Sayonara, Baby: ‘Götterdämmerung’ Outwits The Virus

The Rhine Maidens exult in the return of the gold at the end of the Otsu production of ‘Götterdämmerung.’
(Photos by Henning von Gierke)

OTSU, Japan – Suppose they gave a war and nobody came? This was the title of a popular comedy-drama film that appeared in 1970 at the height of the Vietnam War. Now, suppose in 2020 they gave an opera and nobody came?

That’s exactly what happened in Otsu on March 7 and 8, but this was no comedy. The opera was Götterdämmerung, and indeed, there was no audience. Moreover, it will become a film as well. While the COVID-19 virus wreaked havoc throughout the world, causing virtually all concerts, operas, and shows of every description to shut down in many countries, including Japan, a miracle of operatic proportions occurred in Otsu.

First, a little background:

Otsu is a city of about 350,000 lying just east of Kyoto. It is the port city of Lake Biwa, the country’s largest freshwater lake, and therefore a favorite vacation spot for Japanese. Otsu is also home to one of Japan’s most beautiful and technologically advanced theaters, Biwako Hall. Its acoustics too are exemplary. About five years ago, the hall’s artistic director, Ryusuke Numajiri, had the idea of creating a Ring cycle there. To undertake this massive project, he enlisted the aid of three Europeans: German director Michael Hampe, with nearly half a century of experience as intendant and director working in Cologne, Mannheim, Salzburg, and Dresden; another German, Henning von Gierke, a famed painter, set designer, production designer, and art director (he has often worked in film with Werner Herzog); and Scotsman Jamie Goodenough, who at the time was part of Osaka’s computer mapping company COSMICLAB (he has since formed his own Nara-based company, Headfull, and calls himself “Visual Experience Creator”).

Brünnhilde (Kaori Ikeda) summons her steed, Grane, as she prepares to ride into the flames.

Back to Götterdämmerung. Just days before the first performance was scheduled, the Shiga Prefectural Government, like most others in Japan, canceled all upcoming public events within its jurisdiction. Not only did this imperil the two Götterdämmerungs, but, with not the remotest possibility of postponement, this meant the entire cycle would forever remain incomplete. Hours, months, and years of preparation had been invested in the Ring’s final installment. Rehearsals for the singers, orchestra, chorus, stage crew, and others had been in progress since late January. Goodenough alone spent more than 600 hours working on his visuals. Both performances in the 1,850-seat hall were sold out months in advance. (The Japanese do love their Wagner!) Was all this headed for the dustbin?

With the courage and determination of Wagnerian heroes, top administrators from Biwako Hall met with officials from the Shiga government and hammered out a deal: The performances could go ahead as scheduled, but without audience. Instead, they would be filmed for commercial release on DVD and live-streamed on YouTube. As a result, 12,000 people watched each performance complete, free of charge. So grateful were the Japanese for this bonus that many reportedly were refusing refunds on their unused tickets.

Due to the contagious power of social media, some 200,000 people saw at least part of each performance. With a starting time of 1 p.m. in Japan, those living in central Europe had to get up at 5 in the morning, and those in New York stayed up all night (starting time there was 11 p.m. — the night before). A handful of special guests was allowed to sit in the hall, as were half a dozen journalists (I was the only one from abroad), and we were strictly admonished not to applaud at any time, as theoretically we weren’t there. Everyone complied, but it was eerie, even surreal, to watch the curtain come down in total silence, and almost painful to have to sit on ones hands instead of applauding madly. Masks were not mandatory but strongly encouraged, and nearly everyone wore one. Someone quipped that the opera at hand should have been not Götterdämmerung but A Masked Hall.

Hagen meets his doom as Valhalla is about to crumble at the end of ‘Götterdämmerung.’

The agreement to film and live-stream the performances in Otsu was predicated on the acceptance of every last individual involved — every singer, every orchestra member, chorister, stage hand, lighting operator, etc. — to forgo additional pay. A single objection would have sunk the whole enterprise. Could something like this have happened in North America, with its omnipresent, stringent union regulations? Doubtful. But Japan’s famed reputation for solidarity was once again in evidence, and work proceeded apace. This was the first time an opera had been live-streamed in Japan, I was told.

Live streaming also began taking hold with assorted other musical events in Japan, like concerts by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and an András Schiff lecture on March 14. Three days earlier, Schiff, much beloved by the Japanese, had given one of the few remaining live concerts to an audience of more than 1,000 at Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall. Another survivor of the concert ban was a run of Eugene Onegin performances by the visiting Paris Opera Ballet (Feb. 27-March 8) at Tokyo’s Bunka Kaikan.

Casting for each of the four Ring operas in Otsu has been unique. Nowhere else could one have attended two performances just a day apart of the same production of a Wagner opera with entirely different casts. Moreover, with few exceptions, these casts were Japanese right down the line, and could have served with distinction in almost any house in Europe. For Götterdämmerung, the two Siegfrieds were German (Christian Franz) and American (Erin Caves), and one of the Brünnhildes was German (Stéphanie Müther).

Comparing the two casts was inevitably a source of discussion for Wagnerians who heard both. I preferred the one led by Franz and Müther, both veterans of their roles, but Caves and his Japanese Brünnhilde, Kaori Ikeda (both singing their roles for the first time, as was everyone else), also had their strengths. Caves’ voice is a bit light for the role, but he is a fine musician and delivered many of Siegfried’s gentler moments with admirable depth of expression. Ikeda has power and stamina to spare, and her voice is thrilling to hear at full throttle but unfortunately has acquired a bad wobble since her previous appearances as Brünnhilde the in both Die Walküre and Siegfried.

In Scene 2 of the Otsu production of ‘Das Rheingold,’ Fricka and Wotan behold their new home, Valhalla.

By coincidence, in both casts Gunther (Shigeo Ishino, Tomohiro Takada), often seen as something of a weakling and assigned to a second-rate baritone, was more strongly characterized than the respective Hagens (Hidekazu Tsumaya, Kenji Saiki), both of whom boasted imposing voices but lacked malevolence. Likewise, both Gutrunes (Fumiko Ando, Mari Moriya)  made the most of their small roles, each lovely, vulnerable creatures in Act I evolving into raging, vengeful women in Acts II and III. The two Waltrautes also were first-rate, but Mutsumi Taniguchi was truly memorable, turning in one of the finest performances I have ever heard of this role. With a voice of dusky elegance, time stopped during her desperate pleading with Brünnhilde.

Special mention must go to the Kyoto Symphony Orchestra, which has grown over the course of the cycle to the point where it now compares favorably with some of the best in Tokyo. There were intonation problems in the woodwinds (as there are in many Japanese orchestras), and some of the horn players were clearly unsuited to the task at hand, but otherwise there was much to admire, especially the string section with its warm, mellow sound, and a low brass department that could give their counterparts in Chicago a run for their money. These guys were heroes. In fact, the entire orchestra could claim likewise. With two non-stop dress rehearsals (one for each cast) and two performances, this meant the orchestra played four Götterdämmerungs in five days — a marathon run probably without precedent. No less magnificent was the chorus of Hagen’s vassals — 40 strong, but sounding more like 400 — superbly trained by Hirofumi Misawa.

Götterdämmerung is, generally speaking, a “dark” opera, and conductor Ryusuke Numajiri found at least fifty shades of gray in his interpretation. Total control of dynamics, attention to balance, and careful pacing (the big climaxes resembled forces of nature), revealed him to be a true master of the Wagner idiom.

Siegfried confronts Fafner in Act 2 of the Otsu production of Wagner’s ‘Siegfried.’

Casts and orchestra aside, what has made this Ring cycle not only memorable but unique is the absolute fidelity of Hampe and von Gierke to Wagner’s stage directions. It is beautiful to see,  intriguing to watch, and possibly more faithful to Wagner’s wishes than any other Ring in history. Goodenough’s computer mapping can reproduce just about any scenic design von Gierke and Hampe dream up: In Das Rheingold, we saw the river evolve from a drop in the cosmos (we know all life comes from water); in Die Walküre, horses flew through the air and even paused in mid-flight to rear up; in Siegfried, the camera took us deep into Fafner’s cave for a close-up look at the sleeping beast — just a few of Wagner’s many “deeds of music made visible.”

There was much visual magic in Götterdämmerung, as well. Never have I seen a more beautiful and realistically prolonged dawn preceding Act I. Siegfried truly journeyed on the Rhine, viewed from the helm of a vessel that rode on the flowing river complete with ripples and eddies. Rhine Maidens alternately bobbed about in the water as computer-generated images, then blurred seamlessly into real-life singers when they came up to the riverbank to tease Siegfried. When the Hall of the Gibichungs collapsed in fiery ruins, one felt like Biwako Hall itself was coming down.

The DVD, I am told, is being rushed into production, and should be available within a few months. The previous year’s Siegfried was filmed but not intended for commercial release at the time. Now Biwako Hall is reconsidering. There are legal issues involving Die Walküre, but that too could produce a DVD in time. Most Ring cycles have become identified with their directors and/or designers: the Chereau Ring, the Zambello Ring, the Lepage Ring, the Schneider-Siemssen Ring (actually, he did seven). The one from Otsu is just Wagner’s Ring, and it is a Ring for the ages.

Formerly a horn player in the Montreal Symphony, Robert Markow now writes program notes for that orchestra and for many others in Canada, the U.S., and Asia. He writes regularly for such classical music journals as American Record Guide, Fanfare, Symphony, Strings, The Strad, Opera, Opera News, and Opera Canada.

Wotan surrounds the sleeping Brünnhilde with fire at the end of the Otsu production of ‘Die Walküre.’
author avatar
Robert Markow
Formerly a horn player in the Montreal Symphony, Robert Markow now writes program notes for that orchestra and for many other musical organizations in Canada, the U.S. and Asia. He taught at Montreal’s McGill University for many years, and as a Wagner specialist has lectured at the Bayreuth Festival. He writes regularly for Fanfare, American Record Guide, Der neue Merker (Vienna), La Scena Musicale (Montreal), and Opera Magazine. Extra-musical interests include travel, film, literature, fine wines and decadent desserts. Also find his byline at: • •