Das Rheingold

Heinz Fricke
The Washington National Opera Orchestra
25 March 2006
Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Washington D.C.
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanRobert Hale
DonnerDetlef Roth
FrohCorey Evan Rotz
LogeRobin Leggate
FasoltJohn Marcus Brindel
FafnerJeffrey Wells
AlberichGordon Hawkins
MimeGary Rideout
FrickaElizabeth Bishop
FreiaJane L. Ohmes
ErdaElena Zaremba
WoglindeFrederique Vezina
WellgundeJi Young Lee
FloßhildeJennifer Hines
New York Times

National Opera Molds Wagner’s ‘Ring’ to Fit American Myths

If you put on a production of Wagner’s monumental “Ring” cycle, you’d better have a novel concept. That’s accepted wisdom in the opera world. We have had industrial age “Rings,” an environmentally green “Ring,” and several cosmic “Rings” with mystical lighting and abstract scenery.

On Saturday night the Washington National Opera introduced its new production of “Das Rheingold,” the first installment of its first complete “Ring” cycle (a co-production with the San Francisco Opera), which will unfold over the next three seasons at the Kennedy Center. For months, the director Francesca Zambello’s staging had been touted as a provocatively American “Ring” steeped in American mythology and iconography.

There are many fresh and impressive elements to the company’s colorful, abstract and well cast “Rheingold.” But its success is only partly attributable to overtly American imagery.

It’s true, for example, that in the opening scene Ms. Zambello, working with the set designer Michael Yeargan and the costume designer Anita Yavich, portrays Wagner’s Alberich, the dwarf who dwells among the lower race of Nibelungs, as a hulking forty-niner, with thick boots and suspenders, panning for gold; the Rhine Maidens are a trio of sassy gals in fleecy dresses who cavort on a mining sluice, a wonderful wood contraption with chutes and ladders.

But the visual imagery that really gives this scene its impact is the depiction of the pristine river. Rushing water is suggested through swirling video projections by Jan Hartley. When the magic gold glows from the river bed, the Rhine Maidens do a celebratory dance with a billowing silken sheet atop this abstract river’s sleek, clear plastic surface. Shafts of golden light (courtesy of the lighting designer Mark McCullough) fill the stage. None of this would matter, though, without the powerful singing of the baritone Gordon Hawkins as Alberich, who nearly stole the show all evening.

The giants Fasolt and Fafner (the bass-baritones John Marcus Bindel and Jeffrey Wells), having just finished building Wotan’s castle Valhalla, first appear sitting on a steel beam as it is lowered from an unseen crane. They are blue-collar laborers in matching overalls with elongated legs and huge clodhopper feet. If they look a little like Gumby giants, the cartoonish humor seems intentional. Ms. Zambello is refreshingly attentive to the whimsical side of Wagner’s mythological tale. The audience, sensing it was O.K. to laugh, did.

Wotan and the gods are portrayed as entitled 1920’s characters out of “The Great Gatsby,” arrayed in white summer suits and dresses. Loge, the god of fire, is a wily lawyer in a tailored overcoat (the tenor Robin Leggate). Still, there is nothing especially American about his look, which has a hint of Inspector Clouseau. The rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop is excellent as a matronly and prideful Fricka, the long-suffering wife to the inconstant Wotan.

With his goatee and fedora, the sturdy bass-baritone Robert Hale makes an unusually lanky and disdainful Wotan. Still, in the scene when he descends to the lower world to wrest the magic ring from Alberich, he seems too aloof for the job. Mr. Hawkins’s booming and husky Alberich looks as if he could take down the surly god — no problem.

The Americanization concept turns political when the all-knowing earth goddess Erda (the tremulous-voiced mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba) appears with her ominous warning for Wotan. She is costumed as a Native American princess, and looks as if she had wandered in from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

The lingering image of this production comes in the deep, dank and sulfurous mine where Alberich brutally drives his slaves to hew rock and forge gold. The workers are played by a roster of some 50 mostly minority children, large and small, with tattered clothing and sooty faces. Evoking the history of slavery in America is the idea, but the image of child labor, which remains an international outrage, is what came through for me.

With about 65 players, the orchestra is a little undersize for Wagner. But the veteran conductor Heinz Fricke, the company’s music director, turns this to advantage and elicits playing of rewarding clarity and, at times, chamber music-like intimacy. Wagner’s two-and-a-half-hour score emerges in a calmly paced and shapely arc.

Though there are still three operas, lasting almost 15 hours, to go, the Washington National Opera is off to a good start with “Das Rheingold.” But they might want to damp down all the talk about their American spin on Wagner’s “Ring.”


Washington Post

A ‘Rheingold’ That Stands on Its Principals

The best way to approach Washington National Opera’s new production of Richard Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, is as a solid, abstract and sometimes very attractive updating of a classic.

In short, forget most of what you might have read about this being the first installment of an “American ‘Ring’ ” — that is, a staging of Wagner’s four-evening “Ring” cycle based on what WNO calls the “rich history of the United States.” It isn’t, unless you count as pointed political commentary, dressing up the earth goddess Erda like the lady on the Land O’ Lakes box, casting African Americans in the roles of the captive Nibelungs, and having the giants Fafner and Fasolt bop and swagger like wild ‘n’ crazy guy construction workers.

Perhaps the next three operas in the series — a new “Die Walkure” will enter the repertoire next season, with “Siegfried” and “Gotterdammerung” promised for later — will deepen the American subtext. For now, just enjoy Francesca Zambello’s “Roaring Twenties” staging for its general usefulness, its evocative projections (mist, sun, water and some creepy snakes), its occasional moments of majesty and whimsy.

I am grateful, I suppose, that none of the characters wear antlers on their heads, but I am less happy that the production, for the most part, lacks the luminous beauty of the best traditional stagings (Otto Schenk’s hypnotic rendition at the Met foremost among them) and the sort of genuine directorial vision that would make for a radical new understanding of the piece.

Still, it will suffice, especially when the performances are as good as they were Saturday. Baritone Gordon Hawkins is simply the best Alberich I’ve encountered. Grasping, haunted, malevolent — a monster, of course, but strangely sympathetic at times — Hawkins’s Alberich stole the show as surely as any great Mephistopheles will steal a “Faust.” His acting was dynamic and multi-dimensional; moreover, despite the inherent grotesquerie of his character, Hawkins never devolved into Disney horror show. He always made sure the notes were sung — properly and in tune.

Robert Hale’s voice is perhaps a size too small for Wotan — he brought power to the role but not quite the seemingly effortless power one might have hoped for. That said, he sang with intelligence and sensitivity and brought as much gravity to the character as he could in a production that does not exactly extol Wotan’s godliness.

Elizabeth Bishop (Fricka) and Jane Ohmes (Freia) were excellent, singing clearly and soulfully, with proper Wagnerian amplitude. Robin Leggate was a dapper, understated and remarkably lyrical Loge.

The three Rhinemaidens — JiYoung Lee, Frederique Vezina and Jennifer Hines — were lovely all around, singing with welling, primordial freshness. Elena Zaremba sounded curiously husky and strained as Erda; she might have the cold Washington has been passing back and forth all winter, but no announcement was made. John Marcus Bindel and Jeffrey Wells played skillfully off each other as Fasolt and Fafner, dressed in elongated bell-bottoms that looked as though they had been designed by R. Crumb. There was worthy support from Corey Evan Rotz as Froh, Detlef Roth as Donner and Gary Rideout as Mime.

A huge factor in the success of any “Rheingold” is the performance of the orchestra, and in this production WNO music director Heinz Fricke has surpassed himself. He took the amazing overture — a four-minute exploration of a single sustained E-flat major chord that effectively defines and perfects musical minimalism 100 years before the name was invented — at such a slow tempo that one worried whether his forces could sustain it. But they came through, playing with such sweep, precision and prismatic color that one almost forgot that the Kennedy Center Opera House pit holds a considerably smaller orchestra than is usually employed for this music.

The concluding “Entrance of the Gods Into Valhalla” made up for its somewhat prosaic staging (set on what looked like the gangplank to an ocean liner) with a glorious and affirmative peal of sound. We can almost believe, for a moment, that the gods and goddesses are eternal, that nothing can ever harm them. But just wait until “Die Walkure.”

Tim Page | March 27, 2006

Washington Times

The Americanization of ‘Reingold’

Commencing with Richard Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” the Washington National Opera has embarked on a bold, multiyear journey to present the company’s first-ever Ring Cycle. And, to help realize this vision, Francesca Zambello’s production team set out this past weekend to create a refreshingly new “American Ring” at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. The result: a smashing, nontraditional prequel that should have audiences clamoring for the Cycle’s next three installments.

In this version of “Das Rheingold” (“The Rhine Gold”), the Zambello team has reconceptualized Wagner’s mythic tale as a series of riffs on the American experience, making expert use of the kinds of scenic projections introduced during the company’s Constitution Hall diaspora to stir up the composer’s sometimes dreary expositions.

Thus, the nasty dwarf, Alberich, becomes a Forty-Niner prospecting for gold when he runs across the Rheinmaidens who guard the ultimate stash while scampering up and down mining sluice gates and scaffolding. Meanwhile, the gods, at their peak of power, are nattily attired in sporty whites like Jay Gatsby and his pals in the 1920s, while two huffing giants labor mightily to finish Valhalla, the gods’ new sky-high digs.

The two giants, Fafner and Fasolt, are this “Rheingold’s” most distinguishing feature. We first glimpse them descending from the new castle’s heights, jauntily seated on a steel beam and rakishly clad in stylized denim coveralls. They’re just a pair of brawny (and very tall) working stiffs — albeit with Popeye limbs and Terminator-like steel fingers. They now must weasel their pay — the goddess Freia — from Wotan, king of the gods, before he figures out a way to welch on the deal. Yep, it’s the capitalists vs. the trade unionists. But it works just fine.

Further, as sung by bass-baritones Jeffrey Wells and John Marcus Bindel, these are giants with attitude. They genuinely steal the show, adding a hefty dose of something new to Wagner — a Yankee sense of class-bashing humor. Who can remember the last time he or she laughed out loud at the composer’s high seriousness? Mr. Wells and Mr. Bindel seemed to inhabit the clumsily majestic music Wagner wrote for these parts. And their insistence on a square deal and some dignity strongly foreshadow the eventual fall of the ruling elites in “Gotterdammerung.”

The rest of the cast was outstanding. JiYoung Lee, Frederique Vezina and Jennifer Hines, as the coquettish trio of Rheinmaidens, were a delight as they tempted Alberich into his fateful vow. Robert Hale’s powerful bass-baritone gave voice to a Wotan that seemed less a god and more an artful schemer increasingly hemmed in by his own deceit. As his consort Fricke, mezzo Elizabeth Bishop gives an impressive portrayal of the put-upon wealthy wife, with arch little touches of Margaret Dumont’s haughty demeanor. Jane Ohmes, Corey Evan Rotz, Detlef Roth and Gary Rideout were also excellent in smaller roles, as was mezzo Elena Zaremba in her brief turn as an American Indian earth-mother Erda.

Intriguingly, however, it’s the characters lower in the social pecking order who made this production dazzle — fitting for an American Ring, cast in a country where the lower classes see no reason why they can’t aspire to the top. The giants were a case in point. So to was baritone Gordon Hawkins, last fall’s Porgy, as Alberich. Mr. Hawkins was a malevolent sensation, his every resentful note curling with menace, giving profound meaning to the Curse of the Ring.

Equally intriguing was tenor Robin Leggate’s trickster-god, Loge, the master of fire. Mr. Leggate’s silvery voice iced his portrayal of Loge as a lawyerlike master schemer who makes and breaks deals like a judo master, causing his opponents’ strengths to work against them. With his impeccable sense of dress and his brushy little moustache, he conjured up the casual moral relativism of Claude Rains’ Capt. Renault in “Casablanca.” In the end, however, neither the Zambello edifice nor the fine singing would have been as powerful or effective without a master Wagnerian music director like Heinz Fricke at the helm of the WNO Orchestra. Maestro Fricke and his ensemble wove, with the greatest of care, a richly complex sonic tapestry against which the singers created their magic, transforming into reality the near-perfect unity of story, song, stagecraft, and symphonic poem that the composer originally envisioned.

March 26, 2006

Financial Times

In the first scene of Das Rheingold Alberich is a ’49er panning for gold while Rhinemaidens do their frolicking in a wooden mining structure. It was a plausible way to launch the Washington National Opera’s first ever Ring, with its intriguing promise of an American orientation. And it triggered thoughts about how subsequent instalments might deal creatively with the generation spans that separate most if not all the epic’s four constituent operas. Yet the next scene placed Wagner’s gods in a suburban terrace from roughly the 1920s with nothing particularly American about it, even if Anita Yavich’s all-white costumes for the gods included a collegiate v-neck sweater. Thereafter, only the appearance of Erda in American Indian dress meshed with an American slant, and given the context she seemed out of place.

Ironically, in 1989 Washington hosted, in the same opera house, the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s “Tunnel Ring” staged by the late Götz Friedrich, which encased the action in a structure replicating the Washington Metro. Alas, Michael Yeargan’s serviceable if simplistic sets here offer nothing so site specific. Nor do Jan Hartley’s projections, which consist mainly of billowing clouds, whirling galaxies and the like. And Francesca Zambello’s fluent if conventional direction would be at home in most contemporary Rheingolds.

Perhaps the veteran Robert Hale has a secret supply of Freia’s youth- inducing apples, for he remains an imposing Wotan. Gordon Hawkins doesn’t need them; his first Alberich, if short on malevolence, is richly intoned, intelligently conceived and sometimes gripping. Robin Leggate’s verbal fluency and lawyerly demeanor as Loge more than compensated for a slight dryness of tone. Elizabeth Bishop was a ripe-voiced Fricka, Elena Zaremba a sultry Erda with eyes for Wotan. John Marcus Bindel, an excellent Fasolt, showed tenderness toward Freia without overdoing it.

Initial press accounts, relying on the printed programme, which listed only tenured orchestra members, suggested that a reduced orchestration was used. In fact, a full Wagnerian ensemble of 94 players participated, yet under Heinz Fricke’s cautious baton it sometimes sounded enervated. The WNO’s Ring won’t be seen as an integral cycle until 2009, but critical thinking about where the American motif goes from here ought to start now.

George Loomis | April 4, 2006

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A production by Francesca Zambello
Possible dates: 25, 30 March, 2, 5, 8, 10, 14 April 2006