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It’s the Everest of opera, for fans and companies alike. Can you sit through 15 hours of opera (18 with intermissions) without permanent nerve damage to your ass? Can you stage such a production without going bankrupt? For the Washington National Opera, it’s been a long time coming: a decade in the making, their last attempt aborted three-quarters of the way through after they ran out of money. Director Francesca Zambello eventually staged the whole thing in San Francisco, before she was brought back to D.C. as WNO’s artistic director, with a mandate to finish what she started.
It’s Wagner’s Ring cycle, of course, but you don’t need to be told any of this: If you’re bothering to read this, you’ve probably already seen it elsewhere, maybe a whole bunch of times. Reviews are for people deciding whether to see something or not, but no one is on the fence about the Ring. Or about Wagner, for that matter. Personally, I’m agnostic—my favorite of his is The Flying Dutchman, a less Wagnerian Wagner opera—but this is for the true believers, and like Leo Ryan visiting Jonestown, I’m not the target audience.
So, if you dropped the $500 WNO is charging for the best tickets, you’re damn well sure you enjoyed it. Don’t let me try to convince you otherwise. But as a reviewer for whom this is my first complete Ring cycle, the whole giants and dwarves and incest thing is pretty silly, and that silliness is hard to get past. Even with the singing—much of it superb—and Wagner’s music, all of it majestic and unsubtle. Indeed, Philippe Auguin’s conducting is the highlight so far, and his approach is often surprising: For the famous “Ride of the Valkyries,” Auguin reins in the horns and emphasizes the shimmering strings. It’s a suspenseful, less ferocious take on the usually bombastic (literally, in Apocalypse Now) leitmotif that dovetails well with Zambello’s sensitive interpretation of Brünnhilde. Here, the old “fat lady sings” caricature is less warrior princess, more three-dimensional character: a mischievous, headstrong, doting daughter rejected by her father, who expresses her pain in raw, emotional terms.
Still, it’s Wagner, so there’s the whole nation-building project to create an origin myth for the German volk with a crazy mashup of Norse and Teutonic legend. Ethno-nationalist myth-making is creepy enough even setting aside Wagner’s anti-Semitism, which is hard to do in a work that’s superficially about Aryan gods warring with money-grubbing dwarves (although it’s not that simple; those gods are ultimately doomed by their ambitions). And then there’s the incest: Siegmund and Sieglinde, twin siblings with the hots for each other, which you’d think wouldn’t be the best way to start a master race. Judging by the chuckles from the audience when Siegmund whips out his sword and Sieglinde strokes it lasciviously, there’s some self-awareness of the Ring’s more ridiculous elements from Zambello, even if there was none from Wagner.
Yet it’s unclear, two operas in, what exactly Zambello wants to do with it. Zambello’s conceit was, and is, an “American Ring,” and the original abandoned production for WNO reportedly (I wasn’t around for it) made explicit reference to America’s original sins—of slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. That stuff was downplayed in the subsequent SFO production, and by now it’s gone, in favor of a vaguely art deco/aviation-age theme. The setting is the 1920s, Brüunhilde is Amelia Earhart, the Valkyries are paratroopers, Wotan is a CEO, and Valhalla is his skyscraper. What this offers, other than an excuse for some stylish leather dusters by costume designer Catherine Zuber, escapes me.
Michael Yeargan’s sets are thematically all over the place (a cabin in the woods, a corporate office, a homeless encampment under a highway overpass). Jan Hartley and Katy Tucker’s projections are at times hypnotic and campy, with a giant snake evoking a Syfy monster movie starring Coolio. The only consistent motif, oddly appropriate given the political movement Wagner helped inspire, is a confluence of militarism, capitalism, and romanticism of ancestral land. Hmm, if only there were a word for that.
Putting on the Ring is risky, and there are plenty of expensive ways to screw it up. The most notorious recent example is the Metropolitan Opera’s disastrous 2010 production, for which the company dumped all their money into a 90,000-pound mechanical transforming stage that didn’t work, and which was panned as “the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.” Zambello and WNO would clearly want to avoid such a fiasco, so it makes sense to play it safe, with a measured approach that’s neither strictly traditional, nor terribly experimental, and as a result thematically confusing.
But if nothing else, Zambello’s Ring is a showcase for strong vocal talent. In particular, William Burden’s impish performance as the demigod Loge and Soloman Howard and Julian Close as the giants stood out in Rhinegold. In Valkyrie, Alan Held huffed and puffed as Wotan, brooding over his empire from Wotan Tower like an Orson Welles villain or an Ayn Rand hero. Monday’s show had an unexpected change up when British soprano Catherine Foster dropped out at the last minute due to a leg injury sustained during a dress rehearsal. She was replaced in the role of Brüunhilde by Christina Goerke, who was terrific: Last seen here in Florencia in the Amazon, Goerke’s range is broader, and her fluttery vibrato gives Brüunhilde a playful demeanor. As of press time, Foster is scheduled to be back for Wednesday’s Siegfried, barring lingering mobility issues. Hey, maybe they should have invested in a transforming stage after all.
2700 F St. NW. $75-$500. (202) 467-4600. kennedy-center.org.