RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Götterdämmerung, WWV 86D—Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde), Daniel Brenna (Siegfried), Melissa Citro (Gutrune), Ryan McKinny (Gunther), Eric Halfvarson (Hagen), Gordon Hawkins (Alberich), Jamie Barton (Waltraute, Zweite Norn), Lindsay Ammann (Erste Norn), Marcy Stonikas (Dritte Norn), Jacqueline Echols (Woglinde), Catherine Martin (Wellgunde), Renée Tatum (Floßhilde); Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Philippe Auguin, conductor [Francesca Zambello, Director; Michael Yeargan, Set Designer; Catherine Zuber, Costume Designer; Mark McCullough, Lighting Designer; S. Katy Tucker and Jan Hartley, Projection Designers; Denni Sayers, Movement Director; Washington National Opera, Opera House, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C., USA; Sunday, 22 May 2016]
When in the wee hours of 18 August 1876, the curtain fell on the world première of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, inaugurating the composer’s custom-built Bayreuther Festspielhaus with the first complete performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen, much of the world slumbered in blissful ignorance of the extraordinary ways in which the course of operatic history had been altered. Like the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 that upset the flow of the Mississippi River, Wagner’s Ring was a seismic jolt to the composition and performance of opera, the aftershocks of which remain perspective-permuting in the Twenty-First Century. Especially among Teutonic composers, it became necessary in the final quarter of the Nineteenth Century to declare an allegiance, either espousing or rejecting the lessons of Wagner’s concept of music drama. Upon listening closely to their music, however, one often finds that Wagner’s detractors were as strongly influenced by his work as his disciples: flattery may be the highest form of compliment, but concerted reactionary efforts are perhaps a truer gauge of the consequence of an artistic entity. Whether composers of subsequent generations revered or reviled Wagner, their endeavors were shaped by his example. The characters and situations in Götterdämmerung continue to assume new identities and diverse forms in works for the stage. Siegfried at odds with his social surroundings is a direct ancestor of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, Berg’s Wozzeck, Britten’s Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, Martinů’s Manolios, Glass’s Galileo and Gandhi, and Adès’s Prospero, just as Brünnhilde as the instrument of redemption is the spiritual godmother of Strauss’s Färberin, Puccini’s Liù, Berg’s Gräfin Geschwitz, and Poulenc’s Madame Lidoine. The necessity of meeting the opera’s Herculean musical demands notwithstanding, a wholly successful performance of Götterdämmerung is distinguished from a merely proficient one by the intelligibility with which Wagner’s characters and their fates stimulate the audience’s emotions. The culmination of a decade of preparation, the Götterdämmerung that closed the third and final of Washington National Opera’s Rings was a performance in which more than four hours of music seemed like only a few minutes. Mere proficiency in this score is dismayingly rare, but Götterdämmerungs such as this one, an afternoon that found every participant at her or his best, are justifiably legendary.
Staging Wagner’s Ring is an opera company’s Denali, Everest, K2, and Kilimanjaro condensed into one epic, four-part undertaking. Thankfully, Wagner’s confounding tetralogy claims fewer lives than the icy slopes of its geological counterparts, but its heights are similarly treacherous—and, in a practical sense, it pulverizes lungs as mercilessly as those peaks’ oxygen-depleted atmospheres. As Bayreuth productions by Wagner progeny and Metropolitan Opera outings supervised by Herbert von Karajan and Robert Lepage attest, controversy is as traditional a component of Der Ring as the Valkyries’ much-parodied horned helmets. Acclaimed director Francesca Zambello is a Wagnerian of proven vision and resourcefulness whose gift for peeling away layers of accumulated grime—and the grunge of controversy—in order to reveal scores’ purest essences has never been more eloquently evident than in this Götterdämmerung. Refined through outings of the constituent operas in San Francisco and Washington, Zambello’s Ring is emblematic of the ways in which the technological marvels of the modern age can be used to highlight the timelessness of Wagner’s musical and dramatic conceits, here heightened by an ecological subtext that movingly examines the disastrous ways in which human greed destroys not only lives but the earth that sustains them. Sharpened by Michael Yeargan’s abstract but starkly beautiful set designs, Mark McCullough’s often ingenious lighting designs, and the alternately menacing and mesmerizing projections by S. Katy Tucker and Jan Hartley, the focus of Zambello’s examination of Götterdämmerung’s emotional foundation was centered on the multitude of ramifications of betrayal. The Norns are betrayed by their fraying cables, Gunther by his own lust for prestige, Hagen by his utter inability to fathom true heroism, the Rhinemaidens by the sickening ruin of their riparian home, and Gutrune by her desperate need for love. Like Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Brünnhilde betrays both Siegfried and herself by revealing his vulnerability to Hagen. Her concept furthered by Catherine Zuber’s vibrant, evocative costumes, Anne Ford-Coates’s hair and makeup designs, and Denni Sayers’s movement direction, which combined to give each character credible specificity, Zambello germinated the seeds of coexisting humanity and conservationism that Wagner deposited into the rich soil of Götterdämmerung. In this production, the opera was not so much a tale of metaphysical redemption as of physical renewal, its defining images being those of the Gibichung women tossing refuse extricated from the waters of the Rhine and, even more significantly, their men’s guns onto Siegfried’s funeral pyre and a radiant young girl, a reborn Erda, planting a sapling as Brünnhilde disappears into the flames. Like Leonard Foglia’s production of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick, Zambello’s Götterdämmerung utilized Kennedy Center’s technical wizardry not to mire the composer’s score in the quicksand of invented effects but to free it to exert its own magic.
Near Capitol Hill, nicht auf dem Grünen Hügel: (from left to right) Director Francesca Zambello, soprano Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde), and conductor Philippe Auguin during curtain calls for Washington National Opera’s performance of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, 22 May 2016 [Photo by the author]
From the first notes of the Vorspiel, it was apparent that the musicians of the Washington National Opera Orchestra were prepared, practiced, and poised to offer an account of Wagner’s score that would rival the best Ring performances of established Wagner centers from Bayreuth and Vienna to New York and Seattle. How proud WNO’s late Music Director Emeritus Heinz Fricke would have been of the sounds that emerged from the pit during the course of this Götterdämmerung! Under the baton of the company’s current Music Director, French conductor Philippe Auguin, the performance, virtually ideal of pacing and precision, possessed the sense of occasion that a performance of Götterdämmerung must have: it is a long score, after all, and, without compelling, consistent momentum, sounds it. Meticulously heeding Wagner’s dynamic markings, Auguin led the orchestra in an exhilarating display of their instruments’ capabilities, the playing consistently equal to that of the best orchestras in the world and often markedly superior to the work of most opera house orchestras. The brasses and woodwinds were incredible, and the percussion jolted the body like electricity in moments of greatest intensity. When the harps emerged from the din, it was with dramatically-charged purity of sound. The Norns, Waltraute, and the Rhinemaidens offered genuine narratives, but Auguin’s conducting of their scenes was so nuanced as to make these pages of the score seem newly written. The clarity and linear thrust of Auguin’s approach brought to mind the underrated Wagner conducting of the Belgian André Cluytens, and the WNO Orchestra fully realized his every intention. Götterdämmerung demands nothing less than it received from Auguin and the WNO musicians, but hearing the score brought to life with such wealths of emotion and virtuosity was nothing short of revelatory.
Encountered in the primordial environment of the opera’s opening scene, here placed amidst a jumble of gargantuan power cables in the bowels of American infrastructure, the Norns were in this production neither coldly symbolic nor shrewish harbingers of universal cataclysm. Like the Rheintöchter in the opening pages of Das Rheingold (and later in Götterdämmerung, as well), there was a gratifying sense of girlishness in the earnestness with which the Norns performed their fateful work, but there was no mistaking the prescience and significance of their utterances, particularly when they were voiced so strongly. As the Erste Norn, contralto Lindsay Ammann—the strikingly thoughtful and sonorously-sung Suzuki in North Carolina Opera’s Autumn 2015 Madama Butterfly—introduced herself with a statement of ‘Welch Lieht leuchtet dort?’ that resounded through the auditorium. She was joined by the Zweite Norn of acclaimed mezzo-soprano and 2015 Richard Tucker Award recipient Jamie Barton, her singing of ‘Dämmert der Tag schon auf?’ meriting comparison with the Wagner singing of Oralia Domínguez and Lili Chookasian. When to their company was added the voice of soprano Marcy Stonikas, to be heard as Turandot in Atlanta Opera’s 2016 – 2017 Season, in the Dritte Norn’s ‘Loges Heer lodert feurig um den Fels,’ the trinity claimed a rightful place at the core of the drama. Stonikas wielded a formidable top G, but all three ladies were completely and reliably in control of the tessitura of their music. Individually and collectively, Ammann, Barton, and Stonikas were rare Norns whose forebodings were as entrancingly attractive as they were dramatically portentous.
Auf den Seilen: (from left to right) Soprano Marcy Stonikas, contralto Lindsay Ammann, and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Die Nornen in Francesca Zambello’s production of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at Washington National Opera, May 2016 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]
Auguin led the orchestra in sinuous, unabashedly erotic accounts of the Sonnenaufgang and Voller Tag, Wagner’s depictions of sunrise and ‘complete day,’ that were an aptly impassioned introduction to the momentous dawn duet and the powerhouse vocal actors who sang it. Fresh from a triumphant portrayal of the title rôle in the Metropolitan Opera’s incarnation of the much-lauded Patrice Chéreau production of Richard Strauss’s Elektra, the final performance of which was only two weeks ago [her first Washington Brünnhilde was sung in the third Cycle’s Die Walküre on 18 May], Swedish soprano Nina Stemme enriched Washington National Opera’s Götterdämmerung with a Brünnhilde of deftly-contrasted strength and subtlety, her interpretation of the Valkyrie still coming to terms with womanhood by turns galvanizing and deeply touching. When this Brünnhilde sang ‘Zu neuen Taten, teuer Helde,’ her excitement was both amorous and palpably psychological. Her ‘O heilige Götter!’ was monumental, and Stemme’s expansive, seemingly indefatigable voice made easy going of the repeated top A♭s and rising line to top B♭s. Her glorious top C at the duet’s end was neither forced nor frantic: she simply had the note and launched it into the auditorium with security, certain intonation, and amplitude that Donner at his most tempestuous could only envy. Having earned praise for his MET début as Alwa in Alban Berg’s Lulu earlier this season, American tenor Daniel Brenna was an able partner for Stemme, his Siegfried matching her Brünnhilde with firm tone, excellent pitch, and engaging youthfulness. Singing ‘Mehr gabst du Wunderfrau, als ich zu wahren weiss’ with abandon, Brenna immediately revealed his Siegfried to be a good-natured, fun-loving man-child who was as awed as he was enticed by his conquest. Giving Brünnhilde Alberich’s ring as a token of his devotion, Brenna’s Siegfried phrased ‘Lass’ ich, Liebste, dich hier in der Lohe heiliger Hut’ with iron-cored tenderness. As sung by Stemme and Brenna, Brünnhilde and Siegfried were believable lovers rather than two-dimensional marionettes being manipulated by the unseen hands of destiny.
Stewarding the transition to Act One, Auguin paced Siegfrieds Rheinfahrt slowly but with close attention to the story that it tells, not just masking a scene change but genuinely following the progress of Siegfried’s journey. When the curtain rose on the act’s first scene, the Gibichung Hall that emerged was a sleek Bauhaus edifice of steel and glass, its angular lines and garish animal prints in conflict with the landscape that it forcibly dominated. In the person of tall, handsome bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, the same could be said of Gunther: he seemed restless and uncomfortable among the trappings of his forebears’ accomplishments. As he voiced ‘Nun hör, Hagen, sage mir, Held,’ though, the singer’s comfort in the rôle’s music was absolute, and McKinny traversed the full range of his part without an iota of stress not required by the drama. One of America’s most admired and experienced Wagnerians, bass Eric Halfvarson was envious evil personified as Hagen, one of the nastiest characters in opera, but he gave Wagner’s music its due even when snarling malevolently. Halfvarson sang—ja, actually sang—‘Dieh echt gennanten acht’ ich zu neiden mich du!’ and ‘Siegfried, der Wälsungen Sproß: der ist der stärkste Held’ chillingly, little challenged by the top Fs. Lithe, seductive, and as beautiful as a platinum-locked Yvonne De Carlo, soprano Melissa Citro was a Gutrune who sang as alluringly as she looked. Her ‘Welche Tat schuf er so tapfer, daß als herrlichster Held er genannt?’ was the shy query of a demure young woman starved of affection. The inhabitants of Die Halle der Gibichungen am Rhein are grave liabilities in many performances of Götterdämmerung, but Washington National Opera populated the ancestral home with a current generation of top quality.
Der Bösewicht und seine Opfer: Bass-baritone Eric Halfvarson as Hagen (left) and soprano Melissa Citro as Gutrune (right) as Gutrune in Francesca Zambello’s production of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at Washington National Opera, May 2016 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]
In Scene Two, Hagen’s rousing ‘Heil! Heil! Siegfried, teurer Held!’ was dispatched with ringing insinuation by Halfvarson and answered by a fresh-toned ‘Wer ist Gibichs Sohn?’ from Brenna’s endearingly befuddled Siegfried, those garish animal prints proving too great a temptation for the inquisitive young hero’s curiosity. McKinny’s stirringly masculine singing of Gunther’s ‘Begrüße froh, o Held, die Halle meines Vaters’ lent his welcoming of Siegfried sincerity that was eerily undermined by Halfvarson’s reptilian delivery of Hagen’s pointed ‘Doch des Nibelungenhortes nennt die Märe dich Herrn?’ There was nothing duplicitous in Citro’s elated enunciation of Gutrune’s ‘Willkommen, Gast, in Gibichs Haus!’ or her character’s attraction to the assertively virile Siegfried. Having fallen victim to Hagen’s poison and rashly proposed to Gutrune, Siegfried all too eagerly swore a blood oath with Gunther, the tenor’s voice gleaming in his broadly-phrased articulation of ‘Blühenden Lebens labendes Blut träufelt ich in den Trank.’ Brenna and McKinny sang ‘Treue trink’ ich dem Freund!’ thrillingly, their voices combining like lightning and thunder. Siegfried and Gunther having set off on their quest to fraudulently win Brünnhilde for the Gibichung’s bride, Halfvarson transformed Hagen’s watch into a monologue of startling dramatic potency, declaiming ‘Hier sitz’ ich zur Wacht, wahre den Hof’ with secure, oily tone and the intensity of a Shakespearean villain.
Auguin shaped the orchestral interlude that ushered in the seminal third scene with vehemence that uncannily exposed the poignant sadness, anxiety, and bitterness that suffuse the music. Stemme wove a fragile thread of uncertainty into her voicing of Brünnhilde’s ‘Altgewohntes Geräusch raunt meinem Ohr die Ferne,’ her descent to C4 like an expression of doubt and fear of which she was ashamed. Greeting her sister Waltraute, Stemme’s Brünnhilde was suddenly, tellingly metamorphosed from the battle-worn Valkyrie stripped of her dignity into a woman brimming with optimism and new life. Trading the Norn’s industrial garb for Waltraute’s aerial warrior’s attire, Jamie Barton voiced ‘Brünnhilde! Schwester! Schläfst oder wachst du?’ with hesitant trepidation, her lovely top G igniting the atmosphere atop Brünnhilde’s rock as illuminatingly as Loge’s fire. Obviously greatly affected by their reunion, the sisters questioned one another meaningfully, Stemme’s quicksilver ‘Kommst du zu mir? Bist du so kühn, magst ohne Grauen Brünnhild’ bieten den Gruß?’ followed by Barton’s pained ‘Teilen den Taumel, der dich Törin erfaßt?’ and ‘Höre mit Sinn, was ich dir Sage!’ The mezzo-soprano’s climactic top G again filled the auditorium with glowing sound. That neither sister was unfailingly audible when her music took her to the bottom of the stave was clearly more Wagner’s doing than the singers’ or conductor’s. Brünnhilde’s ‘Welch banger Träume Mären meldest du Traurige mir!’ inspired Stemme to an outpouring of golden tone that seemed to burst from the hearts of both the character and the artist portraying her. Brünnhilde’s unwavering fidelity to Siegfried was expressed by a ringing top A, scorned by Waltraute with a contemptuous ‘Wehe! Wehe! Weh dir, Schwester! Walhalls Göttern Weh!’ in which Barton unleashed her own resplendent top A♭ and A. The raw emotion of Brünnhilde’s dismissal of her sister erupted in Stemme’s volcanic singing of ‘Blitzend Gewölk, vom Wild getragen, stürme dahin,’ the words hurled out with the stinging ferocity of the fallen Valkyrie’s perceived injury.
Greeting the Tarnhelm-clad figure she both rightly and wrongly identified as the returning Siegfried with a tremendous top A and B♭, Stemme’s Brünnhilde cowered in fear as she grasped that the form before her was not that of Siegfried as she knew him. Horror propelled Stemme’s performance of ‘Verrat! – Wer drang zu mir?’ As Brünnhilde’s domestic bliss unraveled, the soprano’s singing took on an element of indignant defiance, her upper register used like a weapon against Notung’s blows. Impersonating Gunther without resorting to schoolyard mimicry or silly attempts at changing the voice, Brenna traversed Siegfried’s ‘Brünnhild’! Ein Freier kam, den dein Feuer nicht geschreckt’ with burgeoning anger and frustration, his sparring with Brünnhilde prompting particularly forceful singing and aptly chauvinistic behavior. Stemme capped ‘Wotan! Ergrimmter, grausamer Gott!’ with a mighty top A bettered only by her top B in ‘Stärker als Stahl macht mich der Ring: nie—raubst du ihn mir!’ Here and throughout the performance, Stemme sang with astounding tonal sheen and dramatic intensity. Watching her Brünnhilde struggle against Siegfried’s rough handling, it was virtually impossible to believe that she was braving the vocal tortures of Strauss’s Elektra as recently as two weeks ago. If this is how one sings Brünnhilde almost immediately after singing another of the most repertory’s most difficult rôles for soprano, all Brünnhildes should study Stemme’s example.
Der Tatort: (from left to right) Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny as Gunther, bass Eric Halfvarson as Hagen, and tenor Daniel Brenna as Siegfried in Francesca Zambello’s production of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at Washington National Opera, May 2016 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]
After a playing of the Vorspiel to Act Two that crackled with growing tension and accompanied a disquietingly amusing scene in which the channel-surfing Hagen attempted to initiate contact with Gutrune that was anything but brotherly, baritone Gordon Hawkins literally arose from the abyss to intone Alberich’s ‘Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn?’ Each repetition of the phrase grew more sinister, and Halfvarson growled Hagen’s reply, ‘Ich höre dich, schlimmer Albe,’ drowsily but with venomous irony. With a son of such moral emptiness, Alberich’s treachery was easily enacted, but Hawkins’s performance exuded complementary malfeasance and musicality. Driving ‘Den goldnen Ring, den Reif gilt’s zu erringen!’ into Hagen’s psyche like a dagger’s blade, this Alberich was a conniver, not a mindless thug whose sole train of thought was bound for violence. Hawkins delivered ‘Sei treu, Hagen, mein Sohn! Trauter Helde!—Sei treu! Sei treu!—Treu!’ with tone that both evoked the decay of death and grippingly conveyed the eternal magnetism of revenge. A Hagen such as Halfvarson could only have been the son of an Alberich such as Hawkins, whose vocalism was all the more effective as the sound of corruption and iniquity because it was so appealing.
Joining his false bride and brother-in-law, Brenna’s Siegfried bounded through the act’s second scene with the vigor of a rutting stag, singing ‘Hoiho, Hagen! Müder Mann! Siehst du mich kommen?’ brashly. The subterfuge of Halfvarson’s ‘Hei! Siegfried! Geschwinder Helde!’ was unmistakable, but the scene’s musical laurels ultimately belonged to Citro’s Gutrune, the soprano’s voice ringing out gorgeously in ‘Freia grüße dich zu aller Frauen Ehre!’ and ‘Siegfried! Mächtigster Mann!’ Her top As sliced through orchestral textures like laser beams. The subsequent scene was dominated by Halfvarson, who declaimed Hagen’s summoning of the vassals, ‘Hoiho! Hoihohoho! Ihr Gibichsmannen, machet euch auf,’ hair-raisingly, and his management of the droning Cs at the top of stave and trills in his exchanges with the chorus was masterful. Trained by Steve Gathman, the gentlemen of the Washington National Opera Chorus sang magnificently, hurtling ‘Was tost das Horn?’ into the house. The tenors undauntedly conquered the grueling range of their music, including the top C that Wagner demonically demanded of them.
In the act’s final scene, one of the most riveting scenes in the Ring, the choristers earned admiration anew for their roof-raising performance of ‘Heil dir, Gunther! Heil dir und deiner Braut! Willkommen!’ Providing soaring accounts of ‘Brünnhild’, die hehrste Frau, bring’ ich euch her zum Rhein’ and ‘Gegrüßt sei, teurer Held; gegrüßt, holde Schwester,’ McKinny confirmed how markedly a superlative Gunther can increase enjoyment of a performance of Götterdämmerung. After Brünnhilde’s distraught entrance, Brenna’s articulation of Siegfried’s ‘Was müht Brünnhildes Blick?’ was the model of brawny simple-mindedness, and Halfvarson’s emphatic singing ensured that Hagen’s critically important ‘Jetzt merket klug, was die Frau euch klagt!’ found its target, foreshadowing the tragedy that would befall Siegfried. The urgency with which Stemme communicated Brünnhilde’s anger and despair, epitomized by her exclamation of ‘Nahmst du von mir den Ring, durch den ihr dir vermählt,’ was dazzling. Neither the concentrated expressivity of ‘Ha! Dieser war es, der mir den Ring entriß’ nor the trills on ‘Er zwang mir Lust und Liebe ab’ disconcerted this Brünnhilde, and, appalled by Brenna’s insouciant voicing of Siegfried’s ‘Achtest du so der eignen Ehre,’ Stemme lobbed ‘Du listiger Held, sieh, wie du lügst! Wie auf dein Schwert du schlecht dich berufst!’ like a spear aimed at the wayward man’s heart. Brünnhilde’s repetition of Siegfried’s ‘Helle Wehr! Heilige Waffe! Hilf meinem ewigen Eide!’ took Stemme to a fantastic top B♭, which seemed to trigger the bewildered zeal of Brenna’s singing of ‘Gunther, wehr deinem Weibe, das schamlos Schande dir lügt!’ Left to contemplate the events set in motion by Hagen’s chicanery, Brünnhilde and Gunther reluctantly but unequivocally endorsed the Nibelung’s plot to murder Siegfried in ostensible retribution for his wrong-doing. The sheer enormity of Stemme’s top B♭ in ‘Welches Unholds List liegt hier verhohlen?’ erased any doubts of the totality of Brünnhilde’s complicity in the scheme to punish Siegfried’s infidelity. Reveling in the impending realization of his ambitions, Halfvarson’s Hagen could barely contain his glee in ‘Vertraue mir, betrogne Frau! Wer dich verriet, das räche ich.’ The invigorating masculinity that McKinny brought to ‘O Schmach! O Schande! Wehe mir, dem jammervollsten Manne!’ transcended the self-pity that renders many Gunthers spineless snivelers, further refining the baritone’s interpretation of the much-maligned rôle. Closely collaborating with Auguin, this trio of committed artists brought the curtain down on Act Two with a furious display of exceptional singing and fiery but unexaggerated acting.
Der letzte Kuss: Soprano Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde, center left) and tenor Daniel Brenna (Siegfried, center right) during curtain calls for Francesca Zambello’s production of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at Washington National Opera, 22 May 2016 [Photo by the author]
In the opening scene of Act Three, the Rheintöchter toiled to counteract the pollution that crippled their habitat, the majestic river reduced by human carelessness to a toxic trickle that no longer responded to the warming rays of the sun. Singing ‘Frau Sonne sendet lichte Strahlen’ with exquisite, well-blended tones, the ladies moved with the sinuous agility of their aqueous home. Glamorous soprano Jacqueline Echols, North Carolina Opera’s cosmopolitan Musetta in Puccini’s La bohème and heartbreaking Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata, offered a clarion voicing of Woglinde’s ‘Ich höre sein Horn,’ seconded by mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin’s elegant singing of Wellgunde’s ‘Der Helde naht.’ Reprising a part for which she has garnered acclaim in MET Rings, mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum chanted Floßhilde’s ‘Laßt uns beraten!’ engrossingly. The Siegfried who resisted the charms and ignored the wisdom of such Rheintöchter was a true fool, and Brenna portrayed him with utterly unaffected sincerity and spry sexuality, his sunny crooning of ‘Ein Albe führte mich irr, daß ich die Fährte verlor’ having the charisma of unspoiled adolescence.
The relative peace of the Rhine’s sullied banks disturbed by the sounds of hunting horns and Halfvarson’s bellowing ‘Hoiho,’ Brenna responded with his own trumpeted ‘Hoiho! Hoiho! Hoihe!’ The exposed top C with which Wagner punctuated Siegfried’s cries was, like the character’s seldom-heard top C in Act Two, an unnecessary risk that Brenna did not take, and the wisdom of his choice was verified by the reserve of strength that he maintained until the last note of his part. He relayed his tales from Siegfried’s adventure-seeking life before Götterdämmerung with ardor in his finely-phrased ‘Mime hieß ein mürrischer Zwerg.’ Brenna’s Siegfried met his end as he grasped his life, unapologetically and with naïve confidence. Though his singing of ‘Brünnhilde, heilige Braut! Wach auf! Öffne dein Auge!’ was not as accomplished, musically or dramatically, as all that came before it, the tenor made Siegfried’s death bizarrely spontaneous, eliciting an unexpectedly vivid emotional response from the audience. Perhaps Auguin and the orchestra were captivated by the hero’s harrowing passing, too: their adrenalized but somber performance of the Trauermusik threatened to unseat Kennedy Center from its foundations and send the enthralled audience on a fluvial journey of their own.
At the start of the third scene, Citro proved to be a rare Gutrune capable of truly commanding the stage, her depiction of the character’s debilitating doubt and apprehension rippling through her splendidly-sung ‘War das sein Horn?’ Halfvarson’s blaring of Hagen’s ‘Der bleiche Held, nicht blast er es mehr’ goaded Citro to an explosive vocalization of ‘Siegfried—Siegfried eschlagen!’ that was capped with a brilliant top C♭. Hagen’s ‘Ja den! Ich hab’ ihn erschlagen’ and Brünnhilde’s ‘Schweigt eures Jammers jauchzenden Schwall’ were polarized statements of claimed victory and swelling truculence. The blood of both the man that she knew as her husband and her brother now staining Hagen’s hands, the breadth of Gutrune’s sorrow and rage cascaded from Citro’s singing of ‘Verfluchter Hagen, daß du das Gift mir rietest.’ One of Zambello’s boldest and most inspired innovations was the reconciliation between Gutrune and Brünnhilde: each seeming to accept the legitimacy of the other’s grief, Gutrune carried out the grim preparation of Siegfried’s funeral pyre before ceding the privilege of following him into a hero’s death to Brünnhilde. The image of Gutrune and Brünnhilde embracing in a final gesture of understanding and mutual comforting was hauntingly beautiful.
After battling page after page of the most vocally and psychologically demanding music in opera, Brünnhilde faces in Act Three’s fifth and final scene music which not only resolves both Götterdämmerung and Der Ring des Nibelungen as a whole but also crowns a tripartite explication of humanity through the eyes of a single woman. That her immolation was the apotheosis of Stemme’s portrayal of Brünnhilde was apparent from the first notes of her unfaltering ‘Starke Scheite schichtet mir dort am Rande der Rheins zuhauf!’ Throughout the scene, her voice, on inimitably assured form from her opening phrase in the dawn duet, was distilled into a sound of penetrating purity. If a passage was sung loudly, it was because its sentiments must reach the vaunted halls of Walhalla. If a top note was accentuated, it was because the word that it carried demanded to be heard. The soprano’s steely ‘Wie Sonne lauter strahlt mir sein Licht’ gave way to a tranquilly cathartic ‘Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!’ in which Stemme in those few notes burned through the haze that hangs over Götterdämmerung. The flames of Siegfried’s funeral pyre flickered in her singing of ‘Mein Erbe nun nehm’ ich zu eigen,’ and there was a surprising gentleness in her ‘Fliegt heim, ihr Raben,’ the loving daughter sensitive to the import of this final acknowledgement of her father’s presence. At last reclaiming Brünnhilde’s identity as the fearless Valkyrie, Stemme unfurled the full might of her voice in ‘Grane, mein Roß, sei mir gegrüßt,’ her top B♭s and Bs perfectly supported and projected with a staggering absence of effort. Never has a soprano made singing the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde seem easy, but Stemme’s performance, blending elements of Flagstad’s femininity, Traubel’s grandeur, Harshaw’s dependability, Varnay’s dedication, Mödl’s intelligence, Nilsson’s unflappability, and Jones’s indomitability, was distinguished by a serenity that heralded her not merely as a remarkable Brünnhilde but, for this listener, as a definitive one.
The ardor with which the perceived paucity of truly great singers is lamented might erroneously lure the casual observer into believing that the first sixteen years of the Twenty-First Century have delivered opera into a wasteland in which occasional encounters with mediocrity are construed as oases of genius. For an operaphile who has not yet reached the age of forty, it can be wearying to hear only that there are now no Flagstads, Melchiors, or Hotters. It is difficult to imagine that any of the Wagnerian adventurers who spent Sunday afternoon together at Kennedy Center listened to the breathtaking Götterdämmerung wrought by Washington National Opera with longing for singers of the past occupying their thoughts. No, there were no Flagstads, Melchiors, or Hotters, but Francesca Zambello and Philippe Auguin presided over a production and a performance in which great voices wielded by imaginative artists set Kennedy Center’s Opera House ablaze with a Götterdämmerung that sprang to life upon the stage but achieved immortality in the hearts and memories of those who witnessed it.