Götterdämmerung, Washington National Opera (Concert Performance, November 15, 2009)

Well Wrought Götterdämmerung

Highlights of the Washington National Opera’s second, November 15, and final concert version of Götterdämmerung at the Kennedy Center Opera House included an improved Siegfried, a more vibrant Waltraute and Gutrune, and another memorable performance by the Hagen, Gidon Saks.

At the earlier performance, on November 7, tenor Jon Fredric West, Siegfried, sang loudly and shouted parts of his final, “Brünnhild, heilige Braut!”, monologue. During the repeat performance, West modulated his voice so there were lyrically tender passages in the monologue and the narrative that precedes it. He also sang the final monologue without any hints of vocal strain.

Götterdämmerung (concert performance, Washington National Opera), 15 November, 2009 (second concert)

Siegfried Jon Fredric West
Brünnhilde Iréne Theorin
Gunther Alan Held
Hagen Gidon Saks
Alberich Gordon Hawkins
Gutrune Bernadette Flaitz
Waltraute Elizabeth Bishop
1st Norn Fredrika Brillembourg
2nd Norn Elizabeth Bishop
3rd Norn Carter Scott
Flosshilde Fredrika Brillembourg
Woglinde Jennifer Lynn Waters
Wellgunde Brandy Lynn Hawkins

Also performed 7 November.

West portrays the character as a country bumpkin, recalling the American cartoon character, Li’l Abner, comedian Anna Russell evoked in her Ring parody. Indeed, some in the audience chuckled audibly at West’s antics. “Siegfried is so stupid, so you can’t help but laugh,” someone sitting next to me said at intermission.

Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop, Waltraute, sang more mellifluously during the second performance and was thus more a persuasive counterpart to Iréne Theorin’s Brünnhilde during the lengthy Act One confrontation between the two sisters. Bernadette Flaitz, Gutrune, also delivered a richer, more dramatically convincing performance, her dusky soprano conveying the character’s bewilderment and anguish.

The final reconciliation between Gutrune and Brünnhilde, just before the “Starke Scheite”, may seem novel action to those familiar with Wagner’s plot but a similar reconciliation occurs during the Copenhagen Ring, which featured Theorin as Brünnhilde.

The soprano starred in eight performances of Ariadne auf Naxos and the two Götterdämmerungs in the last three weeks with the Washington National Opera and understandably was not as vocally powerful during this second Götterdämmerung performance, her high notes less gleaming than before. However, when Theorin made her curtain call the audience collectively jumped to its feet to roar its acclaim for their Brünnhilde.

Theorin is appearing as Elektra next summer in Salzburg, opposite two other acclaimed Wagner singers, Waltraud Meier (Clytemnestra) and Eva-Maria Westbroek (Chrysothemis), performances apt to be worth savoring.

Bass-baritone Gidon Saks’ work in the Wagnerian repertory was recognized as early as 1994, when he appeared as the comic antagonist, Brighella, in the Wexford Festival’s Das Liebesverbot. Although Saks has sung Wagner roles with other companies, including Daland in Der Fliegende Holländer in Washington in 2008, and Hunding and the Siegfried Fafner in recent staged Ring performances here, his vocally powerful, cunning, nuanced Hagen in these concert Götterdämmerungs may help propel Saks to greater international renown.

Unlike the earlier performance, when “Zurück vom Ring” was inaudible because the singer was backstage, Saks briefly appeared at the left side of the stage to sing the Ring’s final words. But since a surtitle did not flash above the stage, those unfamiliar with the opera’s plot may not have understood Hagen was attempting to seize the Ring from the Rheinmaidens.

From its ominous E flat minor opening chord through much of Act Three, Götterdämmerung’s score is mostly darkly-hued, but like the Flowermaidens in Parsifal, Götterdämmerung’s three Rheinmaidens lighten up the mood as listeners await the opera’s final redemptive music. One seldom sees or hears three lovelier-looking or sounding Rheinmaidens than Washington’s acquatic trio, Jennifer Lynn Waters (Woglinde), Brandy Lynn Hawkins (Wellgunde), and Fredrika Brillembough (Flosshilde).

Although the Norns, Rheinmaidens, West, and Theorin did not venture far from their music stands, other characters, including Alan Held, Gunther, rarely glanced at the music. When the music was removed, during the Alberich-Hagen dream sequence that opens Act Two and in the opera’s final scenes, this Götterdämmerung very nearly approximated a staged, rather than concert, performance.

As at the earlier performance, conductor Philippe Auguin led the Washington National Opera and Chorus.

Because the global financial crisis led to postponement of the planned 2009 Ring cycle in Washington until 2013, the first performances of all four of Francesca Zambello’s productions will be performed by the San Francisco Opera in 2011, with Nina Stemme singing her first Brünnhilde in a complete Ring.

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