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Let’s get my one complaint about the Washington Opera’s current Die Walküre out of the way first: The “Ride of the Valkyries” doesn’t work. Director Francesca Zambello invited hotshot modern-dance choreographer Doug Varone to stage Wagner’s greatest hit as a ballet for Valkyries and Valhalla’s army of dead war heroes—fair enough; Varone’s work is usually exciting. Unfortunately, the spectacle Varone produces here resembles the cast of Waiting for Guffman trying to execute the prologue to West Side Story: Dancers hand around body-bagged corpses like so many pizza boxes, and the Valkyries fall into the most predictably butch, spear-waving kill-duh-wabbit clichés.

But the “Ride” almost never works onstage, anyway—so why dwell? Better, instead, to thank the gods for the other 97 percent of WashOp’s Walküre, which comes together like a dream. As she did previously with the company’s Of Mice and Men and Fidelio, Zambello has fashioned a smart, visually stunning, and altogether gripping piece of theater that ranks among WashOp’s best work, in spite of—or spurred on by—the myriad challenges of DAR Constitution Hall.

It’s the production’s look that grabs you first—and keeps grabbing. Zambello has consistently drawn inspired work from her design teams, and Walküre more than measures up to that standard. Here, set designer Peter J. Davison provides a forbidding industrial environment of tilting corridors, steel staircases, and buckling cement floors that Jan Hartley’s three-story video projections spark into kinetic life at the junctures of acts. Hartley’s work stands as the most intelligent and atmospheric use of projected scenery WashOp has attempted at DARCon—she conjures up sparking electrical towers, wolves and white stallions, a grittily black-and-white undulating Rhine, and cars that speed from their pursuers beneath subway trestles and through neon-lit tunnels. It all adds up to a nightmare of urban menace and archetypal power that’s nicely twinned by costume designer Anita Yavich’s black leather bustiers and thigh-high boots, jagged layers of gauze, SS-officer trench coats, rubberized suits of armor, and hooded rain-slickers—melding Goth, punk, and hiphop sensibilities with the dystopian futurism of films like Dark City and The Matrix.

But all this striking wrapping paper could easily be thrown out with the Eurotrash were it not for Zambello’s intense focus on the central human drama amid the leather and steel. Die Walküre—the second installment of Wagner’s epic, four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen—tells a two-pronged story. On one tine, Sieglinde (Anja Kampe) falls in love with her long-lost twin brother, Siegmund (Plácido Domingo), after he saves her from a loveless and abusive marriage to the brute Hunding (Kurt Rydl). Meanwhile, up on Valhalla, the gods’ CEO, Wotan (Alan Held), struggles to extricate himself from a series of business deals so shady they’d make Ken Lay blush. (The rather byzantine solution to all these problems involves a hero, a sword, and, eventually, the eponymous ring.)

When Wotan’s wife, Fricka (Elena Zaremba), gives the thumbs-down to his odds-on favorite hero, Siegmund—who, not so coincidentally, also happens to be his illegitimate son—Wotan enlists his daughter, Brünnhilde (Linda Watson), to ensure that Siegmund dies in battle. But Brünnhilde, head of the Valkyries—a kind of Special Ops unit that schleps slain heroes from battlefields to a Valhalla afterlife—feels compassion for the dewy-eyed Siegmund, disobeys her father’s wishes, and winds up grounded as a Teutonic Sleeping Beauty on a fire-encircled rock.

If all this sounds like so much

channel-surfing between The Lord of the Rings, G.I. Jane, and Jerry Springer, trust me—it plays like Euripides. Fueled by a score of sweeping power and jaw-dropping ingenuity, Walküre can be transporting. But Wagner is also scrupulous about following his characters’ quicksilver emotional shifts, the tortuous path of their decision-making, the way a word or a glance transforms the relationship between two people. Zambello well understands these nuances; she draws a rich range of human behavior from her singers and carefully matches action to musical phrase. Sieglinde communicating to Siegmund with her eyes alone for fear of a beating from Hunding…Hunding pawing at his wife like a half-starved dog…Fricka melting into Wotan’s embrace after venting her fury at him…Brünnhilde smiling with sly self-satisfaction while defending her disobedience to her father—Zambello’s production contains a myriad of such touches, mesmerizing as much for their freshness as for their seeming inevitability.

Fortunately, WashOp has gathered an ensemble that’s up to both the rigors of Zambello’s naturalistic approach and Wagner’s vocal demands. Held, who cuts a riveting (and unusually

athletic-looking) figure as Wotan, has a middle-weight baritone that lacks the timbral gravitas ideal for the part, particularly at his range’s upper and lower extremes. But much of Wotan’s eloquence is delivered smack in the center of the voice, and Held’s instrument has a heft and a chestnut coloring that make his music here a joy. His word-pointing is also keen enough to arrest your attention through even his lengthiest stretches of narrative poetry.

Kampe’s Sieglinde is no less arresting, and not just because of her melting Nordic beauty: Her eyes are expressive in a way seldom seen on the opera stage, able to move from terror to longing to childlike wonder with the speed of thought, and she shuttles convincingly between the imploded posture of the abused wife and the gawky brashness of an overgrown kid. Her slightly widened vibrato is a warning flag for potential Wagnerian burnout in the future—otherwise, the voice is a gleaming instrument throughout its range, with a command of line that bespeaks her early-career experience with Mozart.

And Watson’s Brünnhilde displays similarly secure technique along with penetrating, rock-solid tone and real carrying power. Her voice has a tendency to brighten into edginess, but she does a fine job of modulating it, offering some memorably lovely singing in the quieter moments of her role. She’s physically proportioned more like an old-school Brünnhilde, less willowy and lithe than her Valkyrie sisters (few of whom, it must be said, sing with Watson’s security or command), but she carries a quiet dignity, her emotional shifts subtler and more gradual than Kampe’s, yet always appearing deeply felt—which is quite a contrast to the supersized thrills of Zambera’s Fricka and Rydl’s Hunding. Their powerhouse voices—hers punchy, with a big Slavic vibrato, and his possessing the classic timbral blackness of the best Wagner basses—match their elemental acting, constructed out of menacing stillness, animal lunges, and near-psychotic glares. (In another tribute to her artistry, Zambello is able to weave their larger-than-life theatrics seamlessly into the world she’s created.)

Which leaves Domingo’s Siegmund. Though considerably older in appearance than Kampe, he’s remained fit and handsome, and at an age when most tenor voices quiver like an EKG, Domingo’s continues to pour forth with sunny Mediterranean tone and ringing high notes. He has to work a little harder in Wagner to maintain a smooth line and to launch his voice over the large orchestra—so consonants are slighted, vowels are added to the ends of blunt German words, and low-lying phrases are sometimes rushed to prepare for taxing top notes. But he attacks the role—a favorite of his—with impressive stamina and emotionally searching acting. The results are a pleasure.

Walküre evidently floats WashOp music director Heinz Fricke’s boat, too. Past Wagner outings under Fricke’s baton left the impression that he had a train to catch. Here, he conducts with long-spun tempos that allow the winds and brass to breathe and the strings to sing sweetly. The opera’s gutsier moments draw a more passionate response than is common from this conductor, but much of the score has the suppleness of chamber music in his hands—which makes DARCon’s unfocused acoustics and the backward placement of the orchestra there doubly regrettable.

Walküre is WashOp’s last production in this troublesome hall. And finally, thanks to this production’s world-class artistic team, opera in the DARCon space feels less like a three-ring circus and more like the dynamic and involving theater WashOp redesigned it to be. Here’s hoping that the company keeps the recreative spirit of this production alive, once it’s unpacked its bags in the retooled Kennedy Center Opera House next spring. CP