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21.9.05

The Chéreau Ring Cycle - Götterdämmerung

available at Amazon
Centennial Ring, Götterdämmerung, Chéreau / Boulez
To be precise, Götterdämmerung undoubtedly presents a world in which no values exist any more… The world of Götterdämmerung is a world in which it is difficult for anyone to believe in anything any longer. The only possible refuge is the past… It is hard to avoid seeing Götterdämmerung as a succession of rituals maintained at all costs, celebrated by people in search of a religion or a morality who may now carry on this cult in order to cover up the absence of any divinity…
It’s a bit clunky, the way Chéreau (or possibly a translator) puts it, but it isn’t a fanciful reinterpretation that Chéreau offers, it is a strict adherence to Wagner’s text. Wotan’s spear has been broken and with it the law that held the world of the Ring – however imperfectly – together. The world ash tree was felled. The three Norns – vocally, a mixed bag ranging from impressive (Ortrune Wenkel) to glassy (Gabriele Schnaut) to slightly hollow (Katie Clarke) – weave their rope and reminisce more than they predict. When they try to tackle interesting questions, the rope tangles first, then snaps, leaving the Norns in a state of unknowing and darkness. The scene for Chéreau’s described moral chaos has been set.

At the end of Götterdämmerung’s prologue, Brian Large slowly zooms out from the Valkyrie’s rock, as Siegfried goes on his Rhine journey, until the picture is a small square in the middle of a black (TV) screen. First it brings out how tall the sets of Richard Peduzzi loom over the actors, who suddenly and oddly look oversized, nonetheless. But Large zooms out further yet (2001 Space Odyssey-style) so that Siegfried’s increasing distance is driven home even to the dimmest viewer. Similarly, he zooms in on Gunther’s palace on the Rhine, with its sleek, impossibly tall pillars of black stone. Unsubtle maybe, but effective and more imaginative than showing a closed curtain during the interlude. (In other scene changes, especially in Rheingold, he makes the most of utilizing the moving of the set constructions for dramatic purpose between scenes. At times the precise rolling out and coming in of building-parts has the look of a modern ballet.)

Gunther and Gutrune are decked out in dinner jacket and evening gown; half-brother Hagen mopes around unshaven in a shabby gray suit. (It immediately reminds us of Loge, who was similarly set apart from his demisiblings in Rheingold.) Fritz Hübner’s Hagen (fresh out of the worm-suit in Siegfried is an excellent fit for the character. Franz Mazura acts well but seems vocally underpowered, even though he really warms up after a while. Gutrune is marvelous to listen to and look at; a decadent kitten with pearl necklace and white satin gown with a chic perm, ca. 1880-1900. It’s Janine Altmeyer – our Sieglinde from Die Walküre. Her presence is cause for joy, but I can’t shake the notion of irony that Siegfried’s only non-aunt in the work is played by the singer who also played his mother (and aunt). Manfred Jung is a year younger and fresher in this 1979 production, and noticeably so. Out of place in the Maison Gibichung – and socially out of his waters – he stumbles into the trio’s 1/3 malevolent, 2/3 innocent trap. With Brünnhilde forgotten over drink, he dry-humps Gutrune before even knowing her name. Desperate palace wife that she is, she takes about half a minute to warm to it. Visually, the first two scenes of Act I are arresting because of their beauty and poignancy. If anything, it seems on the conservative side by my standards. Siegfried, for example, is still running around in armor with a sword. It surely beats lightsabers and football jerseys and should appeal across most ranges of Wagner tastes in 2005. We zoom out and back in to the Valkyrie rock, where Gwyneth Jones’s Brünnhilde and Gwendolyn Killbrew’s Waltraute exchange song and anguish before Siegfried arrives in Gunther’s form to drag the panicked ex-Valkyrie away to a marriage against her will and comprehension.

Also on Ionarts:

The Chéreau Ring Cycle — Siegfried (September 15, 2005)

The Chéreau Ring Cycle — Die Walküre (September 14, 2005)

Patrice Chéreau's New Film at the Mostra (September 8, 2005)

The Chéreau Ring Cycle — Das Rheingold (September 7, 2005)

Boulez Comes Down from the Green Hill for Good (September 5, 2005)

The Chéreau Ring Cycle - The Making of... (September 2, 2005)
If, in Act III of Siegfried you had been wondering just why the similarities between Wotan and Alberich were pointed out so bluntly, the prelude to act two of Götterdämmerung gives the answer. Just like Wotan had his (grand-) son to get him the Ring he can’t win for himself, so does his pendant, Alberich, have his son: Hagen, who is to do his bidding. Hermann Becht’s Alberich is a delight in any stage of this Ring.

“Zwei seelg’e Paare seh' ich hier prangen,” sings Gunther with delicious irony that does not escape the viewer or the crew of townsfolk or Hagen’s militia men as Brünnhilde hangs limp, bent, and unwilling on Gunther’s hand. Siegfried meanwhile, now also clad in a black dinner jacket, presents Gutrune like a proud cock or ballroom dancer before a foxtrot. He then proceeds to make out with her in front of the crowd – which dramatically absolutely nails a pause in Gunther’s singing (which is in the score). It’s moments like these that drive home the theatrical superiority of Chéreau’s Ring over all available competitors.

Gunther is visibly embarrassed during the revelations and accusations of his betrayed wife-to-be. He clearly never quite wanted it to turn out like that, but he is powerless, condemned to watching the scene unfold. Hagen revels in the dirt, hatred, and spite, and Brünnhilde becomes a wholly sympathetic character. If Hagen were not so busy plotting deceit and murder in the guise of honor, he’d probably try to sell used cars to the Wälsungs or go door to door in Niebelheim, praising the advantages of the vacuum cleaners he has on offer. In short: he’s delightfully disgusting, shady, and believable.

The setting of the first scene of Act III, where Siegfried has chased his game to and where his murder is going to take place, is the hydroelectric dam that opened Rheingold. It is now shut down and rusting away, with three Rhinemaidens who are not quite the attractive vixens they once used to be, either. We have come full circle – or rather we would be offered the opportunity to come full circle to a good end if only Siegfried gave back the Ring. But the Rhinemaiden’s warning sounds like a threat to proud Siegfried, and our hero would never bow to threats, after all. For a triple-maiden-tryst he might have… but what point does appealing to fear have when dealing with someone who has still not learned what fear is?

Not only Hagen, but Gunther’s character, too, continues to convince entirely. His unease with the entire situation and his agreement to Siegfried’s murder turns him into a Pontius Pilate of The Ring. When Siegfried spills the wine that represents their blood (and blood-brotherhood) over Gunther’s hands, Gunther stares onto his hands with disgust and guilt until it is washed off entirely. Again, this is not an interpretive figment of Chéreau’s imagination but comes straight from the text. The advantage of subtitles on the screen makes many scenes clearer and unearths the libretto’s nuances in ways that reading along to the opera never quite does with all the reading ahead – listening – reading ahead that usually occurs when following a recording from the libretto.

In true heroic tenor style, Jung sings for another five minutes after being run through with a spear three times by Hagen. The following funeral march is another orchestral highlight of this Ring. About the staging of the funeral march, Boulez has the following to say:
The reason for the funeral march is quite simply to enable Siegfried’s corpse to be removed… Since a literal presentation is impossible, some style of threnody has to be sought. The spectators have to be given the task of participating in this imaginary ritual in the presence of Siegfried’s corpse, which has been left behind, still lying on stage. The complete inactivity can then lead to general mourning. Through the orchestral utterance the spectators themselves become the Greek chorus, of which Wagner speaks, and in which no kind of trivial illusion stands in the way of the absolute illusion.
(My point exactly.) For the third scene of the third act, we are back at the mooring near the Gibichung palace with the late-19th-century style apartment complex to the right – a sight that gives a momentary West Side Story flavor to Götterdämmerung, thanks to the rickety fire escapes on the outside of the buildings. The finale of Götterdämmerung is simply overwhelming, if mainly because of the music that contains, in some ways, the entire Ring in less than five minutes. To the sight of burning Walhall and the then dissipating flames and the billowing smoke, the chorus alone is left on stage. The music shimmers away while the faces of the chorus turn slowly to the audience as they stand back up… all in a move that questions and underscores the ambiguous end of The Ring.

This Götterdämmerung is a tremendous experience and with staging and exemplary acting (Fritz Hübner / Hagen, Franz Mazura / Gunther) what they are, it is second only to the brilliant Rheingold in this tetralogy. Even with allowances for a few less than ideal vocal contributions, as an audio/visual experience the centennial Ring is a phenomenal achievement that, in some ways, may be more convincing to more people now than it was at the time of its creation.

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