How does greed and the lust for power impact our world? We Americans are taught to aspire to success and wealth, which are only nice ways of saying power and greed. And the result is an ecological crisis that has caused global warming and is endangering our entire planet. But do we care? Does it matter? Do we care about those whose lives are affected by the destruction of our earth? Do we care that development and economic success and “jobs” seem to be tied inextricably to the destruction of the planet. I suppose if we replace all that green stuff – you know, trees and plants and grass and such – with impressive malls and high rises then that is progress! but is it?
These are some of the questions posed by the Washington National Opera’s recent “American” Ring Cycle. Taking a page out of the Patríce Chéreau playbook, Francesca Zambello set this Ring within industrialized America and creates a completely American cast of characters: Alberich begins as a prospector, Wotan the rich Tycoon, Fasolt and Fafner are working class construction bosses, Loge the fast talking political manipulator and so on. But it seems to me that the “American” part of this was only a frame for the major focus which are the environmental issues. We begin this Ring in the Rhine (“In it!” to quote Anna Russell) and it is a beautiful natural setting. But the theft of the gold and the subsequent curse of the Ring – that is, the lust for power and wealth – slowly destroys (in one way or another) not only every single character in the 4 opera cycle but also ends up destroying the natural environment itself. The settings in Götterdämmerung consisted of metal, and steel and “progress and development.” But when we finally re-encounter the River Maidens in act 3 their habitat is now filled with trash and toxic waste and they themselves are dirty and wretched. The journey of this Zambello Ring is a journey into the consequences of the exploitation of the environment for power, wealth and success. How ironic it is that those who seek power the most are the ones who are first destroyed by their lust, their wealth turns to dust and their success ends with a spear in the back and an out of control toxic fire.
I have often heard Götterdämmerung described as Wagner’s “tale of the end of the world.” Wrong! This final opera is not about the end of the world, rather it is about the end of one age and the beginning of a new age. Much like other great stories from the King Arthur stories to The Lord of the Rings the end of the Ring brings us a new beginning and a new hope. While everything is in flames we hear Wagner’s incredible “redemption” motif which I believe we need to interpret without any religious baggage. So, rather than use a religious term like "redemption" perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this motif is the motif of hope and new beginning. The first time we hear it Sieglinde sings it in the middle of act 3 of Walküre. She has lost everything, Siegmund is killed, she is on the run from Wotan and her protector, Brünnhilde, is not going to be able to help her any more. She has nothing – except – she is pregnant and in that child lay the only strand of hope she can grasp on to. And she sings this glorious motif before she leaves and heads east into the dark forest where she will be found by the wretched Niebelung Mime who is in his own sick way vigiling near to Fafner’s cave, in hopes of grasping the power and wealth of the Ring for himself. But in that one moment we feel her hope and it courses through us as she sings. And then at the end of the cycle we hear this motif again played in counterpoint to the magic fire music, for as the stage burns there is still hope. And in this production Zambello has only the women on stage as a young girl emerges from the flames to bring forth and plant a tree. It was a poignant and beautiful moment, and for me reflected the core inner meaning of the Ring Cycle.
Kip Cranna, the dramaturge for this WNO Ring made a very insightful comment in one of his many program articles: “The Ring is said to bestow unlimited power on its possessor. But does it?” He then lists all of the casualties and concludes: “Nearly all who possess the Ring, in fact fall victim to its curse.” I think I sort of knew that, but had never really thought about it before. But he is right. And this should give us all pause as we continue to elect politicians who stubbornly (and stupidly) continue to deny the ecological catastrophe that we have created, and who connive with the barons of industry to gut rules and regulations that would protect our water, our parks, our environment and our air. We will all end up like Fafner or Mime or Siegmund or Sieglinde or Hagen or Gunter or Gutrune or Wotan. And do notice that the destruction of the Ring is not a respecter of persons, from the most unimportant and wretched to the great head of the gods. So it is with us.
It should be clear by now that for me this was not just a great Ring this was an epochal Ring. I have seen many complete Rings, 4 live and many others on video or online. All of them have had much to commend them. The opening scene in Rheingold in the last Chicago Lyric production is still unsurpassed in my view; the projections in the LePage Ring; the Valkure scene from Schenk are all brilliant. But not since Chereau have I experienced a Ring that was so tightly constructed as this one. Zambello built this adventure so that all the pieces fit together. In many of the other Rings this is just not the case. This WNO Ring has a focus and a direction that is unique and, I believe completely consistent with Wagner’s vision. Musically this Ring was excellent, but so were many of the others, as good as the singers were (and we’ll get to that) this is not what makes this Ring stand out for me. It is this relentless narrative that she never deviates from which makes this perhaps the most profound Ring I have ever experienced.
But now to the singers: The principals were in many ways among the finest performances of their roles that I have ever experienced. Alan Held’s Wotan/Wanderer was perhaps the most human interpretation of this role I have seen. He struggled, he got angry, he truly grieved, and he recognized his own limitations. I have seen some other incredible Wotans who often play the role with a little more austerity, but Held’s performance joins the group of the finest Wotans and Wanderers who have taken on the roles. And then there is Nina Stemme who was also incredible. I loved how she transitioned from the bright Valkure to the wronged woman in the last opera. Her vocal power and control during Götterdämmerung in particular was tremendous. And then Daniel Brenna had not only a fresh, bright and powerful tenor as Siegfried but he had the youthful looks and he downplayed the spoiled teenager aspect of the role. He was certainly arrogant, but there was also a depth to his portrayal. I have to say that Raymond Aceto was perhaps one of the finest Hunding’s I have ever experienced. He had an aggressive and cruel streak which really made his character come alive. He truly intimidated poor Siegmund, and Sieglinde was downright terrified and you could see why. Not only that but his dark, full bass gave this Hunding a really scarey dimension. Eric Halverson was an appropriately menacing Hagen with a rich and beautiful bass; Gordon Hawkins an effective and well sung Alberich. And one of my favorite artists – David Cangelosi – gave us a fully realized Mime, terrifically sung and acted. I had seen him do this role in Chicago, but that was 10 years ago and in the intervening 10 years his interpretation has deepened.
The remaining cast was also excellent all around, from the smaller supporting roles to larger roles the casting was excellent. Among the stand outs for me: William Burden who was an appropraitely slimy and manipulative Loge; Elizabeth Bishop as Fricka (especially in Walkure); Julian Close as Fasolt and Soloman Howard as Fafner; Lindsay Ammann as Erda, Schwertleide and the First Norn; Meagan Miller as Sieglinde, Christopher Ventris as Siegmund; Melissa Citro as Gutrune; Ryan McKinny as Gunther. And such luxury casting to have Jamie Barton as the 2nd Norn and Waltraute – she was wonderful! In fact the Norn scene was one of my favorite scenes in this production. The Trio was rounded out with Marcy Stonikas as the 3rd Norn.
I have to mention that the conductor Philippe Auguin conducted a well paced score and the orchestra responded, for the most part to his leadership. The Ring is long, and it is hard for everyone but this performance was not without its difficult moments from the orchestra, particularly the winds. Intonation seemed to be a struggle consistently throughout the Ring, but it was especially noticeable in the chords at the beginning of the Brünnhilde awakening scene. There were missed notes in the brass from time to time, but in general the brass were very good; a special bravo to principal horn Geoffrey Pilkington and to principal tubist Michael Bunn. The tuba solos in Siegfried in particular were exceptionally well played, beautifully shaped, with much color and dynamic range. I am not sure who played the off stage horn solo in Siegfried, but it was well done. I should say that the strings were terrific throughout. Whatever problems there were in the winds and brasses did not seem to extend to the strings who shone wonderfully throughout. I have to say I found it odd that there seemed to be a fair amount of coming and going in and out of the pit. And it wasn’t just players who were going backstage. Also, I personally feel (after 30 years as a professional orchestral musician myself) that practicing excerpts during the break and doing crosswords or reading in the clear view of the audience during the performance is completely unprofessional. And yes, this happened, but I won’t name names.
Lastly, I have to say that in all the Rings I have seen one of the things that interests me is to see how the dragon will be depicted. Spreight Jenkins said in an interview once that the dragon was one thing that he often got complaints about. In too many Ring productions the dragon is a major disappointment. I suppose that in these days of CGI and “The Hobbit’s” Smaug it is hard to produce anything quite that convincing on stage. But of all the dragons I have experienced I loved this WNO dragon. It was done in a way that was in keeping with the vision of the production and it was very effective.
Finally, I am so glad to have had the chance to attend this Ring. It was an experience and an adventure of a lifetime for me. Certainly this is one of the most thought-provoking and consistent productions I have ever seen. I hope that this production continues to have a life beyond this presentation.