uroz reinforced the hungry-for-money message by decking out Hagen and Gunther in business suits spangled with the likes of Euro and Japanese yen symbols. Hagen’s vassals wore matching blue suits, like cookie-cutter cogs in the corporate machine. The back of Gutrune’s costume held a graphic of a jewel, telegraphing her greedy nature. When Hagen and company lured Siegfried into their plot to capture the golden ring — pouring the potion from a champagne bottle — he also landed in a business suit, chafing at first.

La Fura’s steel boat, held aloft on mechanical arms, took Siegfried on his Rhine Journey and bring Gunther home with his unwilling bride, Brünnhilde.

But Götterdämmerung also brought back theatrical motifs that had been out of sight for a while. The Rhinemaidens again splashed and flirted in their individual, translucent water tanks. As the final conflagration began, the video screens and their flames parted to reveal Valhalla as incarnated in Das Rheingold by 30 aerialists suspended in formation. This time, they splayed apart as the gods’ fortress disintegrated. The screens ultimately came together again, and tongues of fire made up the Ring’s final image.

The Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, led by conductor Patrick Summers, treated Wagner to its most vivid, evocative playing of the entire Ring. In the Prologue’s description of daybreak, just before the love duet, the strings’ suave turns of phrase signaled that the lead character’s burgeoning romance. But Summer fitted moments like those into a performance that was about as sweeping and propulsive as Götterdämmerung can be, clocking in at about 5 hours and 10 minutes.

The orchestra had the fluidity to heighten the Rhinemaidens’ singing, the forcefulness to magnify Hagen’s venom, and the fullness and heft to amplify Brünnhilde’s furies. And as the final phrases unfolded, the musical lyricism suggested that there just might be hope for a better future once the fires burn out.

Götterdämmerung runs through May 7. hgo.org; 713-228-6737.

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