Friday morning, images across TV screens and in The Washington Post flashed pictures of wildfires burning in the oil fields of Alberta, Canada. For those of us this past week who have lived and breathed Richard Wagner’s towering operatic epic, The Ring of the Nibelung by Washington National Opera (all 18 hours!) these billowing spumes of smoke seemed life imitating art, imitating life. Director Francesca Zambello has treated the material with a modernized apocalyptic vision of the destruction of nature and the natural order.
In the hands of Zambello and Conductor Philippe Auguin, the first three evenings of operas have offered exceptional dramatic and musical interpretations, but Twilight proved to be the pinnacle. Images and music built a unified whole, particularly in the power and skillful layering of Wagner’s musical leitmotifs. Indeed, on this final opera, for Maestro Auguin – with the tremendous efforts of the superb orchestra – the glory was his. All combined, the WNO artists set their own searing conflagration in Kennedy Center’s Opera House.
Twilight of the Gods is Wagner’s last music drama in a cycle of four (or, as originally envisioned, three with a big “Prologue.”) It tells the story of the death of the great hero Siegfried, the end of the gods’ dominion, the return of a ring of great and terrible power to its guardians, and the great human sacrifice of Brünnhilde to redeem the world.
The evening begins on the steps outside the Opera House where we are greeted, as if we were ourselves returning heroes, with a fanfare of alpine horns. The bronze bust of President Kennedy tilts with a little smile playing around his lips, as if he is leaning down to listen.
Once seated, we were treated to a ritual of projected clouds, this one a dense purple haze of smoke, during which the music carries us through several themes we have come to love as musical shorthand to the still unfolding story. When the curtain rises, we have been transported to a creepy subterranean chamber bathed in ghoulish light with what looks like a futuristic metropolis-nightmare of cabling. Three female workers, covered head to toe in medical-technician green, with protective thick gloves and lead-and-leather aprons (the kind used against radiation contamination,) work to disentangle the mess.
The re-imagined Norns, sisters presaging fate, recount what has occurred and what will be. We learn the truth about the god Wotan’s lies and how his rash actions, including breaking the branch of a sacred ash tree, together with the curse of the ring, have set in motion the looming destruction of the world. “Envy and misfortune arise from the ring!” We also are treated to a preview of what lies in store for the headstrong Siegfried.
Lindsay Ammann, who made a beautiful Earth goddess Erda in previous parts of The Ring, now returns, and with Jamie Barton and Marcy Stonikas, play the three Norns. They are heavy lifters, serious, perennial night-shift workers, dragging massive cables (loosely translated from the German word for rope or threads, “Seil”) back and forth across the stage. The set for this scene seems unnecessarily complicated, but the performers’ physicality and the singing are memorable. Zambello has grounded the images in a modern reality and makes the high stakes believable, so that when the cables suddenly become severed, their agony is palpable.
The audience gets a reprieve with an interlude where the projections become a thing of Monet-beauty. Musical motifs of “Siegfried the Hero” and “Brünnhilde as Mortal Woman” wind masculine and feminine principles together and revive our hopes that all will yet be saved.
Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde had returned to the stage two nights before in Siegfried after suffering a leg injury in rehearsal and valiantly made it through that performance. Now she shows up and, pain be damned, she’s on fire. Daniel Brenna had given us a suitably feckless young Siegfried, but I had doubts if he could pull off the mature hero vocally or physically. In their first scene he proved he would seize the day.
In Twilight’s opening night, Brenna gave the break-out performance opera lovers live for. He seemed to occupy more stage and air space. His voice opened consistently with a rich, full sound. Brenna’s Siegfried is magnificent.
Both singers kept modulating, cranking up as needed but always in service of unleashing the passion of these lovers. From their opening moments, these two couldn’t keep their hands off each other. They used those distinct German consonant endings to sound like they were going to bite into each other as luscious apples.
Wagner’s writing of their big duet allows them to cut loose and the audience to be indulged in the strings’ melodious beauty. The Wagnerian spell is such that however long a song or opera is, we are as lost as the entranced lovers are. No one wants the Liebesbund (“Love’s Bonds”) to end nor the more than five or six other musical motifs wound together in this section.
But men will be men, and Siegfried is off for new adventures, leaving Brünnhilde the magic ring.
Zambello and set designer Michael Yeargan next serve up a very clever updating of a scripted medieval castle as a sterile deluxe Washingtonian Magazine apartment with plenty of glass and chrome, hideously impractical and uninviting Roche DuBois furniture, and all adorned by leopard skin throw pillows. \
Here reign Gunther (Ryan McKinny) and sister Gutrune (Melissa Citro.) We first see her perched on the sofa, her long blonde hair hanging straight to her waist, bangled and belted in bling and an orange lamé long dress, made up like a Trump-daughter, vacant-eyed, and bored. Brother Gunther tries hard to “man up” to step-brother Hagen (Eric Halfvarson,) and both men seem unnaturally drawn to their sister. All this juicy detail gives the audience a welcome break from the Sturm und Drang.
This trio connives, a trap is set, and Siegfried walks right into it on his hero quest. Gutrune comes alive at the idea of a real hero as a husband. Gunther fancies he could get some creds being married to Brünnhilde, while Hagen plots the whole thing to wrestle back the ring and rule the world. It’s a charming scene played for lots of laughs. Brenna comes across like a young Brad Pitt, a kind of goofily grinning Hollywood jock, whose handshake leaves the other two men wincing in pain. Meanwhile, Siegfried wanders around confused by the apartment, pounces on what he thinks might be live game (the leopard pillow,) and, with inhibitions removed by a drugged cocktail, climbs up onto Gutrune. Soon he’s forgotten all about his great love and swears an oath of allegiance with his new blood-brother Gunther to secure Brünnhilde for him .
Brenna and McKinny indulge in a wonderful manly duet, and both of them clearly enjoy playing off each other. In the same scene, Citro gets to show she is a fine songbird as well as a comedienne.
Meanwhile, what saves Zambello’s choices from being “just” clever in this outrageous update, is that she successfully uses the concept to mine the actions and the relationships. Auguin and Zambello support Wagner’s score and shift between light and dark mood, music, and drama.
I’ve never quite bought scenes in plays where someone (Siegfried) woos, disguised as another (Gunther.) But Foster, after waiting alone on her outpost of a rock for her young lover, makes it clear from the instant a seeming stranger enters that she is exposed, vulnerable and afraid. Auguin makes the music so full of urgency that everything tumbles forward. Soon the man disguised as Gunther has grabbed her and pulls her roughly across the stage.
By this time, we are two hours into the opera and we have only completed Act I. But the next two acts hold unforgettable moments.
Gordon Hawkins, one my favorite singer-actors in the whole cast, returns to impress us further in his role of Alberich. He climbs into a king-size bed, where Hagen has fallen asleep after flipping channels on late-night television and pawing at half-sister Gutrune. Alberich bores into the mind of his son Hagen, poisoning him with his unrelenting greed to get back the ring. Hawkins and Halfvarson are terrific, and the scene gets creepier by the moment.
The Rhine Maidens, who started us on this huge journey back in The Rhinegold as winsome young maidens splashing around in the Rhine, return as grayed-out wraiths to collect trash in black plastic bags. Their characters’ saddened existence has not hurt the trio’s voices one bit, and in fact Jacqueline Echols, Catherine Martin, and Renée Tatum treat us to some of the most beautiful singing of the evening. But they also further the drama, refocusing us to the pathos of their loss of the precious living Rhine waters.
Catherine Foster’s craft in building her character’s arc shows a great many colors. From a woman lost in love, she gives us vulnerability as well as passion. Later she prowls the stage like a mountain lion with a heart full of courage. In her tragedy she becomes a woman of great compassion and dignity. Her power on stage is impressive. When she grabs up Hagen’s spear and holds off the whole court, I believed she could take the whole lot of them out. Even now, I see her thinking through every line, her focus never wavering.
WNO’s men’s chorus has never sounded better. How I had missed this massive sound in Wagner’s setting of mostly solos throughout the cycle. The staging also proved some of the strongest group choreography I’ve seen by the company.
The murder of Siegfried was horrific, and everyone’s reaction, from the chorus, to McKinny’s clutching fear then shame, to Hagen’s demented violence added to the dramatic tension. Brenna went to a place emotionally and physically that will forever be burned in my memory. Like a wounded animal trying to stand up after being shot, his legs kept collapsing under him, and again he would stagger up. He had an expression of bewilderment as we watched the lifeblood seep out.
The Ring of the Nibelung: Twilight of the Gods
closes May 22, 2016
Details and tickets
In spite of that, the music carries us through to the end, and the last scene has some of the most beautiful that Wagner wrote. Auguin has clearly lived with the score for a long time and has established an intimate dialogue with what he calls a “living organism.” I found myself compelled here, as in other moments, to close my eyes momentarily and let the music run through me.
This has been a great Ring Cycle and one I believe will be one for the ages. Zambello has found a new way to keep Wagner’s challenging marathon moving. I doubt if ever an audience has experienced the kind of physical and emotional interactions as in this production, nor, I wager, has a director ever used the time so well to create a space for singer-actors to risk and give so much. And the audience that has gone the distance has never been put into such a direct relationship with an orchestra.
At the end of the opera, a young girl, reminiscent of Erda, walks solemnly to the front of the stage with a small tree and plants it. Things come full circle and are passed on.
The child reminded me that the experience of this opera should be “passed on” and shared with the next generation. This Ring is not for the cognoscenti only, and shame on the people who waste ink or airtime comparing this or that performance. Zambello’s Ring is both the most human of stories and contains the theme of the most critical challenge facing us today. The production uses gorgeous music, drama, and stunning visuals to “grow us new ears,” thrill us, and break open our hearts to a love of the arts. This production deserves ongoing support, even in a condensed version, for new generations to see.
The Valkyrie. Music and Libretto by Richard Wagner. Directed by Francesca Zambello. Conducted by Philippe Auguin. Featuring Lindsay Ammann, Jamie Barton, Daniel Brenna, Melissa Citro, Jacqueline Echols, Catherine Foster, Eric Halfvarson, Gordon Hawkins, Catherine Martin, Ryan McKinny, Marci Stonikas, 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