Washington National Opera

Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung: Challenge Met with Smashing Success

Seen April 30 - May 6, 2016
Reviewed by Ed Cloos 

Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle is a challenge as formidable as any an opera company can face. WNO carried it off with smashing success.

The stories of the myth of the Nibelung and the gold that was stolen from nature in the form of the Rhine River are many, and Wagner studied them for years as he sketched out his opera in three parts plus a prologue. He took 26 years to complete the approximately 17 hours of music, so it's hardly surprising that took a decade to bring it to the Kennedy Center stage.

Artistic Director Francesca Zambello chose to bring the action into the Industrial Age. That's been done before, and the best that can be said is it didn't do much harm. That's an achievement in itself since the story involves the interactions between mortals and a "race" of multiple gods. The mortals prove to be about as powerful as the gods.

The project began under Plácido Domingo when he was artistic director, and the early plan was to try to make the tale more "American." Fortunately, that fell by the wayside as the entire project was set aside while the company struggled with financial issues. Under Zambello, the Ring came to fruition in a co-production with San Francisco Opera where it was presented in 2011.

Despite a mish mash of periods, and scenes ranging from post-apocalyptic dystopian to glossy executive office-apartments, a clear narrative emerged. The result was that the full-house audience clearly remained engaged in the drama as well as the music, and it rose to its feet as one every evening as each section concluded. Usually in opera, there is a pause after each aria or ensemble piece for audience applause. Not in this case: the music and drama moved right along.

The Ring is all about the music, and wonderful music it is. It requires excellent singers, and it got them in this production. But they weren’t the world-famous high-priced names the WNO can’t afford. An exception is Nina Stemme, the great Swedish soprano. She repeats the role of Brünnhilde that she created in San Francisco, but only in the final cycle because she was finishing her role with The Met in Elektra.

Finally, the Wagner music is dramatic—sometimes it can be too much so—and it calls for a conductor with a subtle touch. WNO found the perfect veteran Wagner maestro in French conductor Phillipe Auguin, and the appreciative audience gave him applause appropriate to a star. He’s conducted the work many times, and he knows it by heart. The company didn’t have far to look: he’s the music director of WNO.

To the operas:

The Rhinegold: This is considered a prologue rather than a complete opera. In a fast-moving two and a half hours, it introduces the main elements of the story and some of the many musical motifs that identify each character and major event. The gold is unspoiled nature in the running waters of the Rhine. Three Rhinemaidens guard it, but not very well. They sing very well, however, and the beauty of their trio (Jacqueline Echols, Catherine Martin and Renée Tatum) is the musical highlight of the entire opening evening. They feel the gold is safe since only someone who renounced love could take it. That’s easy money for Alberich (baritone Gordon Hawkins, who has sung the role many times). He never had any interest in love in the first place, although he does find the women enticing. He’s the leader of the Nibelungs, a race living underground.

He treats the Nibelungs as his slaves, and he drives them to mine great stores of additional gold. His brother Mime (David Cangelosi), a master smith, fashions the ring that conveys limitless power to its wearer, and weaves a sort of helmet out of gold threads. It allows the wearer to take any form, be invisible, or, we learn later, be transported instantly anywhere. Alberich soon uses it to torture his slaves.

Although the prologue is just one act, it is in four distinct scenes that require significant changes in scenery. The WNO production staff made creative use of the ample fly space above the stage to make the scene changes almost instant. This slick maneuver carried through all four nights.

The constant throughout the Ring is Wotan, ruler of the gods. He’s as susceptible to thirst for power and knowledge as any of the other characters. Before the start of the opera, he had cut a spear from The World Ash Tree, losing an eye in the process, and on the spear carved a series of symbols, contracts and laws to maintain order in the world, but he also must obey his own laws. If he actually did, there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell.

Also before the action of the opera begins, Wotan, as Wälse, the fierce “Wolf Man,” has fathered, with a mortal woman, the twins Sigmund and Sieglinde and raised them. We learn their story in The Valkyrie, the first of the full operas to follow.

In the, for Wagner, amazingly short space of the Prologue, Wotan has employed the giants Fafner and Fasolt (the last of their race) to build his castle above the clouds as both home and fortress for the gods. Their price is the goddess Freia, sister of his wife Fricka. Naturally, Fricka finds this unacceptable, but Wotan says he never intended to go through with the deal. The giants, never trusting Wotan, insist on holding Freia until they are satisfied with their pay. Freia couldn’t be given up in any case since she tends the garden in which grow the golden apples that keep the gods young and immortal.

Wotan seeks the help of Loge, a demigod with the ability to transform into fire, who appears as a sort of slick lawyer. He suggests stealing the Nibelung gold and offering that to the giants. The dirty deed is quickly accomplished. Wotan tears the ring from Alberich’s finger, and it seems like the perfect crime. Alberich, however, places a curse on the ring, dooming all who wear it until it is returned to him.

You can’t scare a god, but Erda, the earth goddess, appears and warns Wotan to turn over everything to the giants in return for Freia or the gods will be doomed. He reluctantly goes along.

The role of Wotan is a tough one, and Alan Held, a veteran of 40 years on stage, carried it off. His bass-baritone, while maybe not quite the stuff of a god, was strong and authoritative. While he’s played Wotan before, he isn’t a Wagner specialist so his acting ability was helpful reinforcement.

The Valkyrie: This is the jewel of the three Ring operas, and the Ring opera probably most often performed alone.

Our first-cycle audience got a bonus when British soprano Catherine Foster had to cancel as Brünnhilde because of a leg injury suffered late in final rehearsals. She was back for the final two operas. In her place, Christine Goerke, in the top echelon of American dramatic sopranos, was called in—reportedly with just 90 minutes of rehearsal—and was nothing short of sensational. She sang with such exquisitely lovely vibrato, and she bounced so confidently around the set that one would think she’d rehearsed for weeks. She was indeed a maiden warrior.

That’s getting ahead of the story since Brünnhilde doesn’t appear until the second act.

The opera opens with an unarmed, wounded and exhausted young man reaching a house in the forest and collapsing. We learn he was injured in a fight to rescue a young woman from an unwanted arranged marriage, killing her two brothers in the process. A young woman, home alone, offers water and comfort. He’s Siegmund, and she is Sieglinde, the twin sister kidnapped years ago and now the unwilling wife of Hunding. Hunding reveals that he had been called to join his clansmen in the search for the stranger who interrupted the wedding, but he’d arrived too late to join the fight.

Meagan Miller’s powerful soprano made Sieglinde’s demonstration of courage all the more winning. With the stylish tenor of Christopher Ventris, they more than did justice to their love duet. Sensing that this may be their sole night of bliss, they consider themselves married and consummate their marriage—even though they recognize that they are brother and sister. Hunding, as custom required, had offered a night of safety to the guest, but warned he’d challenge him to fight to the death in the morning.

Siegmund remembers that his missing father had promised that he’d have a sword when he needed one. Sieglinde remembers that at her wedding a one-eyed old man had appeared and thrust a sword into the tree that grows in the middle of the house. No man had been able to pull it out, but Siegmund does so with ease. At that moment the back wall opens and the couple flees into the night.

The entire Ring made effective use of the projection designs of Jan Hartley, as remounted by S. Katy Tucker, but the scene that the libretto requires of the house opening to the forest was especially effective. Wagner called for the forest to be lighted by a full moon, and what a moon it was! A brilliant project filled much of the back screen of the stage.

The second act introduces Brünnhilde, Wotan’s favorite daughter and the leader of the Valkyries. Wotan pours out his deepest desires to her and instructs her to protect Siegmund in his upcoming battle. Fricka appears, however, and convinces Wotan that he must uphold the sanctity of marriage and prohibitions against incest so he reverses his instruction to Brünnhilde. This requires considerable willing suspension of disbelief of the audience since we know he’s fathered at least 11 offspring, none with his wife. In any case, it is Fricka’s musical highlight and Elizabeth Bishop’s mezzo was more than up to it.

The role of the Valkyries is to collect fallen heroes from battlefields, and to bring them to Valhalla to be reanimated as the palace guard. The stirring Ride of the Valkyries music describes their flight on flying horses. That’s pretty much impossible to stage so the WNO solution was for them to parachute down (or at least appear to) on their return. Well, it was novel. The heroes were represented by faces on cards they carried. What we don’t find out until the next opera is that this is to be their final ride.

Brünnhilde is the daughter of Wotan and Erda so she is fully a god. Her eight sisters also are daughters of Wotan with unspecified mothers—possibly also Erda, but we don’t know.

At the scene of the upcoming battle, Brünnhilde appears to Siegmund and informs him that he’s to die and must follow her to Valhalla. Moved by the depth of his love for his sister-bride, Brünnhilde stands aside, allowing Siegmund to defend himself. An angry Wotan appears, shatters Siegmund’s sword with his spear. Hunding quickly kills helpless Siegmund, and then is killed by Wotan. Brünnhilde gathers up the fragments of the sword and slips into the forest with Sieglinde.

The final act begins with the Valkyries’ back on the mountain top where they bring the heroes they’ve collected. A desperate Brünnhilde arrives with Sieglinde, seeking the help of her sisters. They are afraid to cross Wotan and turn her away. She finds some degree of safety for Sieglinde in the forest near the lair of the giant Fafner, and she returns alone to face her father.

Since they are all gods, everyone seems to know that Sieglinde is carrying Siegfried, the hero who someday will save the gods, even though it hasn’t been 24 hours since she mated with her brother. Wotan’s sentence is to strip Brünnhilde of her immortality and leave her asleep on the mountain until a man finds and wakens her. That man will be her master. She pleads with her father to surround her with a ring of fire so great that only a true hero can reach her. He agrees, and calls on Loge to provide it. The staging included a series of gas-fueled flames so enormous it would seem to worry any fire marshal.

So we leave Brünnhilde to sleep for 18 years. In the first cycle, she went to sleep in the body of Christine Goerke, to be awakened in the next opera in the body of Catherine Foster.

Siegfried, the middle of the three actual operas in the Ring, has some of the most beautiful music in all three, and the most different from the dramatic grand orchestra passages of the others. This was the evening that most took advantage of conductor Philippe Auguin’s nuanced command of the orchestra. It also displayed the acting and singing talents of David Cangelosi as Mime.

Mime seemed to be little more than the slave brother of the dominating Alberich in the prologue, even though he did have the imagination to create the magical tarnhelm. The brothers had been keeping watch near the lair of Fafner, and Mime took on the job of raising Siegfried after his mother died there in childbirth. It wasn’t out of kindness since he was aware that the child likely was to be the hero that could kill Fafner. Still, it takes a great deal of patience to raise even a child less powerful than Siegfried.

Cangelosi has made Mime a signature role, both through his fine tenor and his skill at establishing a character. Again, it was clear why.

As he’s reached maturity, Siegfried has become increasingly unhappy with Mime and treats him with total lack of respect. He also demands increasingly to know about his mother, and Mime is forced to reveal details little by little. He’s also demanded that Mime make him a sword. Master forger though he is, Mime has been unable to make one that can withstand the power Siegfried has developed, and all have been shattered. He has the fragments of the sword found with the dead Sieglinde, but he’s repeatedly failed to reforge it.

Wotan visits Mime and tells him that only a man who doesn’t know fear can restore the sword, but that man will kill Mime. Siegfried doesn’t know fear—or much or anything else, for that matter. Mime tries to teach Siegfried fear, and his description makes Siegfried long to learn about it. He isn’t a good learner.

Tenor Daniel Brenna made a pretty convincing Siegfried, and has done the role several times, but he hasn’t been doing it very long. He looked tough and scrappy, but didn’t really project the presence of an unbeatable hero.

Mime’s plan is to help the young man kill Fafner, then kill him with poison and take the gold for himself.

How to stage a huge, fearless dragon? The easy way, especially with the highly developed techniques available today, would be a projection. The WNO scheme was ingenious and almost frighteningly effective: a huge, tank-like, fire-breathing machine. Before facing the “dragon,” Siegfried listens to the forest birds in the beautiful Forest Murmurs interlude. He tries to make a pipe to respond to the birds, but his attempts fail and he tries his horn. That doesn’t work with the birds, but it awakens sleeping Fafner.

It isn’t easy to kill a giant machine with a sword, but Siegfried finds a vulnerable spot. Back in his original form, Fafner crawls from the machine and dies. Some of his blood splashes on his killer and burns him. He instinctively licks the blood from his hand and gains ability to understand the language of the birds.

Jacqueline Echols, now appearing without wig or disguising costume (she also appeared as a Rhinemaiden), appears as the forest bird. Honestly, she resembles a bird. So does her lovely soprano. She warns of Mime’s plan, and also tells him of the importance of the ring and the tarnhelm. He takes the ring and the tarnhelm, but gold means nothing to him, so he leaves the hoard of gold behind. She also advises him to penetrate the ring of fire and awaken Brünnhilde. Of course, he refuses the poisoned food offered by Mime and kills him.

In the final act, Wotan, whose godly powers enable him to know the future, has realized his dream of world order is falling apart—through his own bad choices—and visits Erda for the last time to ask for her guidance. She tells him that their daughter Brünnhilde is the one to ask. When he tells her of their daughter’s disobedience and punishment (it’s clear to all of us, and at this point even to Wotan, that it was excessive), she turns away and refuses all further contact.

Siegfried arrives, and Wotan questions him about his sword. He doesn’t know Wotan is his grandfather, and sees simply an old man blocking his way with a spear. Siegfried shatters the spear with his sword and goes on his way. Wotan collects the fragments of his spear, and we never see him again.

Siegfried plunges through the flames and awakens Brünnhilde. Siegfried looks her over and exclaims, “This is not a man!” In a stroke, he learns fear and she begins to learn about love. Remember, this is the first woman the young hero has ever seen.

Catherine Foster was powerful in her royal bearing, reminding the man that “gods feared to touch her, and men held her in awe.” She had no more personal experience with love than Siegfried did with fear.

They both learn fast. Their love duet is the most hauntingly beautiful in the entire Ring. The music is familiar as “The Siegfried Idyll,” which Wagner had composed in 1869 (along with the final act of Siegfried) after the birth of their son—named Siegfried, of course. The following year he arranged a chamber version and had it played by surprise in their home to serenade his wife Cosima. That’s come to be performed far more than the entire opera. In any case, despite lack of experience, both Siegfried and Brünnhilde take to mortal romance like ducks to water.

Twilight of the Gods is maybe an inappropriate way to express Götterdämmerung in English since the action is well past “twilight.” It is the destruction of Valhalla and the end of the rule of the gods.

The action is based in the Hall of the Gibichungs. It would be fair to ask: who are they and why are they in this opera? They haven’t appeared until the final opera, and to find out why they do now, one would have to ask Wagner.

Well, they are the followers of King Gibich who live along the Rhine. They are said to represent mediocrity. Sticking to the opera itself, it isn’t necessary to know much about them except that it is in their land that the action of the whole Ring wraps up. Brünnhilde and Siegfried both pay the price for their lack of experience with mortal life and behavior. Siegfried, lacking warning such as the forest bird provided, is easily drugged to forget that he even knows Brünnhilde let alone that she is his wife. Brünnhilde is baffled by his behavior and falls subject to jealousy, a regular cause of tragedy in opera.

Siegfried falls into all this because, despite learning of love in a night of bliss, wants to set off in search of new challenges the very next morning. He gives Brünnhilde the ring to bind their love and sets off.

The ringleader of the final plots is Hagen, the illegitimate son of Alberich and the wife of King Gibich. He was conceived without love, of course, because Alberich renounced it way back in the prologue.

Under influence of a magic potion, Siegfried is convinced by Gunther to win Brünnhilde for himself and for Siegfried to marry Gutrune, Gunther’s sister.

All the complicated plots succeed. The jealous, and totally confused, Brünnhilde reveals that Siegfried is vulnerable only in his back since he never would turn from an enemy. Hagen takes advantage and kills Siegfried while on a celebratory hunting expedition.

The point of all this plot discussion is that the result of all the plots and counter-plots was music that was increasingly dramatic—to the point that the nuanced orchestral performance fell by the wayside, and the singers were often overwhelmed. Maybe that was fitting since some have likened the entire Ring Cycle to a symphony in four movements. That’s going too far, but the case can be made.

Aware of the reality of everything that has happened, Brünnhilde orders a funeral pyre prepared for Siegfried, and walks into it herself once it is aflame. The Rhinemaidens recover the ring from the ashes, but the purity of nature can’t be restored.

Audience response at the conclusion was enormous. The final—and very appropriate—curtain call opened the screen behind the stage to reveal the orchestra, huge chorus, and most of the many hundreds of people involved in the production. The orchestra itself was enhanced with a different group of added instruments, both onstage and off, in each opera. At times it numbered nearly 100 musicians.

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