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Tara Erraught Sings Ireland

Charles T. Downey, Audience can’t help but show its appreciation for Irish song and opera
Washington Post, May 25

The Kennedy Center’s Ireland 100 festival continued Monday evening with a performance by Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught, who provided the substance of a recital of Irish song and opera in the Terrace Theater, supplemented by tenor Anthony Kearns in some lighter fare.

Erraught may be familiar to D.C. audiences from her charming Washington National Opera debut last year in Rossini’s “Cinderella.” She brought similar vocal fireworks to “Non v’e donna sulla terra,” an aria from “Falstaff,” an Italian opera by Irish composer Michael William Balfe (1808-1870). The musical style is pure Rossini, whom the composer, also an opera singer, was close to in Paris, but it’s filtered through an Irish lens... [Continue reading]
Tara Erraught (mezzo-soprano) and Anthony Kearns (tenor)
Ireland 100 Festival
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

Charles T. Downey, Mezzos alternate to fine effect in D.C. (Classical Voice North America, May 13, 2015)


The Proverbial Fat Lady Sang

Daniel Brenna (Siegfried) in Siegfried
(photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)
Washington National Opera's first complete Ring Cycle came to a fiery conclusion this weekend. Musically so many things were excellent in this production, beginning with Philippe Auguin's revolutionary reading of the scores. The final performance of an opera's run is often a special night in the theater, charged with extra emotion as the performers go the extra mile and leave some blood on the stage. This was true of all four of the last Ring performances, given an extra bump of energy by the new Brünnhilde, Swedish soprano Nina Stemme. By the end of the last Götterdämmerung on Sunday evening, we were all more than a little sad to realize that it was all over.

Stemme's characterization of Wotan's renegade daughter, vocally and physically, was remarkable, a photon of girlish energy that became warmer and more powerful as hour succeeded hour. Her Siegfried, the outstanding Daniel Brenna, responded to her in new and striking ways, too, making the end of Siegfried on Friday night the most memorable of the three cycles. The joy of youth and laughter bubbled through their ecstatic duet at the close of Act III, as they pushed each other to new heights vocally. One could only treat this perhaps silly moment with utter seriousness as a result.

The sincerity of that moment made the crushing betrayal of the final opera all the more tragic, as Stemme experienced all the emotions of the Siegfried duet in reverse, first in the chilling end of Act I of Götterdämmerung -- the darkest moment in the cycle, with music that incarnates the evil of Siegfried's action -- and Brünnhilde's later realization of Siegfried's deception. The standout performances in the cast remained the same throughout the three cycles: the volcanic Erda of Lindsay Ammann (also memorable as the First Norn), the fluttery Forest Bird of Jacqueline Echols, and the long-awaited and triumphant debut of Jamie Barton (as both the Second Norn and Waltraute).

Sometimes multiple viewings of a new opera production cause me to change my opinion of the staging for the better. Inevitably, you see things the second and third time around that you did not see on opening night, or you understand the director's ideas from a new angle. To my surprise, the reverse happened with Francesca Zambello's American Ring Cycle, as what I had found intriguing or at least passable the first time around bothered me more and more. My disappointment did not stem from the transposition of time or location, as long as the meaning of Wagner's libretto and music remained legible in the scenery and action. The Valkyries as WWII WASPs worked because the Valkyries were still landing on the rock as brave warrior maidens.

Ring Reviews:

Cycle I: Charles T. Downey, Das Rheingold (May 2) | Die Walküre (May 4) | Siegfried (May 6) | Götterdämmerung (May 7)

Cycle II: Robert R. Reilly, Second Opinion: WNO Re-Cycle of 'The Ring of the Nibelung' (Ionarts, May 16)

Charles T. Downey, One Brünnhilde to Rule Them All (Ionarts May 17)

Cycle III: Anne Midgette, The Three Sopranos, “Ring” style (Washington Post, May 19)

--- and Philip Kennicott, A historic ‘Ring’ at a historic moment: Two critics’ thoughts (Washington Post, May 23)

Charles T. Downey, (Ionarts, May 20)
In Götterdämmerung, the staging came off the rails because Zambello forced her political message too far to the forefront, at increasing odds with the music and text, which no staging can silence. The place naturally to assert the theme of environmental damage is in the Norn scene, where the Norns sing about how they used to spin by the World Ash-tree. When Wotan cut off a branch to form his spear, they say, the tree withered and the waters dried up in the spring that fed it. Wotan orders the branches stripped away and placed as logs, ready for the burning at the end he knows is inevitable. Instead Zambello turned that prelude into the business with the fiber-optic cables.

Zambello instead forced her environmental theme on the transition music for Siegfried's journey down the Rhine, where in the accompanying videos the water dries up and the river is replaced by images of a strip mine. This is so audibly in opposition to the beauty of the music, which does not turn dark until the opening of Act I, that it just made no sense. Nowhere was this problem more evident than the final scene of Götterdämmerung, where Zambello makes a wholesale replacement of Wagner's libretto and tries to shoehorn the music into her political theme, as the oppressed women of the Gibichungs establish a gynarchy, suffocating Hagen with a plastic bag, and a girl plants a tree.

Unfortunately, Wagner's music tells you exactly what is supposed to happen, what is written in the libretto. Brünnhilde sings the Liebeserlösung theme, hearkening back to Sieglinde's ecstatic recognition of Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, as her last expression of love before she throws herself on the pyre and ignites the flames. The Rhinemaiden music is heard as they reclaim the Ring; the curse theme as Hagen becomes the last victim of the curse. We hear the Valhalla music because the last thing we are supposed to see is Valhalla ("in which gods and heroes sit assembled, just as Waltraute described them in the first act," Wagner writes) being engulfed in flames, with the Liebeserlösung soaring in the violins as Brünnhilde's love burns in the fire ("helles Feuer das Herz mir erfaßt," she sings). There are echoes of Wotan's farewell from Die Walküre ("Leb wohl!") in the orchestra, and then the curse is broken musically, with the curse theme played incomplete in a triumphant moment. As the fire burns, the last theme heard is that of Brünnhilde's love, finally completing what her father could not.

In all three performances of Götterdämmerung, Catherine Foster (Cycles I and II) and Nina Stemme (Cycle III) seemed to fall short, not able to power the scene to its expected heights. At the end of Cycle III, it became clear to me why the musical performance seemed to fall short but in fact had not. The fault was not in the orchestra, the conductor, or the two sopranos: it was in the visual element. The temptation to mess with the ending of this opera has brought more than one director to a bad end, and it did here, too. The failure of that final scene and of most of Götterdämmerung was due to Zambello's mishandling of the staging.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Das Wunder der Heliane & Sock Monkeys

This post, originally published on WETA’s blog on September 15th, 2007, has been resuscitated to go along with upcoming Korngold-posts on ionarts and that honor the composer’s 119th birthday.

available at Amazon
Korngold, Das Wunder der Heliane,
Berlin RSO / J.Mauceri / Soloists
Decca 829402

“Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s three act opera Das Wunder der Heliane is arguably the composer’s greatest work.” This is the opening line of Brendan G. Carroll’s extensive and helpful liner notes to the only recording of this opera – just re-released on Decca/Philips’ budget “Classic Opera” series. (A series distinguished by the very laudable inclusion of such texts and the libretti!) The German translation of the text goes even further and declares it “without a doubt the composer’s greatest work”.

That’s saying quite a bit about a work that has never been much more than a side note in the history of German 20th century opera and one that – apart from the immediate aftermath of its hailed 1927 premiere – could probably be considered a failure.

And yet, hearing the work one is bound to agree with the Korngold Society President, his eager translator, and Korngold himself, too, who thought Heliane his finest work. Never before and never thereafter has the Zemlinsky-student Korngold (1897 – 1957) achieved the profundity he reaches in his fourth (of five) opera. There are many touches that remind of Richard Strauss’ Salome, Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), and Die ägyptische Helena (1928).

The Wunderkind years produced marvelous (if slight) chamber and orchestral pieces which had him hailed as the next great composer, a titan on par with Mozart or Beethoven. Of course it didn’t quite turn out like that – and he ended up writing film music for Hollywood. Much regarded then and now famous-again scores such as “Captain Blood”, “The Sea Hawk”, and “The Adventures of Robin Hood”. Lovely stuff but, well… still film music when all is said, told, and listened to.

His well known, if not often performed, opera Die Tote Stadt (1920) is full of loveliness, of course, but not so much a better work than Heliane as it is an ‘easier’ one. The former has the catchier tunes, the greater hits (“Mariettas’ Lied” – the duet cum Soprano aria – most notably), and a longer successful run in opera houses around the world. But Heliane, more taxing and demanding with its polytonal harmony and more ambitious than sweet, strikes as a much more satisfying and deeper work.

When it came out, however, it was immediately embroiled in the culture war of the time in which young Korngold was pitched (not the least by his father, a prominent Viennese music critic) against more modern composers. And compared to Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová (1922), Schoenberg’s Erwartung (1924), Berg’sWozzek (1925), Hindemith’s Cardillac (1926), Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (1927), and especially Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf (1927), Korngold’s opera does seem hopelessly (now: charmingly) outdated. Even if it is none the less wonderful for it, it is harmonically less daring even (or elegantly elusive) than Franz Schreker’s sublime Die Gezeichneten (available on DVD in a tremendous and disturbing production from Salzburg) or Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande – notably operas from 1902 and 1911, respectively. More French, but also similar, is the 1907 opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue by Paul Dukas (more of which in another post). The similarity with the latter is not too surprising: Korngold, coy or blunt, said he’d copied from no other opera as much as Dukas’.

Das Wunder der Heliane is not only a victim of the musico-political (and then political – as it was considered Entartete Kunst and banned under the Nazis) fights of its day. It is also hampered by a modest libretto and odd story. Not speaking German is no disadvantage to the enjoyment of this opera! Heliane offers a rich score, thick with eroticism, busy and shrill at times, luscious and elegant elsewhere… and three hours of that.

Why Sock Monkeys?

When this post was originally written (for WETA 90.9), it served as a tie in with a concert of the National Symphony Orchestra and Renée Fleming, in which she was going to sing the “Ich geh’ zu Ihm” aria from the above work, along with other rarities such as an aria from Korngold’s last, even less known opera, Die Kathrin:

…Add to that Mozart, Suppé, Waltz-Strauss, and music from Strauss’ second (justly unknown) opera, Die Feuersnot (“Fire Famine”).

It’s a curiously interesting program – looking a little like a hodgepodge of music, but an attractive one. The center of gravity of the concert meanwhile is Liszt’s First Piano Concerto. Soloist – I’m not making this up – “Peng Peng”. China’s latest-latest, 14-year old ivory smashing prodigy. Type “Peng Peng” into Google and you’ll find he’s already replaced “Peng Peng Bears & Sock Monkeys©” from the top position. (I’m not making that up, either.) I don’t know if you feel like you can’t miss our-all-favorite Renée (ever charming in concert, if you’ve seen her in either of the last two seasons) or Peng Peng Gong. But you definitely shouldn’t miss Korngold.

A small survey of Korngold recordings can be found here: The Sounds of Korngold.
An essay on Korngold and his father can be found here on on May 29th

Use of Sock Monkey picture kindly tolerated by Peng Peng, the Sock Monkey artist lady.


BSO Ends Up All Wet

We have been fans of John Storgårds, who recently concluded his tenure as Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, since his debut with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2011. The Finnish conductor's debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, heard on Saturday night in the Music Center at Strathmore, was less auspicious. The fault was not with the conducting, which was incendiary in a house-crushing performance of Holst's The Planets, but with the programming, which opened with Tan Dun's pedestrian Water Concerto.

When the Chinese composer hit the big time, winning the Grawemeyer Award in 1998 for his opera Marco Polo, his use of Chinese instruments in works for European orchestra was revolutionary. Over the last twenty years, though, he has not had a great track record, often recycling similar ideas over and over. Christopher Lamb, principal percussionist of the New York Philharmonic, worked with the composer to create the range of water-based percussion used in the Water Concerto, premiered in 1998. Lamb returned to play it this week over a decade since his last BSO appearance, in 2003, when he also played -- you guessed it -- Tan Dun's Water Concerto. Lamb, assisted by two percussionists, bowed and splashed their way through the piece, using waterphones and a range of other objects splashed and submerged in big plastic bowls of water. (For long stretches, it was maddeningly repetitive, making me think of the gross Robot Chicken skit embedded below.) The woodwinds made duck calls with their mouthpieces, there was an erhu-like solo for the principal cellist, and largely heterophonic writing brought little of interest in harmony or orchestration. The effect could be achieved much more inexpensively with a small ensemble, rather than using up a symphony orchestra's time.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Storgards makes brilliant BSO debut (Baltimore Sun, May 21)

Joan Reinthaler, ‘Water Concerto’ splashes eloquently onto the BSO stage (Washington Post, May 23)
The string of world premieres, commissioned by the BSO for its 100th anniversary season, continued with a new piece by Libby Larsen, Earth (Holst Trope). It was created to fill a misunderstood lacuna in Holst's The Planets, which is not about the planets as heavenly bodies, but about their influence on humanity through astrology, meaning that Earth is not really germane (nor is Pluto for that matter). A Space Age vocabulary of sounds in a triple-meter pulsating texture was pleasant enough, until Larsen wove a cantus firmus into the piece, the hymn tune usually sung to the words "For the Beauty of the Earth." It was a gesture that unfortunately recalled P.D.Q. Bach's use of the tune Jesus Loves Me, This I Know in Iphigenia in Brooklyn.

The last time that we heard the BSO play The Planets, in 2008, there was a similar confusion about the piece. Unlike Alsop's interpretation back then, Storgårds clearly saw his targets and helped the orchestra hit all of them: the col legno strikes in the strings and apocalyptic brass in the death march of Mars, but with plenty of quiet space in the Mercury movement for the delicate solos of celesta, piccolo, English horn, and others. Holst's piece is a manual on devastating orchestration, imitated for decades by John Williams and other film composers, and the comparison to the Tan Dun Water Concerto on the same program was damning.


Perchance to Stream: Twilight of the #DCRing Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • Listen to a performance of Handel's Israel in Egypt from Westminster Abbey, with James O'Donnell leading the Westminster Abbey Choir and St James's Baroque. [BBC3]

  • Semyon Bychkov leads a performance of Wagner's Parsifal starring Detlef Roth, Christian Elsner, Evgeny Nikitin, Anja Kampe, and others, from the Teatro Real in Madrid. [Radio Clásica]

  • Watch a recital of chamber music for soprano and strings with soprano Anna Prohaska recorded at the Schwetzingen Festival. [ARTE]

  • Antonio Pappano conducts Mahler's sixth symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra, plus Shostakovich's first violin concerto. [BBC3]

  • From the Wiener Festwochen, Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Mahler's ninth symphony, recorded at the Musikverein. [ORF]

  • From the Royal Festival Hall in London, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in a Stravinsky program, including the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Agon, and the Rite of Spring. [BBC3]

  • Jukka-Pekka Sarasate leads the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in a concert of music by Magnus Lindberg, including his violin concerto with Simone Lamsma. [France Musique]

  • Music from 16th-century Bruges, by Adrian Willaert, Jean de Castro, Philippe de Monte, Thomas Crequillon, and others, performed by the Ensemble Doulce Mémoire. [France Musique]

  • Listen to Mahler's second symphony, with Vassily Sinaisky conducting the BBC Philharmonic, soprano Olena Tokar, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston, and the CBSO Chorus. [BBC3]

  • Daniel Harding leads the Orchestre de Paris in Mahler's fourth symphony, plus Isabelle Faust in Berg's violin concerto. [Philharmonie de Paris]


#morninglistening: Stravinsky Does Himself Edition - Petrouchka

He must get a chapter in the next edition of #SurprisedByBeauty.

WNO 'Ring' Cycle III: Nina Stemme

Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde, San Francisco Opera (photo by Cory Weaver)

In most regards, Washington National Opera's first complete performances of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen have been an astounding success for the company. By the time the first cycle got under way, two weeks ago, tickets had been sold out, in spite of a pricing protocol that raised the prices higher than normal due to the demand. A few days before the start of Cycle III, with Das Rheingold on Tuesday night, some standing room tickets went on sale at the not particularly bargain price of $50 per opera; they also sold out in almost no time. It has been exciting to see the Kennedy Center Opera House full and abuzz at these performances, and I have been to all of them except the second performance of Das Rheingold. The excitement will have to tide us over through the lackluster lineup recently announced for next season -- three over-performed chestnuts, the jazz piece Champion, and Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, last heard from Baltimore Opera in 2006.

With the third performance of Die Walküre on Wednesday came the cycle's third Brünnhilde, Swedish soprano Nina Stemme. Fresh off a triumphant run as the title character in Strauss's Elektra, which ran through May 7 at the Metropolitan Opera, Stemme reverted easily to the role in which she triumphed in San Francisco in 2011. The differences with her two predecessors this month began with her wig, red rather than platinum blond, but really boiled down to an effervescent quality announced immediately when she bounded on stage. Lifted up by Alan Held's Wotan in a bear hug, she kicked out her legs high in the air and later even bounded onto the board room table. Diminutive in stature, this was a girlish, pixie Brünnhilde, with a voice that started slowly, a little hesitant in the early high notes of the first scene, but then blossomed into an extraordinary sound.

Ring Reviews:

Cycle I: Charles T. Downey, Das Rheingold (May 2) | Die Walküre (May 4) | Siegfried (May 6) | Götterdämmerung (May 7)

Cycle II: Robert R. Reilly, Second Opinion: WNO Re-Cycle of 'The Ring of the Nibelung' (Ionarts, May 16)

Charles T. Downey, One Brünnhilde to Rule Them All (Ionarts May 17)

Cycle III: Anne Midgette, The Three Sopranos, “Ring” style (Washington Post, May 19)
A special energy suffuses the final performance of an opera's run, and one sensed many in the cast going for broke in a way that is not usually heard earlier in a production. Elizabeth Bishop made me forget any misgivings I had about her Fricka earlier in the run, as she cowed Wotan with her withering glance and powerful voice. David Cangelosi remains a spastic but effective Mime, and William Burden's vivid performance of Loge ranks up there with Heinz Zednik's puppet master Loge in Patrice Chéreau Centennial Ring Cycle and Loge zipping around on a Segwaytype scooter in the staging with La Fura dels Baus.

Alan Held understands the role of Wotan very well and acted it quite beautifully, particularly pathetic in the farewell to Brünnhilde this time around. Parts of the role in terms of pitch and volume he could only approximate, though, earning a loud ovation nevertheless for the strength of his characterization. The other shortcomings in the casting -- Gordon Hawkins's Alberich, both Donner and Froh -- remained shortcomings, especially the Fasolt of Julian Close, who still could not find the beat or the exact pitch very well. Fortunately, so many other parts of the casting, including the Rhinemaidens, the Erda of Lindsay Ammann, the Freia of Melody Moore, and the parachuting Valkyrie ensemble, remained excellent throughout all three cycles. Philippe Auguin, who has already performed the cycle many times, carefully considered every aspect of these scores, with gorgeous results in the sound. Das Rheingold was almost perfect this time around, while the new energy of Stemme seemed to throw off the concentration of both conductor and orchestral musicians just a bit here and there in Die Walküre.

Cycle III continues tonight with Siegfried.


#morninglistening: Asger Hamerik - Surprised By Beauty Material

He must get a chapter in the next edition of #SurprisedByBeauty.


Reader Comment: 'Second Opinion: Ring Cycle'

We received the following long comment from reader Dennis Teti, in reaction to Robert R. Reilly's review of Washington National Opera's Ring cycle, which we publish separately here.

Robert R. Reilly’s review of the Washington National Opera’s Ring of the Nibelung is on the mark. I have seen the Ring cycle in three different versions over the years (including Herbert Von Karajan’s), plus the earlier WNO performances under the baton of the late Heinz Fricke. I was deeply impressed with the balance of powerful voices and magnificent orchestra under both Fricke and Phillippe Auguin.

As musically satisfying as this “American” version is, director Francesca Zambello’s botched misconception of Wagner’s intention is both ugly and insolent.

For example, I had thought the final “Immolation” scene of Twilight of the Gods, focused on the transcendent farewell of Brünnhilde, could not be spoiled. Yet Zambello managed to make a travesty of it, distracting attention from the suffering heroine with a cast meandering around, hurling plastic garbage bags from the back of the stage, and the Rhinemaidens joyfully executing a hooded Hagen down stage. Valhalla with the gods in flames was never seen, but a mysterious little girl with a small potted plant emerged from somewhere. In Wagner’s conception, nature is restored by the cleansing of the overflowing river as the maidens capture the fateful ring from Hagen.

Ring Reviews:

Cycle I: Das Rheingold | Die Walküre | Siegfried | Götterdämmerung

Cycle II: Robert R. Reilly, Second Opinion: WNO Re-Cycle of 'The Ring of the Nibelung' (Ionarts, May 16)
The Ring cycle is replete with Wagner’s thoughtful musical and representational symbolism. Yet the director superimposed her own alien ideas on the final visual and throughout. Maybe she thought History has moved beyond Wagner, so we should as well. I found it almost repulsive — even more so because Catherine Foster’s Brünnhilde was glorious, perhaps the best I have ever heard.

The director has a right to her ecological viewpoint, but by turning the Ring into propaganda, she despoiled Wagner’s myth. Zambello took a beautiful work of creative nature, Wagner’s incomparable telling of the ultimate things — nature, will, gods, good and evil — and made it ugly, a pollution of art as much as the belching smoke she depicted is a pollution of nature. This was not an “environmental allegory,” it was an act of artistic spite.

#morninglistening: Stravinsky Does Himself A Fairy's Kiss


One Brünnhilde to Rule Them All

Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde) and Alan Held (Wotan) in Die Walküre (photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)

The second cycle in Washington National Opera's first complete production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen ended in flames on Sunday night, reviewed by Robert R. Reilly. A quirk of fate meant that Cycle II was the first complete performance by Catherine Foster in the crucial role of Brünnhilde. The British soprano had injured her foot during rehearsals, leading to a completely unexpected but delectable substitution in the role by Christine Goerke in Die Walküre in Cycle I. Foster has sung the role many times, more than once at the Bayreuth Festival, but this was her debut in the role in an American production, as described in a preview article by Adam Wasserman in Opera News (By Way of Bayreuth, April 2016).

Goerke's presence infused Cycle I with a burst of energy, and although Foster was still hesitant physically when she took the stage in the last two operas, she was extremely strong of voice. In Cycle II Foster continued to gain confidence in her movements, although she did not jump on any tables in Die Walküre (as pictured above at the dress rehearsal). Vocally she reached her peak at the conclusion of the Cycle II Siegfried, the ecstatic duet scene with the man who breaks through the ring of fire to awaken her. That climax was almost matched by the bloodthirsty vengeance with which she attacked the end of Act II in Götterdämmerung, followed by a mysterious slackening of vocal strength in the final act, not to say total collapse by any means, but lacking the oomph one was hoping for from her final moments on the stage this season.

Other Reviews:

Cycle I: Das Rheingold | Die Walküre | Siegfried | Götterdämmerung

Cycle II: Robert R. Reilly, Second Opinion: WNO Re-Cycle of 'The Ring of the Nibelung' (Ionarts, May 16)
Foster shared some of her thoughts about the role with that Opera News interviewer, and some of it came across in her performances the last two weeks, that "Wagner wrote for three different vocal types." Die Walküre, she said, "was intended as a speaking-singing type of thing," likening it to "chit-chat and discussion." Goerke, perhaps because she was brought in to sing only Die Walküre, went for broke in a way that Foster did not. Siegfried, written after the break to compose Tristan is, by contrast, "as lyrical as you could possibly get. You have to get the light colors to convey the lyricism." The part also lies much higher, the part of her tessitura where Foster really excels, with her chest range sometimes going slightly pale.

With WNO's third performance of Die Walküre, we will have our third Brünnhilde. As originally planned, Nina Stemme takes over the role in Cycle III, which opens this evening at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Based on the reviews of her 2011 cycle in San Francisco, the third Brünnhilde could be the best.

#morninglistening: Beethoven Re-Issued

AMong the Best Recordings of 2015 (#7)


Second Opinion: WNO Re-Cycle of 'The Ring of the Nibelung'

Gordon Hawkins (Alberich, center), David Cangelosi (Mime, right), and Nibelungs in Das Rheingold,
Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

Until now, I have never seen Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle straight through. I’ve only experienced some of the individual operas. I decided to approach the production of The Ring of the Nibelung by the Washington National Opera (cycle II: May 10, May 11, May 13, and May 15) cold turkey. I did not want to carry in any preconceptions, though I had heard it has a modern setting. I was hoping that this production, ten years in the works, would not be as misguided as the one I partially experienced back in the late 1980s when Deutsche Oper Berlin brought its Ring to the Kennedy Center as part of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany. (How nice that the GDR did not live long enough to celebrate its 50th.) Its Ring was set in an underground subway station. Go figure, though the gray drabness comported with my experiences in East Germany.

I did not emerge from the experience of this Ring unscathed. First, I should generally state what went exceptionally well: the splendid singing and the superb orchestral playing, under conductor Philippe Auguin. That’s a lot; it puts us two-thirds of the way to a big success. One could’ve shut one’s eyes and been perfectly happy throughout (as I would be with a live recording of what I heard). The problem with the final one-third of the formula was the overall conception of the production. Famously, George Bernard Shaw argued that the Ring was Wagner’s attack on capitalism. His thesis gained at least some plausibility from the fact that Wagner was a socialist, though we may be grateful that Shaw did not mount a production of the Ring based upon his interpretation (though others have).

But was Wagner an environmentalist? Would he have recycled? This may seem an exceedingly silly question, and it is. However, Francesca Zambello's production posed it, and answered in the affirmative. Kip Cranna writes in the program notes, the “theme of mankind’s devastation of nature is of course extraordinarily relevant to our own time, and the Washington National Opera production vividly reflects that.” The problem is whether it was relevant to Wagner. Had it been so, Wagner could have cast his conception in its terms, but he did not. (In fact, it is non-humans who cause the destruction in the Ring, not humans.) Is that because Wagner was limited to and by his own times? Any good German historicist would say that this was so and suggest that this is why Wagner needs to be made “relevant” to us, who, after all, live in our own times. In other words, to buy fully the premise of this production one should be an historicist. Wagner cannot be understood on his own terms, but only on ours. I find this approach condescending both to Wagner and to ourselves.

I think it has also shaped a somewhat schizophrenic production that is occasionally painful in its inappropriateness and in its obviousness. Why schizophrenic? Because when the production is not straining against the mythical quality that Wagner strove so hard to give the Ring (including with his deliberately archaic German, rendered in completely prosaic English in the super titles), the production works very well, indeed. When it insists upon superimposing its modern environmental relevance upon it, it comes up a stinker. It takes us from the mythic to the mundane. The scenes or acts least affected by the production’s misconceptions go best because they have nothing to distract from the singing and the music. In fact, they often enhance them. I hope to make this clearer as I briefly give some examples through the four operas, without recounting much in the way of plot, which can be easily found elsewhere.

For instance, the opening scene of The Rheingold is very successful. It does not try to locate itself in America (where apparently this Ring takes place) or anywhere else for that matter – its ambiguity allows for the mythical. The back projections of falling water are majestic and the river is imaginatively rendered. The Rhine maidens are well portrayed, and the fact that Alberich shows up in a vaguely modern miner’s outfit needn’t cause any disquiet.

The next scene is a disaster. Wotan, ruler of the gods, is introduced lying on a lawn-furniture chaise lounge on a terrace somewhere in the mountains. He is wearing riding jodhpurs and a double-breasted jacket – what looks like a late 1920s movie director’s outfit. In fact, his stock gestures seem to be out of a silent movie. The rest of the gods and goddesses are also in 1920s garb. The theatrical body language of Wotan’s introduction leaves him so diminished that I thought his character would never recover sufficient stature to carry off his role in the remaining operas. (He did, but not till The Valkyrie.)

#morninglistening: Bach Sublime