April 09, 2020

Director's Note - Götterdämmerung

By Sir David Pountney

One of the curiosities of the Ring is its reversed compositional timeline – in itself a tribute to the astonishing artistic grasp that Wagner maintained over his huge project. Götterdämmerung was the first of the libretti to be crafted, and then the other three pieces were gradually added to flesh out its backstory. Then Wagner began the composition from the beginning, starting with Das Rheingold, so that Götterdämmerung was the last to be composed, and this crucially included a 25-year gap between arriving at the final scene of Siegfried, and going on to complete the cycle. In that interval, Wagner composed Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and, most importantly, Tristan und Isolde, so that by the time we reach Götterdämmerung there is a huge musical stylistic gap between the beginning and the end. As Siegfried makes his way to the Valkyrie rock and the slumbering Brünnhilde, we can hear the music change gear, creating a vast leap of musical development between this polyharmonic language and the relative simplicity of the musical language of Das Rheingold.

The Götterdämmerung libretto was therefore created when the dominant artistic fashion in opera was the genre of French grand opéra, a bastion that Wagner had spectacularly failed to breach both with the vastly overblown Rienzi, but also with Tannhäuser, which flopped in Paris because of its failure to abide by the already stultified rules of opera there. This genre had been established by a work of total genius, Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, which Rossini had created after carefully studying and and developing his own interpretation of French musical taste. Guillaume Tell established the ground rules of grand opéra: a fiveact structure, building each act towards a massive, necessarily static ensemble (because by then there were so many people onstage that no one could move an inch!), and a ballet in the third act (so that the Jockey Club, arriving late from their dinner, could enjoy their favorite spectacle: the ballet dancers with their naked legs, as Tolstoy memorably recounts in War and Peace).

Another ingredient essential to grand opéra was visual spectacle, and its development begins the process (objectionable to some) that makes the newfangled figure of the director a necessary participant. The degree of scenic elaboration and associated lighting effects could no longer be accomplished only by the conductor and stage manager, who were hitherto responsible for the stage “arrangements.” Money, of course, plays a role in all this. The Paris Opéra was the first such institution to receive state funds, and was infinitely better resourced in terms of scenic budget, size and quality of chorus and orchestra, etc., than other nationally important houses in Milan or Berlin, which is why it was the star attraction for ambitious composers like Verdi and Wagner.

We can chart the development towards integrated spectacle by looking at Rossini’s works in particular. The “storm” sequence in The Barber of Seville is simply a rather inspired piece of musical exhibitionism (showing off, to you and me!) whereas in Guillaume Tell the storm scene actually changes the plot, allowing Guillaume to escape and defeat his Austrian enemies. Spectacle has been integrated into the dramatic meaning of the work. It is a very long journey indeed from Handel’s Xerxes, in which

the collapse of the bridge over the Hellespont is accomplished solely with a (no doubt improvised) flourish on the harpsichord, to the elaborate spectacle with which Wagner ends his Ring cycle – a spectacle that is not only dramaturgically relevant but that actually embodies the philosophy of the climax of the cycle, in the absence of any words by the principal characters to articulate this. The spectacle in this case is the dramatic content. The composers who followed Rossini were unfortunately a fairly mediocre bunch – Meyerbeer, Halévy, et al, and the greatest examples of grand opéra come from elsewhere: Verdi’s magnificent Vêpres Siciliennes and incomparable Don Carlos, and of course Berlioz’s Les Troyens.

Wagner began with slavish imitation of the genre in Rienzi, which is the sort of Dubai of grand opéra – bigger, longer, (much longer – seven hours!), taller, more expensive, etc. By the time he writes the libretto of Götterdämmerung, Wagner is no longer a slave to Paris fashion, but nonetheless this libretto clearly shows its origins in the traditions of grand opéra. The use of the chorus in Act Two, with the very typical instance of a grand wedding (almost a cliché of the genre), and the “revenge” trio that concludes that act, as well as the opera’s culminating spectacle, betray this provenance, even if it is not in five acts and has no ballet as grand opéra would require. In this sense Götterdämmerung is not really a “music drama,” as are the other three Ring operas. Indeed, it is important to recognize that the writing of these four libretti, even before a note of music had been composed, represents in itself an astonishing project of dramatic invention. As a single-act opera involving a seamless, free-moving progress across four scenes, Rheingold represents a totally new form of dramatic structure, one matched only by Mussorgsky’s original seven-scene Boris Godunov – and that drew its inspiration from Pushkin’s laconic drama, whereas Rheingold is an entirely new invention.

The Norns, whose darkly pessimistic broodings open the opera, have in a sense been continuously present in this production, being the figures who come out to initiate the magical appearance of the Rhine, which seems to flow from their allimportant handbag. At the start of Die Walküre, we have the impression that they are trying to arrest the inevitable march of this story towards disaster. Now that they have words and music to sing at the start of Götterdämmerung, their prescient foreboding is even clearer.

This darkness is followed by a blaze of light and an outburst of insouciant optimism that belongs uniquely to a pair of young people newly in love. Nonetheless, a hero must do his job, and so Siegfried sets off into the world, accompanied by the first of several breathtakingly colorful orchestral interludes. Those episodes superbly bring out the truth of Wagner’s comment that the art of composing is the art of transition. No one has ever matched Wagner’s special ability in this field, and the way a sinister darkness gradually clouds the joyous and naïve departure of Siegfried is a perfect example.

The Gibichung Hall is the “heart of darkness” in the Ring, and the new richness of Wagner’s musical language marvelously evokes its brutal and perverted atmosphere. One may suppose that the existence of this corrupt society – a kind of proxy militia for Alberich’s quest for revenge – is a direct result of Wotan’s abdication of power. It is a salutary warning for us all that a vacuum created by inertia or surrender will automatically be filled, and not necessarily by positive powers. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance!

The irony is that although Wotan has abdicated and sits listlessly awaiting the end, he is still observed as a god by the Gibichungs, but this only goes to prove that religious observance is in itself no guarantee of virtue. On the contrary, the astonishing orchestral introduction to Act Two contains one of the most chilling musical descriptions of corrupt perversion imaginable. It is personified by the ultimately sinister character in the Ring, Hagen, who makes his ancestor Alberich seem like a pantomime villain in comparison. This accretion of subtlety is achievable because of the newfound richness and complexity of Wagner’s music.

This complexity does an important job in papering over some slightly rudimentary (not to say “operatic”) plot lines, involving the use of the Tarnhelm to switch the identities of Siegfried and the worthless Gunther. Thus we seem to find ourselves in yet another piece about mistaken identity, a potentially comic situation, were not the betrayal of Brünnhilde such a profoundly disturbing and unjust event. This in turn leads us to the “revenge trio” at the end of Act Two, the only “closed form” number in the entire cycle.

This rather sums up the director’s task in Götterdämmerung: to maintain the dramatic intensity of the three previous operas within a more overtly operatic ambience, but being supported by intensely dramatic and sublime music, it is a privileged problem to have.