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Second Opinion: WNO Re-Cycle of 'The Ring of the Nibelung'

Gordon Hawkins (Alberich, center), David Cangelosi (Mime, right), and Nibelungs in Das Rheingold,
Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

Until now, I have never seen Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle straight through. I’ve only experienced some of the individual operas. I decided to approach the production of The Ring of the Nibelung by the Washington National Opera (cycle II: May 10, May 11, May 13, and May 15) cold turkey. I did not want to carry in any preconceptions, though I had heard it has a modern setting. I was hoping that this production, ten years in the works, would not be as misguided as the one I partially experienced back in the late 1980s when Deutsche Oper Berlin brought its Ring to the Kennedy Center as part of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany. (How nice that the GDR did not live long enough to celebrate its 50th.) Its Ring was set in an underground subway station. Go figure, though the gray drabness comported with my experiences in East Germany.

I did not emerge from the experience of this Ring unscathed. First, I should generally state what went exceptionally well: the splendid singing and the superb orchestral playing, under conductor Philippe Auguin. That’s a lot; it puts us two-thirds of the way to a big success. One could’ve shut one’s eyes and been perfectly happy throughout (as I would be with a live recording of what I heard). The problem with the final one-third of the formula was the overall conception of the production. Famously, George Bernard Shaw argued that the Ring was Wagner’s attack on capitalism. His thesis gained at least some plausibility from the fact that Wagner was a socialist, though we may be grateful that Shaw did not mount a production of the Ring based upon his interpretation (though others have).

But was Wagner an environmentalist? Would he have recycled? This may seem an exceedingly silly question, and it is. However, Francesca Zambello's production posed it, and answered in the affirmative. Kip Cranna writes in the program notes, the “theme of mankind’s devastation of nature is of course extraordinarily relevant to our own time, and the Washington National Opera production vividly reflects that.” The problem is whether it was relevant to Wagner. Had it been so, Wagner could have cast his conception in its terms, but he did not. (In fact, it is non-humans who cause the destruction in the Ring, not humans.) Is that because Wagner was limited to and by his own times? Any good German historicist would say that this was so and suggest that this is why Wagner needs to be made “relevant” to us, who, after all, live in our own times. In other words, to buy fully the premise of this production one should be an historicist. Wagner cannot be understood on his own terms, but only on ours. I find this approach condescending both to Wagner and to ourselves.

I think it has also shaped a somewhat schizophrenic production that is occasionally painful in its inappropriateness and in its obviousness. Why schizophrenic? Because when the production is not straining against the mythical quality that Wagner strove so hard to give the Ring (including with his deliberately archaic German, rendered in completely prosaic English in the super titles), the production works very well, indeed. When it insists upon superimposing its modern environmental relevance upon it, it comes up a stinker. It takes us from the mythic to the mundane. The scenes or acts least affected by the production’s misconceptions go best because they have nothing to distract from the singing and the music. In fact, they often enhance them. I hope to make this clearer as I briefly give some examples through the four operas, without recounting much in the way of plot, which can be easily found elsewhere.

For instance, the opening scene of The Rheingold is very successful. It does not try to locate itself in America (where apparently this Ring takes place) or anywhere else for that matter – its ambiguity allows for the mythical. The back projections of falling water are majestic and the river is imaginatively rendered. The Rhine maidens are well portrayed, and the fact that Alberich shows up in a vaguely modern miner’s outfit needn’t cause any disquiet.

The next scene is a disaster. Wotan, ruler of the gods, is introduced lying on a lawn-furniture chaise lounge on a terrace somewhere in the mountains. He is wearing riding jodhpurs and a double-breasted jacket – what looks like a late 1920s movie director’s outfit. In fact, his stock gestures seem to be out of a silent movie. The rest of the gods and goddesses are also in 1920s garb. The theatrical body language of Wotan’s introduction leaves him so diminished that I thought his character would never recover sufficient stature to carry off his role in the remaining operas. (He did, but not till The Valkyrie.)

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

Wotan is in a contract dispute with the giants, Fafner and Fasolt, who are building Valhalla for him. They arrive on a steel girder lowered by a construction crane. They are dressed in overall jeans with over-sized legs and shoes – making them appear like characters from a Li’l Abner cartoon strip. The costumes and staging demote this confrontation between the ruler of the gods and the giants to a dispute between a homebuilder and members of union local 185. And this is what sets the monumental Ring in motion? Domesticating the drama diminishes it. Needless to say, later in the scene when lightning arcs from the sledgehammer of Donner, the god of thunder, who is dressed in a sport coat and tie, the effect is anomalous. The fire god Loge is well-acted and sung, but why is he wearing a long black Stasi trench coat? The little picnic the gods have before going up the staircase to the completed Valhalla was painfully inapt unless, of course, the diminishment was deliberate – which it probably was.

However, scene three in the mines of the Nibelung achieves a nearly complete recovery of the mythical sense – mines being sufficiently generic that they could be at any time, in any place, and pretty much the same. Gordon Hawkins’ Alberich is a strong dramatic and vocal presence as he hoards gold and plots to take over the world, until Wotan and Loge dupe him. The fourth scene returns to the unfortunate mountaintop terrace, and its painful anachronisms are only relieved by the arrival of the earth goddess Erda, whose magical manner of arrival, delivery, and departure restore a sense of the mythical.

Die Walküre, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)

The first act of The Valkyrie is one of the high points in this Ring cycle. It is set in a forest, with a wooden cabin at its center. It could be a forest anywhere, and only the rifle on the wall of the cabin indicates a vaguely contemporary, perhaps 19th century time. Nothing unwarranted obtrudes in the projection of love’s yearning and delirium in this proto-Tristan und Isolde. The singing and acting by Christopher Ventris as Siegmund, Meagan Miller as Sieglinde, and Raymond Aceto as Hunding are outstanding. Hunding’s loutish swagger is perfect, and Ventris and Miller keep us enrapt in their attraction for each other (the idealization of illicit love at which Wagner was so good, in this case both adulterous and incestuous). And the Washington National Opera Orchestra plays sublimely. If for no other reason, I would send someone to see this Ring for this act alone.

Act II takes us to a Masters of the Universe office suite at the top of a city skyscraper – this time clearly discernible as in an American city – from which Wotan rules. (Valhalla is a summer home?) So we are now invited to view Wotan as a CEO, albeit as a henpecked one by his wife Fricka. This ridiculous setting is relieved by the electrifying entrance of Wotan’s daughter Brünnhilde who, as sung by Catherine Foster, supplies so much vocal excitement in her forceful, staggeringly effortless, high soprano singing that one easily forgets the Tom Wolfe Masters of the Universe scenery. After the nagging wife departs, the scene in which Wotan unburdens his heart to Brünnhilde is sufficiently affecting that the figure of Wotan begins to acquire some interest.

Alas, the second scene of Act II, in which Siegmund meets his fate at the hands of the cuckolded husband Hunding, takes place under a decaying highway overpass in a derelict setting of used tires and the abandoned back seat of a car. When I first quickly browsed through the opera Playbill, I saw a two-page photo of a highway cloverleaf and thought perhaps this was the source of inspiration, but then saw it was a Lexus advertisement. If this decayed urban setting is the production’s idea of nature violated, it needs more than a tune-up. It needs a highway bill. Is that what Wagner had in mind?

Not in Act III, in which the Valkyries arrive by parachute onto what looks like a heliport. As a bit of stagecraft, it is well done, and it draws laughter and applause – not perhaps the effect Wagner was seeking. The Valkyries, dressed in what looked like World War I aviator outfits, play their roles engagingly and sing well. Gravitas was restored later in the scene when Wotan took Brünnhilde’s immortality from her and the ring of fire was ignited around her to great dramatic effect.

David Cangelosi (Mime) in Siegfried, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)

In Siegfried, I wondered from where the inspiration had come for setting the first act in a junkyard, backed by transmission towers and power lines, with a broken-down trailer home in the foreground. Samuel Beckett, perhaps? I don’t think so. However, as I observed the acting styles employed by Mime and Wotan, I was reminded of Terry Gilliam’s brilliant film The Fisher King, in which he went from the mundane to the mythical, employing an Arthurian legend, with Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams playing the unhinged characters who start looking for the Holy Grail in New York’s Central Park. The setting and portrayal here in Act I have a similar inspired lunacy but take things in reverse direction – from the mythical to the mundane (as I mentioned earlier).

Nonetheless, I would have to say, on its own terms, the act is engagingly done because of the quality of the acting and singing by David Cangelosi as Mime, Alan Held as the Wanderer (Wotan) and, especially, Daniel Brenna as Siegfried. (Held, who was announced as suffering from allergies before the performance of The Valkyrie two nights before, was so vocally improved that I at first assumed it was a substitute. Also, he completely shed the stock gestures with which his performance of Wotan had been afflicted in The Rheingold and showed himself to be a fluent actor.) Daniel Brenna perfectly captured the callow innocence of his youthful character and had Siegfried pulsating with life.

Act II begins with some arresting projections of a desolate, deforested landscape. This seems perfectly appropriate for the countryside around the monster Fafner’s lair. However the projections go on to show a train full of logs moving along the tracks. In other words, a fire-breathing dragon didn’t do this; a logging company did! Now we know who the real monster is. When Siegfried goes to slay Fafner, it is no surprise that the monster makes its appearance as a machine – a kind of giant John Deere earth mover/digger. When the monster is slain – mostly by Siegfried short-circuiting it and pulling out its wires – the back projections show a forest now in full greenery. Did anyone miss the message? Brenna was able to act and sing his way through this nonsense as if oblivious to it, and in doing so, helped us to be oblivious to it as well. This is also true for the excellent Forest Bird, sung by Jacqueline Echols.

Act III once again demonstrated how well this production goes when it works with the mythical rather than against it. Wotan awakes Erda in some kind of netherworld scene that is effectively evoked by the set, the lighting, and the stagecraft. Erda’s appearance is, again, magical. The confrontation between Wotan and Siegfried also works very well, as does the concluding scene in which Siegfried awakens Brünnhilde. This act is near a complete success.

Marcy Stonikas, Lindsay Ammann, and Jamie Barton as the Norns in Götterdämmerung (photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)

Twilight of the Gods is saved from its misconceptions by the strong acting and singing of those already mentioned, with the superb addition of bass Eric Halfvarson as Hagen, the son of Alberich. It needed a lot of saving. Things do not begin promisingly with the Norns, who are supposed to be twining the rope of fate, except that they, dressed in what looks like toxic cleanup outfits, are working with strands of cables behind the projection of a circuit board on the scrim in front of them. The translation of Wagner’s libretto had to be changed from “rope” to “cable” throughout to make this bit of nonsense work. Instead of the rope unraveling, the Norns can’t make the cable connection, which short circuits. (Call Jim Carrey?)

The various settings for the Gibichungs, who move most of the action of the opera, recall steel and glass offices, the Dulles Airport terminal, and the Centre Pompidou. The beginning of Act II contains the opera’s most egregious lapse in taste. Lying in bed, Hagen is looking at the projections on the downstage scrim in front of him which show various TV frames. With a TV remote control he tries changing channels but gives up in frustration. This earned some cheap laughs, which couldn’t have been more contrary to the character of the music that the orchestra was valiantly playing. Where was the adult?

Other Reviews:

Charles T. Downey, WNO Ring Cycle I (Ionarts, May 2)

Anne Midgette, 'Twilight of the Gods' proves the triumph of WNO's 'Ring' (Washington Post, May 9)
Despite this, Twilight has some very good things. The dream scene in which Alberich appears to the sleeping Hagen is done with excellent dramatic intensity. The reappearance of the Rhine maidens reminds one of how really good their singing is – except now they are singing in a dried-out riverbed festooned with garbage and used tires. (They are working with large black plastic trash bags to clean up the mess. Rhine maidens recycle.) Also particularly notable is Siegfried’s murder and death scene, very affectingly done by Brenna – some of his finest acting and subtle singing, particularly when he is hallucinating Brünnhilde.

Right up to the apocalyptic ending, women dressed in black were dragging large black garbage bags across the stage and dumping them over the upstage edge, where there must have been a recycling bin below. One began to wonder: from where did all this garbage come? Who threw out the used tires there and the tangles of fiber-optic cable? I don’t recall anyone in the opera doing it. This production’s resounding answer is: WE DID! The Ring, brought to you by the EPA as a PSA.

The problem with this production is that what we were hearing was often not what we were seeing (and I certainly don’t mean that there is only one way to do the Ring). The lesson is: don’t demythologize the mythological, and expect it to work as well as if you hadn’t; don’t look at the high in terms of the low, and expect to look up; and don’t bludgeon your audience with a message. Wagner didn’t. This production got so very far; one could only wish it had gotten farther. In any case, the glorious singing and orchestral playing make what’s wrong with this production well worth looking past.

1 comment:

Charles T. Downey said...

Readers are directed to a long comment from reader Dennis Teti, in response to this review.