Das Rheingold

Philippe Auguin
Washington National Opera Orchestra
17 May 2016
Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Washington D.C.
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanAlan Held
DonnerRyan McKinny
FrohRichard Cox
LogeWilliam Burden
FasoltJulian Close
FafnerSoloman Howard
AlberichGordon Hawkins
MimeDavid Cangelosi
FrickaElizabeth Bishop
FreiaMelody Moore
ErdaLindsay Ammann
WoglindeJacqueline Echols
WellgundeCatherine Martin
FloßhildeRenee Tatum

Manifest destiny and doom: Francesca Zambello’s All-American Ring

Wagner’s proto-Nazi credentials have been more commented upon, for obvious reasons, than his ecological ones. But the Washington National Opera’s first ever production of The Ring is nothing less than an environmental allegory. It also styles itself as the first all-American Ring, in its directorship, design and setting, and as such, is a provocative comment on its (mis)-usage of power since the days of westward expanse – its destructiveness in the service of world-ambition. There is Wagnerian grandiosity here, surely, and also a sort of timeliness. Could there be anything more apposite than Zambello’s Ring in a country which, with a mere 6% of the world’s population, uses a whole 25% of its resources?

At first blush, the notion of Wagner’s reincarnation as a prophet for Greenpeace, as it were, is a little suspect. One didn’t expect an apolitical Ring from Zambello. But an ecological statement, attended by the prefatory article ‘was Wagner an environmentalist?’ Really? Just a little too faddish?

I came away, however, from Rheingold, compelled by the production so far – more than by the singers (satisfactory without being outstanding) or orchestra (solid if sometimes lacklustre). The environment – natural and manmade – gives Zambello and set-designer Michael Yeargan a broad canvas on which to develop both vast ideas and particular effects. The white-clad Rhinemaidens epitomize virgin nature in all its carefree abundance: the New World indeed. The stark violation of the integrity of their world is brought home by their appearance at the end, after their eerie lament off-stage. Aged, haggard and in grey rags, they importune Wotan, who as a god has greater moral responsibility than the gold’s original thief. Dismissing their voiceless pleading, he ascends towards Valhalla, his (ironically) white trench coat billowing behind. Physical ascent and material aspiration yoked to natural and moral descent: this powerfully communicates major Wagnerian concerns.

Computer-generated images between scenes represented the constant flux of evolutionary nature – as apt a visual representation of Wagner’s developmental motifs as any. These and the backdrops were inspired by the vast canvases of the sublime American West by Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Church. Lighting was uniformly excellent: the blues and golds faded to sickly grey after the violation of pristine nature; the pallid world of the gods without Freia gave way to the Technicolour approach to their wholly artificial paradise. The molten-gold depths of the Nibelheim were crucial to a brilliantly-choreographed scene. Anvil-sound ringing the theatre stereophonically, we were deep down in the mine ourselves, alongside the infant labour-slaves.

So what kind of gods does Zambello plan to destroy in this Ring? Here they started as 1930s-style American plutocrats, although Freia is a shirtwaist-dress Gibson girl, and Wotan more like a bully-boy European fascist, with military boots, trench coat and inevitable spear. Negligently waiting on the building site of their new ‘tower’, the range of mountains becomes the mere backdrop to their vaulting material ambition. But Zambello is too deft a director to cast them merely as the despicable super-rich: these are very human portrayals that engage us, relatable in their vanities and moral choices: love or gold? Law or theft? Age or youth? All is finally shrugged off with champagne. For now.

As regards the singing, whilst there were no stellar performances, there were some decent ones. Gordon Hawkins was in good voice as Alberich and was a particularly captivating high-priest of the underworld in Scene Three, projecting dark energy in his ample baritone, with David Cangelosi as a mincing Mime. Alan Held’s Wotan was powerfully expressive. Lindsay Ammann’s appearance as Erda, Earth Mother, Native American style, brought us lovely, deep, stilling tones. In this environmental reading, her role is crucial, and Ammann weighted it with suitable gravitas. Elizabeth Bishop was an endearingly comic Fricka; she has said in interview that she thinks the character terribly misunderstood; most certainly, she brought her to life.

William Burden was Loge-the-lawyer, adept at finding loopholes for the monied. His tone and acting I liked. The denim-clad giants, lowered dramatically on a steel girder (reminiscent of the iconic photograph), Julian Close (Fasolt) and Soloman Howard (Fafner) rumbled their bass lines. Donner (Ryan McKinny) and Froh (Richard Cox) were indifferently tame – the former’s summoning of the storm and the latter’s conjuring of the rainbow were lacklustre. But as college fraternity boys, in crested blazers, whether chewing gum or wielding a hammer as a croquet mallet, they acted well: effective at evoking over-privileged effetes.

The prefatory evening closes upon the inebriated carelessness of the Lords of the New World after the first, fateful violation of nature. Champagne and laughter, as Noel Coward once said of the 1920s, but what comes after? Zambello’s compelling Rheingold unquestionably invites us to proceed.

Hilary Stroh | 01 Mai 2016


Burden of gilt

When Francesca Zambello’s production of Das Rheingold opened in DC a decade ago I was not a fan. Glibly described as an “American” or “environmental” Ring, it seemed poised to buckle under the weight of its own self-importance. If the actual production offered more than the elevator pitch implied, it still felt overly invested in shoehorning the Ring into some bigger scheme for dubious purposes, an exercise which quickly grew tedious in practice.

Happily, this Rheingold, which returned to the Kennedy Center Saturday night to open the first of three complete cycles, has been shorn of its clumsier gestures. What’s left is a taut, character-driven production that wields its referential material with care, giving us a manageable set of core images that keep the dramatic and intellectual machinery of Das Rheingold buzzing. While Zambello’s productions can be hit or miss (I’m still smarting over that Ariadne at Glimmerglass two years ago) she is surely in her element here, presiding over a cohesive, well-constructed drama tinged with playful irreverence.

The key device of this production, as anyone with Internet access has probably gathered by now, is a vaguely gilded age/Gatsby-ish treatment for Wotan and his crew. That’s a reasonable enough place to plop the Ring gods in American history, but the 30,000 foot reading isn’t the interesting thing here. Rather, it’s how Zambello scours that basic idea for illuminating dramatic tidbits that help to tell a richer story about the characters.

The world of early 20th century idle rich exuberance nicely telegraphs the deities’ anxious mix of desperation and entitlement, their elegance a thin veil separating them from Alberich’s grubby climbing in the zero-sum political economy of the Ring’s fantasy world. That pervading air of entitlement also raises the stakes for the gods’ clash with workmen Fasolt and Fafner, adding an easily recognizable element of class contempt to Wotan’s willingness to cheat the giants. Prep school jerks Donner and Froh aren’t just motivated by protecting Freia’s honor; their disdain for the giants is wrapped up in their need to disguise protecting their status with the defense of noble virtues. And so on.

The tighter focus in this iteration is also evident in what got left out when the production was revisited for its presentation in San Francisco in 2011. Fraught symbols that added little to an understanding of the drama have been wisely revised, from small heavy-handed details (the rhinegold itself is now merely pretty sheet of gold lamé instead of a gilded homespun quilt) to major distractions (Erda’s ill-advised full-bore “American Indian” getup has been throttled back to something neutral from Anthropologie’s summer clearance rack).

Even the famous Old West Rheingold opening, which I’ve enjoyed snarking about for a decade, is subtly effective now. Alberich is still a prospector—again, not terribly interesting for any novel insights about American history. But in the less cluttered telling this choice becomes more interesting for what it insinuates about Alberich’s character—far from a base, idle dwarf, the prospector figure denotes grit and perseverance, a harbinger of the challenge he will eventually pose to Wotan.

WNO has fielded a strong ensemble for this cycle, featuring many familiar faces from the original productions. Alan Held’s intimidating baritone is an ideal vehicle for his maniacally confident Wotan, easily cutting through the orchestra with vivid attention to the text. While his has never been the prettiest sound, and we’ll see how he fares in the more lyrical demands of Die Walküre, this is a profoundly satisfying marriage of voice and character. Wotan’s great moment of disillusionment after he relinquishes the ring is shattering in Held’s portrayal—an agonizing first brush with self-doubt for the cocky deity.

Elizabeth Bishop, also a return player, easily charms the audience as exasperated matron Fricka, gamely shouldering much of the comedy that Zambello wrings from the hectic family scenes. Though clear and authoritative, her mezzo sounded perhaps a bit thinner relative to previous hearings.

Froh and Donner make the most of their turns as spoiled sons of the elite, though neither makes the vocal impact sometimes possible in these roles. Melody Moore rounds out the clan, settling into a warm, womanly sound for Freia. Moore has a unique assignment in this production—Freia returns from her time in Riesenheim having fallen for captor Fasolt, and must genuinely mourn his murder by Fafner. I’m not totally sold on this, though the rich-girl-gone-bad trope works in the context of the production and Moore played it effectively despite very little text to work with. Gordon Hawkins is back from the initial run as well, his towering portrayal of Alberich every bit Das Rheingold’s shriveled heart. His resonant, slightly acidic bass-baritone serves as a terrifying vehicle for Alberich’s resentful conviction, though, while always committed dramatically, he doesn’t quite achieve that level of additional vocal interest needed to elevate the long stretch of Alberich’s Scene 4 monologue.

The most surprising turn of the evening was William Burden in his role debut as Loge. Burden’s light expressive tenor easily brought out the beauty in Loge’s music, crowning an intelligent and highly watchable reading of the demigod as canny peacetime consigliere.

Rhinegold, WNOSolomon Howard, a former Domingo-Cafritz young artist who has distinguished himself in a number of company assignments this year (including last fall’s Appomattox), made a solid role debut as Fafner, while Brit Julian Close’s flexible bass was well-suited to an ardent Fasolt. Clad in head to toe denim, Edward Scissorhands claws, and oversized platform workboot stilts, this is definitely a more animated and playful, though ultimately no less threatening, conception of the giants.

Contralto Lindsey Ammann, who is to appear in a variety of roles throughout this Ring, made a strong impression, bringing a gorgeous, rounded sound to Erda’s music. The Rhinemaidens (Jacqueline Echols, Catherine Martin and Renee Tatum) set a high standard for the evening with a consistently beautiful opening trio, a hint of the strength up and down the roster to come.

If Siegfried is the Ring’s Scherzo, conductor Philippe Auguin makes a case for Das Rheingold as (perhaps) the Mendelssohn bauble that opens the first half of the program and demonstrates what the band can do. Usual opportunities for turgid tempi like the giants’ entrance sped by, in a reading highly sympathetic to the light tone set up on the stage, though perhaps at the expense of some lost grandeur and clarity in moments like the descent to Nibelheim. The Washington National Opera Orchestra offered a thrilling sound and shone in moments like the truly exhilarating traversal of the final entrance to Valhalla.

Highlights of Michael Yeargan’s sets include the crumbling concrete portico strewn with makeshift staircases which serves as a staging area for the completion of Valhalla, a potent reminder that the struggle is real for these gods. (Wotan snoozing on the kind of dingy chaise lounge found in every cheap apartment building courtyard ever is also a nice touch.) Nibelheim is the production’s most striking visual, a towering earthen wall at which the Nibelungen scrape for gold that owes something to the scenes of the laborers in Powaqqatsi or perhaps the child mines in Temple of Doom.

Mark McCullough’s evocative lighting design creates a wealth of effects that enliven the relatively simple sets, or the mostly bare stage in Scene 4, including lights that shine up from grates that cover the entire stage. One especially beautiful effect is built around the loss of Freia’s golden apples, color slowly leaching out of a brilliant sky as the gods’ vitality deteriorates.

In general, the technical standards of this Rheingold are a considerable improvement over the earlier iteration, which may have inspired certain uncharitable wags to opine at the time that they should have called it the “Discount” Ring. These upgrades also thankfully extend to the projections which play across the scrim during transitions (new projections are credited to S. Katy Tucker). Though the descent to Nibelheim is still a bit on the nose, the new projection evoking increasingly complex chemical and biological patterns is an attractive and fitting accompaniment to the famous prelude.

ALEX BAKER | May 03, 2016

Washington Post

The ‘Ring’ gets off to a good start

The auditorium went black, and a quiet E-flat rose and grew from the orchestra pit, in the dark. On a screen, abstract blurred videos gradually morphed into images of water as more instruments fed the rising tide of sound. It was such a clear, right opening to Wagner’s massive “Ring” cycle that it almost didn’t matter, when the curtain went up, that the stage set, framed by generic mountain silhouettes and filled with clouds of white smoke, didn’t give any clear idea of where we were.

Francesca Zambello’s production of “The Rhinegold,” as the Washington National Opera insists on calling the prologue to Richard Wagner’s tetralogy of operas, was first seen in D.C. in 2006, and billed as the start of an “American Ring.” Both the production and the concept have mellowed considerably since then, honed during the cycle’s first complete presentation in San Francisco in 2011. The focus of this “Ring” is less concept than storytelling; indeed, the first scene of this “Rhinegold” had drifted so far from its original conception that it threatened to drift away from the story altogether. Fortunately it was anchored by an excellent trio Rhinemaidens — Jacqueline Echols, Catherine Martin and Renée Tatum — whose fine singing compensated for their aimless stage business, waving their arms through the clouds of smoke.

The storytelling came into focus in the second scene of this generally compelling performance. The gods, in 1920s garb (their “eternal youth” evident in Froh and Donner, Richard Cox and Ryan McKinny, played here as spoiled and privileged boy-men), survey their new edifice (which the audience cannot see) from a well-appointed mountain terrace. And Zambello pays attention to oft-overlooked details of characterization, like the poignant push-and-pull between affection and intimacy in the relationship of Wotan, the chief god (Alan Held), and his oft-betrayed wife, Fricka (Elizabeth Bishop).

And in terms of characterization, the casting was generally strong. There are stronger voices than Held’s, or more focused ones than Gordon Hawkins’s as Alberich, but both offered warm portrayals that grew in authority. A leather coat underlined the shiny slipperiness of William Burden’s swift-talking Loge. Soloman Howard and Julian Close were a redoubtable pair of giants (although they moved with such restriction in their lumpy costumes that Fasolt’s death seemed more like a pantomime than an actual murder). Lindsay Ammann sang vividly, though with a throbbing vibrato, as Erda, portrayed in 2006 as a Native American and now modified with a dash of Goth lite.

As for the orchestra: All credit to Philippe Auguin, WNO’s music director, for getting them to sound so good. His restraint in the opera’s opening seemed to me a preparation for the increasing ardor of its final scene, which crackled with energy and tension as the gods ascended their rainbow bridge to Valhalla. In this production, they’re climbing a gangway, which at once promises the start of a voyage and marks a convenient way to keep undesirable elements — the grieving Rhinemaidens — out.

Anne Midgette | May 1, 2016

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 333 MByte (MP3)
In-house recording
A production by Francesca Zambello (2006)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.