Marcy Stonikas, Lindsay Ammann, and Jamie Barton as the Norns in Götterdämmerung (photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)
Washington National Opera's first complete production of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen is in the books. While it was disappointing to see Francesca Zambello's American-themed staging be deferred and then premiered first in San Francisco, what finally reached the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House this week is ultimately much stronger and more beautiful than its first incarnation. Most of the directorial missteps and occasional scenic ugliness have been ironed out, and the casting generally improved. Most of all, the promise of Philippe Auguin's tenure as music director, earned at least partly on the basis of the incendiary concert performance of Götterdämmerung that he led in 2009, came to full flower in a revelatory reading of some of the most beautifully orchestrated scores in music history. The largest ovation at the end of last night's opening of Götterdämmerung came at the appearance of Auguin and the orchestra on stage.
Since I was not able to see Götterdämmerung the first time around, the chronological progression of Zambello's American Ring cycle, described in my previous three reviews, had eluded me. The final opera opens with a prelude featuring the three Norns, who in Germanic legend wove together the three-stranded rope of time, one seeing the past, one the present, and one the future. Zambello seats them in front of a mass of piled-up fiberoptic cables, which they struggle to tease apart and connect. A scrim shows video projections that look like data flowing through a world-wide web of information woven by the Norns, indicating that the United States has arrived in the Internet Age. Lindsay Ammann, Jamie Barton, and Marcy Stonikas were a particularly beautiful trio vocally, costumed as green-uniformed technicians with aprons, gloves, and goggles. The scene ends when the cable suddenly breaks and the thread of information is broken, signaling the end times.
Anne Midgette, ‘Twilight of the Gods’ confirms the triumph of WNO’s ‘Ring’ (Washington Post, May 9)
Das Rheingold | Die Walküre | Siegfried
Although much improved, this staging of the Ring still falls short of greatness. Zambello's worst miscalculation was the opening of Act II, where Hagen, half-asleep, is supposed to talk with Alberich at the edge of the Rhine. Here Hagen watches television in his bed, making awkward passes at Gutrune, and there are cheap laughs as they use a remote to try to change the static-filled channel. The theme of environmental damage caused by the patriarchal society of the Gibichungs is extended in the pollution-charged video footage, culminating at the point when Siegfried has one last chance to return the Ring to the Rhinemaidens in the first scene of Act III. The shadow of a highway bridge looms over the scene, as the Rhinemaidens, now in filthy dresses soiled by pollution, try to collect discarded plastic bottles into bags, swimming around a pickup truck cap thrown into the river. When Siegfried becomes part of this male oppression, in the conclusion of Act I, he turns on Brünnhilde, the Tarnhelm sparkling on his head in the darkness, one of the more disturbing moments of the cycle.
Eric Halfvarson (Hagen, center) and Chorus in Götterdämmerung (photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)
This sets up the transcendent ending, after Hagen kills Siegfried in an attempt to steal the Ring. Wagner asks the impossible with the end of the Ring cycle, requiring a director to create visually some sense of not only the destruction of the world but its rebirth through the sacrifice of Brünnhilde. Wagner took this idea of the Ewig-Weibliche as saving principle from the work of Goethe and others, and while it is not exactly a philosophical concept admired by feminist writers, Zambello tries to make it work as a metaphor for the beginning of "herstory." The oppressed women from Gibichung Hall rise up, including Gutrune (who dies before the Immolation Scene according to the libretto), using the piles of garbage to light the fires. It is they who kill Hagen, suffocating him with a plastic bag, instead of the Rhinemaidens, who are supposed to drown Hagen in the Rhine. Zambello's final image shows a young girl crossing the light-filled stage to place a sapling in the earth. That idea might seem trite on the surface -- Plant a Tree and Save the Planet -- but maybe not, given the coincidence with the forest-consuming conflagration in Canada right now. Little matter because Wagner's music, especially the Liebeserlösung theme (first heard from Sieglinde back in Die Walküre) soaring in the violins, makes it work.
Two complete performances of the WNO Ring Cycle remain in the coming two weeks. Ionarts will have reports on both of them.