Yesterday afternoon in the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera concluded its first cycle through Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung) with the performance of the fourth opera, Götterdämmerung (twilight of the gods). Götterdämmerung is practically an epic unto itself; and, indeed, its account of the death of Siegfried was the core idea from which the entire Ring cycle would emerge. Including intermissions, the running time exceeded five hours; and the first intermission did not take place until the first two hours of the opera had elapsed. If all this amounted to a rough ride, then the journey emerged as thoroughly engaging and perceptively inspired.
If Director Francesca Zambello’s setting for Siegfried presented an uncompromising view of the natural order of the planet being eroded by the technologies of industrialization, then those erosions come to a head in Götterdämmerung, in which, in that memorable phrase of W. B. Yeats, “things fall apart.” Indeed, collapse is already imminent in the first scene of the opening prologue. In Wagner’s libretto the three Norns are weaving the rope of fate; and, at the end of the scene, the rope begins to unravel. For Zambello’s “American” interpretation, Set Designer Michael Yeargan established this scene in a server farm, the technological hub of the “cloud” that now hosts all the activities of the digital world. The Norns have become the technical support team; and the surtitles even substituted the noun “cable” for “rope.” Instead of an unraveling, the entire complex of servers experiences a catastrophic system meltdown.
The server farm of the three Norns (Sarah Cambidge, Ronnita Miller, and Jamie Barton) (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of SFO)
Zambello also made some interesting casting choices for the Norns themselves. The first was sung by mezzo Ronnita Miller, previously seen as Erda, the Earth Mother, who warns Wotan of the collapse of his grand visions. Miller was joined by Jamie Barton, who, in the role of Fricka, provided another cautionary voice that Wotan failed to heed. The third of the Norns was sung by Adler Fellow Sarah Cambidge, last seen as Ortlinde, one of the nine Valkyries, the children of the union of Erda and Wotan.
After we leave the server farm, we are confronted with no end of images of the failure of the earth to hold itself together in the face of massive industrial abuse. If the gods of Valhalla amounted to an allegorical portrait of the Trump family, then the Gibichung clan in Götterdämmerung quickly registers itself as an allegory of the Koch family. It would probably be an exaggeration to say that Koch Industries has a hand in just about every abuse of the natural world, but it would not be that all far from the mark. Yeargan translated this “family legacy” into a set design of a massive factory with more smokestacks than can be counted, all belching pollutants with full force.
The Gibichungs, of course, live a life of wealth and comfort and probably even enjoy that grotesque view of their factories. Yet there was something in the modernist architecture of their living room that suggested that we were in the world of Noël Coward’s Design for Living on a very bad acid trip. The Gibichungs are, of course, the instrument of Siegfried’s undoing, particularly Hagen (bass Andrea Silvestrelli), who is only a half-brother, since his father is Alberich (bass-baritone Falk Struckmann), still obsessed with reclaiming the ring that Wotan stole, even if he is now just a spirit in Hagen’s dreams.
The Götterdämmerung narrative also sees the return to the three Rhinemaidens, Woglinde (soprano Stacey Tappan), Wellgrunde (mezzo Lauren McNeese), and Flosshilde (mezzo Renée Tatum), also trying to recover the ring, since they had been responsible for guarding its golden source. Yeargan’s design for the Rhine itself was clearly inspired by the Great Pacific garbage patch, with more discarded plastic than the eye can see. The Rhinemaidens themselves are covered in a black oil slick and have been reduced to collecting plastic refuse in plastic bags.
Within this panorama of the earth’s decay, we experience the decay and collapse of those figures we would otherwise take to be “heroic,” Siegfried himself (tenor Daniel Brenna) and the now mortal Brünnhilde (soprano Iréne Theorin), whom he rescued from the eternal sleep cast upon her by Wotan. Note, by the way, that Wotan never appears in Götterdämmerung. We only learn about him through the Valkyrie Waltraute (Barton, again), who explains to Brünnhilde that Valhalla is experiencing the same rot as the earth.
Ultimately, the decay is so extensive that everything (literally) goes up in smoke. After Siegfried has been killed by Hagen (abetted by Brünnhilde), Brünnhilde builds a massive funeral pyre for him and then joins his body on it. The fires of the pyre reach all the way to Valhalla, but they also cleanse the entire planet. Even the Rhine is cleansed, and the Rhinemaidens reclaim their gold. Life begins again with Zambello’s final gesture of a child planting a very modest sprig (Baby Groot?). The cycle of the four operas really is a cycle, and Zambello chose to leave her audience hoping that things will get better the next time.