Der Ring des Nibelungen

Philippe Auguin
Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra
17 May 2016 (R), 18 May 2016 (W)
20 May 2016 (S), 22 May 2016 (G)
Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Washington D.C.
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio

Das Rheingold

Die Walküre



The End of the World on the Potomac

It has been a decade in the making, but Washington finally has a Ring Cycle of its very own. A latecomer among national capitals of the Western world, the unfolding saga of Francesca Zambello’s production almost matches the epic tetralogy in dramatic proportions. The Rheingold installment premiered as long ago as 2006, followed by Walküre the following year (an earlier version of the latter opera appeared at Constitution Hall in 2003, when the Kennedy Center Opera House was under renovation for a season). Financial shortfalls left over from Plácido Domingo’s free-spending days as general director slowed things down, with Siegfried delayed to 2009. Compounded by the 2008 financial crisis, fiscal limitations reduced Götterdämmerung to just two concert performances later that year accompanied by the disappointing announcement that the full Cycle would be postponed indefinitely. The honor of hosting the production’s complete premiere fell to the more robust San Francisco Opera, which shares the production. It produced it in three cycles during the summer of 2011, featuring the celebrated Swedish soprano Nina Stemme’s first full-cycle performances of the central role of Brünnhilde.

Reviews of the production’s San Francisco premiere (including my own) were deservedly mixed, but five years of anticipation guaranteed that the Ring’s long awaited presentation in Washington would blaze like a shooting star over the capital’s anemic cultural landscape. The Washington National Opera, for whose then-newly renovated theater the production was originally designed, devoted so much effort to it that the rest of its 2015-2016 was severely truncated, even beyond the drastic post-Domingo reduction in the number and scale of productions. Hopeful spectators turned out in droves to pay $2,500 for advanced tickets, with some local arts patrons donating far more specifically to support the production. Single-sale tickets sold at a premium nearly double the price of normal WNO performances. Individual seats for the operas in the third cycle, the only one to feature Stemme’s Brünnhilde, cost another $100 above that. The company’s official position was that this was not an ambitious fundraising exercise, but rather an attempt to cover costs ($10 million worth) and reach out to badly needed new audiences in a city whose demographics skew between aged establishment types and oblivious millennial transients. Paradoxically, both generations share a far greater devotion to politics than to art, and neither will likely be around in five years.

In this city of relentless image making, the hype succeeded. Most performances were announced as sell-outs. About one-third of sales reportedly went to people from outside the Washington metropolitan area, suggesting that the WNO might be able to restore its financial health by appealing to tourists. Cycle II, which I attended, boasted a bizarre and unfamiliar audience. Provincial visitors paraded their pretentions. One woman was overheard telling another to move her bag because it had slumped into her “personal space,” suggesting that her experience of sitting in a row of seats has for her entire life sadly been limited to economy flights. Another, who obviously had no idea what she was getting into, was treated to a well deserved gaggle of condescending grins when she asked a little too loudly why it all has to be so long. Some spectators took the occasion as an invitation to dress up as their favorite Wagner characters, though most ended up looking like least favorite Star Trek characters. Others took it as an invitation not to dress up at all, including one glamorous individual who was spotted at all four performances in the same suit of plus-size athletic gear but was unfortunately not seen doing sit-ups during the lengthy intermissions. The local media effusively praised the event – almost to the exclusion of rigorous critical comment – in a rather grasping effort to buck up a civic pride soured by Washington’s rising crime rate and decaying infrastructure. Even Washingtonians who care nothing for music seemed to know about and appreciate the buzz. But oddly in this tortuous election year, almost no one seems to have grasped the work’s philosophical themes about the corrupting nature of the power and the hollow illusions of the will.

Zambello, who has become the WNO’s artistic director since her Ring began to appear all those years ago, famously envisioned an “American” Ring, tracing the national experience from the early days of the industrial revolution through an alienating present. Rheingold opens in a 1920s milieu with Alberich as a befuddled gold prospector and the gods as Gatsby-styled heroes preparing to move into a skyscraper Valhalla. The giants Fasolt and Fafner, who demand payment for building the gods’ castle, are cartoonish construction workers. Walküre takes the action forward a generation to the 1950s. Wotan is now a powerful industrial chieftain presiding over his empire from a sky-high office that looks down over a gray city silhouette. In one of the Cycle’s more impressive scenes, his Valkyries are aviatrixes who parachute in during their famous “Ride.” Hunding is a cabin-dwelling backwoods brute. Siegmund and Sieglinde play out their scene of doom beneath the construction site of a highway overpass that easily dismisses the tacky, oversized moon under which they fall in love. Valhalla’s heroes appear in black and white photos of actual American soldiers killed in the country’s wars. In Siegfried we find a decaying industrial idiom that evokes the malaise of the 1970s. Mime inhabits a broken down trailer in a squalid trash dump next to a power station that ominously emits green smoke. Fafner is not an actual dragon but rather the operator of an armored trash compactor. He dies when Siegfried severs its vital power cords. The opera’s hero liberates Brünnhilde in surroundings that look bleaker than those in which Wotan had left her in the previous opera. In the gloomy universe of Götterdämmerung, environmental despoilation and social atomization are complete. The Norns, whose rope of fate contains all the knowledge of the world, are computer technicians who tend cables. The obliteration of their wisdom by spiraling fate results in a hardware crash. The Rhinemaidens are reduced to bag ladies clearing garbage from their aquatic abode. They ultimately kill Hagen by snuffing him out – tastelessly in my opinion – with a yellow garbage bag. Gunther, Gutrune, and their evil half-brother Hagen appear in an unattractive postmodern glass and steel structure. Their cheerless realm is tended by a gruff private army of wage slaves.

The only weak suggestion of the tetralogy’s redemptive theme comes in the form of a child planting a sapling ash tree – the source of the world’s blossoming wisdom before Wotan corrupted it – for the amusement of the blasé denizens of Gunther’s realm. Zambello has frequently stated that her work has a feminist bent, that Brünnhilde is the real hero whom Wotan overlooked in his quest to produce a free man who can redeem the world. But the point does not come across at all well and even seems forced. In fact the end, in which the gods and creation are nevertheless destroyed, suggests that if this truly is Brünnhilde’s role, she has done a less than stellar job.

Elements of the San Francisco production appear to have been updated, such as the redesigned video projections used in scene changes. The direction and characterization seemed crisper and more carefully thought through. I still wondered, though, what provocations this Ring makes that Patrice Chéreau missed in his centennial production in Bayreuth forty years ago. That landmark production was also shorn of mythological context and unfolded along the trajectory of an industrial society’s doomed evolution. Its Götterdämmerung installment was even meant to be set in New York. Günter Krämer’s recent Paris production of the Ring also embeds the work deeply in the pitfalls of industrial and post-industrial modernity. So does Bayreuth’s current Ring, by Frank Castorf, introduced to mark the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth in 2013.

One ached to hear Stemme’s Brünnhilde, who only graced the third cycle, but Catherine Foster has no reason to feel overshadowed in her stately interpretation. Having sung the role to some acclaim in Bayreuth’s recent new production and elsewhere, her clarion technique delivered gleaming Bs and Gs that enriched the music with passion and charm. Her top notes lacked the rounded quality one recalls from the role’s greatest exponents, but it is more than apparent that Foster might well grow into performances of that stature. Alan Held’s Wotan was strong and stentorian but occasionally lacked elegance. Part of his Walküre incarnation of the role suffered from an announced allergy problem brought on by awful Washington weather. Meagan Miller and Christopher Ventris delivered a fine pairing as Sieglinde and Siegmund. Daniel Brenna’s Siegfried was a resounding success. The early notes revealed some caution, but he only got better as the last two evenings went on. He clearly deserved more praise than the now standard plaudit that a Heldentenor is good merely by virtue of being able to make it through the role. Gordon Hawkins’s Alberich was less domineering than I recall, but probably for the better since this approach enabled him to access the character in greater nuance. His delivery of the curse Alberich places on the ring was soft and almost elegiac, conveying judgment rather than the usual rage. Veteran bass Eric Halfvarson’s malevolent Hagen recaptured his many stellar performances in the part all over the world. The supporting cast offered glimpses of some excellent young singers clearly on their way up. Rising mezzo Jamie Barton’s Waltraute riveted her long scene with Brünnhilde with a superbly well sung pathos. Bass Solomon Howard brought an alluring charcoal quality to Fafner. Ryan McKinny’s steady baritone enlivened the parts of Donner and Gunther. Lindsay Ammann did impressive triple duty in the low range parts of the earth goddess Erda, the Valkyrie Schwertleite, and the First Norn.

Washington’s music director Philippe Auguin took the podium to preside over what is, alas, not exactly a Wagner orchestra. Squally brass and gritty strings delivered a less than sublime playing. Auguin seemed to lack focus in many of the great moments, and his tempos were distractingly uneven across the Cycle. It was really only in the third act of Götterdämmerung that one sensed a master at work.

Zambello’s Ring is here to stay. Who knows when Washington will see it again, but San Francisco can reportedly look forward to a revival in 2018.

Paul du Quenoy | May 2016

Musings on the “American Ring”

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.

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.

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.

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 | 18 Jun 2016

A choice, not an ecosystem

Washington National Opera’s first Ring Cycle came to a bittersweet conclusion this past Sunday, closing the door on an extraordinary three weeks in the opera house and a remarkable musical and theatrical achievement for the company.

Many operagoers (myself included), approached this project with some trepidation, still harboring memories of the production’s half-baked partial run from the mid 2000s. Happily, these misgivings were largely swept aside by Francesca Zambello’s vastly improved and emotionally consuming vision, as well as the exceptional musical quality of the three cycles, presided over by music director Philippe Auguin.

All that said, the Götterdämmerung seen Sunday, while successful in many respects, is probably the least consistent installment of the cycle. The biggest issue again is the heavy handed environmental material that sometimes rankles in the Siegfried production, but often makes sense in the context of that opera’s ubiquitous nature imagery.

In Götterdämmerung, one can’t escape the fact that the environmental degradation metaphor is just too reductive to pair with the ambiguous nature of “evil” in the Ring. Images of polluting smokestacks and denuded landscapes play over the scene transition projections, turning every foreboding chord into some kind of environmental cautionary tale, a pedantic tic that grows tiresome quickly.

Moreover, the environmental tragedy theme distracts from the Ring’s wide-ranging meditation on the price of greed and self-interest. As this production’s Rheingold so memorably illustrates, Wagner is interested in the play of self-interest and power and how they damage human relationships and communities, not the inanimate environment.

But it’s easy to look past this misstep and appreciate this Ring for what it does well: genuinely compelling insights and sensitive direction, which, for the most part, work with the libretto and the music rather than against them, deriving conclusions that feel true to the work and enhancing its impact.

Consider this production’s trashy-wealthy Gibichungs, garbage people lazing around their sleek loft, narrowly focused on a need for external validation at the expense of all else. It’s an easy conceit, but the direction spins it into a thoroughly entertaining scene that effectively establishes the corrosive human pettiness that will now guide the opera’s endgame. Indeed, the great tragedy of Siegfried’s undoing is that the hero is unable to last five minutes in the world of men before he is embroiled in some Gibichung dating nonsense.

Later In Act II, we see a broader Gibichung community that mirrors the principals’ warped values assembled in the show’s most impressive set piece, a vast and intimidating chrome and glass lobby (sets are by Michael Yeargan). Here Hagen presides over a sort of post-apocalyptic fascist militia outfit that enforces a rigid gender hierarchy over their futuristic concubines, a nice use of the mute women’s chorus. As Brünnhilde lashes out at Siegfried and Gunther, the men impose a preemptive group punishment on the militia wives lest they get ideas.

Twilight of the Gods, WNO, Washington, DCSiegfried’s entanglement in the world of the Gibichungs means he is never really a sympathetic hero here, his foolishness and gullibility so overwhelming that we can’t decide whether to pity or resent him for being the unwitting agent of so much chaos. His return at the end of Act I takes this line to its bitter end, with disguised Siegfried brutally assaulting Brünnhilde in order to obtain the ring. For a moment Siegfried removes the Tarnhelm and we see him bewildered by a latent memory of his pre-potion self, a fraternity brother experiencing a private moment of self doubt at a hazing, but for all his strength he cannot resist the thrall of the potion/Gibichung approval.

This unsentimental characterization of Siegfried yields some interesting ideas, though there are dramatic tradeoffs in moments like the Dawn Duet. Not the most convincing love scene to begin with, this Brünnhilde might as well be realizing she made a huge mistake last night and needs to get this hot dumb guy out of her apartment stat (”Oh there are no cabs around? Just borrow my horse, I insist…”). Siegfried’s harrowing death scene looks different in this light too. Staged with painfully realistic agony and lurid lighting effects (by Mark McCullough), the scene evokes a sense bitter futility but misses the touch of human compassion often so affecting here.

A lot is wrapped up in the finale of this Götterdämmerung, which begins with elegant minimalism: as Brunhilde enters for the last time the stage is entirely cleared of set pieces and the next ten minutes play out as quiet Greek drama on an empty stage. Things proceed to get more complicated from there with a wide-ranging mix of ideas for the final stretch of the show, only some of which work.

Much has been made of the “feminist” aspects of the finale, which leaves the remaining women—Brunnhilde, the Rhinemaidens, a redeemed Gutrune, and the militia wives—to construct the funeral pyre and cleanse the world. If some of this is a bit groan inducing (the women literally “taking out the trash” from the Rhinemaidens’ gully to build the pyre, rom-com denouement hugs all around for the Rhinemaidens) the general idea rings true, given how deeply this production has invested in the themes of sex and power that run through the text.

More controversial is the choice to deny Hagen his death in the overflowing banks of the Rhine. Instead, the militia wives shuffle him downstage, place a bag over his head and dispense some revolutionary justice. Still clad in bright orange hunting gear from earlier in the Act, the image echoes War on Terror detainee photos, an unsettling, off-color note to inject at this point in the proceedings.

As Valhalla starts to burn we get another clunker—computer projections of those square photos of the helden from Walkure raining down like big dumb snowflakes, a gimmick that is both ridiculously literal and exceptionally unattractive. Thankfully this is over quickly though, and we see a lovely extended image of the Rhinemaidens playing with the returned Rhinegold in a rain of blue ash.

The now famous (perhaps infamous) final gesture in the show, choreographed to the strains of that heartrending last motif, is a small child in a simple white shift carrying a sapling, which she plants downstage as the background melts into a brilliant blue sky. My rational brain really dislikes how this bit reinforces the most facile version of the “environmental” Ring and turns an ambiguous ending into a hallmark card about new beginnings, but I have to give Zambello and her maudlin wizardry some credit here—this bit reliably broke me each time I saw it.

This run has been favored with a true embarrassment of Brunnhildean riches, between Christine Goerke’s irresistible surprise turn in the first Walkure, Catherine Foster’s brilliant vocalism for the balance of Cycle I and Cycle II, and here in the final Cycle, a focused and magnetic interpretation from Nina Stemme.

After Foster’s lovely sounding but somewhat casual Brunnhilde in Cycle II, Stemme offered something else entirely, leaning into the music and never allowing the drama to fall below a quiet smolder. Even more staid passages, like the “Ruhe” section of the Immolation scene, sometimes merely a rest stop on the way to the main event, were spellbinding here, a marvel of sustained tension and intricate shading.

She carried that sensibility into Götterdämmerung’s more spectacular sequences as well. While Stemme delivers a consistently rounded and beautiful tone in the opera’s more demanding music, she doesn’t fire off high notes with the ease that some prize in this role. Instead, there is a weight and fullness to her voice that makes it all the more exciting in the stratosphere, an earthbound instrument driven to incredible lengths. Her frenzy in Act II was perhaps the most exhilarating sustained feat of singing of the evening, a deftly shaped, relentless barrage of full-throated rage.

Daniel Brenna’s Götterdämmerung Siegfried wasn’t quite as successful as his Siegfried Siegfried. That untiring, dark knot of a voice still wows with its ability to soar over a roiling pit, but the lack of finesse is more of an issue in the gentler confines of the final evening. Rough-hewn dynamics approximated the passionate ebb and flow of the Dawn Duet, while the delicate vocal effects that can soften Siegfried’s death scene never really materialized.

The Gibichungs each made a strong musical and dramatic contribution. The enveloping, deep midnight color of Eric Halfvarson’s bass fueled an obnoxious but thoughtful Hagen, delighted to be running circles around his various pawns and opponents in the quest for the Ring. Though I was ambivalent about Ryan McKinny’s Donner in Das Rheingold, here he showed off an expressive, musical baritone, and clearly delineated Gunther’s transition from proud, spineless cad to a man consumed by self-loathing and in far over his head. Melissa Citro’s Gutrune, presented here as a sort of ditzy Donatella Versace, kept the Gibichung farce moving with keen comic timing, while offering an uncommonly luxurious sound in this part.

Jamie Barton’s rich, vibrant mezzo made for an exceptional Waltraute. Sporting a very cute bob (Valkyrie salons know manageable hair), she excelled in a sensitive monologue about Wotan’s dilemma and a subsequent explosive encounter with Stemme. Gordon Hawkins returned with his powerful Alberich for a particularly intimate staging of his Act II scene with Hagen that emphasized the familiarity, if not exactly tenderness, of this father-son relationship.

Götterdämmerung’s two trios offered a final opportunity to appreciate the depth of casting that has been a trademark of this Ring. The Norns offered vocal glamour in both solo voices and aggregate sound–besides another welcome opportunity to hear Barton as Third Norn, Marcy Stonikas lent her expressive soprano to the Second Norn, while Lindsay Ammann’s thrilling contralto sound popped up again as First Norn (with distinctive turns as Erda as well as Schwertleite, Ammann has secured most valuable utility player status for this run). The Rhinemaidens (Jacqueline Echols, Catherine Martin and Renee Tatum), now reduced to a trash-filled Rhine in the absence of their precious, reprised the shimmering sound that distinguished their Rheingold appearance.

After an exuberant if sometimes bruising Siegfried, Philippe Auguin and the WNO Orchestra delivered a dramatically attentive and transparent Götterdämmerung, playing sensitive accompanist in passages like the Waltraute scene and the ramp up to the Immolation, while consistently allowing the complex orchestral texture to shine through. Big showpieces unfolded with careful attention to detail and the occasional moment of overwhelming terror–such as the cataclysmic music when Siegfried appears disguised as Gunther, or the violent chords of the funeral march. Breakneck speeds in the Act II chorus (trans. “Go Hagen, Get the Ring Back!”), and a thrilling performance from the men of the WNO chorus, turned this occasionally bloated sequence into a lusty, menacing ride.

If calling this production an “American” Ring still seems a bit too cute, it may be fitting in a different sense—here is a Ring that makes use of a broad palette of contemporary reference and allusion, not in the service of revolutionary analysis or critique (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but as a way to provoke engagement with the work’s sprawling world of ideas about class, gender, capitalism, and so on, as well as its emotional core.

Indeed, one might suggest that this audience-friendly Ring is a bit of an indictment of something like the brainless LePage Ring, which doubled down on the idea that a high mythology Ring is still the appropriate alternative to the dread European stagings with their nefarious motives.

Putting aside the excesses of the environmental bits, Zambello clearly has little interest in undermining the emotional and dramatic thrust of the Ring. Yet this staging still finds simple ways to access the rich web of social and philosophical significance that make the Ring such a fascinating work beyond its gorgeous music. In a worthwhile production like this one, all those messy ideas should be treated as a feature, not a bug.

ALEX BAKER |May 26, 2016

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320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 1.9 GByte (MP3)
In-house recording
A production by Francesca Zambello (2006/16)