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Opera's finale: a female suicide bomber

London's daring new take on Wagner's Bruennhilde
/ Source: The Associated Press

A female suicide bomber appears on a London stage and blows herself up along with the cast.

The finale to the English National Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s “Twilight of the Gods” is just the latest in a series of shock tactics by the company that brought pole dancing, gang rape and multiple stabbings to the sometimes staid world of opera.

But the scene failed to impress critics long used to the company’s radical productions.

“Utterly crass” is how The Guardian described the scene in which Wagner’s heroine Bruennhilde straps explosives to her body and sacrifices herself. “It’s an intellectually lazy way to end, and the cheapest of tricks.”

Director Phyllida Lloyd, who directed hit musical “Mamma Mia!” before turning her hand to Wagner, was unrepentant about her staging of the opera, often referred to by its German title “Goetterdaemmerung.”

“It’s hard to be more sensational than Wagner,” she told The Observer newspaper. “This is already one of the most sensational pieces of theater ever conceived.”

“There is something inevitable about the bombing because there are so many terrible things that take place in the story.”

In traditional stagings of the opera, Bruennhilde rides a horse into the burning funeral pyre erected for her dead lover Siegfried. But Lloyd said she wanted to make the finale of Wagner’s mammoth four-opera Ring cycle more realistic.

“She is helped into the jacket by her sister, who then hands her a detonator,” Lloyd told The Observer. “Bruennhilde destroys everything that is poisonous. We are seeing a world that has gone to hell.”

Echoes of Moscow tragedyThe scene had echoes of the 2002 theater siege in Moscow, in which female hostage-takers strapped themselves with explosives. In that tragedy, 129 hostages and 41 Chechen militants died, mostly from narcotic gas pumped in by Russian special forces.

Lloyd, who was unavailable for comment Tuesday morning, didn’t refer to the Moscow siege in her Observer interview.

London’s more established Royal Opera House is putting on its own version of the Ring cycle, but critics have given it even more lackluster reviews than the ENO staging.

“Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Wagner’s Ring ... hasn’t so far been to everyone’s taste,” wrote The Telegraph. “But in comparison to Keith Warner and Stefanos Lazaridis’ messy and gimmicky effort at the Royal Opera, it looks intelligent, forceful and purposeful.”

Lloyd’s Ring — which also features pole-dancing Rhinemaidens, a Las Vegas-style wedding and vassals dressed as a riot squad — is certain to fuel the ENO’s reputation for courting controversy.

Three years ago, Spanish director Calixto Bieito’s production of Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” was panned by critics for its nudity, simulated gang rape and cross-dressing. Tenor Julian Gavin withdrew from the lead role before rehearsals started because of the staging.

Bieito’s 2001 production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at the ENO — whose productions are always sung in English — was booed on opening night. In that staging, Don Giovanni had sex in the back of a car and behind a bar.

Instead of being dragged down to hell in the closing scene, he was stabbed to death by the characters whose lives he defiled.

The ENO, based at the Coliseum theater off Trafalgar Square, recently commissioned the dance-hip hop collective Asian Dub Foundation to create an opera about Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for production in February 2006.

The work will focus on the idiosyncratic Libyan leader’s journey from pariah to statesman, with a rapper playing Gadhafi and the chorus portraying his all-female brigade of bodyguards.

Last summer, the ENO performed part of Wagner’s “The Valkyrie” to thousands of rock fans at the Glastonbury festival in southwest England.

Although the suicide bombing scene in “Twilight of the Gods” got an unenthusiastic response from critics, some congratulated the ENO for attempting to innovate.

“I’d rather be infuriated, which I was constantly, than bored,” wrote the Evening Standard’s reviewer, Fiona Maddocks. “With Wagner, as long as the audience can engage, something’s going right.”