Credit: Scott Suchman for the Washington National Opera

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Wagnerites in tuxedos, gowns, and horned Viking helmets stumbled out of the Kennedy Center opera house late Friday looking tired, dazed, and happy, like they’d lost their virginity at the Renaissance faire. They were clearly as pleased with the Washington National Opera’s first complete Ring cycle as they were with themselves for making it through all 18 hours of it. The formal yet festive atmosphere was evidence of the passionate, diverse crowd the great German Romantic composer continues to draw, united in their ability not to laugh at patently ridiculous things like dragon tanks. It’s a sight to behold, a level of discipline only the best cults can aspire to.

Did I mention this thing has a dragon tank? As in, an armored vehicle that has a dragon’s head for a turret and claws for treads, and spews smoke when the hero Siegfried hits it with a sword. This whole production cost the Washington National Orchestra $10 million; at least now we know where the money went.

Director Francesca Zambello’s American Ring is a mess, but it’s a beautiful mess. Conceptually, it’s all over the place. Musically, it’s superb. The first two operas (The Rhinegold and The Valkyrie, reviewed here last week) hinted at a 1920s art deco, Atlas Shrugged-meets-Citizen Kane theme, but that disappeared by the last two, which go in a lot of directions but mostly toward an unconvincing bid by Zambello to interpret Wagner as an eco-feminist.  

Like fighting a dragon tank, interpreting Wagner is fraught with peril. George Bernard Shaw took the Ring to be a Marxist parable; Theodor Adorno saw an anti-Semitic one. Nietzsche at different times viewed him as a savior of European high culture and a spectacle-peddling huckster. Much of the challenge is due to Wagner’s undeniable shittiness as a human being, something that his defenders insist should not be held against his music. I agree. But being open-minded about Wagner is one thing; presenting him as a feminist and environmentalist is another, and simply declaring him thus doesn’t make it so, no matter how many pictures of logging trucks and the New Jersey Bayway Refinery you project over the stage. 

Where you end up on the Shaw-Adorno spectrum depends on whether you see the Nibelungs—the conniving dwarves who manipulate others to steal their gold—as wicked capitalists or sneaky Jews. Zambello chose to steer clear of that minefield—a wise choice—though in an earlier version of this opera, she boldly reinterpreted them as slaves on an American plantation. Wagner’s Ring is, above all, about the destruction of an old order, that of the gods. For Wagner, the gods were stand-ins for the decadent European monarchies; for Zambello, the patriarchy, or perhaps the destruction of the earth by gods, heroes, and dwarves alike. It’s unclear, and the source material provides a shaky basis. 

As for the feminism, Zambello makes much of Brünnhilde’s agency as warrior demigod, and her shabby treatment by her father, Wotan, and her nephew/lover Siegfried. But for every moment of badassery, there are plenty of others in which she’s turned into a doormat by hunky, dim Siegfried, who is at least self-aware of his dimwittedness. Better to be dumb and in love than wise and single. 

By the end, the fairy-tale valor and dopey romance in Siegfried give way to the darker machinations of Twilight of the Gods, and the two lovers’ violent ends. Twilight is the more satisfying of the two, despite the central plot device being a love potion, a totally serious idea Wagner stole from his own Tristan und Isolde.

Washington National Opera’s singing talent goes a long way to lending this fantasy tale dramatic heft. Chief among them is Catherine Foster as Brüunhilde, who was sidelined with an injury at the beginning of the cycle. Foster’s replacement, Christine Goerke, performed well, but Foster followed up Goerke’s performance confidently and loudly, wielding a deeper register, and a piercing, less fluttery soprano than Goerke. Foster returns for the second run this week, and in the final run, the part goes to Nina Stemme. Daniel Brenna, a young, Washington National Opera first-timer with a rich, brassy tenor, is terrific as Siegfried, playing him less as a hero and more a bratty kid; so too is booming bass-baritone Alan Held as Wotan. There are some weaker performances, such as an underpowered Ryan McKinny as Gunther, a wheezy Gordon Hawkins as Alberich, and Eric Halfvarson as Hagen the puppet-master crypto-Jew, er, -Nibelung, who occasionally sounds like a duck.  

As in the first two operas in the cycle, Philippe Auguin’s direction of the Washington National Opera orchestra is the highlight of the entire production. Wagner’s themes ooze from section to section with sounds layered neatly—a deft and relatively understated take on a composer not known for subtlety. Wagner may have been an asshole, but his mastery of musical drama is undeniable, using leitmotifs to recall characters and themes in a way that paved the way for today’s cinematic epics (like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, despite his many denials). Twilight is where everything comes together, and when the heroes bite the dust, in Siegfried’s funeral march and Brünnhilde’s immolation, the payoff is all the more devastating, given Auguin’s prior restraint. 

It’s also at the end of Twilight where Zambello’s vision comes into focus, belatedly. The Rhinemaidens from Rhinegold reappear with their river choked with garbage. Brünnhilde leads them to reclaim the ring from the men whose warring over it destroyed a once pristine wilderness, before she sacrifices herself in a purifying firestorm. A little girl plants a tree. It’s all pretty hokey, but neatly imagined. 

The problem is it isn’t consistent in any form throughout. Much of Zambello’s thematic ideas derive from a couple lines of Wagner that provide stark imagery but don’t flow from scene to scene. Thus the prologue to Twilight, thanks to a twist of “rope of destiny” to “cable of destiny,” becomes a scene from the Matrix with the earth goddesses dressed in goggles and rubber clothes surrounded by computer cables, before we cut away to Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s Tora Bora love nest. Other scenes take place in a scrapyard, a loft apartment seemingly occupied by Russian oligarchs with a taste for leopard print upholstery, and what looks like a Dulles airport terminal. At one point Alberich the dwarf warns Wotan the god “I will overthrow you.” So Zambello makes Alberich an urban guerrilla, hanging out in a safehouse making Molotov cocktails, even though he’s really just guarding that dragon tank and guerrillas don’t usually have tanks.

Zambello might see consistency as a hobgoblin of small operas. For a production as epic as the Ring, having an identifiable unifying theme is a lot to ask. Constantly throwing a bunch of different stage designs, projections, and costumes at an audience instead makes sense if the goal is to keep an audience on its toes, or at least not squirming in their seats after the first five-hour opera. However far-fetched an eco-feminist Wagner may be, it’s a nicer thing to imagine than anything the real Wagner would have been.

Through May 22. 2700 F St. NW. $75-$525. (202) 467-4600. kennedy-center.org.