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American 'Ring' Cycle Comes to Surprising Conclusion

In 2006, when Washington National Opera opened its American Ring Cycle, few could have imagined that it would end as it did on Saturday night, with a concert performance of Götterdämmerung. After very promising productions of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in 2006 and 2007, financial considerations delayed the staging of Siegfried by one season, to last spring, when it ended up with a troubled casting and special-effects woes. The collapse of the financial and housing market last fall was the final nail in the coffin, forcing the company to give up on the ultimate goal, canceling the plans to mount the entire four-opera cycle this month. Instead of an international operatic event, we had a hastily reconfigured season, until now less than stellar, and two concert performances of Götterdämmerung. By all logical expectations, this doomed Ring should have come to an ignominious end, with nothing but the fact that it finally concluded to show for all the trouble.

Conductor Philippe Auguin
So, imagine the surprise of everyone in the Kennedy Center Opera House -- critics, subscribers, and likely even the orchestra and the cast -- when this Götterdämmerung turned out to be one of the most transcendent musical experiences in recent memory. Somehow, the planets aligned and Wagner's demanding and multicolored score leapt off the page in a vivid performance that had an excellent mixture of propulsion and timeless stasis. The pole star, the guiding force of the assembled forces was French conductor Philippe Auguin, who made quite a memorable debut at the WNO podium. The orchestra applauded him, with a loud rumble of their feet, at his first appearance, and the ovations for him from the audience at the start of the second and third acts were among the loudest and most appreciative heard for a conductor in a long time. His beat was crystal clear, his tempi consistent and well chosen, and the economy of his gesture allowing singers and players to come together in a solid performance. The sense of confidence in the pit was evident in the self-assured sound of the orchestra, which gave one of its best performances of the last several years.

The cast sang from the stage, some using scores on music stands and others singing from memory and doing more acting than not. Replacing the originally cast Siegried, Ian Storey (who withdrew from both Götterdämmerung and Ariadne auf Naxos because of illness), veteran tenor Jon Fredric West stepped in and gave an authoritative, breezy, and stentorian performance. The voice has lost some of its beauty over the years -- he was the Bacchus in WNO's last production of Ariadne auf Naxos, in 1994 -- but not its leathery power, and as when he sang the role in the Met's Ring cycle a few years ago, power came at the price of polish. He was matched in intensity by the explosive Brünnhilde of soprano Iréne Theorin, whose reserved singing in Ariadne (she had to sing the title role in that opera again -- the following afternoon!) paid off, as well as the scheming malevolence of Gidon Saks's loathsome Hagen and the clueless bluster of Alan Held's Gunther. The supporting cast was equally strong, with the exception of the flimsy Gutrune of Bernadette Flaitz, who seemed ill. Standing out for exceptional praise was Elizabeth Bishop, who came back from a nondescript performance in Falstaff last month to sing her heart out as the Second Norn and especially as Waltraute, and the volcanic Third Norn of Carter Scott, in another noteworthy WNO debut.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Amid barren backdrop, a brassy 'Ring' (Washington Post, November 9)

T. L. Ponick, WNO's lucky concert 'Ring' (Washington Times, November 9)

Jerry Floyd, Blazing Brünnhilde, Reptilian Hagen (, November 9)
With some luminous backdrops of clouds or sky-like colors and some lighting effects (designed by Mark McCullough), a few costume changes (mostly formal gowns and tuxedos), narrative cues on the supertitle screen, and the dramatic gestures of the singers the story was told quite effectively. The absence of visual distractions even seemed to heighten one's focus on the orchestra, which did not let down one iota in the transitions between scenes, even though there were no sets to change or actions to accompany. In fact, if one had added a few Japanese Kabuki theater costumes and limited the stage movement even more, you would have had something close to a Robert Wilson staging.

In a metaphorical way this conclusion to director Francesca Zambello's American Ring Cycle could not have been more appropriate. In Das Rheingold Zambello cast Wagner's gods as American captains of rapacious capitalism, with Wotan taking out a mortgage on the worst possible terms to build a home ultimately beyond his means. When the speculation and resulting bubble went bust, life imitated art. An opera company's grand project went up in flames, but perhaps by the act of self-immolation, the destruction can not only be turned to some eventual good but was, by its own right, intensely beautiful to behold.

This concert performance of Götterdämmerung will be repeated only once, this coming Sunday (November 9, 2 pm). If I could go to it again, I would.


Anonymous said...

Ms. Flaitz wasn't ill -- she just sounds like crap and should never be allowed to sing at an A house, or any house for that matter, again. She has no gigs listed on for good reason. Her singing was absolutely AWFUL!

inspira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
inspira said...

Ms. Flaitz has an outstanding German soprano, dark colored with good high notes. What you write here is completely nonsense. Are you a soprano yourself with no gigs anywhere that you need to write such bad things?? The role of Gutrune is uninteresting but it´s not her fault.