Robert Frost couldn’t decide if the world would end in fire or ice. For Houston Grand Opera’s masterful production of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, fire, water, and one world-shattering voice more than suffice.
HGO began its first fully staged Ring, a cycle of four Wagner operas, in 2014. Four years and more than a dozen hours of stellar signing later, so much has happened. It would impossible to recount all the wonders of plot, staging, technology, and performance. Shining more brightly than the glistening gold of Alberich’s irresistible ring was Christine Goerke, who triumphed yet once more as Brünnhilde.
It may seem unfair to suggest one singer is the big news of such a technologically adventurous, exquisitely performed epic array of operas with such maddening plot lines. Götterdämmerung stacks the deck in Brünnhilde's favor with utterly show-stopping material. And it must be said that Goerke’s castmates were consistently astonishing in perhaps the most expertly sung opera of HGO’s astonishing Ring.
Nonetheless, if there’s a voice you’d follow into flames, it would be, without hesitation, Christine Goerke.
Goerke appears first with her lover Siegfried, the hero who braved deadly flame to awaken from an enchanted slumber. The previous opera, Siegfried, ended with their union, so it’s as if we’ve been waiting all year to hear Goerke sing. And sing she does. Goerke’s voice pierces and haunts, revealing a Brünnhilde that can charm as well as castigate. Late in the opera she sings with impossibly accurate and poignant softness over the body of her slain lover.
As nuanced as Goerke often was, Götterdämmerung calls more often for a voice so potent it could break the world. This Brünnhilde delivered.
Arriving as the reluctant bride of Gunther after a magic potion strips Siegfried of his memories, Goerke sings her betrayal from a boat suspended over the stage. Still later she mounts her horse, a mechanical lift that hauls her into the air and thrust out over the pit, to hold forth as she gallops into flame to seek an eternal union Siegfried.
Every time Goerke appeared I thought she could not be better than she had already been. Every time I was wrong.
In good company
Goerke’s star may have shone brightest in the firmament that is Götterdämmerung but she was in excellent and glittering company. Simon O’Neill, who sang Siegmund in Die Walküre made for a sweetly heroic Siegfried. Just as I had settled into his general excellence in the role, he entirely surprised me. In the final act, as he recovers his memory of Brünnhilde, O’Neill utterly surpasses himself.
Amidst expected excellence, it was a pleasure to be surprised Heidi Melton making her HGO debut as an arresting Gutrune. As a pawn in yet another attempt to steal the ring of power, Melton managed beautifully the transition from a shallow girl who would do anything to bed a hero to a mature woman who understands the part she has played in an unfolding tragedy.
As power-hungry men devour the world, women hold forth as poignant and ignored truth tellers. The opera opens with the extraordinary scene of the Norns, or fates, hanging from the stage and singing to one another as they try to piece together the past, present, and future. Meredith Arwady, Jamie Barton, and Melton, create an extraordinary hymn-like texture as they struggle to sort the tangled ropes of destiny.
Nothing made me happier than the return of the Rhine maidens for their stolen gold. How could I not be happy in the sweet and exhilarating vocal presence of Andrea Carroll, Catherine Martin, and Renée Tatum who reprise their roles from the 2014 Das Rheingold? It’s no small thing to sing these roles. To do so suspended in a tank of water over the stage while periodically submerging oneself underwater is miraculous.
How could anyone say no to these haunting creatures who sing with such pure voices?
The Norns and the Rhine maidens provide evidence of the extraordinary power of trios of voices, but one of the most arresting moments happened when the men appeared on stage to affirm in song their loyalty to Hagen. Such unity feels rare and welcome in a densely-layered score full of independent players.
The power of a Ring cycle lies in accumulation. Story lines build, become twisted, and conclude. Listeners grow so accustomed to leitmotifs that designate iconic characters or situations that they begin to think they speak a language called Wagner. Singers from previous operas return either in their original roles or to sing new ones. All this lends the feeling of taking part in a familiar and eternal world.
Managing this extraordinary process of accumulation has been the steady hand of Patrick Summers, who coaxed such power from the orchestra that you’d be forgiven for believing after a performance of Götterdämmerung that Wagner invented brass.
One of the primary decisions HGO made in mounting this Ring was the excellent choice of production by Catalonian theater company La Fura dels Baus. Their signature mixture of projection technology and physical theater remains compelling. At its best, there is magic aplenty. Late in the action, as the Gimichungs sacrifice to the gods to celebrate impending nuptials, four bodies dangle down in lieu of the animals. As their throats are cut, the bodies twitch and go still in front of four screens, each featuring a name of a god, which fill will dripping blood. The final scene — with projected flames and swimming, live Rhine maidens — was perfection itself.
At times the projections grew overly complex, the costumes desperate to be futuristic, which feels old-fashioned. At other times, the vividness of physical theater overwhelmed sense making. When Siegfried betrays Brünnhilde in an orgiastic scene, with dozens of squirming half-naked supernumeraries. Visually arresting? Yes. But this distracts from what is essentially a rape.
But if Fura dels Baus was a little too much at times, it’s important to remember how hard it is to stage the end of everything.
There’s something impossibly simple about the story of Wagner’s Ring. Everyone wants to rule the world but trying to rule the world brings about the end of the world. No one heeds warnings. The people you love forget and betray you. We realize our mistakes too late. Add to this a golden ring, a magic helmet, a deadly sword, a divine palace, broken promises, two fatal spears, a potion of love and forgetting, and lots and lots of flame. Then stir. Then repeat.
There’s something equally impossible about staging a Ring. Maybe that’s why it’s so beautiful.
The Houston Grand Opera production of Götterdämmerung runs at the Wortham Theater Center April 25, 29 and May 4 at 6 pm, and May 7 at 2 pm.