The last opera of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Götterdämmerung, is a monumental piece with complex musical motifs that summarizes and enhances the previous three operas of the cycle.  The first act itself is two hours long, and this evening in Vienna there were some changes of players in the string section after the first act.  Despite the scale and length of the opera, Sir Simon Rattle chose to treat it as a series of chamber pieces, a decision that was most revealing and intriguing. The series of intimate and detailed scenes of singing alternated with fast paced orchestral passages throughout, and the hours passed with not a dull moment.  With a fine cast of singers, it was a memorable evening with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra at its best.

The staging was simple and mostly bare.  A large paned wall at the back of the stage in Acts 1 and 3 was sometimes lowered to create a more intimate space and show action in the background, as when Alberich lurked behind it during Hagen’s soliloquy in Act 1.  Green and red lights were used to light up the wall to enhance the drama.  Act 2 had a more closed atmosphere with two slanted walls for the Gibichung hall.  What little props there were included small trees in the back of Brünnhilde’s rock, benches on stage and a statue of a white horse (Grane).  A dark screen was lowered during Siegfried’s Rhine journey and his funeral march to allow the audience to concentrate on the music.

Sir Simon began the Act 1 Norn scene and Siegfried/Brunnhilde’s duet at a measured pace, but the orchestral passage following the pair’s farewell quickly gained speed and momentum.  Through superb volume control, each and every minute nuance of the strings was seemingly clearly and delightfully articulated.  Brass sections occasionally showed delicate modulation.  Singers were well supported by a quiet orchestra and slow tempo to enunciate every word.  When the orchestra was let loose, as was the case with Hagen’s horn call in Act 2 and the fall of Valhalla in Act 3, the quickened tempo and large volume were nevertheless held under superb control. The music kept flowing seamlessly and flawlessly.  I doubt that any other orchestra could have responded to such a demanding interpretation as this orchestra did with seeming ease.

Male soloists greatly contributed to the success of the performance.  Stephen Gould was not only his usual champion of endurance and stamina, but his voice had an enhanced beauty and nuance.  Gould, as well as other singers, seem to have benefitted from fresh and insightful direction, and he was an unusually sympathetic and thoughtful Siegfried; his soft singing was just as effective as his clarion tenor.  Falk Struckmann, an acclaimed Wotan, was now taking on “lower” Wagnerian bass baritone roles.  His Hagen may not fit a conventional notion of a “dark” and “deep” voiced one, but it was an intriguing performance.  His solid high notes coupled with his more youthful baritonal timbre was effective in his scene with his father Alberich, with Richard Paul Fink’s deeper and more fine grained bass baritone. His Hagen was both a seemingly caring half-brother to Gunther and Gutrune as well as an outwardly sympathetic ally of Brünnhilde.  Struckmann’s voice was clearly audible throughout the registers, and he was vocally and physically dominant in the horn call scene.

Evelyn Herlitzius brought her fine physicality to portray a highly-strung and sometimes demented Brünnhilde.   Hers was not a particularly beautiful or warm voice, but was even throughout the range, with no register break.  The high notes were produced cleanly and on pitch.  Her immolation scene did not erase memories of many a fine Brünnhilde of the past and present, but was sung solidly and thoughtfully.  Boaz Daniel, as a fine Gunther, was a strong third voice in the vengeance trio of Act 2.  Caroline Wenborne’s Gutrune was vocally a little unsettled at first but she otherwise sang well the role of an unwitting and guilt-racked foil to Hagen’s plot.  It was an interesting directorial touch that Hagen and not Gutrune doctored Siegfried’s drink in Act 1 so Siegfried would lose memory of Brunnhilde.  

The three Norns and Rhinemaidens were well sung and directed, with Ildiko Raimondi as the Third Norn and Ulrike Helzel as Wellgunde making strong impressions.  Anne Sofie von Otter, taking on a Wagnerian role late in her career, was unfortunately underpowered as Waltraute despite her fine vocal acting. 

The end of The Ring, the immolation scene and the fall of Valhalla that follows, is one of the most difficult scenes to produce, as the music so explicitly depicts the action.  Vienna’s solution in the current production was not only successful in solving the issue but was quite moving.  As the screen in front of the stage projected a ring of fire that engulfed Brünnhilde with Siegfried’s body accompanied by Grane (all lowered below stage) followed by a projection of waves to depict the Rhine, with another burst of fire music a platform was raised with a figure of Wotan with his helmet and a broken spear.  At first the figure had his back to the audience, but as the platform was lowered with the image of fire on screen this time surrounding Wotan, the figure now faced the audience, as if to say “now you witness my end!”  With that, the stage gradually darkened and the audience remained silent for many long seconds after the last of the music floated off in the air.