Wagner: Götterdämmerung. Albert Bonnema (Siegfried), Hernan Iturralde (Gunther), Franz-Josef Kapellmann (Alberich), Roland Bracht (Hagen), Luana DeVol (Brünnhilde), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Gutrune), Tichina Vaughn (Waltraute), Janet Collins-Lani Poulson-Sue Patchell (The Three Norns), Helga Rós Indridadóttir (Woglinde), Sarah Castle (Wellgunde), Janet Collins (Flosshilde). Staatsoper Stuttgart, Staatsopernchor Stuttgart and Staatsorchester Stuttgart conducted by Lothar Zagrosek.
There is no operatic experience so overwhelming, so exhausting, so utterly draining as Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. In more than four hours, it retells the stories of its three predecessor operas and moves toward an inevitable conclusion related as strongly to Greek tragedy as to the old German and Norse sagas that were Wagner’s immediate sources for the libretto that he meticulously constructed. This is an opera so huge that it is sometimes better heard on CD than in an opera house, because a staging that fails to give the work a tremendous helping of grandeur can quickly make the whole thing seem overwrought and ridiculous – which the music on its own is decidedly not.
The new four-CD Naxos set is the fourth and final release of the Staatsoper Stuttgart productions of late 2002 and early 2003, each done with a different primary cast but with the same chorus and orchestra, and all featuring the excellent Lothar Zagrosek as conductor. The production photos show this as a “modernized” Ring cycle, with 20th-century furniture and important scenes occurring in such places as a home’s kitchen – a recipe for theatrical absurdity. But the musical performances are first-rate, and Götterdämmerung is their capstone. The skill of vocal acting here is remarkable: Roland Bracht makes a genuinely dark, shuddersome Hagen; Hernan Iturralde is a strong-voiced, rather simple-minded Gunther whose personality actually meshes quite well with the naïveté of the lighter-voiced Albert Bonnema as Siegfried; Luana DeVol is a passionate Brünnhilde, exhibiting the strength and determination of a Valkyrie even before her climactic final self-immolation; Eva-Maria Westbroek is an ingenuous Gutrune, as uncomplicated emotionally as her brother; Tichina Vaughn is an unusually sympathetic Waltraute, whose long tale of the already-dying gods actually evokes sympathy for some generally unsympathetic characters – notably Wotan, whose power has so thoroughly waned that he is not even present in this opera; and all the other roles are filled by singers who can handle Wagner’s notes well enough to get at the emotions behind them.
Götterdämmerung has some undeniably ponderous sections: for example, the Norns’ spinning of the tale of the Ring at the beginning is highly atmospheric – and necessary as an explanation for anyone who has not seen the first three parts of the tetralogy – but is certainly lacking in action. In this recording, where no action is required, it becomes a scene of high drama – although it would have helped immensely if Naxos had provided a German-English libretto (a German-only one is available online; but, even with the English summary included in this set’s accompanying booklet, it is inadequate for English speakers). At the opera’s other end, the tremendous cataclysm of Valhalla’s destruction and the River Rhine overflowing its banks is far more easily imagined than performed: Wagner’s music conveys the full drama in a way that perhaps only Bayreuth (when it chooses to follow the composer’s original plans) is able to do in a staged production. Zagrosek paces Götterdämmerung with a sure hand, and the outstanding vocal acting of the principals makes listeners feel the import of what is happening and ignore some of the patent absurdities of the story – which, after all, is a myth with resonance, not a true-to-life tale. This