Götterdämmerung! Götterdämmerung! Götterdämmerung!

Phil Ford

Is there any opera — indeed, any work of art in any medium — with a cooler title than Götterdämmerung? A craggy German compound noun bristling with umlauts is already apocalyptic, never mind the business of “gods” and “twilight.” I’ve resisted writing anything about it, partly because it’s been a mad rush since I saw Götterdämmerung on Sunday (up at 5 on Monday and suffering through endless airport delays and, at the end, a Twilight of the Luggage, which has at least temporarily lost me all my best shirts). And, it must be said, it’s hard to imagine what I could say that could possibly do justice to the experience of watching the Ring come to its glorious end. I suppose this will be obvious to all the old Ring heads out there (are there any of you out there?), but the experience of seeing the Ring is cumulative. Seeing a week-long marathon of singing through to the end is itself a powerful experience. But seeing this particular opera in that context overwhelming. I mean, Wagner set the bar pretty high, didn’t he? An opera about the apocalypse? That caps an already massive interconnected cycle of operas? The fact that he set himself the challenge of writing an opera to end all operas — kind of literally — and actually did it, is nothing short of astonishing. It’s like Babe Ruth’s called shot or something.

The COC’s artistic manager, Phil Boswell, is known for being able to find great singers at the start of their careers to sing in COC productions, which is good, since the COC doesn’t have a Met-sized budget. (When I was home from college as an undergrad I was able to hear a then-unknown Ben Heppner in a rehearsal of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. I understand he’s had some sort of career since then.) The entire Toronto cycle has had a real feel of ensemble opera — fine voices but with no monster stars dominating the production. Although if Susan Bullock (Brunnhilde) isn’t a star now, she will be soon. In the scene where Brunnhilde realizes Siegfried’s betryal — now that’s rage. But even in full-throated Wagnerian roar, her voice always remains slender and controlled; it never becomes the fat overripe fruit of the stereotypical Wagner soprano. Bullock can move, both vocally and dramatically, between rage, despair, compassion, and deep hopeless inner sadness in about eight measures, and it never ceased to amaze me that she could keep doing it so consistently. Christian Franz as Siegfried was similarly indomitable: he actually seemed to gain in power as Siegfried went on, and had begun to glow with strange radioactive energy in that opera’s brutal final duet. I like to imagine he went out afterwards and pulled a TTC bus down Queen Street with his teeth.

Who else was great? Richard Paul Fink’s Alberich was a great piece of acting, fierce and malevolent and, when the Ring is torn from his finger (liked the stage blood, by the way), a figure of suffering dignity. (Still demonic, though. I like Alberich because he is such a modern villain: he has a certain integrity because his evil is done out of self-aware conviction.) Every line Fink sang wanted to be listened to; every gesture was carved to a sharp edge. As for Mats Almgren’s Hagen, the General has it right: his voice “emanates menace and rancour, a saturnine presence alternating between brooding and seething.” Watch out for that big dude.

The staging was minimalistic, again, but neither conspicuously gorgeous nor conspicuously bad — not conspicuous either way. I liked the Russ-Meyer-style Rheinmaiden pillow fight extravaganza, and it was cool that the prologue, with the spooky Norns weaving their rope, began on a stage set that came straight out of David Lynch’s Lost Highway. The deep American hinterland, with its two-lane blacktop stretching out to infinity, its lonely crossroads lit by a single hanging lamp, has always served the blues well for uncanny collisions between the worlds of men and gods (or devils); why not opera? The corporate boardroom setting for the Hall of the Gibichungs (GibiCorp?) has already drawn a lot of comment — meh. Didn’t love it, didn’t hate it. I suspect the director wanted to find poetry in the raw materials of office environments, making us notice, maybe for the first time, the peculiar effect of fluorescent lighting on objects in an open space, the dull shine of brushed aluminum, the plangent glow of computer screens. But the effect was neutral, really, which is the effect it has in offices, and which is after all the point of these materials. (One thing kind of fascinated me, though: when you first turn on a fluorescent light it gives a little stutter, which becomes visually interesting when magnified by the huge lighting fixtures they used on stage.) And in the end this blandness might have been for the best, because it really was all about the singing. That’s a pretty lame, un-Götterdämmerung like conclusion for what has been one of the most intense artistic experiences I’ve ever had, watching these operas unfold on the stage. “It’s all about the music.” Let me crochet that on a throw pillow for you. But whatever: much of the time, the bare truth, set in cold type, is pretty banal. It’s the execution of the truth, the particular performative shape of it, that is rich and interesting — but that’s the bit that I can’t really tell you about. Dave Hickey once wrote about this, in his essay “Air Guitar,” which is maybe my favorite single essay by anyone on anything.

. . . I embarked upon a career in writing blithely unundismayed by the fact that, as a writer, I was primarily in that which writing obliterates: in the living atmosphere of all that is shown, seen, touched, felt, smelled,  heard, spoken, or sung. I knew this was a peculiar obsession, of course, but I thought writers were supposed to be peculiar. I thought it was just a “problem,” that it could be  solved, and that, once solved, the enigmatic whoosh of ordinary experience would become my “great subject”—that I could then proceed to celebrate the ravishing complexity and sheer intellectual pleasure of simply being alive in the present moment forever after. I thought.

So I began by writing poems, quickly shifted to fiction, abandoned that for pharmaceutically assisted pastiche, and abandoned that for gonzo reportage—always trying to get out of the book, trying to get closer to the moment, and always floating farther from it, slamming myself up against the fact that writing, even the best writing, invariably suppresses and displaces the greater and more intimate part of any experience that it seeks to express. Ultimately, I would be forced to admit that all the volumes of Proust were nothing, quantitatively, compared to the twenty-minute experience of eating breakfast on a spring morning at a Denny’s in Mobile—and that the more authoritatively and extensively I sought to encode such an experience, the more profoundly it was obliterated from the immediacy of memory and transported into the imaginary realm of remembrance, invested with identity, shorn of utility, and polished up as an object of delectation.

Much as I’ve tried to polish up my own experiences and turn them into the bankable objects of interpretation, there is nothing I can write that really does anything more than point to those experiences. Which leaves me with a profound feeling of gratitude for having had them. So thanks, Mom, for the ticket. Best. Present. Ever.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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