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WNO 'Ring' Cycle I: 'Die Walküre'

Alan Held (Wotan) and Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde) in Die Walküre, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)

The first cycle of Washington National Opera's first complete performance of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen continued on Monday evening. Zambello has not altered much of her production of Die Walküre since its 2007 performance here, beyond some freshening up of the video projections, all to the better. The American timeline in this part of the tetralogy has advanced to the 1940s and 1950s (sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Catherine Zuber). From the boardroom of his Rockefeller Center-like Valhalla, Wotan plots how to outwit Alberich's plans to regain the ring, with a black-and-white view of Manhattan through the clouds. Women in this society are beginning to assert themselves in many ways. Complacent housewife Sieglinde dares to defy her abusive husband and run off with Siegmund. Brünnhilde and her Valkyrie sisters are costumed like Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) and parachute down to what looks like a World War II pillbox in the famous Ride of the Valkyries at the start of Act III. President Eisenhower's interstate highway system crisscrosses the landscape, and the death of Siegmund happens in one of those forgotten urban ex-neighborhoods marooned under an overpass.

Musically, this performance came together almost perfectly, as the promise of Philippe Auguin's strong hand in Wagner came to fruition. The occasional jitters in the orchestra heard in the opening night of Das Rheingold were resolved, a few woodwind intonation woes aside. With the action focused on fewer singers, and more experienced ones at that, the ensemble unity the whole evening was rock solid. Catherine Foster, the scheduled Brünnhilde for Cycles I and II, injured her foot in rehearsals last week, and she was not well enough yet to take the stage. As WNO announced on Monday morning, the company engaged the exemplary Wagnerian soprano Christine Goerke to replace her, flying her in from Houston, where she had just sung the character in Siegfried. Her performance not only saved the day; it made the evening. She was saucy and bold in her stage presence and absolutely fearless vocally. While we still want to hear Foster sing the role, if Goerke could complete the first cycle, no one in the house Monday night would complain.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette and Philip Kennicott, Two critics trade thoughts on Wagner’s ‘Ring’ in D.C. (Washington Post, May 3)

Alex Baker, Special guest Heldenreizerin (Parterre Box, May 4)

Das Rheingold | Siegfried | Götterdämmerung
Elizabeth Bishop hit her stride as Fricka, more imperious and venomous in her characterization, backed up with great vocal force. Reservations about Alan Held's Wotan also faded in the second opera, as he led one of the best second acts, another place that the cycle can bog down dramatically, in recent memory. Zambello gives us a look into Middle America in the first act, with Meagan Miller's Sieglinde imprisoned in a clapboard A-frame house, with an interior like any number of hunting lodges I have visited in the Midwest, decorated with wood paneling and taxidermy. Miller and her Siegmund, Christopher Ventris, were not the most powerful singers for these roles, but their pair of love arias (Siegmund's Winterstürme and Sieglinde's Du bist der Lenz) was a beautifully intense moment, accompanied by the dramatic opening of the back of the set to reveal a large rising moon. Raymond Aceto did not have the same snarling menace as Gidon Saks, who sang the role of Hunding last time around, but he was a convincing villain, shadowed by what looked like members of the local militia.

Again lighting played a role in storytelling, highlighting Sieglinde when Miller sang the Liebeserlösung theme ("O hehrstes Wunder!"), the Leitmotif said to represent woman's redeeming love that comes back at the end of Götterdämmerung, in Act III. One wished for a more gut-wrenching sound and expansiveness from both orchestra and singer, as it is one of those moments in the tetralogy where time should just be suspended. The musical high point instead was the Ride of the Valkyries, with an excellent group of singers, including Lindsay Ammann, Melody Moore, Catherine Martin, and Renée Tatum, who have all proven their worth in other roles already, plus Daryl Freedman, one of the most promising members of the current class of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists. Between the Valkyries appearing to parachute onto the stage from the fly space above and the thrilling sound of all those powerful voices amassed -- one of the rare ensemble scenes in the whole cycle -- all the elements that make opera so absorbing came together. The dramatic arc continued to rise during Held and Goerke's heart-breaking parting scene, as he kissed away the immortality of his daughter and encircled her in flames.

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