WAGNER, R.: Gotterdammerung
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Richard Wagner (1813-1883): Götterdämmerung
Ill ride the horse when I sing Götterdämmerung in New York Marjorie Lawrence, quoted in her autobiography Interrupted Melody
Marjorie Lawrence was one of the twentieth centurys great Wagnerian sopranos, whose career and recordings may be too little remembered today. She arrived at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1935 and sang the last performance there of her first career in 1941, the same years as the début and departure of Kirsten Flagstad. Lawrence shared some of her repertoire with Flagstad too, notably Sieglinde and the three Brünnhildes, which they would sometimes alternate during Wagnerian cycles at the Met. There the similarity ends, for vocally and temperamentally these two singers were very different. When Flagstad arrived at the Met she had a twenty-year career behind her, spent husbanding her vocal resources ready for a sensational New York début. Lawrence, at the age of 26, was fourteen years Flagstads junior and, it seems, the youngest singer ever to have tackled Brünnhilde in the history of the Met up to that time. Flagstads voice was formidable, firm, focussed and untiring; Lawrences was feminine and vibrant, with a richness that enabled her to sing several rôles of a mezzo hue, including Ortrud, Alceste and Carmen. If there were any rivalry between the two divas, it would seem to have been of the friendliest sort. Flagstad was Nordic, restrained and emotionally cool, Lawrence a vivacious spirit, an Australian outdoor girl and a skilled horsewoman.
And so to the horse; the climactic scene of Götterdämmerung is often a visual and dramatic disappointment, even in the best-made productions. Contrary to Wagners instructions, instead of riding onto Siegfrieds funeral pyre, sopranos have traditionally led their trusty Grane offstage or, worse, frequently been accompanied by no steed at all. Lawrence determined to change all that at her New York appearances in the opera; she privately decided to mount the horse and ride bareback into the conflagration as Wagner had intended, in direct defiance of the stage director and conductor. Apparently not attempted at the Met in its then-recent history, this equine feat caused uproar at the close of the first performance, the very performance, indeed, preserved on these discs, for what we hear is the sopranos New York début as the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde. The wild approval of the audience can be heard a few seconds after the sopranos final bars in the Immolation Scene; the astonishment of the stage director and conductor can only be imagined. But Lawrence was permitted to keep in this imaginative piece of stage business, and it became a feature of her subsequent performances of the opera with the Met company.
There is, of course, far more that is memorable about this interpretation than the horse. Lawrence brought a freshness of voice to Brünnhilde, and an excitement and conviction that this passionate warrior-maid was a loved and loving woman. The timbre is clear and lustrous, penetrating the orchestral surges and complying with the energetic tempi that the conductor, Bodanzky, preferred. The other members of the cast are similarly inspired; Melchior is tireless as ever and brings his unique heroic timbre to the rôle of Siegfried, in what appears to be his only surviving complete recording of Götterdämmerung. (That said, the confrontation between Brünnhilde and Gutrune in the third scene of Act 3 is cut in this performance, a Bodanzky tradition). The incomparable Friedrich Schorr is a sonorous Gunther, caught here well before his vocal decline; the German bass Ludwig Hofmann (1895-1963) is a dark-voiced Hagen, singing again the rôle of his 1932 Met début; and his compatriot Eduard Habich (1880-1960) contributes a suitably unpleasant Alberich. For all its imperfections, this recording is one of the great documents of Wagnerian performance for it preserves the interpretations of (at least) three of the finest singers of their day in some of their most impressive rôles. Among the what ifs of operatic history, the what if Marjorie Lawrence had not succumbed to such crippling illness at the age of 32? must rank highly. We can never answer, but we can listen to this, one of her major operatic recordings, and wonder.
Götterdämmerung was first performed on 17th August 1876 at the Festspielhaus, Bayreuth.
Prologue.  The motifs associated with the Rhine and with Nature, first heard at the start of Das Rheingold are now heard again in the instrumental introduction to Götterdämmerung. The Fate motif returns, a hint, as we know from Die Walküre, of Siegfrieds impending death.  It is night, as the curtain rises to reveal the three Norns, weavers of Fate, sitting on Brünnhildes rock, near the entrance to a cave, resolved to spin and sing. They tell how, once, a brave god came to the sacred ash-tree and paid with one of his eyes to drink there from the well of wisdom. From the tree he cut a branch, from which he made a spear. The motifs here recall Wotans dreams of Valhalla and his promise to pay for the building of Valhalla. The tree died, the third Norn ends her tale, throwing the rope she holds to the second Norn, who continues the story. She tells how Wotan engraved the words of his agreement on the spear, how a young hero broke the spear in battle and how Wotan sent heroes from Valhalla to cut the sacred tree up into logs. The first Norn continues, telling how these logs are piled around the fortress of Valhalla, to be set ablaze and bring about its end. They see Loge, transformed again into fire, guarding Brünnhildes rock, but later to set fire to the fragments of the spear and set ablaze the logs round Valhalla, at Wotans command. What then of the Rhinegold, the Ring? The rope has become entangled and now breaks. The Norns know their time has come and they must return to Erda, goddess of Fate.
 It grows lighter with the start of dawn, and now day breaks. Siegfried and Brünnhilde come from the cave, the latter leading her horse, Grane. Each is identified by a motif, the horse by a reminiscence of the Ride of the Valkyries. Brünnhilde has given Siegfried her knowledge and strength and sends him forward to new deeds of glory. From her Siegfried has learned love, above all, and they sing of their love, with motifs associated with it. Siegfried gives Brünnhilde, as a token of faith, the ring, the symbol of all he has achieved, and she gives him her horse.  Through her power, now, will Siegfried act, as part of her.  He takes his leave and sets out on his Rhine Journey, his own bold motif mingling with those of Fire, the Rhinemaidens, the Rhine and the ring itself.
Scene 1.  The scene is the hall of the Gibichungs, by the Rhine. Gunther and Gutrune are seated to one side, with Hagen at the table. Gunther asks his half-brother if he has the true fame due a Gibich. Hagen respects him but tells him that he could possess greater things and should marry, as should Gutrune. For Gunther there is Brünnhilde, on her rock surrounded by fire, but she is to be Siegfrieds bride, for he has killed the dragon and taken the Nibelungs treasure and magic power. Siegfried, however, might win Brünnhilde for Gunther, in return for the hand of Gutrune. She thinks this improbable, but Hagen reminds her of the drug they have that brings forgetfulness and will make Siegfried forget any other women.