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.
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)
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.