New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen
Christine Goerke (soprano) and Simon O’Neill (tenor)
Episodes from Siegfried and Götterdämmerung
Michael Fowler Centre
Friday 12 June, 6:30 pm
I hadn’t heard Eva Radich’s interview with soprano Christine Goerke on Upbeat before the concert (and that has a bit to do with the unfortunate shift of the programme’s time from midday to 2pm). But I heard it on Saturday morning. It was one of those wonderful, animated, intelligent, thoroughly prepared interviews that Eva invariably achieves with articulate and gifted people that reveals many of the physical and psychological issues that a great singer faces.
And the session ended with a recording of her singing Brünnhilde in the first scene of Act III of Die Walküre (‘The Ride of the Valkyries’) recorded when she sang the entire music drama with the NZSO in 2012. Not only was it a thrill to hear her performance again, but being allowed to focus on her singing, without visuals or much awareness of her fellow Valkyries, was an endorsement of her stature as one of the best Wagner sopranos in today’s post-Nilsson world.
Before discussing the present concert however, I must express what I think many must feel, that it is a shame – a lack of nerve and financial confidence perhaps – that the wonderful Walküre has not been followed by comparable semi-staged performances of both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung; better still would have been the more complete visual realisation such as the Parsifal at the 2006 International Arts Festival.
In this review I will mention more of the events in both works, as the programme notes rather dwelt on matters like orchestral instrumentation, Leitmotive, but did not adequately identify the excerpts performed and make clear what was sung and what was not.
The concert opened with the Prelude to Act III of Siegfried. It was a well-chosen, awe-inspiring introduction for an audience, few of whom had probably seen the work staged, with motifs relating, among others, to Wotan’s spear on which the ‘laws’ are inscribed and one touching the downfall of the regime of the gods. That only takes a couple of minutes after which the first scene opens with Wotan (in Siegfried, The Wanderer) calling on earth goddess Erda (who had born Wotan’s many off-spring including Brünnhilde and the other Valkyries) to hear his account of the world’s condition and attend to her wisdom. I couldn’t tell whether the orchestra played, without voice, the Wanderer’s first lines of his call for Erde, skipping the rest.
Also passed over is Scene 2 where the Wanderer encounters Siegfried who is seeking the way to the fire-encircled rock on which Wotan had confined Brünnhilde at the end of Die Walküre. That fascinating encounter with its detailed etching of personalities and ambitions, ends with Siegfried breaking The Wanderer’s spear, thus finally destroying his authority and power: all wonderful stuff that one rather missed.
Simon O’Neill’s first appearance, after the Wanderer’s departure, is preceded by an ecstatic orchestral Interlude running through several motifs and seamlessly passing to the Introduction to Scene 3 where delightfully played wind passages capture the misty mountaintop. It sets the scene for Siegfried’s encounter, evading the ring of fire, to find the sleeping Brünnhilde, with calm violins before Siegfried murmurs “Selig Öde auf sonninger Höh”, and soon wakens her to lovely sequences of bassoons, bass clarinet, oboe, and harp.
Finally Brünnhilde wakes and slowly realises that this is the hero she saved while he was in Sieglinde’s womb. My memories of the wonderful Christine Goerke from her thrilling performance in Die Walküre in 2012 came back, as her performance unfolded. She presented a vivid impression of wonderment, with a penetrating, gleaming upper register that was perfectly integrated with the warmth and humanness of the lower part of her voice. There was both gentleness and intelligence in her portrayal, and even though the two stood on either side of the conductor, one could sense the rapport, growing slowly towards erotic attraction between them as the long scene progressed.
The two voices transmitted different characteristics, O’Neill’s seeming to emerge from a more self-observing and detached sensibility, yet heroic and hugely expressive, as the grain and intensity of his timbre created an engrossing drama. And his response to Brünnhilde reveals a sensitivity and gentleness that we get hardly a hint of in Siegfried’s relationship with Mime, in the first two acts of this part of the cycle. O’Neill approached that tenderness with genuine feeling, but one has to feel that he seems even more convincing when he has the opportunity to boast of his heroism in braving the flames, for example in “Durch brennendes Feuer”.
Because it is more frequently performed on its own, Die Walküre, with its Siegmund-Sieglinde love scene and Wotan’s moving farewell to Brünnhilde are better known high points. But this last scene of Siegfried is their match, and we await performances of it as soon as the NZSO can gather courage and resources.
Then after the interval, Götterdämmerung. Here, the whole span of the work was encompassed, starting with the opening of the near-40 minute Prologue where we meet the Norns, the equivalent of the Fates in Greek mythology, who reflect on the past of the race of gods and on what will happen. They weave a rope that determines the course of events, but it frays and breaks and they return to the depths of the earth. The Prologue presents a beautiful depiction of Dawn, the NZSO strings exhibiting Wagner’s genius not merely in the brass department, here for strings (if anyone had doubted).
Brünnhilde and Siegfried wake from their night(s? – we’re not really told how long the lovers are together) of ecstasy, and within minutes the devoted Siegfried, seemingly prompted by nothing, prepares to leave his lover on the rock, protected by the fire to be sure, in order to pursue heroic deeds. In any case we hear the exchanges between the lovers, with their ecstatic climax, followed by the orchestral Siegfried’s Journey to the Rhine.
Throughout, of course, a huge amount of the excitement of the performances derived from the superb playing by the orchestra, very conspicuously the horns – nine of them – with four picking up Wagner tubas at the start of Siegfried Act III, and in the Prologue to Götterdämmerung. Other brass players tend to be less conspicuous, but their contributions, trumpets, trombones, the tuba, were always distinguished. Wagner’s oboes often catch the ear too, as in Siegfried’s journey to the Rhine which is not just a mighty brass fanfare, and the NZSO’s oboes are a joy.
Contrary to some belief, Wagner’s orchestra is not inconsiderate of singers: instrumentation complements rather than smothers the singer, diminishes and thins out to allow the voice and the composer’s own words to penetrate and be understood.
In the first and second acts proper, Götterdämmerung introduces a new race, the Gibichungs, introducing an entirely new element to the story. Their only known connection with the main figures in the Ring is through the Nibelung, Alberich, who is Hagen’s father. In Act I Siegfried arrives at the Gibichung castle where bizarre events take place: Siegfried is drugged and is at once attracted to Gutrune, sister of Gunther, the king of the Gibichungs; then Siegfried is persuaded to give Brünnhilde to Gunther in marriage and then, disguised as Guntyher, Siegfried returns down the Rhine to capture her. Brünnhilde is forced to ‘marry’ Gunther and the latter’s sister Gutrune ‘marries’ Siegfried;
Confusion proliferates: at the end of Act I Scene 2 we get our only sample of the act with a rich and beautiful orchestral interlude, a compendium of a number of the most evocative and relevant motifs; but there was nothing else from the first two acts; it precedes the scene where one of the Valkyries, Waltraute, attempts to persuade Brünnhilde to give the ring back to the Rhine Maidens; then Siegfried arrives at Brünnhilde’s sanctuary, disguised as Gunther, tears the Ring from her hand and forces her, protesting violently, to accompany him back to the Gibichung castle.
In Act II the confusion, for Brünnhilde, Gunther and Gutrune increases, exploited by Hagen, leading nevertheless to Brünnhilde being forced to ‘marry’ Gunther. Brünnhilde, unaware that Siegfried’s inexplicable behavior is the effect of a potion, eventually concludes that he has betrayed her, and she falls in with Hagen’s plan to murder him.
At the start of Act III as Siegfried is hunting with Gunther, Hagen and co, he is tackled by the Rhine Maidens in another attempt to have the Ring returned to the Rhine; Siegfried refuses , is induced to tell his heroic history of forging the sword, dragon slaying. Then, after taking a reversing potion from Hagen, Siegfried recalls his marriage to Brünnhilde, and relates it: a ‘treachery’ that gives Hagen the excuse to kill him.
The performance picks up immediately after Hagen has killed Siegfried with his spear, and Siegfried, finally aware of the reality, addresses dying words to Brünnhilde. The sequence opens with the famous Funeral music for Siegfried and skipping the exchanges between Gunther, Hagen, Gutrune, devoted the last half hour to Brünnhilde’s concluding soliloquy, the Immolation scene, in which the orchestra demonstrated its astonishing command through the endless succession of Leitmotive, from many episodes of the cycle, with a panoply of brilliant orchestral colours and moving emotional structures.
Goerke sustained a level of energy, of vocal drama, that gave the audience a wonderful taste of the way the whole marvellous creation comes to an end, an end after four and a half hours of music, when most proponents of Brünnhilde’s role show at least some signs of tiredness, but she has been spared the huge challenge of singing the entire role.
The audience was even moved to come to its feet at the end, no doubt to mark both a great and momentous performance and the departure of a gifted musical director and chief conductor.
It was much more than a mere taste of the two parts of the Ring that had never been performed in New Zealand; but surely an enticement for many who will have heard this performance here and in Auckland and Christchurch, to call for an awakening to this astonishing music drama, as well as a reminder to New Zealand Opera and, one would even dare hope, the International Arts Festival in Wellington that some of the greatest dramatic music ever written still awaits full performance in this country, that calls itself civilised.