April 09, 2020

Conductor’s Note - Götterdämmerung

by Sir Andrew Davis

Compositionally and instrumentally, Götterdämmerung couldn’t have been written the way it was if Wagner hadn’t stopped midway in the cycle to write Tristan and Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The astonishing thing is that, although you might think there would be a huge change in style, it actually doesn’t quite feel that way, except that certainly Götterdämmerung is miles ahead of the others in terms of complexity and virtuosity of orchestration. The orchestral writing is more sophisticated. After the Norn scene, going into the Siegfried/Brünnhilde scene, the way the crescendo happens, and the way the clarinet doubles the first violins – I think it gives you more color. That’s the overall impression one gets from Götterdämmerung compared to the other three: the palette of color has more depth.

Consistently, from the very beginning right up to the end of the Ring cycle, one of its strengths is the powerful interaction between the different characters, which is what makes it seem familiar to us. This is a huge Norse epic drama, but it’s actually all about interpersonal relationships, the power and consequences of certain relationships and decisions. In Götterdämmerung, the depth of these emotions and conflicts is more profound than in the other three operas. It’s partly because we’re sensing the culmination of dreadful inevitability in what has been virtually preordained in Das Rheingold. As a result, the tension in the action – and therefore in the music – is more present and more powerful in Götterdämmerung.

One of the most extraordinary moments in music is the beginning of Act Two, the scene between Alberich and Hagen. This really feels like naked evil personified, and I find it quite terrifying. The late Jim Johnson, an important member of Lyric’s music staff in our previous Ring cycles, said to me once that Wagner could reach down into the collective subconscious and dredge up stuff that most of us would be too frightened to deal with.

It’s a heightened emotional and psychological state that you get in Götterdämmerung that’s beyond anything else in the Ring. That Alberich/Hagen scene is an example. Think also of the music in the Prologue for Brünnhilde and Siegfried: it has an ecstatic quality that is beyond anything we’ve witnessed before in the Ring, even more than what we hear from Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre. It’s different – more epic, transcending mere eroticism.

Götterdämmerung is, of course, the longest of the four operas. Late in Act One, for example, you have Waltraute, the Valkyrie who tells us the whole story, in case you’ve forgotten it! Also in Act One, the whole conversation with Gunther, Gutrune, Hagen, and Siegfried can sometimes seem interminable, but it’s actually narrative and quite conversational. That’s one of the bees in my bonnet: there are so many traditions that have grown up around Wagner, related to the desire to invest every second of the piece with meaning. When you do that, a sense of flow in the music is neglected. Just telling the story with a certain fluency is tremendously important throughout each of the Ring operas, but especially in Götterdämmerung.

Yes, there are a fair number of long dialogues, but I don’t think of them as long – they can be made to feel like long scenes. In the vital preparation for a piece of this scale – my homework, as it were – I seek above all to understand the relationship of the parts to the whole. We rehearse thoroughly, and by the time I conduct the opera in the theater, I know what I need to accomplish in terms of pacing, which is what these operas are all about.

Obviously, tempo is very important. You need solemnity, certainly, but also a sense of dread. It has to flow in the right manner; the music is something of a metaphor for time, and the sense that it’s all moving somewhere. When the Norns begin the opera by telling us the story of how we arrived at this moment, it’s important for us to enter into that scene – and not just when the rope of fate is about to break! The important thing about the scene is to sense the anxiety and the kind of dread that these ancient mythical primordial women have. They’re not just telling the story – they’re saying we’re about to come to a point where things all fall apart, and then the rope-breaking becomes the visualization of what they’ve been warning us about.

As with any opera, the balance between the orchestra and the stage in Götterdämmerung is vital, and it depends very much on the space. Obviously, in Wagner’s theater at Bayreuth, where I’ve conducted Lohengrin, it’s very different because the orchestra is almost entirely covered. At Lyric we have a more Italian-style pit and very little of the orchestra is covered, so balance issues are greater than they would be in Bayreuth and a lot of other theaters. When I did concert performances of the Ring operas over the past several years in Edinburgh, with the orchestra onstage, it became much harder to get ideal balances. In any case, you have to play what the composer wrote, meaning that you observe every dynamic marking. That’s another bee in my bonnet: too often the dynamics at the lower end of the scale in Wagner are overlooked.

There are most definitely more moments of delicacy in the Ring than most people realize, and one of the tasks for me and the orchestra is to achieve as much textural variety as one

can. It’s easy to think of Wagner as a bunch of people singing and playing their heads off, but so much of the music is far removed from that! This wide diversity of texture is part of the challenge.

If I think of my favorite moments in Götterdämmerung, one of them is certainly Siegfried’s funeral music in Act Three – it’s utterly transporting. The trio for Brünnhilde, Gunther, and Hagen at the end of Act Two is the closest Wagner ever came to Meyerbeer, and is so extraordinarily melodramatic. In the Prologue, I love the whole scene for Siegfried and Brünnhilde: the sun coming up is a metaphor for their love, and it’s wonderful the way the whole thing grows and grows until they’re screaming high notes and we then move immediately into a fantastic orchestral passage taking us into Siegfried’s “Rhine Journey.” The big theme there will return in the funeral music. The manner in which those two sections of the score are linked, psychologically and emotionally, is really remarkable.

If you want to hear some of the most electrifying music in the Ring, try the writing for the men in Act Two, beginning with Hagen’s call to the vassals. Up to that point in the Ring cycle, we haven’t yet had a chorus, and suddenly we have seemingly hundreds of men onstage. It brings a visceral excitement to that scene and underpins what’s going on with the main characters.

I also love the Brünnhilde/Waltraute scene, and of course, the Immolation Scene is extraordinary. For me the moment, when the fire music comes back just before the end is yet another moment in the score where people often make the mistake of slowing down so that it plays at the same tempo as it does at the end of Die Walküre. Absolutely not – it needs to be out of control!

It goes almost without saying that stamina is crucial for anyone conducting this opera. In Edinburgh last year I was absolutely exhausted by the end of Götterdämmerung, although I think doing it in concert is ultimately more demanding. When I know I have a performance of Götterdämmerung coming up, I try to get more sleep. The last time I did it at Lyric (2005), I had acupuncture three times a week as a preventive measure. So besides getting enough sleep, you just have to make sure you’re physically ready and are in the best condition you can be.


Photo: Todd Rosenberg