Nine Months Later: WNO Completes Three Rousing Cycles of Wagner's Ring Cycle

After a lot of international travel and a hiatus from attending many performances, I finally got back into the Kennedy Center for Washington National Opera's production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, the company's (and city's) first full cycle. I was happy to be able to attend this momentous event, and found the performances, direction, and overall concept gripping. I attended Cycle II. As I've said it similar situations before, this review will necessarily be briefer on each topic than some of my reviews, but hopefully will cover ground across the cycle and provide an overall perspective.

Der Ring des Nibelungen
Director: Francesca Zambello
Conductor: Philippe Auguin
Set Designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Designer: Mark McCullough
Projection Designers: S. Katy Tucker and Jan Hartley
Movement Director: Denni Sayers

*WNO debut
‡ Current Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist
± Former Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist
Listed in order of vocal appearance

Das Rheingold
Woglinde: Jacqueline Echols±
Wellgunde: Catherine Martin
Flosshilde: Renée Tatum*
Alberich: Gordon Hawkins        
Fricka: Elizabeth Bishop
Wotan: Alan Held
Freia: Melody Moore
Fasolt: Julian Close*
Fafner: Soloman Howard±
Froh: Richard Cox*
Donner: Ryan McKinny*
Loge: William Burden
Mime: David Cangelosi
Erda: Lindsay Ammann*
Die Walküre
Siegmund: Christopher Ventris
Sieglinde: Meagan Miller
Hunding: Raymond Aceto*
Wotan: Alan Held
Brünnhilde: Catherine Foster* (Cycles I & II), Nina Stemme* (Cycle III)
Fricka: Elizabeth Bishop
Gerhilde: Marcy Stonikas*
Helmwige: Lori Phillips
Waltraute: Catherine Martin
Schwertleite: Lindsay Ammann
Ortlinde: Melody Moore
Siegrune: Eve Gigliotti*
Grimgerde: Renée Tatum       
Rossweisse: Daryl Freedman

Mime: David Cangelosi
Siegfried: Daniel Brenna*
The Wanderer: Alan Held
Alberich: Gordon Hawkins
Fafner: Soloman Howard±
Forest Bird: Jacqueline Echols±
Erda: Lindsay Ammann
Brünnhilde: Catherine Foster (Cycles I & II), Nina Stemme (Cycle III)

First Norn: Lindsay Ammann
Second Norn: Jamie Barton*
Third Norn: Marcy Stonikas
Brünnhilde: Catherine Foster (Cycles I & II), Nina Stemme (Cycle III)
Siegfried: Daniel Brenna
Gunther: Ryan McKinny
Hagen: Eric Halfvarson
Gutrune: Melissa Citro*
Waltraute: Jamie Barton*
Alberich: Gordon Hawkins
Woglinde: Jacqueline Echols±
Wellgunde: Catherine Martin
Flosshilde: Renée Tatum


First: The Production(s) As a Whole

The only other production by Francesca Zambello that I've seen was Dialogues of the Carmelites last year. While the vision was sweeping in size and austerity, as with so many abstract productions, I struggled to connect the moving performances under Zambello's direction to the artistic vision. Nevertheless, I appreciated the overall concept, and here, both in the leadership to bring this Ring together, as well as the actual vision and direction, Zambello's contribution, in tandem with Michael Yeargan, Catherine Zuber, and Mark McCullough, is exceptional.

The production's overall vision of a modern Ring, combining Americana with a broader tension between nature and the pollution of human striving is affecting. I found it most powerful when it eschewed the direct, overt references, however, and focused on the rich, almost fantastical world around which it was built. The strongest scenes were those most removed from reality, such as throughout Das Rheingold in the nascent Valhalla, and those around which Brünnhilde's moments centered (where the ring of fire ultimately ends up). Perhaps weakest for me was the opening of Die Walküre, set in a realistic cabin-like home. While the dichotomy between wealth and hubris in both Valhalla and the Gibichung hall and, on the other side, the Volsung's simple beginnings or the broken overpass under which Siegmund dies are poignant, the abstract, larger than life nature of the latter was more affecting than the former.

Overall, the landscapes are texturally rich, the costumes clever, abstract, modern, and un-impeding. As usually, I found the combination of guns and swords, as well as the Fafner robot, to be a bit hard to sustain, but a minor point. The conceit of a gridded floor with light beneath it was clever and contributed throughout all four operas. Pictures will help to demonstrate this aspect more than anything else.

As far as the direction of the singers themselves, I felt that there was a superb sense of pace and flow to the action throughout. All moves were purposeful, there were myriad opportunities for continuity errors (a risk of having four interconnected operas, for sure) that were completely avoided, and the acting supported the music, even accounting for the sometimes-troublesome aspect of Wagner's operas that focus on telling rather than showing the action.

I admit to having seen the full cycle one other time: the current production at the Wiener Staatsoper, the fall 2011 performances of which, now available on recording under Thielemann, I've reviewed on this blog. Compared against that, also a somewhat abstract, modern production, the world built by Zambello and the team here was gripping, rich, and varied, yet mostly artistically unified, and directly supported the story and the music.

Das Rheingold: Performances

The thing that struck me most about this performance of Das Rheingold was the smoothness of the performances given by every one of the singers. Absent were any signs of the Bayreuth Bark or performers clinging to character singing to survive, be heard, and mask vocal inadequacies. Rather, the performance could have been described as bel canto Wagner. This was apparent from the outset with the pleasant, robust, but still unencumbered flirtations of the Rhein Maidens. Matching them, Gordon Hawkins' Alberich eschewed the (later necessary) gruffness of his character's soul, a characteristic that continued throughout Rheingold. This performance, along with that of David Cangelosi as Mime, allowed us to see their evolution in later operas as their corruption due to the ring becomes increasingly apparent.

Similarly, both Julian Close and Soloman Howard pulled off booming, but initially relaxed and even comedic giants, a nice change from simply booming voices. Howard carried this into subsequent performances, as well, matching velvet tone with volume, depth, and remaining humor.

Among the Gods, Melody Moore and Elizabeth Bishop made a splendid pair; both aristocratic, but with Moore acting a young, naïve Freia against Bishops haughtier Fricka. These somewhat cutout characters went hand in hand with Richard Cox and Ryan McKinny as Froh and Donner, who also brought smooth singing and a sense of foolish naïveté to the scene. If the rest of the cast communicated aristocracy, none did so more profoundly than Alan Held. Held's demeanor and baritone voice - perfectly balanced between light and dark, conjured a Wotan at once wise and misguided, warrior-like and refined, and visionary and resigned. Held made it possible to understand the many contradictions of the character and how he both willfully succeeds while continually shooting himself in the foot. Lindsay Ammann's Erda, perhaps vocally brighter than some in the role, communicated the stop-the-action haunting atmosophere in her scene beautifully, and interpretation focused as much on serenity as mystery. Most impressive of the evening, however, was William Burden. Just as would be expected of Loge, he moved effortlessly between dynamics, painting tones, whispers, seductive tones, and simply beautiful singing. His looks and acting also supported the unclear but present notion that Loge is in control of everything around him, and that he bears some responsibility for the goings on of the Ring. The only regret I had about this performance is that the masterful portrayal is limited to Das Rheingold, denying us further view of Burden onstage and also cutting short any overarching plot that might be intended with Loge.

Die Walküre: Performances

I will avoid repeating observations except where there was a significant evolution in the performance.

The voice of the evening's Hunding, Raymond Aceto, contained a steeliness that fit the character's uptight, almost brutal worldview and helped immediately win hearts to the (otherwise somewhat questionable) plight of Siegmund and Sieglinde. When I saw the Ring in Vienna, Christopher Ventris played Siegfried there, as well. As five years ago, I was impressed with the smoothness of his singing. While many of the performers in Das Rheingold have characterizations less concerned with a traditional view of masculinity, Ventris vocally pulls off heroism without brutish singing. Almost contrary to this, Meagan Miller's Sieglinde shimmered with a silvery white light - beautiful as she falls in love, and almost like frantic white lightning as she loses Siegmund and her worldview collapses around her. It's a very demanding role that she handles admirable.

If it seems like I keep hitting the same theme of bel-canto-like singing, it is with good reason, and nowhere more so than with the Valkyries. With so many loud, vibrato-laden, and sometimes biting voices involved at the same time, their scenes can sometimes seem to devolve into a shouting match, which is firmly avoided here. Catherine Foster, who was Brünnhilde for the cycle I witnessed, not unlike Christopher Ventris, balanced lyrical singing with heroism and willful fortitude, which only increased in her later, challenging performances.

Siegfried: Performances

Siegfried is a test of many singers we've seen before, and of course introduces some new ones.

Notably, I found myself frequently wondering "what happened to the aristocracy of Alan Held's Wotan?" This is what was so beautiful about his use of his voice in earlier productions. Reserved and in control in Das Rheingold, furious and domineering in Die Walküre. His earlier "smile behind the eyes" tone returns even more strongly here; a god who has made peace with his past actions and is able to restrain himself to playing games with Mime. It's the last time we see him, but it's a great lasting impression of versatility, all within the same well-structured vocal paradigm.

Contrary to this, both Gordon Hawkins and, particularly, David Cangelosi, show evolving Nibelungen. For Hawkins its a slow evolution - a slimier, rougher tone and more blatant acting. For Cangelosi, this is where we see him come into his own as Mime. Alone among the performances in this cycle, we see character singing/acting from Cangelosi's Mime. And yet, perhaps because the rest of the performances take place in such an "operatic" bel canto style, it works well here. Not only does Cangelosi actually pull it off and make it sound good, it drives home his buffoonery and incompetence compared against that of Siegfried, while nevertheless demonstrating Siegfried's naïveté in failing to understand Mime's fairly obvious true nature.

Coming around to Siegfried himself, Daniel Brenna is impressive here. As his biography in the program notes, he's one of the youngest, most convincing Siegfried's out there. His looks and his singing communicate a sense of youthful abandon - a gung-ho attitude that lacks a full understanding of the world around him. Vocally, he manages to sustain a true sung tone throughout in one of the roles most at risk for barking and shouting. Unlike in other listenings, I was not struck by a break between a smooth Siegmund and a rough Siegfried. Both Ventris and Brenna are heroic and both are vocally consistent. When paired with Jacqueline Echols as a delightfully innocence and vocally pure Forest Bird, Fafner as a monster suddenly possessing of pathos at his demise, or, of course, Catherine Foster as a woman awakening to love (literally and figuratively), the effect is powerful. Each of the pairings amplified both participants' best qualities. For their part, while the scene at the end did drag a bit (probably Wagner's fault, there), Brenna and Foster combined Wagnerian fire and passion with beautiful singing to convincingly bring the love story to life.

Götterdämmerung: Performances

Opening with the Norns, I found one place where casting was perhaps a bit peculiar; each individual performance was solid, but the three women did not seem to sing together as a cohesive unit. This may be an artistic choice, but the scene, with the three on very separate parts of the stage, felt perhaps a bit disjointed. Contrastingly, the other trio of Rhein Maidens continued the silky yet powerful singing that they opened the cycle, perhaps pulling out even more stops in their attempts to seduce Siegfried, a harder target than Alberich.

Gordon Hawkins' return as Alberich was also in line with his character development; while his singing remained consistent, the nastiness of his character was truly apparent in his final showing. Contrastingly, Eric Halfvarson as Hagen, by contrast, maintained a different sort of menace alloyed by his booming voice. His form of aristocracy, a sort of nouveau riche, differed from that of Wotan and his crew in Das Rheingold, an intriguing and clever shading. Ryan McKinny played right into this, applying his same vocal talents and acting skills in a different fashion than in the role of Donner. Meanwhile, Melissa Citro, while bringing appropriately Wagnerian vocal resources to bear, was most notable in her ability to color those resources in a bright fashion that supported her somewhat head in the clouds Gutrune.

For our stars, Daniel Brenna was admittedly seen to flag a bit at this point in the cycle. He maintained a sung-through interpretation without resorting to hollering or theatrics, but muscle crept into the tone and some of the high notes were white knuckle at times. Still, his youthful acting and vocal approach remained much appreciated, and he is, at the end, a hero deluded and slain, so a bit of wear and tear didn't feel totally out of place. Contrariwise, Catherine Foster remained heroic until the end, with the same consistent, brilliant vocalism that carried her through earlier parts of the cycle

If I had one major complaint, it probably came down to the end of the cycle. I have no problem with the message that the women of the cycle helped to heal and reverse the issues largely caused by the men in the cycle. Similarly, I have no issue with the idea of rebirth and the culmination of the earth undoing through fire and water the sins of the gods. Still, crowds of women and a child planting a tree at the end of the opera felt blunt and cliche in a cycle otherwise so brilliantly nuanced. Indeed, this made the scene feel stylistically and contextually disconnected from the cycle, which undermined a sense of closure.

Philippe Auguin & the WNO Orchestra

Perhaps the greatest hero of this cycle, beyond any of the individual performances listed above, was Philippe Auguin in his direction of the WNO Orchestra. As the Washington Post's Anne Midgette noted in her own review, the range displayed in these performances was astounding. While Wagner is, and should be, at times quite loud, there is so much more to the music in its intimate, and even comedic, moments. Auguin was able to play this full spectrum from near-silence to full, rounded sound. It was this that undergirded, I believe, the entire mode of the performance. The singing that was nuanced and in a true, sung, bel canto style seemed like an outgrowth of direction and musicianship grounded in the nuances of the music. Ultimately, since it is the orchestra that plays all 18 or so hours of the cycle, it was this that made all the difference in WNO's cycle.

All in all, WNO's Ring Cycle was an outstanding triumph years in the making, from excellent conception and direction to brilliant singing and acting, and to superb orchestral musicality. Wagner may not be everyone's preference, but these were gripping, vivid performances that showed his seminal work at its best.


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