There is a particular kind of tension that builds as a great work moves inexorably to its conclusion: how can something so complex and expansive, so vast in its vision and so completely attuned to the monumental in human experience, bring itself to a close that is in any way satisfactory? J.R.R. Tolkien opted for ending after ending to his great saga, Lord of the Rings, so incapable of leaving off that he introduced yet another battle after his ring had burnt in the fires of Mount Doom.
Wagner’s ring also burns – not in a volcano but a funeral pyre – before plunging back into the river Rhine from whence it came. The difference is that Wagner manages to distil this climax into a finer and more layered thematic resolution of his great work. It’s an ending that opens outward and upward, ambiguous enough to leave the audience reaching towards its mysteries rather than congratulating itself for getting to the end. It is precisely this aspect, seen also in the great masterpieces of Shakespeare, that enshrines this extraordinary cycle in the minds of all who experience it.
Götterdämmerung opens with the Norns (Tania Ferris, Jacqueline Dark, Anna-Louise Cole), Wagner’s equivalent to the Three Fates of Greek mythology, as they weave the thread of life and discuss the actions that have led to this twilight of the gods. When the thread snaps and the fabric of the world collapses, the stage reveals the sleeping Brünnhilde (Lise Lindstrom) and her husband Siegfried (Stefan Vinke), humanity’s last hope for renewal and regeneration.
It is a hope that quickly fades, due as much to her good faith as his complete lack of guile. At her insistence he goes on an adventure – leading him directly to the court of the Gibichungs, presided over by the siblings Gunther (Luke Gabbedy) and Gutrune (Taryn Fiebig). They are not bad people but are obsessed with status and reputation, as Robert Cousins’ clever set indicates; their world is one where the exercise equipment has as much value as the art on the walls. But they have a Rasputin in their midst: Hagen (Daniel Sumegi) their half-brother and son of the evil dwarf Alberich (Warwick Fyfe). He, like everyone connected to that poisonous toad, is in the thrall of the ring and will stop at nothing to possess it.
With a simple forgetting potion, Hagen will manipulate Siegfried into marrying Gutrune while forcing his beloved Brünnhilde into marrying Gunther, and subsequently destroying the optimism the world has invested in him. It is an awful debasing of a pure soul, and heartbreaking for Brünnhilde, who has to face the ugly prospect of sexual slavery on top of the betrayal of her love. The second act, which opens on Alberich as Nosferatu (all elongated fingers and silent creeping), takes place at the wedding reception and plays out like a domestic horror show. It’s transfixing to watch.
Act III opens on the Rhinemaidens (Lorina Gore, Jane Ede and Dominica Matthews in stunning form) pleading for Siegfried to return the ring to them, one of the most melodic and playful scenes in the entire cycle. His flippancy and lack of insight into the power he possesses seals his fate, and he remains a targeted man for the remainder of the piece. That his memory of Brünnhilde is restored long enough for him to recall his great love but not quite long enough for him to realise the injustice he has committed on her seems like a benediction. His death, accompanied by some of the most beautiful music Wagner wrote, is almost unbearably moving. Vinke again demonstrates why he is one of the world’s most desired tenors, effortlessly rising above the sometimes fiendish demands of the role.
The rest of the opera is taken up with Brünnhilde’s final act, her self-immolation on the funeral pyre of her husband and other self. It is a purification by fire that seems to take in all the sacraments: a baptism, a confirmation, a wedding and a last rite. Lindstrom is quite simply phenomenal; her voice penetrates to the heart of every note, glorious in the quiet moments and devastating in the throes of passion.
No one is weak. Fiebig brings a dawning sense of regret to Gutrune and Gabbedy is suitably ambivalent as the duped Gunther. Sumegi is magnificent as the utterly corrupted Hagen and Fyfe again demonstrates his ability to dominate the stage as Alberich. Sian Pendry has a moment of unparalleled poignancy as the Valkyrie Waltraute, describing her father Wotan’s meticulous preparations for his approaching oblivion in Valhalla. As a valediction for an offstage character, it rivals Mistress Quickly’s description of the death of Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry V.
Director Neil Armfield concludes his ring with the confident sensitivity he has brought to the whole; Robert Cousins’ flaming building encasing the doomed couple is spectacular, certainly, but it also has a spiritual quietude to it, a note of transcendent beauty perfectly in keeping with Wagner’s intention. As Roger Scruton argues in his brilliant new book The Ring of Truth, Wagner isn’t “trying to persuade us that sacrifice is the meaning of life. He is showing, through the sacrificial moment, that there are things in all our lives that are sacred, and which vindicate what we are.” Coming to the end of one of the most extraordinary feats of artistic expression the world has known, the audience does indeed walk away with a sense of vindication, a sense of the sacred in us all. It’s both a life changing and a life-affirming experience.