Round One: into the Ring with The Rhinegold

Courtesy of Washington National Opera/Kennedy Center

Courtesy of Washington National Opera/Kennedy Center

I guess the Washington National Opera is using English translations for the Ring operas because they call their version an “American” Ring.  Ok, fair enough, but to me Das Rhinegold sounds so much more authentic than The Rhinegold; it is still sung in German.  On the other hand, the last one in the cycle, Twilight of the Gods, sounds to my American ears much cooler than Gotterdammerung, so touche.  But I digress.  The point is that this Ring was developed by its director, Francesca Zambello, and her collaborators over ten years to place Wagner’s themes of man-made damage to nature, greed, corruption, consequences, and the redemptive power of love into a setting with costumed-players whom Americans would more readily connect with and serve to convey that these powerful currents in human affairs are playing out in modern day America.

How well did it work?  The main characters appeared dressed vintage 1920’s.  So now, imagine “The Great Gatsby” with zombies and vampires included.  Given what we are seeing in today’s movies and tv shows, I can make that leap.  Now cancel the zombies and vampires, and instead throw in some giants, dwarfs, monsters, dragons, a magic veil, and a ring that gives one power over the world.  For me, for whatever reason that requires a longer leap.  So, for most of last night’s Rhinegold, I had trouble jumping into the flow of the fantasy.  That changed, however, in the final scene when Wotan and the other gods were preparing to board the bridge to Valhalla, now paid for.  These gods had just stolen riches from someone who had stolen them to begin with, and they used this largess to ransom their perpetual beauty and youth and pay for Valhalla's completion.  In doing so, the bounty, part of which bore a deadly curse, ignited a lust for power that caused the clan head, Wotan, to ignore the advice of the Erda, goddess of wisdom and fate, to give back the goods to the rightful owners, and that provoked one kidnapper to immediately slay the other to keep all of the gold for himself.  Instead of solemn reflection, these 1920’s dandy-dressed elite pop the champagne cork and begin their joyous walk to their new mansion, Valhalla, showing no awareness of the stain upon their hands or the destructive forces they had put into play.  One of the coterie remained behind, Loge, demigod of fire, who had aided Wotan in capturing the mined gold and Rhinegold ring for himself; he finds that he no longer wishes to be part of this shameful group.  That scene resonated with me.  We will see if the connection holds for the remaining operas, but that scene rings true for my beloved country, America.

It is difficult to not start placing known Americans in the various roles – Trump as Wotan trying to renege on a contract for getting Trump Tower (Valhalla) built, the big banks as the giants demanding payment, the oil and gas companies as Alberich raping the Rhine, Sanders as Erda warning of the reckoning to come, …  Think about it and draw your own analogies.

Now for some details on the performance:  The opening sequence was spectacular, A-plus, no doubt about it.  Wagner’s music starts slow, almost inaudibly, and builds to a flowing, cascading Rhine river motif.  Images begin to appear shortly after the music begins on a stage-wide and stage-tall screen showing indistinct movement that builds into swirls and bubbles which seemingly project from inside a waterfall.  I thought it achieved the Gesamtkunstwerk, the complete integration of music and story, that Wagner was trying to achieve.  The Rhine maidens then appear behind the screen as the water images fade away.  Maintaining the see-through screen between the performers and the audience at this point created an other-worldly atmosphere that was very effective.  The maidens sang very well, displaying much charm, though the chasing around by Alberich seemed to go on a bit too long.  The staging of the initial meeting of the Wotan clan and  the initial scene with the Niberlungs mining the gold underground were also impressive.  On the other hand, the scene where the gods were bargaining with the giants to ransom Freia was too spread out and that diffused the emotional impact.  From a personal perspective, I was disappointed that sitting on the right side of the theater, one could not see whatever was used as the image for Valhalla.  I could only see the bridge that led up to it.

Among the singers, William Burden,who played Loge, had a loud and clear tenor voice.  It was the only voice that stood out for me, and the one who seemed to sing most true to Wagnerian style.  The singing by most performers seemed quite capable and professional, though none distinguished themselves for me other than Burden.  Overall, I had the feeling that an accomplished group that had sung Wagner many times didn’t sing with the sustained voice I expected.  It sounded too stopping and starting as a group.  At one point during the initial scene with Wotan's group, for a moment I thought I was listening to Verdi.  The acting was capable overall, although I thought Freia came across as a silly school girl, rather than a frightened young god.  The orchestra played well and strongly initially, but at times seem to lose their role in telling the story as the music dropped below the singing. 

For the review by Washington Post’s Ann Midgette, click here.

So, I thought this Rhinegold began spectacularly and ended with a punch to the American gut.  Good job, WNO and Francesca Zambello.  Now, let the Valkyries ride!