Simply put, the final episode of Wagner’s the Ring cycle, Twilight of the Gods is painful, even though we knew it was coming. Disappointment follows disappointment. The strands of fate unravel; our heroine is betrayed; and, our hero is drugged and led to his destruction. Each hope for reversing the inevitable apocalypse is thwarted by man’s and woman’s selfish disregard for the greater good, even as they are manipulated by more evil men. As the known order goes up in flames, Brunnhilde’s redemptive self-immolation returns the Ring (and thereby the Rhinegold) to the care of the Rhinemaidens, and we are left with hope as a new Ash Tree is planted… but has mankind changed? Noah had the same problem after the flood, did he not…do we not? And disturbingly, for the community of the Ring and our own world, Alberich, the evil one, survives. The message of the Ring has been sent to each of us. At the end, Brunnhilde understands and says that she knows all. Like her, we now know all, but will the knowledge rule our actions?
The salve, even the intoxicant, for the sadness of the last installment was again provided by the magnificent play of the orchestra led by Phillipe Auguin. I’m wondering when my brain will stop replaying the leitmotifs. If there were a best acting award for operas, this orchestra would be nominated. Other especially bright spots for me included getting to hear Jamie Barton sing for the first time. She played both one of the Norns to begin the opera and Waltraute, a Valkyrie sister, who pleads with Brunnhilde to return the Ring. She is a rising star who has a clear, bright, strong voice that I hope to hear again in person. Catherine Foster proved again to be a formidable Brunnhilde, even playing injured. Daniel Brenna, who was a mild disappointment to me in Siegfried, rose to star status in his chance meeting with the Rhinemaidens and in his death scene, singing with power and emotion. New players, Eric Halfvarson (Hagen), Ryan Mckinny (Gunther), and Melissa Citro (Gutrune) all had appropriate voices and sang well. There was some amusing cleverness in staging. The Norns are connecting computer of fate cables instead of weaving the thread of fate. The opening of the dream sequence where Alberich visits Hagen begins with a see-through screen between the actors and the audience upon which images are shown. Hagen picks up a remote control and when he clicks it, the image on the screen changes; it becomes obvious that he and Gutrune are watching tv, and we are watching them. For the most part the use of images on the stage-encompassing screen worked well.
And of course, there were some aspects that didn’t work for me. Going for comic relief in such a serious drama can seem out of place. Such was the case for me of Gutrune being played as a valley girl. And some inconsistencies may have been caused by Catherine Foster’s injury; she hobbles off one corner of the stage out of sight some distance from where Siegfried was dropped out of sight and we imagine she must have had to circle back to jump on the fire, but small matter. All of my complaints are tiny compared to the overall outstanding production we were given.
There were a few extras worth noting: two alpenhorns were played in the Great Hall fifteen minutes before the opera began; I saw these impressive ten-foot long horns played once before, on a vacation in Zermatt, Switzerland. Right after the opera, there was a 30 min discussion period with Cranna and Zambello along with singers Barton, Hawkins, Foster, Brenna, and Citro. It is noteworthy that Foster had on a foot to knee orthopedic protective boot and admitted she had needed to take painkillers earlier in the day. Zambello reported that this version of the Ring will be given again by the San Francisco Opera in June 2018. Let me know if you hear of ticket sales before I do.
Anne Midgette's review in the Washington Post provides a good overview of and mainly laudatory comments for this last installment, and of the overall DC American Ring. I think it is somewhat restrained perhaps for the same reason my comments are; after so much greatness, it starts to be expected. Let's hope WNO can build on this outstanding success.
I will give Cranna, the San Francisco Opera dramaturg, the final word. He retold a joke that goes like this: there are three types of psychoses - paranoia, schizophrenia, and opera. Wagner’s Ring has caused more than its share of the latter; there were even a number of audience members wearing the traditional Viking helmet.