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WNO Ring Cycle I: 'Das Rheingold'

(L to R) Alan Held (Wotan), Elizabeth Bishop (Fricka), Richard Cox (Froh), Melody Moore (Freia), and Ryan McKinny (Donner)
in Das Rheingold, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)

Washington National Opera's first complete Ring Cycle has finally arrived. Francesca Zambello began mounting her "American" production of Wagner's tetralogy in 2006, with a not fully thought out version of Das Rheingold. The company's debts came due in the housing meltdown of 2007 and 2008, much as they do for Wotan when he builds Valhalla on a mortgage he cannot afford to pay, and the company deferred the complete cycle until this season. The four operas have played in San Francisco, and now that Zambello has had some time to rethink what she got wrong a decade ago, the first performance of this Ring Cycle got under way on Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

If the execution has improved significantly, the ideas remain more or less the same. Zambello recasts the German mythology and history of Wagner's libretto in American parallels, showing the growing divide of wealth and poverty. Wotan begins Das Rheingold as a privileged landowner, but he will soon expand his holdings by profiting off the backs of others, both exploited workers despoiling the earth of its natural resources (the Nibelungs) and those who get tangled in the contracts engraved on his spear (the Giants). Alberich appears on the banks of a river somewhere in the American West as a prospector panning for gold, but he ends up losing his stake, including the magical Rhine gold, to the cheating gods. In this grand swindle, Wotan is aided by Loge, who is cast as the shyster who will ultimately defend Wotan before the grand jury. Loge does not belong among the super-rich — he will not join them in their new gated community (Valhalla) or set sail on their luxury yacht (the Rainbow Bridge) — but at the end he is the one who sets fire to Wotan's contract with the giants, in an ingenious final flourish.

Some of the cast has remained the same since those first performances, and perhaps this Ring could have used some burnishing in that area, too. Gordon Hawkins is a convincing Alberich, just without the vocal force sometimes needed, and Alan Held's Wotan and Elizabeth Bishop's Fricka have lost some of their vocal luster but remain compelling. Success in the role of Loge is more about acting than singing, and William Burden has plenty of fun as the slimy legal mouthpiece of the gods. Character tenor David Cangelosi is fine as the simpering Mime, while both Richard Cox and Ryan McKinny, as Froh and Donner, are a little wimpy in tone and character.

Das Rheingold, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)

The pleasing changes are the passionate Freia of soprano Melody Moore and the vivid characterization, in terms of both acting and singing, of Lindsay Ammann, who made a sensational company debut as Erda. When she rose out of the earth, at a moment when the opera comes dangerously close to losing dramatic forward motion, Ammann compelled the attention of both eyes and ears. The Rhinemaidens were the highlight of the supporting cast, with Catherine Martin (Wellgunde) and Renée Tatum (Flosshilde) standing out, while the Giants had difficulty staying with the beat, Julian Close's Fasolt more than Soloman Howard's Fafner.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, The 'Ring' gets off to a good start (Washington Post, May 2)

Terry Ponick, WNO’s American Ring: A vastly improved ‘Rhinegold’ debuts (Communities Digital News, May 2)

Alex Baker, Burden of gilt (Parterre Box, May 3)

Die Walküre | Siegfried | Götterdämmerung
Zambello's changes to the first scene were extensive, softening the gold rush imagery of the 2006 production. The orchestral introduction was magnificent in the orchestra, with only one minor horn gaffe in what was a roiling crescendo. A scrim showed a video that began with drops frozen in motion, changing gradually into water, and then into the river scene, almost chemical blue, that is revealed on stage as the scrim is raised. Another scrim remains at the edge of the proscenium, which held in the copious fog that covered the raked stage, creating the impression of the water where the maidens are swimming. The gold itself is still depicted as a piece of cloth, but it has lost its identity as cloth, which works much better. Music director Philippe Auguin had a few struggles after that marvelous first scene, mostly with singers who were not paying attention to his beat, but the orchestra sounded mostly magnificent.

The unionized giants still have their memorable entrance, flown in on a girder from the construction site above, with costumes based on the iconic photograph Lunch atop a skyscraper, taken by Charles C. Ebbets in 1932. With the skyscraper of Valhalla, Wotan will make the jump from landowner to titan of capitalism. Zambello also softened the interpretation of the Nibelungs, with no more possible reference to slavery, focusing instead on the struggle of workers for fair wages and safe working conditions. The best part of this new Rheingold is a first-rate upgrade to the lighting, designed by Mark McCullough: not only is the Rainbow Bridge scene now strikingly prismatic, but lighting intensity and color play a more important role in the storytelling.

WNO announced today that Catherine Foster has not recovered enough from a foot injury, sustained during dress rehearsals, to sing as Brünnhilde in tonight's performance of Die Walküre. Soprano Christine Goerke will substitute.


Unknown said...

Any reflection on the aural gestalt of Rheingold in the Opera House at KenCen..?

Charles T. Downey said...

I think I addressed this, albeit briefly. The orchestra sounded very good, especially in the introduction. Auguin was careful not to overwhelm the singers, so transparency often trumped volume. The only deviation from the score, as far as I could tell, was in the Entrance of the Gods. There were only two harps in the pit and, I think, none on the stage. As you likely know, Wagner calls for six in the pit and one on the stage for the Rainbow Bridge music, but I have not been able to determine if any house anywhere performs the piece as Wagner indicated in the score. I always feel cheated at that moment in Das Rheingold, but oh well.

Did you hear opening night?