The final episode of Sven-Eric Bechtholf’s production of Wagner’s Ring, Götterdämmerung, is set like the previous instalments in an abstract world conjured up out of simple geometrical set elements and effective lighting by the Glittenbergs, whose vision of the world of Wotan seems to reflect the world-between-the-worlds of airport waiting rooms, hotel lobbies and the entrance halls of large corporate buildings. Within these spaces, characters in similarly abstract costumes move slowly about their mysterious affairs, punctuated by flashing lights, vivid projections of fire and flood, and the compelling music rising from the pit.

Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

This performance was conducted by Jeffrey Tate, who at 71 has the energy and force of a man 20 years younger, but even he found the two-hour length of the first act overwhelming, and had to be helped down from the podium and out of the orchestra pit. The first act moved slowly, with Zoryana Kushpler, Stephanie Houtzeel and Ildikó Raimondi as the three Norns weaving their thread of life among the trunks of a thicket of small firs, producing a cat’s cradle to show the tangled skein of human affairs. Siegfried takes bewildering farewell to Brünnhilde – they’ve just met, and already he’s off on his adventures – leading to a leisurely trip down the Rhine. Stephen Gould, the American heldentenor, said in an interview that he used to think Tannhäuser’s character was more suited to him than Siegfried’s (he has sung the role at Bayreuth), but he made Siegfried as convincing as he can be. The hero starts the opera heedless and unthinking, then loses his mind entirely, only to regain his self-knowledge and his memory in the moment of his death.

It was Nina Stemme, however, whose performance the audience had most keenly anticipated. She has recently been named (by International Opera Awards) the world’s leading female singer, and her Brünnhilde in this Vienna Ring production, in which she has sung since it opened in 2008 when she replaced Deborah Voigt, has had the finest reviews recently given to a singer of this role. From the start of Götterdämmerung she commanded the stage both physically and vocally: now just turned fifty, she still has the youthful figure and bloomy voice she had in thirties, with a promise in the first act of the stamina she would need to draw on in the third.

Her dialogue with Siegfried brought out the best in both voices, clearly pacing themselves for the five-and-a-half-hour haul, but still giving strength and colour to Wagner’s lines.

Stephen Gould (Siegfried) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Stephen Gould (Siegfried)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

Attila Jun as Hagen was a revelation: the Korean bass has a blackness and bleakness of sound that chills the heart, while his stage presence evokes another Attila entirely. He has a quality of motionless menace that affects the whole auditorium, and the sheer weight and depth of his voice work in conjunction with the lower orchestral instruments to provoke fear and terror. In Act II, his summoning of the Gibichung, “Hoiho, Hoihohohoho Ihr Gibichsmannen” and the cries of woe that follow were equally stark and haunting, making out of what is almost a monotone a dramatic declamation to match any melodic line. With such an opponent, one felt, even a brave, bold-hearted Siegfried stood little chance, however wimpish and ineffectual Gunther and his men might be. Jochen Schmeckenbecher as Alberich wove his spells around his son Hagen, and brought out the subtle, wheedling menace of the older dwarf without falling into caricature or exaggeration.

A green curtain of glass, flown to half the depth of the stage as a kind of French flat, stood in for the Rhine in all its manifestations, and this dominated the last act of this production. On the channel of the river, boats floated, and it was here that Siegfried returned to his senses, told the story of his adventures up until his discovery of the sleeping Brünnhilde, and then suffered death at spear-point. With his body borne in procession in one of these boats, like a Viking funeral, the music of the funeral march progressed at a stately pace under Jeffrey Tate’s baton, and brought out the huge emotional overburden of the opera, not just in the music itself but in the history of its performances during the years of the last century.

After this march, all – all! – that is left is for Brünnhilde to say her farewell. The wooden horse who had accompanied her (with matching horses for her sisters) in Die Walküre returned to lead her to the funeral pyre, and the pyrotechnics of the magic fire came back with equal effectiveness, as the swimming-capped Rhinemaidens superintended the return of the ring to the bed of the Rhine, and as Hagen plunged hopelessly after it. But all this business went by the board: Stemme’s glorious performance of the Immolation was one of the most wonderful things I have heard in my opera-going life, and will stay with me, I hope, for the rest of it.