In the final moments of G‹tterd‹mmerung, the hall of the Gibichungs is flooded by the Rhine river, the castle of the gods is engulfed in flames, the all-powerful ring is reclaimed by its rightful owners, and the drama's heroine, Br‹nnhilde, sacrifices her life for the greater good. It's an epic cataclysm that pulls together a multitude of dramatic, musical, and narrative strands developed over the course of four operas and nearly 17 hours. Robert Lepage's production, with its extraordinary stage "machine," has addressed the theatrical demands of each Ring installment by transforming into a variety of settings that capture the specific directions in Wagner's score. In G‹tterd‹mmerung, this means creating a vivid human world, as the inevitable twilight of the gods approaches.
"G‹tterd‹mmerung is the only opera in the Ring that has a chorus," Lepage explains. "A chorus is always about society. It's about mankind. Before that, you have a kind of hierarchy among gods who represent elements or emotions or ideas. But now, in G‹tterd‹mmerung, we've arrived in the real world, where the idea of the divine has been pushed back onto altars. Gods are not present anymore: they're statues, superstitions." We are reintroduced to several characters that appeared in previous parts of the Ring, but the world around them has changed fundamentally, as indicated in the composer's stage directions: in Act II, in which the chorus first appears, Wagner specified that the hall of the Gibichungs should be center stage, with altars to the gods Wotan, Fricka, and Donner: principal figures in the first two Ring operas: pushed to the background.
Just as a new dramatic context changes our experience of events, the music of G‹tterd‹mmerung breaks new ground, too. "In this opera, Wagner applies a new kind of leitmotif technique: he changes the motifs according to the new situation," says Met Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi, who returns to the podium after leading Sieg fried last October. "Take, for example, the love motif of Siegfried and Br‹nnhilde in the second act. It's the same motif that we know, but completely changed. Why? Because their love has changed. I pointed out to the orchestra in one of the early rehearsals that this is not a new leitmotif but the old one, related to a new situation. It marks a very important step Wagner takes in this opera."
The seismic shift in the world: and in man's awareness of his role in it: is reflected throughout Lepage's aesthetic for G‹tterd‹mmerung. In the previous Ring operas, he says, "everything you've been seeing is rough, whether it's rocks or trees. In G‹tterd‹mmerung, it is man who has taken control over nature, creating palaces and houses and staircases that are manicured and extremely controlled." This desire to control nature makes the humans true descendants of Alberich and Wotan, both of whom, in their own ways, violated nature in the events depicted in and preceding Das Rheingold. The impulse to control is part of what must be expunged in the final cataclysm that is G‹tterd‹mmerung's finale.
But the opera also deals very specifically with its human characters. Siegfried and Br‹nnhilde begin this final part of their story reveling in their love, but their relationship is polluted by their contact with human society, which is new for both of them. "I feel like Siegfried's innocence is still intact because he is not a willing participant in the betrayal of Br‹nnhilde," says tenor Jay Hunter Morris who again steps into the role of Siegfried, following his star-making turn in the Ring's third installment. He is referring to the potion his character is given to make him forget Br‹nnhilde. Its effect wears off before Siegfried dies, stabbed in the back by the treacherous Hagen. "This is why the death scene is so poignant for me," he continues. "He realizes what has happened, how Br‹nnhilde has been hurt, and how wonderful their relationship was. I want to keep some part of his innocence throughout G‹tterd‹mmerung."
For Deborah Voigt, who previously sang Br‹nnhilde in Die Walk‹re and Sieg fried, the idea of transformation and renewal applies to her character in very human terms. "Br‹nnhilde develops from a rather carefree, high-spirited teenager, indulged by her beloved father, into the fully developed, seasoned-by-experience, all-knowing woman we see at the end of G‹tterd‹mmerung," the soprano says. "She has recaptured the dignity and grandeur of the goddess she once was. But at the same time she is far more than she was as the goddess-child of Wotan."
The characters, in other words, transform to become more authentically themselves. Director Lepage agrees that Br‹nnhilde's emotional growth is central to the Ring, as is Siegfried's. "These roles are sung by mature singers, and they're often depicted as very strong heroes, but they're teenagers basically. Their emotions are the emotions of teenagers who are discovering love, their bodies, their identities, their goals. And we all identify with that. At one point in our lives, we all have had that conflict: I follow the person I respect the most, my mentor, my father, my teacher, but I also have to betray him if I want to be faithful to who I am becoming."
This idea of truth as a liberating if potentially destructive force was presaged in Sieg fried, when the title hero melts the bits of his father's broken sword in a fiery furnace, pours a new mold, and hardens the new creation in water; at the end of G‹tterd‹mmerung, an analogous process of destruction and renewal by fire and water will engulf the entire cosmos. Thus, at the end, everything is different, even though many things (like the Rhinemaidens and their happy girlish song) have superficially remained the same. To Lepage, this is a message of hope.
"It's called the Ring, so it implies that there's a cycle," he says. "It implies that whatever you do, you go back to square one and you start again. But of course we're not starting again at exactly the same place, we are one level higher, we've learned from the first cycle. It's always sad to see anything that's been built by mankind go wrong and fall, but there's something soothing about the Rhine washing everything away and going back to that limpid clarity of the beginning of the Ring. There's a chance you could start building again, maybe on a different ground. It's a very, very optimistic ending."
G‹tterd‹mmerung opens January 27. The production will be seen in movie theaters as part of the Live in HD series on February 11. The complete Ring cycle will run in April and May.