The enormity of The Ring Cycle () is, not least, in the scope of its storytelling. In four quite distinct operas, Wagner covers a tremendous amount of ground.
Consider just the bare bones: The Rhinegold divides its time between the affairs of unsettled gods, the underground-dwelling Nibelung who create an all-powerful ring from stolen gold, and the bartering of the ring to the giant, Fafner. The Valkyrie then focuses on the god Wotan’s thwarted attempt to use his mortal son Siegmund to win back the ring and his harsh punishment of favored daughter Brunnhilde for defying his wishes. Then comes Siegfried where time fast-forwards to the now-dead Siegmund’s son Siegfried, who wins the ring from Fafner and wakes Brunnhilde from her prison of sleep, while Wotan wanders the earth in search of a way to avert the end of the world. Finally, in Twilight of the Gods, the powerful Gibichung family conspires to betray Siegfried and take the ring, until they implode with mistrust and Brunnhilde, now mortal, rises to the occasion and returns the ring to the river from which it was first stolen. Not only is the stolen ring cursed by its first owner the Nibelung, Alberich, its theft from the river maidens has triggered the beginning of the end of the gods’ world. There is infidelity, incest, betrayal, murder, magic, cataclysm and suicide.
If the plot isn’t dense enough, even with a fair portion of expository to help connect the operas (and forgive a bit of dozing), like the old legends from which much of the Ring is derived, the story is light on context and more about living in the moment and the music. This is, of course, as it should be in an opera. But it nevertheless presents a tremendous challenge to the creator of a new interpretation of the Ring. A concept or vision cannot just be original, it must resonate — intellectually and artistically — within the cycle’s many elements, bringing a logical cohesion.
Francesca Zambello’s Ring achieves it power and magic because she has met this challenge, seamlessly seeding her unique vision into each of its operas and growing it over the course of the cycle. While in Rhinegold and Valkyrie her themes touch on the vulnerability and powerlessness of women, their neglected promise, and man’s ruthless greed and the resulting pollution and decimation of the world’s resources, they evolve exponentially in Siegfried and Twilight. They bring context to the story, add dimension to it and, ultimately, deliver their own visual, emotional and moral potency.
And when it comes to Zambello’s vision, it cannot be emphasized enough how much the projections and video of Jan Hartley and S. Katy Tucker complement and expand, not just the themes, but the entire mood of the cycle. In Siegfried and Twilight, there is a repeated return to slow-moving smoke, clouds that roil and race, visions of forests verdant or ruined, industrial complexes, chimneys polluting the skies, a feverish run along endless railway track. Each image speaks through the music and of the story, but also of our story. It is Zambello’s mind’s eye, and it is her extraordinary experience of Wagner’s epic.
As visually and emotionally enthralling as this imagery is, coupled with four incredibly long and languorously unhurried operas, if the drama was equally as oblique, turgidity could easily set in. But Zambello meets this head-on by, quite simply, enjoining her singers to keep it real, to act as if this fantastical world is really no different from our own living rooms, bedrooms, boardrooms and cardboard cities. They shrug, they mug, they stick out their tongues. Whatever, in short, real people do — minus the spears, giants, magic, and backdrop of mind-boggling projections. It may not always sit perfectly with the poetry of the greater whole, but it without doubt draws one into each dramatic dynamic quickly and accessibly. When characters become quirky, unpredictable, and earthy, they become interesting. In a five-hour opera, the power of this approach cannot be underestimated.
That said, there are challenges. Though Siegfried offers some of the most searingly beautiful and searching music, such as the moment Siegfried comes across the sleeping Brunnhilde, there are dramatic aspects not always easy to love.
Whatever Wagner may have had in mind in penning this young man, viewed today he comes across as rather unpleasant and spoiled, his few near-noble moments only arriving as he meets his demise in Twilight. It’s an impression made early and heavily in Act I with an 18 year-old Siegfried, flumping around his home camp, bored and contemptuous of his adoptive father Mime, the Nibelung troll who has raised him since the death of his parents, Siegmund and Sieglinde. It’s a protracted display of loathing that leaves Siegfried seriously unlikable, long before we learn that Mime isn’t exactly parent-of-the-year, with his secret plan to use Siegfried to win back the gold stolen by Fafner in Rhinegold. And matters never really improve. Once Siegfried realizes he is fearless (and therefore meets Wotan’s requirement to forge the sword that can kill Fafner) his contempt becomes arrogance. When he kills, he is remorseless.
Thus, the question is how to give Siegfried, if not likability, then at least some convincing personality. Daniel Brenna’s choice to edge him with a modern snarkiness and petulance without doubt gives him an immediacy in keeping with Zambello’s goal of dramatic realism. But Brenna is so convincing in his nerdy swagger, his Siegfried so unpleasant, it almost cancels out the few places where we might have seen another side of this man: his fear at waking Brunnhilde and the last moments before his death in Twilight. Matters are not helped by a lot of posturing in an unflattering costume that looks like a paramilitary take on one of Robin Hood’s merry men.
There is no question that Zambello has a point to make about the misguidedness of the men in this Ring: how, for example, Wotan so pointedly ignores his noble and heroic daughter, Brunnhilde. Juxtaposing the immature and grasping Siegfried makes a powerful statement on this aspect of the opera and on the modern female experience. But it’s not easy to watch such a protracted interpretation of this morally and heroically-challenged Siegfried, not least in the annoying way he endlessly wraps and re-wraps the blue scarf he keeps as reminder (or security blanket) of the mother he never knew. Still, putting the interpretation aside, Brenna does sing his man with an almost surprising nobility and authority — though not always evenly — allowing one to savor his relation to the music, if not the drama. Returning as Mime, David Cangelosi doesn’t have much chemistry with this Siegfried, but he sings with clarity and pleasing tone and gives a lively and entertaining performance as the selfish Nibelung troll-cum-tramp.
Although Siegfried’s tale is predominant, his opera also brings to a close Wotan’s story. Here he has become The Wanderer, walking the earth in search of ways to stop its imminent end. Alan Held returns in the role, giving much presence to this troubled Wotan, suggesting an irascible homeless man, but quickly shedding the persona when it suits, such as when he toys with Alberich as he guards the sleeping monster, Fafner. Held is, as always, a charismatic presence. Indeed, when he finally runs into Siegfried at the end of the opera, whether intended or not, he looks ten times the man in the way he moves and carries himself. He sings with assurance, surfing the dark and unsettled score in deftly sonorous tones.
As Erda, who pleads with Wotan to look to Brunnhilde for her wisdom, Lindsay Ammann sings with expressive pain and anger, while Gordon Hawkins brings convincing frustration to the miserable Alberich. Singing Fafner, now the monster (Michael Yeargan’s surprisingly sinister digger-gone bad), Soloman Howard is gloriously relentless and foreboding.
As the opera ends, Siegfried finds and awakens Brunnhilde, now sung by Catherine Foster. Unfortunately for Foster, Christine Goerke’s strikingly effective young warrior in Valkyrie is a tough act to follow. Goerke’s singing was majestic, but she also brought a compellingly punky defiance and easy warmth to the role. She was utterly believable as the daughter-soldier, wanting nothing more than to do Wotan’s unspoken bidding. Foster, despite cutting a statuesque figure, seems almost dithering and affected by comparison. And she has almost zero chemistry with this Siegfried, more a man-child in the presence of a glamorous mother than lovers. Still, she sings with spectacular power, emitting a beautiful, exciting sound.
Wagner switches gears again in Twilight, focusing on the Gibichung clan, led by mortals Gunther and half-brother Hagen (son of the Nibelung Alberich) and their sister Gutrune. They plot to trick and betray the fearless yet gullible Siegfried and force Brunnhilde to marry Gunther, but nothing quite goes as planned. Siegfried is killed and Brunnhilde (with a silent cadre of women) selflessly saves the ring, if not the world.
Foster does better here, her brittle anger affecting and formidable as she realizes that Siegfried — who has been magically drugged into loving Gutrune (yet another female pawn) — has forsaken her. Her relationship to Gutrune (played effectively by Melissa Citro as a trophy wife who wakes to reality) is intriguing, especially when she shoves Siegfried aside so she can sing straight into her adversary’s face. It is a silent subtext that speaks volumes to Zambello’s deeper themes.
As Hagen, the half-Nibelung intent on getting the ring for father Alberich, Eric Halfvarson sings with grim and convincing intent, while Hawkins returns to deliver an expressive Alberich in Hagen’s dreams. As Gunther, Ryan McKinny acts the part of the ineffectual brother but doesn’t sing with as much resonance as he might. Brenna, still boyish in the way he climbs all over his love interests, nevertheless becomes far more dimensional. First in the guise of a masterful and mysterious Gunther (shape-shifted by the magic gold) when he forces Brunnhilde to submit and later as his desolate, dying self, remembering — too late — his love for Brunnhilde. The river maidens, Renee Tatum, Jacqueline Echols and Catherine Martin, return to sing like braids of spun gold.
But the highlights of this Twilight come like thematic bookends. First and early is the interlude in which the otherworldly Norns (Lindsay Ammann, Jamie Barton and Marcy Stonikas) sing of the earth’s unraveling and impending doom. Conceived here as laboring like ghosts in the machine — or the Internet — they sing in this cleverly adapted libretto of connecting and breaking cables. The projections are, as always, a powerful presence, delivering silent evocations. Their song is at once sad for the earth, but also a nightmarish reminder of the transference of so much of life into a computer-driven ether.
The other great moment comes in the finale, when, the stage as barren as the earth will become, Brunnhilde recognizes what she must do to put things right — for herself and for the world. It is hard to put into words how simultaneously tragic and momentous it is when the music swells and suddenly Wagner is allowing Brunnhilde — as she faces death — to briefly but brilliantly glory in her warrior’s theme.
Here, finally, is our hero.
It is a priceless moment of opera, but also a final fist in the air for this Ring’s women, a reckoning on their strength, whether or not given their due.
Thus, this is a fantastically original Ring, but one that has also been inestimably favored by the fabulous conducting of Philippe Auguin, who delivers his Wagner with a profoundly delicate touch and draws from the WNO orchestra some of their finest hours of performing. The run may be sold out, but there is little doubt that this Ring, ten years in the making and worth every minute of the wait, will continue to be staged. It adds a uniquely individual, contemplative and extraordinarily creative voice, not just to interpretations of the Ring, but to the art form itself.
The Ring Cycle runs to May 22 — Siegfried closes May 20 and Twilight of the Gods May 22 — at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC. Tickets are $75 to $525 (though currently sold out). Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.
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