Teatro Real 2021-22 Review: Götterdämmerung

Andreas Schager & Joachim Goltz Star in Robert Carlsen’s Dull & Disappointing Production

By Mauricio Villa

Teatro Real concludes Wagner’s epic tetralogy “Der Ring des Nibelungen” with nine performances of the fourth title, “Götterdämmerung,” after having presented one opera per season, beginning with “Das Rheingold” in 2019.

Unfortunately, the production of this fourth opera, directed by Robert Carsen and Patrick Kinmonth, turned out to be repetitive, meaningless, and plain.

Dull & Meaningless

One of the main problems with the staging was the decision to place all the scenes and acts into just two different settings. This “Der Ring des Nibelungen” production had stood out during the previous three operas in the cycle for all its changes in sets and scenery between acts and scenes. Even if it was not a big, expensive production with enormous sets, the amazing designs in every scene made for a very imaginative and meaningful production.

But “Götterdämmerung” is set either on an inclined landscape, seen for the very first time at the end of “Walküre,” or in the main hall of Valhalla, also seen previously in “Walküre.” This hall consists of monotonous grey, brick walls with two big doors on both sides and a fireplace at the back. There are minimal changes in furniture and props between scenes. It is unclear if Carsen/Kinmonth intended to set the Three Norns and the Gibichungs’ palace scenes in Valhalla. If this is the case, it is a senseless decision, as Valhalla is the fortress of the gods, raised into the sky, while the Norns’ and Gibichungs’ scenes occur on the earth. Setting these scenes visually within Valhalla provokes a huge conflict within the plot of the opera.

But if Carsen/Kinmonth intended for those scenes to be set in different environments, why show them in such a recognizable space? Why keep the same props as the Valhalla set? This decision only causes confusion and makes the already four-and-a-half-hour-long opera tedious, as it keeps returning to the same sets. The production lowers the curtain between scenes to enable set changes, but Wagner composed the music intervals with dramatic purposes, whose leitmotifs continue narrating and illustrating the story. This becomes significant during Siegfried’s journey on the Rhine and during his funeral march: while the music is telling the story the only thing shown on the stage is a wall. This device with the curtain was especially inadequate in Brünnhilde’s final scene, which is a very complex one due to the several actions and discourses that happen during this long final piece.

We are sadly used to big incoherencies between the libretto and staging in opera nowadays, as the ideas of the directors become increasingly detached from the original source material. This has resulted in the performers singing actions that they are not playing out in the text. Wagner developed his own musical language with his specific and original use of musical themes that have since been called leitmotifs. Not only are the singers therefore narrating or commenting the story, but the orchestra is constantly underlining the mood, atmosphere or the participation of several characters. By leaving Brünnhilde alone in front of an iron wall during her entire scene, the scene went against the libretto and the music. To mention only two examples; Brünhilde talks to the Gibichungs, who are meant to be present in the scene, and orders them to stack wood to prepare Siegfried’s funeral pyre; and she sings in plural throughout the entire scene, except when addressing Wotan. All of this is sung, though she is alone on the stage. This scene is thus rendered absurd.

At the end of the scene the music plays the fire, the Rhein and the Rhinemaidens leitmotifs to underline specifics actions. Narratively, the bonfire is set aflame; Brünnhilde sacrifices herself by jumping into the fire with her horse Grane; the flames reach the sky and burn Valhalla with all the gods inside; the Rhein overflows and extinguishes the fire; Alberich tries to obtain the ring from the Rhinemaidens and dies, drowned by them during his attempt. In this production we simply see the soprano singing in front of the iron curtain wall. It is clear that the setting of this production is not classical and up until now we have see themes like the destruction of nature by men, the dangers of political power, greed, and ambition. The final scene of the long Ring Cycle must have a clear ending, giving sense to whatever concept the director is showing, yet Carsen/Kinmonth omit every reference to the plot or the leitmotifs by leaving the soprano alone in front of a wall, lit in a single spotlight.

Once the fire leitmotifs are over and the orchestra is playing Rhein motifs the wall is lifted to show the stage completely overshadowed by smoke and some small lines of fire around the stage. Hagen’s line, “Züruck vom ring!” was completely inaudible as it was sung off-stage and with the orchestra playing forte; it provoked no reaction from the characters onstage at all, making the moment completely pointless. When the final bars play Sieglinde’s redemptive love leitmotif, it starts to rain on the stage. Brünnhilde leaves the scene under the rain as the curtain falls, turning this complex final scene into a simplistic casual moment. It is hard to understand why Carsen, who is one of the most talented and prolific stage directors working today, chose such a poor ending to such a massive project.

Missing the Moment

German soprano Ricarda Merbeth played Brünnhilde, after appearing in this production’s previous stagings of “Walküre” and “Siegfried.” Her portrayal of such a heavy, dramatic role had already hinted at vocal deficiencies, but it was in “Götterdämmerung,” where the soprano part is longer and more dramatic, that she could not rise to the occasion. Her voice sounds distant and small, and it is completely hidden by Wagner’s big orchestration. Not even her forte high C at the end of her first duet with Siegfried was audible. But Brünnhilde is a dramatic role. Despite several ascensions to high notes, it is written in the middle register and demands strong low notes. Merbeth’s low register sounded muffled, insecure, and with dubious pitch. The soprano struggled during the several descents to low D, C and C flat during her opening duet with Siegfried. Although her voice was audible during the confrontation scene with Siegfried in Act two, this was only because the orchestration was, in this moment, lighter. Lines like “Verrath, verrath!” where the soprano holds G flats, sounded powerless when they should have sounded menacing and frightening. Her voice likewise sounded weak in the trio that closes Act two. She could only be properly heard during her final, long scene, where the soprano sang at the edge of the stage, in front of a curtain wall that undeniably helped her projection immensely. In this moment Merbeth could finally show off her immaculate German diction, and she sang a few intimate moments with depth and emotion, like her farewell to Wotan, “ruhe, rhue du gott!”

I want to make one thing clear – Merbeth is a good singer and after seeing her in this production, my conclusion is that either she was not in her top form on this night or her voice does not have the necessary qualities to sing this role properly.

The True Star

Austrian tenor Andreas Schager, who portrayed the hero Siegfried, was the absolute protagonist of the evening. He possesses a true heldentenor voice: a baritonal, dark timbre and an astounding projection which makes his voice carry over the dense Wagnerian orchestration. His lower register is sonorous and secure while his highest range is powerful and thunderous.

When he was singing on stage with Joachim Goltz it was difficult to distinguish their voices because of the similarities of their timbres. He had trouble sounding delicate during his narrative scene in Act Three, where Wagner kept the same melodic line and key as the bird interventions in the Act two of “Siegfried.” The voice is completely exposed, as there is just a subtle orchestration, and Siegfried imitates the sweet singing of the birds. Schager navigated comfortably through the high tessitura, singing constantly between F sharp and high A natural, but his voice kept sounding heroic and big rather than sweet and melancholic. The tenor does not have a high C, and Siegfried’s score has two high Cs in the second and third act. Schager tried to reach the note, unfortunately sounding flat both times, creating a strange dissonance and resolving very quickly down into the next note. Considering how difficult it is to find solvent Wagner voices today, Schager’s powerful performance cannot be judged by two notes written in small, insignificant moments, however. He sang his death scene with pathos and depth, the result being moving and emotional.

Danish bass Stephen Milling played the evil Hagen. He has a dark, metallic timbre with a resonant middle register, but his voice weakens at the extremes of his tessitura, resulting in muffled low notes and guttural, non-projected high notes. For example his welcome to Siegfried, “Hoiho! Wohin…,” which demands the bass holds two long, strong Fs, sounded small and weak. His voice sounds brilliant inside the stave and up until high D: it is after the D that the voice loses projection and harmonics. Wagner demands that the voices be powerful throughout their entire register as he moves the voice from low to high and, most of the time, over a dense orchestration. If Milling’s solo moments were weak, his voice disappeared completely in ensemble moments, such as the trio that closes Act Two or the hunting scene with the choir in Act Three. Milling gave a humanized, realistic characterization of greed and ambition, avoiding any reference to supernatural connotations and evil clichés.

German baritone Joachim Goltz sang the role of Gunther. He has a lyrical, warm baritone timbre with mesmerizing projection. He was, alongside the tenor Schager, the only voice that could carry perfectly over the orchestra. Goltz proved once again that projection is much more important than volume. In the trio with Brünnhilde and Hagen in Act two, Goltz’s voice shined and was perfectly audible over his colleagues, when by nature the voices of a bass and a dramatic soprano should have had greater volume than a lyrical baritone. Goltz’s elegant fraseo and depurated German diction helped him characterize an aristocratic, loyal character. Amanda Majeski and Martin Winkler gave discreet but correct performances in the roles of Gutrune and Alberich respectively, with modest volume and little vocal projection.

Slower than Expected

Spanish conductor Pablo Heras Casado has completed his first “Ring Cycle,” opting for heavy pesante tempi in “Götterdämmerung.” The opening Norns scene or the second interlude—Siegfried’s boat trip down the Rhein—felt incredibly slow. The prologue and first act lasted two hours and five minutes, which was 10 minutes longer than the one hour and 55 minutes announced in the program. The whole opera lasted four hours and 40 minutes, which is much longer than the usual four hours and 10/20 minutes, though it was not the longest rendition of “Götterdammerung;” that honor (?) belongs to Knappertsbusch’s recording from 1958, clocking in at five hours and 11 minutes.

That said, it was clear that Casado wanted to illustrate the difference between his vibrant, agile “Siegfried” and this last chapter of the “Ring Cycle.” His orchestra made a clear representation of the operas’ intertwined leitmotifs. He was modest in his approach and took no risks, instead presenting the richness of Wagner’s music clearly. The orchestra had to keep social distance due to Covid measures, and the harps and brass section were placed on the boxes at the orchestra level. This disposition  of the instruments worked very well in “Siegfried,” which was the first of Wagner’s operatic tetralogy to be affected by the COVID crisis, but it turned out to be an impossible sound barrier for most of the singers in this final installment. Teatro Real’s orchestra pit is completely open and not partly positioned under the stage as it often is in several opera houses, and the orchestral sound was so rich, loud and evolved that the voices behind this timbrical wall struggled to be heard.

I still do not understand why theaters do not try to imitate Bayreuth’s acoustic conditions. Bayreuth is the theatre that Wagner built specifically to present “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” and the orchestra is completely hidden under the stage, minimizing the volume of their instruments. Other theaters instead expect the voices to be simply heard over big, heavy orchestration. When most of the voices of the cast cannot be properly discerned, maybe the level of the orchestral sound or the disposition of the instruments should be taken into consideration. It is difficult to comment on the participation of the chorus in this opera because they were still singing with masks on, and therefore the sound was not real and their interventions did not sound as brilliant and heroic as they could have.

Ultimately, this was a theatrical disappointment, especially after an intelligent concept championed by the three previous operas; the result felt tedious, repetitive, and meaningless. On the other hand, this was an absolute triumph for Andreas Schager as Siegfried and modest interpretations by the rest of the cast, with the detailed participation of Heras-Casado in the pit.


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