In the darkened Kennedy Center Opera House, the music begins so quietly one thinks maybe it is only imagined. But that E-flat major triad rolls on and grows. On an enormous screen, from a murky swirling darkness, slowly, light appears, forming a gaseous cloud. The cloud takes form, with trailing arms of light, a great Milky Way. The music grows even louder. Light becomes water, water weather. For five minutes a play between projections and music holds the audience enthralled. Time is suspended. The universe is being created, and then the earth, a magical watery world. The waters converge into a river, dominating center stage with the vision of a stunning waterfall. Nature reigns.
Thus Richard Wagner begins his mighty tetralogy, commonly called “The Ring Cycle.” He had envisioned a scope so big that he was almost 150 years too early to harness the technical means and the scientific verification that Washington National Opera had at its fingertips to make this first stunning opening statement. Conductor Philippe Auguin and Projection Designer S. Katy Tucker hold the reins of their complementary “steeds” of musicians and machines for the over two and a half hours of The Rhinegold, both of them demonstrating enormous “elemental” power and prowess.
The birth of the universe is a fitting metaphor for the WNO production that has been ten long years in the making. The time has afforded Director Francesca Zambello extra preparation to live with Wagner’s story and characters and to have tested and replaced unsatisfying solutions from her production when it was seen first in San Francisco in 2011. Zambello has been on a quest, much like her favorite female hero, Brünnhilde, who appears later in the Cycle. Just as Brünnhilde will eventually redeem the world through love, Zambello’s mission has been to redeem opera for American audiences and – let’s get grand a moment, after all we’re talking Wagner – just maybe staking her battles in this power capital so that through opera we can together look at, respond, and save our world in the 21st century.
Zambello’s production of The Ring of the Nibelung is a big deal in all kinds of ways. But what makes it, for me, startling and brave is how American she has re-framed the work, and how darn well she pulls it off.
She has excellent collaborators. Set designer Michael Yeargan has given Zambello a spare and efficient set with clean framing lines and elements of industrial-age America. Mark McCullough lights the world beautifully, finding vivid colors to flood the stage and change the emotional colors in Wagner’s score. The gold of the first scene is brilliant and set against the starkness that ensues when Freia is removed and the world withers: the place takes on the hideous, frightening gray-out of nature as a paint-ball field. Catherine Zuber’s costumes capture the elegance of industrial-era moguls while imaginatively re-envisioning fantasy elements of the giants.
On approaching the tradition of this great work, I do not claim to be an aficionado of Wagner, not like my friend Ann who was also there opening night seeing her “seventh Ring,” nor my friend Robert, who served as assistant to Wieland (Richard Wagner’s grandson who took over directing at Bayreuth, grandpappy’s theater) for a time in the early sixties. There were many people in the audience opening night at the Kennedy Center who had journeyed from far flung places to make their Wagnerian pilgrimage, and the atmosphere was electrifying.
The Ring is intended to be music drama at its most integrated – as Wagner called for in his visionary statements of Gesamtkunstwerk. The Rhinegold serves as a Prologue to provide the backstory for the full Ring. Norse mythology was Wagner’s inspiration to write about three generations of men and gods that ultimately shows the downfall of an empire. Zambello has replaced references to the original northern European source and instead has taken an epic approach to an American story: how our vast beautiful landscapes (a very big Nature indeed) have been sold and degraded by greed, power and carelessness.
Zambello has plucked pieces of American history and found iconic images to dress and immediately identify characters so that regardless of our operatic education or inclination we can be brought in to experience the heart of Wagner’s epic. She is determined to help solve the great divide between Wagnerian purists and those who feel the work is unattainable and to be expurgated.
Some of her “solutions” prove brilliant. The Rhine for instance is given dramatic visualization at one point as a flowing “ river” of gold silk. The three Rhine maidens, protectors of the gold, play with the fabric and tease the old goldpanner, Alberich, to wade in with them. As the singing and music keep coming back to one of the famous motives “Rhinegold,” he gets tangled up in the silk and makes off with the river-gold. It’s so simple yet stunning a statement. The river was all about pristine nature, but Alberich’s greed leads him to renounce love to have it. What is the price of beauty if you can’t market and sell it? Now, how American is that!
When we first see the family of gods, instead of standing stiffly around in “timeless mythic fashion,” the second scene opens up onto a terrace, where Wotan, head god-dude, is taking some rays, stretched out in a lounge chair. Donner and Froh, in immaculate white Gatsby suits, are overseeing the building of Valhalla (a chief plot point, because Wotan has overextended his credit in the building of this big McMansion.) Thunder god Donner, with his long sledgehammer, stands around with his brother Froh, re-imagined in hard hats as project managers.
When the giants who actually built Valhalla enter, they are lowered in on a steel girder. American as apple pie in their giant blue coveralls, these are the workers building an empire of steel. In the background one sees a range of mountains. Wotan and his family have claimed and no doubt stripped their acquired mountaintop for their “Towers.” Yes, indeed, the surtitles don’t let us doubt for a minute who is being trumped up in this image of decadence. And Wotan wants to cut new deals with the workers. Why is he doing this? Because he can.
Such references received ripples of appreciative laughter throughout the opera. But even more thrilling, the performances of this cast of “super” singer-actors synthesized stunningly a “whole” world worthy of Wagner.
Heading up the cast as head god Wotan and wife Fricka are Alan Held and Elizabeth Bishop. Both are such old handers at Wagner, they wear these roles as comfortable old clothes, and make singing Wagner look easy! From his opening moment, where Held lounges on his patio, he puts the whole audience at ease by his own deep relaxation. His sound is sure and his musical timing impeccable. Held makes me understand fully this complex deity as an empire builder who manipulates the world around him but is also burdened heavily by his responsibilities and endless obstacles that would obstruct his bid for supreme ruler.
Bishop’s Fricka is the more formal personality of the two, but the soprano also gives us her nuanced thinking with great clarity throughout the evening. I have never seen a Fricka so convincing or more sympathetic (or, for that matter so vocally pleasingly powerful.)
Fricka is burdened by a philandering husband and trying to protect a sister who has been abducted by the giants in her husband’s bad business deal. But Bishop avoids making her a shrew. Theirs is a real marriage. She wipes the forehead of Wotan, runs over and perches in his lap, and their embraces seem so genuine. If she too wants a piece of the gold and power, well, why shouldn’t she? Bishop and Held do remind me of another couple, he demonstrably another Wotan who was also a “force of nature” that she had to bear up under.
Both Held and Bishop taught me something in their performances about economy of means of a gesture, a turn of the head. Watching how well they knew and could physically play and re-enforce Wagner’s music was like watching master surfers catch and ride a great wave. But when they needed to, they held still and listened.
There were plenty of terrific performances. Some of the singer-actors brought great freshness to the new interpretation to their roles in this American Ring.
Gordon Hawkins plays Alberich not as a scaly, toadish creature but as a man, an American gold miner, who may be loutish and somewhat isolated, so that in the first scene with the beautiful, sexually teasing Rhine maidens, he shows he has impulse control issues. As such, Hawkins’ Alberich starts out being rather sympathetic, and this gives the character a journey of a man who grows more disagreeable and grotesque with the greed and power that comes with owning the ring. By the third act, he is building up piles of gold with the help of little Nibelungs played by three dozen or so children. As he terrorizes them with the power of his voice, they run screaming from the stage, and Hawkins does a shiver and strut that clearly was appreciated by the audience, reminding all of Saturday afternoon wrestlers.
Loge, as Wotan’s right hand man, is one of the most fascinating and arguably the most contemporary spellbinding characters in Wagner’s Ring. William Burden plays him as a modern composite of corporate lawyer and boss-man’s consigliere. Wagner had set this tenor role to drive the action forward. Burden’s steely voice cuts through the heroic themes of the musical motives with an assuredness and cynicism that is familiar to anyone who has tried to play with the big boys in Washington.
Soloman Howard and Julian Close as the giants Fafner and Fasolt are visually stunning in matching blue coveralls and enormous boots that give them a forced perspective look reminiscent of drawings of Peter Max. Their hands have been covered in metal gloves. Are they tinmen? Robots? The two basses make it all work, even managing a clumping walk to their musical motif. Instead of heavy brutishness, they provide some comedic relief with their high-fiving and playing the urban underdogs. But Close especially has been encouraged to pull out even more than usual the love interest and heartbreak of his character, who falls for a capitalist king’s sister-in-law. By the time Fasolt becomes the first victim of the ring’s curse, we have begun rooting for him and Freia, an unlikely but truly tragic Romeo and Juliet couple.
Erda has been envisioned as a Native American Earth goddess. Lindsay Ammann is visually stunning in bangles and buckskin with long black tresses and vocally compelling with her mysterious contralto sound. She pleads with Wotan to halt his fateful path. As she exits slowly upstage and disappears over the horizon, we are reminded again of the stakes we are playing, not just against nature but the natural order, and that it may be too late.
The Ring of the Nibelung: The Rhinegold
Performances: April 30, May 10 and May 17
Details and tickets
The Rhine maidens, usually costumed as mermaid-types, were instead envisioned as prairie girls in corseted unbleached muslin undergarments. I totally bought their girlish fun as well as their fearless independence. Jacqueline Echols, Catherine Martin, and Renée Tatum move and sing delightfully. Their beauty in the first scene did not prepare me for the stunning last image in the opera, where the three crawl on stage, draped in black, begging with their extended arms to be saved and ascend with the Family Wotan. They resonate as not only people who were broken and left behind in the economic crash but as victims of the desecration of nature.
Many of the opera’s elements succeed remarkably given the task of mounting four operas in one fell swoop. A few solutions remain to be found. The third act did not quite work on opening night. The space felt cramped by a sheer wall against which stood ladders, but how and what to do with the wall and ladders remained inscrutable. This was further hampered by getting some three dozen Nibelungs and a few mine carts on and off stage. It got so crowded that it affected my following David Cangelosi’s depiction of the dwarf Mime. I never believed he was being whipped by the invisible Alberich, and I kept losing his thread in the jumble.
Melody Moore as Freia did not show the stage authority I had seen in her roles of Lady M. (Macbeth) and Senta (The Dutchman.) She was part of a small group that seemed to do more than was necessary, stealing when she should have been giving focus. The last scene, the whole family of gods seemed to get stuck at the bottom of a gangway(replacing the bridge over which the family must cross to take up residence in their Valhalla.)
Experiencing the music of Wagner’s expanded orchestra was truly spine tingling. How the horns, including four extra Wagnerian tubas, grabbed you up out of your seats! The strings whirled and swirled you around emotionally. At one point six percussionists played a total of fifteen “anvils,” to represent the frantic mining underground of the Nibelung to appease their master and ring stealer. The piercing sound seemed to be coming from all around the hall. Was it possible? Music enlivens. Great music enlivens greatly.
Auguin and Zambello have delivered a most memorable Prologue to an American “Ring.” By the roar of the crowd that leapt to their feet at the curtain call, many of the audience felt the same. (I hardly noted one Washington couple heading for their early exit to the parking lot!) The audience stayed standing clapping the magnificent Gesamtkunstwerk. Bravi tutti.
The Rhinegold. Music and Libretto by Richard Wagner. Directed by Francesca Zambello. Conducted by Philippe Auguin. Featuring Lindsay Ammann, Elizabeth Bishop, William Burden, David Cangelosi, Julian Close, Richard Cox, Jacqueline Echols, Gordon Hawkins, Alan Held, Soloman Howard, Catherine Martin, Ryan McKinney, Melody Moore, and Renée Tatum.
Set Designer: Michael Yeargan. Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber. Lighting Designer: Mark McCullough. Original Projections: Jan Hartley. New Projections: S. Katy Tucker. Movement Director: Denni Sayers. Fight Master: Joe Isenberg. Produced by Washington National Opera. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.