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The End of the World on the Potomac

Washington National Opera
04/30/2016 -  & May 10-15*, 17-22, 2016
Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen
Jacqueline Echols (Woglinde, Forest Bird), Catherine Martin (Wellgunde, Waltraute in [Die Walküre]), Renée Tatum (Flosshilde, Grimgerde), Gordon Hawkins (Alberich), Elizabeth Bishop (Fricka), Alan Held (Wotan), Melody Moore (Freia, Ortlinde), Julian Close (Fasolt), Solomon Howard (Fafner), Richard Cox (Froh), Ryan McKinny (Donner, Gunther), William Burden (Loge), David Cangelosi (Mime), Lindsay Ammann (Erda, Schwertleite, First Norn), Christopher Ventris (Siegmund), Meagan Miller (Sieglinde), Raymond Aceto (Hunding), Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde), Marcy Stonikas (Gerhilde, Third Norn), Lori Phillips (Helmwige), Eve Gigliotti (Siegrune), Daryl Freedman (Rossweisse), Daniel Brenna (Siegfried), Jamie Barton (Second Norn, Waltraute [Götterdämmerung]), Eric Halfvarson (Hagen), Melissa Citro (Gutrune)
Washington National Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Philippe Auguin (conductor)
Francesca Zambello (production), Michael Yeargan (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes), Mark McCullough (lighting), Jan Hartley and S. Katy Tucker (video projections)

Götterdämmerung (© Scott Suchman for WNO)

It has been a decade in the making, but Washington finally has a Ring Cycle of its very own. A latecomer among national capitals of the Western world, the unfolding saga of Francesca Zambello’s production almost matches the epic tetralogy in dramatic proportions. The Rheingold installment premiered as long ago as 2006, followed by Walküre the following year (an earlier version of the latter opera appeared at Constitution Hall in 2003, when the Kennedy Center Opera House was under renovation for a season). Financial shortfalls left over from Plácido Domingo’s free-spending days as general director slowed things down, with Siegfried delayed to 2009. Compounded by the 2008 financial crisis, fiscal limitations reduced Götterdämmerung to just two concert performances later that year accompanied by the disappointing announcement that the full Cycle would be postponed indefinitely. The honor of hosting the production’s complete premiere fell to the more robust San Francisco Opera, which shares the production. It produced it in three cycles during the summer of 2011, featuring the celebrated Swedish soprano Nina Stemme’s first full-cycle performances of the central role of Brünnhilde.

Reviews of the production’s San Francisco premiere (including my own) were deservedly mixed, but five years of anticipation guaranteed that the Ring’s long awaited presentation in Washington would blaze like a shooting star over the capital’s anemic cultural landscape. The Washington National Opera, for whose then-newly renovated theater the production was originally designed, devoted so much effort to it that the rest of its 2015-2016 was severely truncated, even beyond the drastic post-Domingo reduction in the number and scale of productions. Hopeful spectators turned out in droves to pay $2,500 for advanced tickets, with some local arts patrons donating far more specifically to support the production. Single-sale tickets sold at a premium nearly double the price of normal WNO performances. Individual seats for the operas in the third cycle, the only one to feature Stemme’s Brünnhilde, cost another $100 above that. The company’s official position was that this was not an ambitious fundraising exercise, but rather an attempt to cover costs ($10 million worth) and reach out to badly needed new audiences in a city whose demographics skew between aged establishment types and oblivious millennial transients. Paradoxically, both generations share a far greater devotion to politics than to art, and neither will likely be around in five years.

In this city of relentless image making, the hype succeeded. Most performances were announced as sell-outs. About one-third of sales reportedly went to people from outside the Washington metropolitan area, suggesting that the WNO might be able to restore its financial health by appealing to tourists. Cycle II, which I attended, boasted a bizarre and unfamiliar audience. Provincial visitors paraded their pretentions. One woman was overheard telling another to move her bag because it had slumped into her "personal space," suggesting that her experience of sitting in a row of seats has for her entire life sadly been limited to economy flights. Another, who obviously had no idea what she was getting into, was treated to a well deserved gaggle of condescending grins when she asked a little too loudly why it all has to be so long. Some spectators took the occasion as an invitation to dress up as their favorite Wagner characters, though most ended up looking like least favorite Star Trek characters. Others took it as an invitation not to dress up at all, including one glamorous individual who was spotted at all four performances in the same suit of plus-size athletic gear but was unfortunately not seen doing sit-ups during the lengthy intermissions. The local media effusively praised the event - almost to the exclusion of rigorous critical comment - in a rather grasping effort to buck up a civic pride soured by Washington’s rising crime rate and decaying infrastructure. Even Washingtonians who care nothing for music seemed to know about and appreciate the buzz. But oddly in this tortuous election year, almost no one seems to have grasped the work’s philosophical themes about the corrupting nature of the power and the hollow illusions of the will.

Zambello, who has become the WNO’s artistic director since her Ring began to appear all those years ago, famously envisioned an "American" Ring, tracing the national experience from the early days of the industrial revolution through an alienating present. Rheingold opens in a 1920s milieu with Alberich as a befuddled gold prospector and the gods as Gatsby-styled heroes preparing to move into a skyscraper Valhalla. The giants Fasolt and Fafner, who demand payment for building the gods’ castle, are cartoonish construction workers. Walküre takes the action forward a generation to the 1950s. Wotan is now a powerful industrial chieftain presiding over his empire from a sky-high office that looks down over a gray city silhouette. In one of the Cycle’s more impressive scenes, his Valkyries are aviatrixes who parachute in during their famous “Ride.” Hunding is a cabin-dwelling backwoods brute. Siegmund and Sieglinde play out their scene of doom beneath the construction site of a highway overpass that easily dismisses the tacky, oversized moon under which they fall in love. Valhalla’s heroes appear in black and white photos of actual American soldiers killed in the country’s wars. In Siegfried we find a decaying industrial idiom that evokes the malaise of the 1970s. Mime inhabits a broken down trailer in a squalid trash dump next to a power station that ominously emits green smoke. Fafner is not an actual dragon but rather the operator of an armored trash compactor. He dies when Siegfried severs its vital power cords. The opera’s hero liberates Brünnhilde in surroundings that look bleaker than those in which Wotan had left her in the previous opera. In the gloomy universe of Götterdämmerung, environmental despoilation and social atomization are complete. The Norns, whose rope of fate contains all the knowledge of the world, are computer technicians who tend cables. The obliteration of their wisdom by spiraling fate results in a hardware crash. The Rhinemaidens are reduced to bag ladies clearing garbage from their aquatic abode. They ultimately kill Hagen by snuffing him out – tastelessly in my opinion – with a yellow garbage bag. Gunther, Gutrune, and their evil half-brother Hagen appear in an unattractive postmodern glass and steel structure. Their cheerless realm is tended by a gruff private army of wage slaves.

The only weak suggestion of the tetralogy’s redemptive theme comes in the form of a child planting a sapling ash tree – the source of the world’s blossoming wisdom before Wotan corrupted it – for the amusement of the blasé denizens of Gunther’s realm. Zambello has frequently stated that her work has a feminist bent, that Brünnhilde is the real hero whom Wotan overlooked in his quest to produce a free man who can redeem the world. But the point does not come across at all well and even seems forced. In fact the end, in which the gods and creation are nevertheless destroyed, suggests that if this truly is Brünnhilde’s role, she has done a less than stellar job.

Elements of the San Francisco production appear to have been updated, such as the redesigned video projections used in scene changes. The direction and characterization seemed crisper and more carefully thought through. I still wondered, though, what provocations this Ring makes that Patrice Chéreau missed in his centennial production in Bayreuth forty years ago. That landmark production was also shorn of mythological context and unfolded along the trajectory of an industrial society’s doomed evolution. Its Götterdämmerung installment was even meant to be set in New York. Günter Krämer’s recent Paris production of the Ring also embeds the work deeply in the pitfalls of industrial and post-industrial modernity. So does Bayreuth’s current Ring, by Frank Castorf, introduced to mark the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth in 2013.

One ached to hear Stemme’s Brünnhilde, who only graced the third cycle, but Catherine Foster has no reason to feel overshadowed in her stately interpretation. Having sung the role to some acclaim in Bayreuth’s recent new production and elsewhere, her clarion technique delivered gleaming Bs and Gs that enriched the music with passion and charm. Her top notes lacked the rounded quality one recalls from the role’s greatest exponents, but it is more than apparent that Foster might well grow into performances of that stature. Alan Held’s Wotan was strong and stentorian but occasionally lacked elegance. Part of his Walküre incarnation of the role suffered from an announced allergy problem brought on by awful Washington weather. Meagan Miller and Christopher Ventris delivered a fine pairing as Sieglinde and Siegmund. Daniel Brenna’s Siegfried was a resounding success. The early notes revealed some caution, but he only got better as the last two evenings went on. He clearly deserved more praise than the now standard plaudit that a Heldentenor is good merely by virtue of being able to make it through the role. Gordon Hawkins’s Alberich was less domineering than I recall, but probably for the better since this approach enabled him to access the character in greater nuance. His delivery of the curse Alberich places on the ring was soft and almost elegiac, conveying judgment rather than the usual rage. Veteran bass Eric Halfvarson’s malevolent Hagen recaptured his many stellar performances in the part all over the world. The supporting cast offered glimpses of some excellent young singers clearly on their way up. Rising mezzo Jamie Barton’s Waltraute riveted her long scene with Brünnhilde with a superbly well sung pathos. Bass Solomon Howard brought an alluring charcoal quality to Fafner. Ryan McKinny’s steady baritone enlivened the parts of Donner and Gunther. Lindsay Ammann did impressive triple duty in the low range parts of the earth goddess Erda, the Valkyrie Schwertleite, and the First Norn.

Washington’s music director Philippe Auguin took the podium to preside over what is, alas, not exactly a Wagner orchestra. Squally brass and gritty strings delivered a less than sublime playing. Auguin seemed to lack focus in many of the great moments, and his tempos were distractingly uneven across the Cycle. It was really only in the third act of Götterdämmerung that one sensed a master at work.

Zambello’s Ring is here to stay. Who knows when Washington will see it again, but San Francisco can reportedly look forward to a revival in 2018.

Paul du Quenoy



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