The world ended on a stage devoid of scenery or special effects, just a soprano in a dark sequined dress singing of redemption and love.
But that was enough.
The Washington National Opera's presentation of Wagner's "Goetterdaemmerung" _ reduced by economic necessity from full production to concert version _ made for a riveting afternoon of musical theater in its second and final performance Sunday.
Credit goes first and foremost to Philippe Auguin, the outstanding conductor, and to a cast of singers led, in order of excellence, by bass-baritone Gidon Saks as Hagen, soprano Irene Theorin as Bruennhilde and tenor Jon Fredric West as Siegfried.
It certainly wasn't what the company had in mind when it launched its "American Ring" cycle in 2006, directed by Francesca Zambello and drawing on settings and themes from U.S. history to explore Wagner's epic of greed, ambition and betrayal.
The plan was to have staged all four operas in the cycle by now. But along the way money dried up: "Siegfried," the third installment, was delayed by a year; then the staging of the finale had to be postponed indefinitely.
So the only thing particularly American about this "Goetterdaemmerung" was the grit and ingenuity the company displayed in pulling off what sounds in theory like a dismal prospect _ a five-hour performance of a Wagner opera with no scenery or costumes.
But it turns out that Wagner packs so much drama into his music and text that the performance quickly swept the audience into his world and almost made one forget the story was being played out on a nearly bare stage.
Take the scene in Act 1 when Hagen enlists his half brother and half-sister, Gunther (bass-baritone Alan Held) and Gutrune (soprano Bernadette Flaitz), in his plot to bring about the downfall of the guileless Siegfried. With thoughtful use of stage movement and gesture, the three performers etched their characters: Gunther's self-pitying cowardice, Gutrune's insecurity and Hagen's pride in his own superior intelligence.
Saks as Hagen creates perhaps the performance's most chilling visual image in Act 3 when, after mortally wounding Siegfried by stabbing him in the back with his spear, he runs to the opposite side of the stage and stands there, panting and holding his hand over his heart as if to say: "My God _ I've really done it!"
His rich, black voice, especially potent in the upper part of his range, is ideally suited both to his brooding soliloquy in Act 1 and to his boisterous exchanges with the chorus of vassals in Act 2. Altogether, a superior performance.
Theorin sounded stronger than when she sang in the WNO's production of "Siegfried" last spring. Her high notes rang out with impressive abandon and her middle voice was well-supported. Best of all, she made a figure of regal dignity, first as a woman in love, then as a woman betrayed, and finally, in the Immolation Scene, as a woman of sublime understanding and forgiveness who brings the cycle to a thrilling conclusion.
West's acting was more enthusiastic than subtle: His Siegfried ran and even jumped in the air to convey excitement. But vocally he gave much satisfaction, singing every note of the difficult role honestly and showing fatigue only toward the end, when some of his high notes went a bit flat.
Other vocal contributions of note came from Held as a full-throated Gunther and mezzo Elizabeth Bishop, compelling as the Second Norn and Waltraute.
Under Auguin's baton, the orchestra gave an inspired performance, some wobbly horns excepted. The conductor brought out all the exuberance of the Rhine Journey, the brute power of the Funeral March, the rapturous sweep of the closing pages. But he also did wonders with the intricate texture of quieter moments like the introduction to Act 2 that sets the scene for Hagen's father, Alberich, to appear before his son in a dream.
This "Ring" may now be gone, but it's not forgotten. "Goetterdaemmerung" sets and costumes are being created for the San Francisco Opera, which is sharing the Zambello production with Washington. And if all goes well, the WNO hopes to stage its own complete cycle in 2013, the bicentennial of the composer's birth.
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