It's a tribute to the power of Götterdämmerung, the fourth and final opera in Richard Wagner's epic Ring Cycle, that this nearly five-hour Royal Opera House production is gripping despite some distinctly mediocre singing.
The orchestra under conductor Antonio Pappano is the real star of the show, and it's fitting that all the players file onto the stage for a curtain call. The orchestral scoring of Götterdämmerung is endlessly inventive, with brass, woodwind and strings all playing rich and often seemingly autonomous roles. The Royal Opera House orchestra does it justice, most notably in the long, elegiac interlude that follows Siegfried's death.
Sadly, the rich orchestral writing may be part of the problem. Few singers have the power to project over a late Wagnerian orchestra, and those that do may compromise on beauty of tone and subtlety of interpretation. Susan Bullock's Brünnhilde suffers from the former problem, Stefan Vinke's strident Siegfried from the latter. This is the one opera in which Bryn Terfel's wonderfully lyrical Wotan does not feature — he is sorely missed. Instead, it's the bit parts that really shine. The three Rhine maidens and the Norns who weave the rope of destiny are all excellent, and Mihoko Fujimura's Waltraute had us pinned us to our seats.
Wagner's vision at the end of Götterdämmerung is infamously unrealisable: he not only called for Siegfried's funeral pyre to engulf the whole stage and even erupt into the heavens to consume the gods, but he also wanted the Rhine to flood its banks in a kind of Biblical apocalypse. There is no flood in Keith Warner's production, though lighting effects give an impression of water. The fire is also rather underwhelming, as is perhaps inevitable after 16 hours of operatic anticipation.
But the ending works well intellectually. Rather than Götterdämmerung or Twilight of the Gods, Warner presents us with Götzendämmerung or Twilight of the Idols — the memorable name of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's last book. The gods that go up in flames in the final bars are not sitting in their heavenly palace of Valhalla; they are the pagan statues worshipped down on earth in the first act.
This is one of many directorial flourishes. Another is the arresting image of Brünnhilde cowering inside a crown of thorns in the extraordinary wedding scene. We were also transfixed by Hagen's dream of underwater algebra that opened the second act (you had to be there). And it's rewarding to see the final transformation of some symbols that dominate the staging throughout the cycle, such as the crimson rope of destiny that finally breaks in the prologue to Götterdämmerung, and the books of law that have by now disintegrated into fluttering sheets of paper.
As in the previous operas, some of Warner's other ideas left us unmoved or uncomprehending or both. But those better schooled in the dark arts of Wagnerian hermetics may emerge wiser. What comes across as obscure mystification to one viewer (why on earth do the Rhine maidens lay out all those objects on the stage like street sellers in the final act?) may be clarity incarnate to the next.
Of all four operas in this Ring, Walküre remains our favourite. The music is sumptuous, the singing world-class, the staging punchy — that's the one to catch if you can on 18 or 28 October (including on Radio 3 on the former date). Thereafter, the quality of the leads plummets, and for us that's a major flaw. But the Ring Cycle is not really about individual operas, self-contained as they are. Seeing the whole cycle within one week is a uniquely engrossing, even invasive theatrical marathon that seeps into the deepest recesses of the mind. That doesn't appeal to all — one of our neighbours in the amphitheatre bought his ticket from a gentleman whose wife chickened out at the last minute. But those who embrace the experience are unlikely to forget it.
Reviews by the same author, in the ROH Ring Cycle