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24.5.16

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, WNO 'Ring' Cycle III: Nina Stemme (Ionarts, May 20)

Alex Baker, A choice, not an ecosystem (Parterre Box, May 26)
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.

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