WNO’s American Ring: A vastly improved ‘Rhinegold’ debuts

WNO’s American Ring: A vastly improved ‘Rhinegold’ debuts

A fantastic, passionate and coherent production of Wagner’s introductory chapter to his sweeping epic story.

Gordon Hawkins as Alberich (center), David Cangelosi as Mime (far right), and the company of The Rhinegold. Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.

WASHINGTON, May 1, 2016 – It’s here at long last, the Washington National Opera’s first-ever performance of Richard Wagner’s epic “Ring Cycle” of operas. Now unfolding at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, this home-grown “American Ring” production likely had its early origins in a memorable 2003 performance of “Die Walküre” just after the turn of the new century in, of all places, DAR Constitution Hall.

Performed in that space due to the renovation of the Kennedy Center Opera House, that production, starring Plácido Domingo, received rave reviews, perhaps inspiring the company, then led by Mr. Domingo, to finalize its own “American Ring” concept, conceivedob and implemented by current WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello and set designer Michael Yeargan.

Backstory of WNO’s first-ever Ring Cycle

WNO’s original idea was to unveil each new production of the Ring Cycle’s four increasingly lengthy operas one at a time before presenting the entire finished cycle in a later season. Unfortunately, the cost of the original sets and costumes, along with the then-independent company’s increasingly shaky finances halted this ambitious enterprise after the company’s production of “Siegfried.”

As a consequence, the company’s eagerly awaited “Götterdämmerung” never happened, albeit for a wonderful pair of concert-performances. After that, the company’s Ring Cycle concept was effectively abandoned here though not forgotten, becoming one of the many artistic casualties caused by the Great Recession.

But, for those who keep plugging away, the sun eventually does come out tomorrow. WNO’s financial health was gradually restored after the company came under the wing of the Kennedy Center family. In the meantime, the complete “American Ring” was presented by the San Francisco Opera, which had partnered in this endeavor with the Washington National Opera.

It was during that 2011 production of the complete American Ring that the new cycle’s rationale, characterizations and sets were refined. As a result, the performances DC audiences will be attending are likely to differ, perhaps considerably, than those seen locally from 2006-2009.

Back to the future: A New American Ring

Which gets us back to the beginning of the cycle—Saturday evening’s premiere performance of WNO’s notably revised and refined production of “Das Rheingold,” or, as the company now prefers it, “The Rhinegold.”

Read also: Christine Goerke’s Brünnhilde saves the day in ‘The Valkyrie’

In our previous reviews of the original “American Ring” productions, we had expressed irritation at what we regarded as the distinctly anti-American tone and symbolism that dominated the first three operas. Yet those memories, in turn, made us curious as to how things might go this time around, given refinements and tweaks to the original concept over the past several years as well as the passage of time.

If Saturday’s “Rhinegold” offers us any clues, these revised productions may finally have got their groove back. The same anti-capitalist framing of the tale is likely still there, as indeed it was in the company’s original 2006 “Rhinegold.” But in Saturday’s production, superb, unified story telling, unfolding under Francesca Zambello’s clear-eyed direction, gave heft and substance to what was once a jumble of disordered symbols and confusing characters.

Add in marvelous singing by a superb cast, and voilà! A fantastic, passionate and coherent production of Wagner’s introductory chapter to his sweeping epic story. Refined with special effects and scenic projection techniques perfected in the many years since the first “American Ring” operas debuted here, it was clear from the outset that Wagner’s fantastic vision was vividly realized in Saturday’s performance.

The opening scene, which witnesses the Rhine Maidens (Renée Tatum, Jacqueline Echols, and Catherine Martin) happily tormenting the buffoonish dwarf, Alberich (baritone Gordon Hawkins), had the four of them cavorting in foreground mists against the backdrop of a giant waterfall, resembling, somewhat, the American Niagara Falls.

Shifting scenes, we move to an outdoor portico populated by Wotan (bass-baritone Alan Held) and a few of the lesser gods. We recollect that the 2006 edition was somehow more formal in this scene. But whatever the case, this time around, the effect was looser, less formal, with the gods behaving a bit more like the idle rich rather than robber barons, giving this scene a lighter touch, though a satirical one.

This version offers a subtle twist, with Wotan now a largely idle member of the 1% Club, somewhat lazily supervising a pair of giants, Fasolt and Fafner, (bass Julian Close and bass Soloman Howard) that he’s contracted to build a magnificent new palace for the gods, aka, Valhalla.

(l-r) - Julian Close as Fasolt, Soloman Howard as Fafner, Alan Held as Wotan, Elizabeth Bishop as Fricka, and Melody Moore as Freia. Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.
(l-r) – Julian Close as Fasolt, Soloman Howard as Fafner, Alan Held as Wotan, Elizabeth Bishop as Fricka, and Melody Moore as Freia. Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.

The giants are essentially unchanged from the way we remember them in the original production. That’s a good thing, too, since their appearance then, as now, is strikingly dramatic and funny, as they descend to the stage seated on a steel beam attired in construction workers’ coveralls, their massive, cartoonish legs swinging back and forth. These guys are really big, too, clomping around the stage on huge shoes, with their massive overalls concealing some kind of stilt-like contraption that makes them tower over the gods as they pace to and fro making their demands.

Unfortunately, in a classic sexist gesture, we learn that Wotan has offered Freia (soprano Melody Moore), the sister of his wife, Fricka (mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop) to the giants in payment for their work. They’re delighted to accept. But Fricka is appalled that the deal is set to go through and opposes it, which ticks off the giants.

Enter the trickster demi-god of fire, Loge (tenor William Burden). Attired something like a K Street lobbyist, Loge eventually twists the bargain around to substitute the Rhinegold Alberich has stolen after tricking the Rhine Maidens out of it. The deal is struck, although it will eventually include the all-powerful ring and magical Tarnhelm that go along with it.

Wotan and Loge head for the underground layer of Alberich, another set essentially unchanged from the original but made more effective with better projection, lighting and special effects. Illuminated by a garish red-orange glow reflecting the pulsating refinery furnaces that Alberich employs to smelt mass quantities of gold; and populated by scurrying, terrified slaves, impersonated here by children attired in work clothes that make them look like tiny mummies, this is a striking visual scenario, punctuated by newer, more refined projections and special effects. These are particularly evident as Alberich disappears in a flash to return as a huge, terrifying snake to intimidate the visiting gods—a much better and more fearsome snake than the one in the original, we might add.

According to plan, Wotan and Loge steal Alberich’s gold, and his ring as Alberich’s terrified brother Mime (tenor David Cangelosi) makes off with the Tarnhelm. (We’ll see that magical device again in the Cycle’s third installment.)

After a fashion, the giants are paid off, Fafner terminates Fasolt, the gods sigh with relief. Then, somewhat triumphantly, they stagger up a grand, modernist boarding plank to inhabit their all-new Valhalla, that massive castle built high in the lofty mountain peaks.

Whereas these same scenes operated with a certain randomness in the original production, the storytelling here is sly, dramatic, humorous and at times bitingly satirical. We first observe an indolent Wotan who’s flaked out on a lounge chair, not in command at his office. Lesser gods Donner and Froh now scurry about outside, functioning as either prime contractors or architects, and costumed in that manner.

While the production seems set in relatively current times, Fricka and sister Freia are attired in a way that’s reminiscent of 1880s or 1890s America when this country’s classic robber barons were at the height of their power—and when women had no power at all.

Read also: ‘Siegfried’: Catherine Foster returns to WNO’s ‘American Ring’

Taken as a social class, the gods in this production are not only greedy but shallow and fatuous, not far removed from today’s clueless and remorseless 1%. Wotan is less a leader here than he is a cranky master of the revels, as he works to maintain the lifestyles of the gods in the manner to which they have become accustomed. Taken together, all the gods here are simply representatives of the entitled, idle rich, who, as we can already see, are doomed to take an eventual fall due solely to their own shallowness, ineptitude and lack of foresight.

This sense is underscored most effectively in “Rhinegold’s” closing scene. Instead of ascending to Valhalla in triumph and majesty, our antic gods uncork a bottle of champagne and get tipsy prior to laughing and staggering their way upward to the nirvana of Valhalla. Clearly, they’re no longer worthy of being all-powerful gods. As staged, it’s this scene that tips us off as to the trajectory of the remaining three operas.

This kind of storytelling proves considerably more convincing than the original, an effect further burnished by the notably superb acting skills of this cast, making the gods seem very much like those goofy, rich neighbors living in a mansion just up the hill from us. They’re affable enough when they’re in the mood. But they’re also so shallow and clueless in person that we wonder how they got all that money.

Along with the fine theatricality of this production, Saturday’s audience was also delighted with the fantastic quality of the singing.

Gordon Hawkins was once again a memorable Alberich, a role he also sang in WNO’s original production of this opera. Mr. Hawkins has the kind of deep, yet malleable voice that perfectly suits his nasty, resentful, spiteful character in “Rhinegold.” It is completely logical, then, for Mr. Hawkins’s character to part with his precious ring by endowing it with the fateful curse that drives the entire Ring Cycle forward.

Alan Held as Wotan. Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO
Alan Held as Wotan. Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO

As Wotan, it is a delight once again to enjoy the considerable talent of bass-baritone Alan Held. A much younger Mr. Held told this reviewer many years ago that he would be taking a long road in his singing career, hoping to develop into a “helden baritone” (“heroic baritone”) who could master the almost superhuman difficulty of singing Wagnerian roles, particularly those of the Ring Cycle.

It’s clear he reached that pinnacle, having held onto his dream for many years now. He appeared as Wotan in WNO’s original “Rheingold,” and has lost none of his edge. Better yet, his acting talents are considerable. He blends into Ms. Zambello’s revised concept of Wotan perfectly, interpreting the character as dominant, yes—as befits the king of the gods—yet mercurial and indecisive as well and, at times, not really very smart. We’ll see this Wotan again in “Walküre,” but we’re already off to a good start here.

Showing up in the nick of time to help extricate Wotan from the mess he’s caused, William Burden’s devious Loge is “Rhinegold’s” fixer. Clever though not always trustworthy, this Loge is evocative of many a high-to-midlevel Washington, D.C. operative, working behind the scenes to cut deals and to rescue valued clients from their private, hubris-precipitated predicaments.

Again, as with the other major players, Mr. Burden superbly portrays his character, and his fine tenor voice helps us understand his motivations and move the narrative line along. His voice was overwhelmed at times by the orchestra, particularly when he was singing closer to the rear of the stage. But adjustments can easily be made to compensate for this in Cycles 2 and 3.

In somewhat smaller roles, Elizabeth Bishop also excelled as a coquettish, manipulative Fricka. One wishes Wagner had given Fricka a bit more to sing, but Ms. Bishop makes the most of the opportunities available, giving us a rather more pleasant, less strident goddess queen than we’ve seen in other productions.

In smaller roles, Melody Moore (Freia), Mime (David Cangelosi), and lesser gods Donner (bass-baritone Ryan McKinny) and Froh (tenor Richard Cox) sang and articulated their characters with great skill.

Contralto Lindsay Ammann was perfectly cast in the small but important cameo role of the Earth Goddess, Erda. She appears suddenly to warn Wotan of his likely fate, and Ms. Ammann articulates this serious moment vocally with great dignity.

In a significant change from the original, Ms. Ammann’s Erda was attired in a flowing white shift and adorned simply with a vaguely Native American silver necklace and amulet. In Erda’s original incarnation… well, our friend and former Washington Post music critic Tim Page compared Erda’s faux-Indian outfit—with stunning and hilarious accuracy—to the attire worn by the Land O’Lakes butter girl. This time around, we were able to pay greater attention to Ms. Ammann’s excellent vocals rather than to that once questionable costume.

Last but certainly not least, a big hat tip to the big guys, those working class, hard bargain-driving giants, Fasolt (Julian Close) and Fafner (Soloman Howard). Both booming bass voices lent humor and authenticity to their characters’ roles, so much so that we were disappointed to see Mr. Close’s character dispatched in this opera. However, we do look forward to Mr. Howard’s re-appearance as a most-unusual dragon a bit later this week in “Siegfried.”

Our tipsy gods attempt an ascent to Valhalla. (l-r) - Alan Held as Wotan, Elizabeth Bishop as Fricka, Richard Cox as Froh, Melody Moore as Freia, and Ryan McKinny as Donner. Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.
Our tipsy gods attempt an ascent to Valhalla. (l-r) – Alan Held as Wotan, Elizabeth Bishop as Fricka, Richard Cox as Froh, Melody Moore as Freia, and Ryan McKinny as Donner. Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.

Aside from a bit of nervousness in the horns during the treacherous opening bars of Wagner’s short overture, the Washington National Opera’s augmented orchestral forces turned in one of their best performances yet under the able, veteran baton of the company’s music director, Philippe Auguin.

Instrumental interludes Saturday were clear and forceful; the percussion was rich and overwhelming at key climactic points; and, however it was done—likely via clever microphone placement—the clanking, tuned anvils that introduce Alberich’s fearful underground lair cycled around the Opera House like cinematic surround sound, effectively placing the audience right in the center of the action.

Wagner’s Ring Cycle, like many of his operas, integrates the orchestra as part of the drama in a way that few other operas manage to accomplish, making the just as important as the singers. Maestro Auguin kicked things up a notch in “Rhinegold,” and we anticipate more of the same in the remaining three operas, particularly in “Götterdämmerung,” with its dramatic, purely instrumental funeral march for Siegfried and its unique, symphonic conclusion depicting Valhalla’s fiery destruction.

We’d be remiss at this point if we didn’t offer an additional hat tip to the sure-handed direction of Francesca Zambello—a key element in making the magic happen in Saturday’s production.

Now… onto “Die Walküre,” “The Valkyrie,” where Brünnhilde will take flight.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

Running time for “Rhinegold”: After a slightly late start Saturday, 2 hours, 35 minutes without intermission.

A performance note on “The Valkyrie”: In the wonderful world of live opera, things happen. We received notice from the company Monday morning that this evening’s scheduled Brünnhilde, British soprano Catherine Foster, had suffered an injury during this opera’s dress rehearsal on April 23 and is not yet fully recovered.

For that reason, American soprano Christine Goerke—whom we last heard here in her 2014 WNO appearance as the title character in the late Daniel Catán’s “Florencia in the Amazon.”

As Ring director and WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello put it in a Monday morning release,

“While we are all very sorry to have to delay the introduction of Catherine Foster—the reigning Bayreuth Brünnhilde—to our Ring audience, we are grateful that an artist of the caliber of Christine Goerke has graciously agreed to step in at the last minute.”

Ms. Foster may return to sing Brünnhilde in the Cycle I performance of “Siegfried” on Wednesday, May 6. We’ll keep you posted as further updates are made available.

Tickets and information: Any production of the Ring Cycle is a complicated affair. WNO’s Ring is being presented in three complete four-opera cycles, Cycle 1 (the one we’ll be reviewing), Cycle 2 and Cycle 3.

Ring Cycles attract international audiences, and tickets are generally sold in advance as a four-opera package by cycle. Remaining single tickets are released for sale at some point and some are available now. That means you may be able to construct your own, personal “Ring Cycle” if you act soon. For tickets and further info, visit WNO’s Kennedy Center website.

Performances of The Ring operas run through May 22, concluding with the final Cycle 3 performance of “Götterdämmerung,” aka “The Twilight of the Gods.”

The Kennedy Center is located at 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC.

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