As the year of Wagner’s bicentennial approaches its end, De Nederlandse Opera concludes its latest revival of Pierre Audi’s Ring cycle with his 1998 production of Götterdämmerung.

Kurt Rydl (Hagen), Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde), Choir of De Nederlandse Opera © Marco Borggreve
Kurt Rydl (Hagen), Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde), Choir of De Nederlandse Opera
© Marco Borggreve

Visually, it is a very impressive production. The unique set, conceived by George Tsypin, is a colossal half-cylindrical construction of steel and wood, with a rectangular stone beam hanging in mid-air. The stage’s glass floor extends forward, at the front of the proscenium, into a half-circular wooden walkway that surrounds the orchestra, which sits on the stage, visible to the public. Throughout the performance, soloists take position at the edge of this walkway that brings them in front of the orchestra, and almost within reach of the audience of the front rows. They wear costumes designed by Eiko Ishioka, whose clean lines fit the minimalist staging.

The lighting by Wolfgang Göbbel and Cor van den Brink brings this atemporal and abstract set to life, transforming the stage to suggest, more than represent, various locations, scene after scene: Brünnhilde’s rock at dawn, the brightly lit hall of the Gibichungs, the deep waters of the Rhine, or Valhalla in flames. Whilst the staging is suggestive and leaves a lot up to the viewer’s own fantasy, the overall effect is always spectacular and the occasionally very close interaction of singers with the audience makes it an unusually intimate musical theatre experience.

Placed literally at the centre of the stage, the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Hartmut Haenchen (a part of this Ring since 1997), played beautifully, with sounds almost transparent even in the loudest outburst. They deservedly received loud applause from the audience at the end of the performance. Despite the famous length of the opera, I found the conductor sustained the dramatic tension throughout, so that time seemed to pass quickly.

Stephen Gould, as the hero Siegfried, compensated unsubtle acting and a somewhat clumsy stage presence with unflagging, powerful singing throughout the performance. And it isn’t difficult to understand why Catherine Foster has become a much sought-after Brünnhilde in opera houses around Europe. Her voice is well-projected with beautiful high notes that easily cut through the orchestra. I found that she was at her best in Act II, when Brünnhilde discovers her lover’s deceit, and in her final immolation scene. It is, however, Kurt Rydl’s vicious and menacing Hagen that made the biggest impression. The veteran bass seemed to totally inhabit his Machiavellian, dangerous character, and gave a truly compelling performance. His voice might sometimes uncover too slow a vibrato when pressured, but as he stood at the edge of the stage with his neurotic gaze fixed onto the audience, he truly made one’s blood run cold.

Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester (Gunther) and Astrid Weber (Gutrune) were dramatically strong as the interestingly incestuous pair of Gibichung siblings. Michaela Schuster’s rich mezzo-soprano brought both a moving and fiery dignity to the all-too-short role of Waltraute, Brünnhilde’s Valkyrie sister.

Producing Wagner’s Ring cycle is a tremendous undertaking for any opera company. Since it first opened to critical acclaim during the 1997–98 season, Pierre Audi and Harmut Haenchen’s Ring has become a kind of signature production for De Nederlandse Opera. It has noticeably been captured (with a different cast) both on CD and on DVD during previous revivals. Götterdämmerung is being performed until 30 November, and the company will stage this whole cycle again in January/February 2014 – for the very last time. I would urge any opera lover having the chance to attend a performance. The company will also change name in February to become Dutch National Opera, following a budget-driven merger with Dutch National Ballet and The Amsterdam Music Theatre. It is as if a page of this company’s history is turning.

****1