And So It Begins — With ‘The Rhinegold’

Alan Held as Wotan. | Courtesy Washington National Opera.

Even though “The Rhinegold,” the opening salvo in Washington National Opera’s and Artistic Director Francesca Zambello’s much anticipated production of Richard Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle, is — at around two and a half hours — the extravaganza’s smallest and shortest component, it by no means lacks size or importance.

As the prologue to what follows, the increasingly tragic saga told in “The Valkyrie,” “Siegfried” and “Twilight of the Gods,” “The Rhinegold” is critical as a kind of prelude and chronicle of a disaster foretold. It’s the vehicle that sets things in motion on an increasingly precarious and spectacular path.

But it’s also a work that has its own identity, its own rich rewards, in which Zambello makes visible and audible some of her reverential and referenced concerns, giving this production (and presumably the whole WNO “Ring of the Nibelungs” cycle) resonance with the chaotic times we live in.

Not altogether clearly, this production is set in a quasi-modern, global-warming-era America, albeit a somewhat mythological one. Matching their raw, clean tone to the musical one, the sets echo both pristine wilderness vistas and high-tech industrial vibes that are a retreat from the natural world.

Wagner’s music — especially in the beginning — serves as a majestic, irresistible engine that advances the story and the emotions it contains. It’s a tone-setter, a kind of promise of things to come, presented by a huge WNO orchestra, under the intelligent and forceful baton of Philippe Auguin, as a kind of proud gift. This is especially true in the opening sequence, illustrated by one of those projections of the natural world created by Jan Hartley and S. Katy Tucker, a parade of gurgling, swirling imagery.

In this world, we encounter the Rhinemaidens — Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde (love those Wagnerian names), ably and seductively played by Jacqueline Echols, Catherine Martin and Renée Tatum — gaily splashing in the river, playing on the rocks as they tease and generally enrage the dwarf Alberich, sucker-punching him with an all-consuming desire, which leads to his discovery of the gold which can only can be taken by someone who is willing to renounce love. And who would do a thing like that?

Elsewhere, Wotan, the ruler of the gods, is nettled by his wife Fricka for having allowed the giants Fafner and Fasolt to take her sister Freia away in exchange for the giants building his new abode for the gods’ Valhalla. Also on hand: Froh, Donner and Loge, a trio of gods as millennial types. Wotan learns of the theft of the gold, and he and Loge descend into the underground mines and caverns of Niebelheim, where they encounter Alberich and his brother Mime and a horde of dwarves. Alberich has not only used the gold to make a magical chain that makes him invisible, but has forged a ring that can make him all powerful. Wotan and Loge steal the ring and everything else. Alberich casts a curse of destruction on the ring.

Wotan is forced to give all the gold and the ring up in order to save his sister-in-law from the giants, but he and the gods have Valhalla. And so it begins, as they step on a gangplank that could be the road to heaven, or an invitation to the Titanic.

This is resounding, magic stuff, magic of stagecraft, magical music, a creation of a deeply lived-in world. Zambello has staged the complete cycle before, but a complete cycle is a first for Washington. It’s well worth the wait.

Even as a precursor, “The Rhinegold” is part Greek tragedy, part warning, with nature — both the natural world and the best and the beast in human (and divine) nature — on display. It comes at you in sections: the playful but disastrous encounter between the Rhinemaidens and Alberich, the wide-open spaces where Wotan contends with his family, the other gods and the giants and the blazing, burning underground.

In the Ring Cycle, Wagner envisioned something on the order of total theater, where design, music, theatrics, and drama became welded together into something passionately new. In the era of the great romantic operas, the cycle must have seemed exactly that: totally new, and not a little overwhelming in its ambition, perhaps even something of an affront to the senses. Not that Wagner’s music doesn’t have its own form of romanticism, the kind that sweeps everything before it.

“The Rhinegold” is carried by the music, but it’s the weaving together of a plot with its later consequences, and a group of characters played by performers who sing extremely well and, I’d say, act even better and convincingly, that carry you away. I was especially impressed by Gordon Hawkins as Alberich; his singing isn’t the most precise, but the sheer energy, relentlessness and bullying in his voice evokes a hunger for sex (if not love), ownership, power and control that is frightening, especially in these our times. It’s desire run rampant that’s on display here. The Ring itself embodies a kind of primitive force that says the wearer can literally have it all.

Wotan — sung and played with quiet, steady force by Alan Held — is also drawn to it, but uses it instead to save his family from the giants. Particularly evocative among them are two young gods, including a sharp, edgy and slick Ryan McKinny as the hammer-wielding Donner and William Burden as Loge, singing with a strong, clear voice, evoking a very contemporary coolness.

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