HOUSTON: Götterdämmerung
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In Review > North America


Houston Grand Opera

In Review HGO Gotterdammerung hdl 717
Simon O’Neill and Christine Goerke in HGO’s Götterdämmerung
© Lynn Lane

WITH ITS PERFORMANCE of Götterdämmerung on April 21—a co-production of the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia (Valencia) and Maggio Musicale (Florence)—Houston Grand Opera completed its first Ring cycle, one performed in annual installments and thus introduced over a three-year period. This Ring maintained the connecting thread of narrative with enthralling computer-generated imagery that parallels Wagner’s web of signifying leitmotifs. To start, the HGO orchestra, led by Patrick Summers, established itself as an ensemble of top-tier, international standing with its finely balanced, detailed textures and satisfyingly rich sweeps of sound. But singing alone could have sustained this performance, with three incomparable voices in the central roles—soprano Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde, tenor Simon O’Neill as Siegfried, and bass Andrea Silvestrelli as Hagen.

Goerke seems made for the role of Wagner’s superhuman heroine. She has the power to overtop a brass-swollen Wagnerian orchestra and the vocal colors and dramatic range to capture Brünnhilde’s experiences of rapturous love, shocked betrayal and searing anger. O’Neill’s tenor has a focused, burning core that can cut through the thick texture of Wagner’s scoring and exude a hero’s grim determination. But when disguised as Gunther and drugged by a potion, he easily adopted a chillingly robotic and pitiless manner. As Hagen, Silvestrelli couldn’t have been creepier, pairing his edgy bass resonance with a get-up of sunglasses that reflected an LED-like red glow from his tattooed-looking, totally bald head.

These main players led a uniformly strong cast of singers, some of them, such as Goerke, continuing in roles from the previous operas in the cycle, some appearing in new roles for Götterdämmerung. (O’Neill was heard as HGO’s Siegmund in 2015, and Silvestrelli was the Siegfried Fafner last season.) As the Rhinemaidens, Andrea Carroll (Woglinde), Catherine Martin (Wellgunde) and Renée Tatum (Flosshilde) reprised their preening frolics in suspended Plexiglas pools, singing in glowing soprano harmonies and ducking coyly under the water between phrases. Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny (Donner in Rheingold and now Gunther) sings with such appealing nuance and smokily sustained tones that we empathized with the character in spite of his worldly ambitions. And Meredith Arwady (Erda in Rheingold and Siegfried, Schwertleite in Walküre, and this time First Norn) once again showcased the richness and depth of her contralto voice, which conjures up supernatural power and timelessness. As Gutrune and Third Norn, Heidi Melton made a rewarding debut with a soprano that, for all its power, came across as sweet and youthfully bright.

The central moment of Götterdämmerung, the magnificent double wedding that goes bad at the beginning of Act II, is distinct in the Ring cycle for its prominent chorus. The HGO Chorus sustained that scene with power and precision. In particular, the basses and tenors sang with an authority and vigor that gave voice to the resolve of the battle-ready Gibichung vassals who then turn to celebration. For that scene, the combined talents of director Carlus Padrissa, set designer Roland Olbeter, video designer Franc Aleu and costume designer Chu Uroz, in this production by La Fura dels Baus, created a wondrous complement to Wagner’s grand centerpiece. Sacrificial animals (trussed up human acrobats) were hoisted high up in the background. Their blood coursed down that background and then across the stage in video images shown on the large, moveable screens that functioned as the main scenery throughout the opera. In the middle ground and just above the lower-lying video screens, the boat bearing Gunther and Brünnhilde back down the Rhine bobbed and swayed (the work of unobtrusive black-clad supernumeraries working movable cranes). And in the foreground, Siegfried, Gutrune, Hagen and the Gibichung vassals celebrated their arrival.

That scene represents the best of this production in its ability to inspire wonder while realizing all of the dramatic potential of Wagner’s conception. Other moments similarly and uniquely intensify the experience of the story—the surrounding three-dimensional effect of the Norns’ dangling ropes in combination with the ropes’ projection on background computer screens and on a foreground scrim; the writhing nest of (seemingly) naked bodies into which Siegfried (as Gunther) pulls Brünnhilde at the moment of her rape. The staging of yet other scenes, however, was baffling: there must be an idea behind the screen images of ciphers during the scene in the Gibichung hall—including the prominent but mysterious Greek letter on Gunther’s back—but what is it? And, as brilliantly imaginative as La Fura’s visual accompaniments to earlier transitions have been, the slowly turning earth, revolution after revolution, during Siegfried’s journey back to Brünnhilde was disappointingly tedious.

In spite of these complaints, there is no doubting the creativity, originality and often-compelling vision of La Fura’s production—one that renews Wagner’s Ring cycle and challenges its audience to think deeply about it. And, in the HGO performance, there was unrivaled singing to boot.  —Gregory Barnett 

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