The Ring Reverberates

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Siegfried (Daniel Brenna) takes on Fafnir. | Photo by Scott Suchman. Courtesy WNO.

Four operas and some 20 hours later, one feels a powerful residual effect from the first round of Washington National Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung,” the Ring Cycle for short. The audience at the Kennedy Center Opera House (especially those folks who, like me, took in the whole cycle) felt a little like ocean-liner passengers encountering turbulent but exhilarating seas.

It’s hard to get the saga out of your head. From “The Rhinegold” to “The Valkyrie” to “Siegfried” to “Twilight of the Gods,” the music reverberates, the characters linger: Wotan and Brunnhilde, the Rhinemaidens, Alberich and his relatives, the Valkyries themselves, the dragon, the giants and the gods, the tragic lovers. The whole supernatural bunch is ever not so gentle on my mind.

It’s difficult to encapsulate the entire cycle, or to do it justice with single reviews. So here are a few observations and thoughts on the Ring (the second cycle winds down this week and the third will begin Saturday).

A 21st-Century American Experience. There is an encyclopedic array of clichés associated with Wagner and the Ring, not the least of which is that the operas are a compendium of Nordic and Germanic mythology, of gods and monsters and heroes that sprang from the dark forests and rivers of pre-modern Germany.

If that’s the case, then director Francesca Zambello has stripped the work of its more obvious Teutonic references related to helmets and posturing (although Nordic-type helmets were being sold as souvenirs), turning it into a contemporary classic and intimate epic about humanity’s relationship to nature and failed stewardship of the natural world. This is obvious in the evocative projections by S. Katy Tucker and Jan Hartley, with their illustrations of polluted rivers, factory smokestacks and cityscapes.

But it’s also in the design and the look of things and people. Valhalla looks often like a Manhattan board room; Siegfried, raised by mordant, obsessively greedy Mime, seems to be living in a trailer park that has fallen on hard times; and the Rhinemaidens, in “Twilight,” are searching the refuse of a polluted Rhine like homeless waifs. It’s relatable throughout, without pounding the audience over the head.

Bad Boy Wagner. Wagner himself, historically, has a reputation for being a terrible human being, arrogant, profligate, almost misogynistic. Without making an argument in his defense — personal character shouldn’t be a central issue where art is concerned — one wonders how (if Wagner was a human monster) to account for the creation of Brunnhilde, Wotan’s daughter, the true heroic figure of the cycle, whose sense of accountability and heroic sacrifice make her the critical character in three of the operas.

The Two Brunnhildes. When British soprano Catherine Foster suffered an injury in rehearsal that prevented her from portraying Brunnhilde in “The Valkyrie,” she was replaced by Christine Goerke, who was performing “Siegfried” at Houston Grand Opera. The segue, back and forth, was seamless, with both sopranos delivering outstanding performances.

The Conductor Also Triumphs. This was, in terms of both critical and audience response, a huge triumph for WNO conductor Philippe Auguin, who supported the singers and led the orchestra in interpreting Wagner’s music with a nuanced mastery — and without being overly Wagnerian (except when necessary).

Stand-Out Performances. One of the most memorable performers was American baritone Gordon Hawkins as Alberich, the evil dwarf who steals the gold, makes the ring and curses the ring. Hawkins sang the part powerfully and, even more impressive, acted it in ways that brought out all the complicated characteristics of the part. The scene in “Twilight” when he’s almost seductively urging his son Hagen to kill Siegfried and steal back the ring is a prime example of the dual nature of the cycle as an intimate epic.

I was touched by the plight of the young lovers, brother and sister, Siegmund and Sieglinde, portrayed with high-dudgeon passion by Christopher Ventris and Meagan Miller in “The Valkyrie.” And for sheer consistency, Alan Held brought the right size to the role of chief god Wotan. This god behaved like a god, and was tortured by his very human decisions. Kudos also to the Rhinemaidens, headed by Jacqueline Echols and including Catherine Martin and Renée Tatum.

Being a part of the experience of the Ring was exhausting, not necessarily in the physical sense (although sitting for so many hours in a chair had its effects), but in an emotional and mental way. It required focus, it came at you like a long, unending parade and it washed over you with sublime music.

Many critics and audience members had seen other Rings and compared. But even without that, you sensed every night that this Ring, which began on a high note, got better and better as it went along.

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