In the normal course of events, Götterdämmerung should be the dramatic and musical culmination of the 15 hours which make up Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen. Regrettably this was not the case at the Semperoper Dresden. A distracting and often textually incongruent production was the most obvious problem, but uneven casting and curiously inconsistent musical direction from the Staatskapelle Dresden’s wunderkind conductor Christian Thielemann resulted in what should have been an incandescent cosmic ruination reduced to a spluttering campfire.

Monika Bohinec, Simone Schröder and Christiane Kohl (Norns) © Klaus Gigga
Monika Bohinec, Simone Schröder and Christiane Kohl (Norns)
© Klaus Gigga

Throughout the cycle, stage designer Wolfgang Gussman had a perplexing preoccupation with theatre seats, chairs, boxes, balls and bald women. Director Willy Decker was not entirely bereft of original ideas but they were too often subsumed by a wanton disregard for Wagner’s specific stage directions and dramaturgical imperatives. It was a cute conceit to have the Gibich’s as social gadflies with a penchant for Dom Perignon. Gutrune is not exactly an anonymous alcoholic. Although Frank Castorf’s Ring in Bayreuth intimated as much, Decker went further in making incest not just the prerogative of the Wälsungs. Intra-sibling fornication is clearly rife in Gibichung Hall and Gutrune not only has touchy-feelies with brother Gunther but also wild sex with step-brother Hagen.

On the debit side, Wotan in Wanderer form unaccountably ambles by to watch Siegfried die then returns to hear Brünnhilde sing “O ihr, der Eide ewige Hüter!”, picking up Nothung on the way home. This not only contradicts Waltraute’s description of the alpha god sitting morose and mute in Valhalla waiting for its inevitable destruction, but also the need for ravens to relay the bad tidings, since Wotan has already heard them. The dead Siegfried doesn’t spookily raise his arm when Hagen tries to grab the ring from his finger but remains in a state of rigor mortis. Decker’s final aberration was having Gutrune mortally spear Hagen instead of the despicable demi-dwarf suffering a watery demise at the hands and fins of the Rhine daughters. The cataclysmic immolation of Valhalla was more like a mild toasting as the gods from Das Rheingold reclined in the ubiquitous theatre seats which turned semi-scarlet.

With few exceptions, the singing was similarly parboiled. The sextet of Norns and Rhine maidens were competent without being outstanding although first string-weaver Monika Bohinec had some hefty low B flats. Albert Dohmen continued his Machiavellian Alberich with vocal security but dramatic detachment. Christa Mayer won a Ring trifecta with an impassioned Waltraute, although Fricka was probably her most successful incarnation. Looking dapper in a grey dinner jacket, Gunther was lugubriously sung by Martin Gantner. As his incestuous dipsomaniac sister, Edith Haller was a convincing Gutrune with Brünnhilde-worthy top notes.

Stephen Milling (Hagen) and Albert Dohmen (Alberich) © Klaus Gigga
Stephen Milling (Hagen) and Albert Dohmen (Alberich)
© Klaus Gigga

Stephen Milling was the personification of evil as the happiness-hating Hagen, and although slightly pushed in the upper tessitura, refulgent in the middle and lower registers. The chorus of Gibichungs was excellent. Andreas Schager is renowned for his spectacular top notes and Siegfried was true to form with a galaxy of dazzling high B and C naturals. The “Mime, hieß ein mürrischer Zwerg” narration was full of intelligent word colouring and Siegfried’s dying “Brünnhilde! Heilige Braut!” admirable for its sustained legato and sensitive phrasing.

Having sung the first two Brünnhildes, Petra Lang lacked Birgit Nilsson’s resilience and her voice was clearly starting to wear thin. She was dramatically much better as the impetuous Walküre Brünnhilde than the all-knowing redemptress in Götterdämmerung. When angry, Lang’s facial expression was limited to an Ortrud-esque slit-eyed basilisk stare, resembling a querulous Queenie in “Blackadder”. “Heil'ge Götter, himmlische Lenker!” was vibrato heavy, the sustained A flat on “Götter” short of breath and trilling lacked precision. The biggest disappointment however was the celebrated Immolation scene where Lang failed to exhibit the requisite dramatic gravitas or vocal fortitude. The voice had clearly run out of steam, like the flickering embers behind.

Andreas Schager (Siegfried) and Petra Lang (Brünnhilde) © Klaus Gigga
Andreas Schager (Siegfried) and Petra Lang (Brünnhilde)
© Klaus Gigga

Perhaps in deference to his flagging soprano, Thielemann kept the normally vociferous Staatskapelle Dresden orchestra often subdued. Overall tempi were closer to Herbert von Karajan’s deliberate and sometimes lethargic readings, especially in the Renunciation motif. The clarinet’s articulation of the mature Brünnhilde theme was not as mellifluous as before and there were a lot more fluffed horn entries. In the lower strings, cellos were luxuriant but the reduction of double basses from eight to six was noticeable. The orgasmic Transformation motif, first sung by Sieglinde in Act 3 of Die Walküre which should be the absolute apogee of sumptuous string playing, was almost vapid. Admittedly the Dresden musicians relished the solo orchestral passages and the fortissimi in Siegfried’s Funeral March were loud enough to awaken a battalion of fallen heroes.

All in all, this was a regrettably lacklustre conclusion to Wagner’s epic operatic masterpiece. One can’t incinerate Valhalla with a Bunsen burner.