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Scene from The Rheingold
18 Jun 2016

Musings on the “American Ring

Now that the curtain has long fallen on the third and last performance of the Ring cycle at the Washington National Opera (WNO), it is safe to say that the long-anticipated production has been an unqualified success for the company, director Francesca Zambello, and conductor Philippe Auguin.

Musings on the “American Ring” (Washington National Opera, May 2016)

A review by Olga Haldey

Above: Scene from The Rheingold


The 11-year history of the Washington Ring rivals Wagner’s own trials in creating his tetralogy, mired as it has been in money problems, changes in management, and clashes of personalities. Yet all seems now to have been vindicated by the sold-out performances and almost uniformly superlative reviews. Indeed, the production appears to have become a marketing boon for the company. It was supported by an extensive educational and promotional campaign: a themed Opera Ball, a glittering website, a pre-performance lecture series, and even a pair of alpenhorns played (usually in tune) in the Kennedy Center lobby prior to curtain.

Far from intending to inject a note of discord into the chorus of accolades, I would open my own comments on the WNO Ring by saying that it was hard not to be impressed by the spectacle of it all. After all, Wagner identified Gesamtkunstwerk as the foundation of his music drama, and there is nothing like the Ring to remind us of the complex and multifaceted nature of a “complete work of art.” That said, the sheer scope of the tetralogy also demands a broader vision – a master narrative to subsume and justify all the lovingly crafted details. The impetus for what Francesca Zambello called her “American Ring” appears to have been her determination to embrace the undeniably epic scale of the storyline, all the while exploiting the fashionable, socially conscious trappings of Regietheatre – and sprinkling both, generously and almost gleefully, with elements of a classic carnival magic show.

Both the triumphs and the pitfalls of this Ring, I would argue, stemmed from navigating the balance between these disparate influences that worked mostly in consort, but occasionally at cross-purposes. Wotan (Alan Held), for example, easily adopted – and adapted to – each of his multiple personalities and disguises: a hurried executive in Das Rheingold, a clownish vagabond in Siegfried, a tragic King Lear in Die Walküre all peeked through the veneer of the all-powerful king of the gods. Yet, it was hard to take Donner (Ryan McKinny) seriously as the God of Thunder when he was attempting to command the elements dressed in a Great Gatsby-style pinstriped suit (costumes by Catherine Zuber), with the homemade firework sparklers flying out of his hammer.

Particularly interesting to watch was a double counterpoint created by the relationships between, on the one hand, the mythological and heroic-dramatic layers of the tetralogy itself, and on the other, the epic vs. the gritty drama in Zambello’s interpretation of it. While it was to be expected that Das Rheingold and the finale of Götterdämmerung would lean most heavily towards the epic, the director does not necessarily follow Wagner’s dramaturgy throughout. Some of the composer’s most densely leitmotif-packed moments of mythological storytelling (such as Wotan’s monologue in Act 2 of Die Walküre and the prologue to Götterdämmerung) eschew grandeur; more than one human character dons an epic mantle, while the ugliness of the human world invades the world of the gods.

And it is an ugly, ugly world Zambello conjures up for us (sets by Michael Yeargan; lighting design by Mark McCullough). Her main theme, as she herself suggests, is an environmentally conscious one. Wagner’s idea of nature corrupted by greed is here presented, in both a visually compelling and a literal sense, as pollution of natural environment by the uninhibited growth of human industry; endless highways destroying forests, piles of (unrecycled) garbage chocking up rivers, and factory chimney stacks blackening the sky. In the finale of Das Rheingold we see the gods walk toward the glittering skyscraper of their newly built Valhalla headquarters, while the Rhine maidens bewail their fate at the foot of a cement monstrosity of the (Brooklyn?) bridge leading up to it. Their faces and clothes are covered in soot: Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) and the Nibelungs are, naturally, coal miners. The giants sport Depression-eras construction worker overalls (to contrast with the suits and flapper dresses of the champagne-sipping gods), their bodies an awkward yet disturbing fusion of man and machine that reminds one of the Weimar Zeitopern like Max Brand’s Maschinist Hopkins.

Alan Held as Wotan and The Valkyries in The Valkyrie - photo Scott Suchman.pngAlan Held as Wotan and the Valkyries [Photo by Scott Suchman]

While the gods are ensconced in their heavenly corporate boardrooms, the human world of the tetralogy alternates between the depressing anarchy of a dirty industrial cityscape and the oppressive order of a chauvinistic militarized civilization. The final confrontation between Siegmund (Christopher Ventris) and Hunding (Raymond Aceto) takes place in that most iconic of urban milieux, under a bridge (the bridge from Das Rheingold, that is), as Fricka (Elizabeth Bishop) watches, unmoved, from the top of the bridge’s arch. Fafner’s cave is an abandoned factory, complete with a post-apocalyptic mechanical “dragon” (a cross between an excavator and a tank), in which Soloman Howard’s Fafner hides himself. Mime (David Cangelosi) builds his forge in a trashed trailer park next to a land field. This technically makes Siegfried (Daniel Brenna) “trailer trash” – an image Zambello clearly endorses, presenting Wagner’s greatest hero not as a pure child of nature, but rather as an irritating, ignorant teenage bully who makes us wonder what Brünnhilde (Catherine Foster and Nina Stemme) could possibly see in him (note: echoes of 2003 Stuttgart Siegfried abound). Yet the Valkyrie herself – at least in Foster’s interpretation I saw – is introduced to us less as a Daughter of Wisdom and more as a mischievous imp. Indeed, it is her journey, her transformation that becomes central to the storyline. While Siegfried is an “accidental hero” who blunders blindly through his life, into his love, and towards his death without understanding the point to any of it, Brünnhilde grows – through her divine experiences in Die Walküre, but more so through her human ones in Götterdämmerung. And her human life exemplifies another important theme in Zambello’s Ring: that of the subjugation and liberation of women. While it is easy to see Sieglinde (Meagan Miller) as an abused wife, as many directors do, Brünnhilde is no less so, particularly as portrayed here against the backdrop of the aggressively male-dominated, gun-totting Gibichung kingdom. It is notable, therefore, that the finale of Zambello’s Götterdämmerung is virtually male-free. Instead, it features the women of the kingdom, led by the newly worldwise Brünnhilde, her now enlightened acolyte Gutrune (Melissa Citrom, whose character comes almost unbelievably far from the bored alcoholic socialite of Act 1, in bed with the half-brother Hagen), and the ever-present and determined, albeit somewhat callous Rhine maidens. It is the women who build Siegfried’s monumental funeral pyre by piling up mountains of garbage, thus cleaning and purifying the polluted world, before we witness a young girl – Earth goddess Erda, reborn – planting a sapling of the next World Ash to start that world anew.

The symbolism throughout is rarely opaque; occasionally preachy; and often powerful. Part of its potency, I think, lies in the way the natural world is being represented. Ironically, it is here (and not, say, in the Götterdämmerung prologue, in which the Norns vainly attempted to repair the fiber optic cables of their thread) that Zambello most closely embraces technology. Large-format computer-generated imagery projected onto the front screen, backdrop, or both, accompany and connect multiple scenes throughout the tetralogy (projection design by Jan Hartley and S. Katy Tucker). Some of the imagery is virtually abstract: water, fire, clouds, gold, stone, and other elements of nature continuously coalesce, dissolve, and re-form again. Other images are more realistically concrete and darker, in line with a gritty, literally “down-to-earth” atmosphere of the main Ring trilogy, showing how fast the rising industrial civilization of skyscrapers, factories, and highways can displace the natural world. Natural imagery is still present in this form, however. We look down majestic canyons (Zambello claims inspiration from the American West); wade into dense forests (peaceful and sunlit in parts of Siegfried; yet in Die Walküre chaotic and psychologically disorienting enough to be fit for Erwartung, or at least Pelléas); and even hitch a ride with the Valkyries, as the computer-generated clouds rush towards the viewer, creating an illusion of flight during Wagner’s most celebrated instrumental passage. Indeed, the CGI projections were at their most effective, in my opinion, when paired with the purely instrumental portions of the Ring. The aural-visual correlation was excellent, showing sensitivity to the score and, perhaps, also to the limited attention span of a less Wagner-trained portion of the audience. After all, it is not easy to make the infamous 5-minute-long opening of Das Rheingold – which consists, as any Wagnerite will tell you, of a reiteration of a single chord – look, as well as sound riveting.

SIEGFRIED_146.pngA scene from Siegfried

And speaking of riveting sounds, I would be remiss if I neglected to tip my hat to the almost uniformly high quality of the performance, from both the singers and (there is a WNO first!) the orchestra, forged by Philippe Auguin into a formidable force. There are always issues in a live presentation, be they occasioned by seasonal allergies that felled Held in Wotan’s Farewell; rehearsal mishaps that made Foster’s poor Brünnhilde limp through most of cycle 2; or simple fatigue – in Bayreuth it would be inconceivable to demand that the brass players do three Ring cycles back to back, as they did here. Yet overall, I was impressed with the care taken in both auditioning and casting – most tellingly, the casting of small parts: the Valkyries, the Norns, and particularly the Rhine Maidens (Jacqueline Echols, Catherine Martin, and Renée Tatum). Echols (Woglinde), with her almost inhumanly pure, vibrato-less coloratura was double-cast superbly as the Forest Bird. Speaking of wildlife, I cannot tell you whether there was a separate casting call for the (person-costumed-as) bear used in Act 1 of Siegfried, but the Wagnerites in the audience insisted it was the best one they have ever seen. And yes, the bear did get a separate curtain call. Hunding’s (real) hunting dogs from Die Walküre did not; and honestly, that little detail I could have done without. Other production niceties, however, were much appreciated, such as commendable attention to the language: both the articulation of the German (in which the comic talents of Cangelosi and William Burden as Loge particularly shined) and the carefully crafted supertitles, tailored to reflect Zambello’s updated setting (e.g., with the appropriately idiomatic mid-20th-century American vernacular) and other directorial changes.

TWILIGHTOFTHEGODS_201.pngScene from Twilight of the Gods

Overall, the Washington Ring showcased both respect for tradition and interpretive freedom. The latter, of course, has arguably developed into a tradition of its own over the past four decades, ever since Chereau/Boulez’s infamous centennial Ring of 1976. Francesca Zambello’s contribution to this revisionist directorial canon may not be to every Wagnerite’s taste, but it is a worthwhile and a memorable one. I hope this is not the last time we see it.

Olga Haldey
University of Maryland

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