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Review: Stunning TWILIGHT OF THE GODS at the Washington National Opera

When you have an opera production of depth like Francesca Zambello's The Ring of the Nibelungen, it is nearly impossible to pick a moment that captures its essence. Given a choice, however, I would begin with the unforgettable visual and aural sequence that follows the hero Siegfried's death in the Cycle's final installment, the Götterdämmerung ("The Damnation [or Twilight] of the Gods").

In the previous scene Siegfried has been murdered by Hagen-whose father Alberich crafted the ring of the title-while out on a hunting party. And with his death the story must shift back to the castle of the royal family the Gibichungs, and to the apocalyptic conclusion of the entire cycle. Composer Richard Wagner knew that stage hands needed time to perform a scene change, and here he provides an appropriate funereal, heroic tone to the transition music - slow and steady to keep audiences in their seats and maintain the mood of the moment, while the crew busied themselves behind the curtain.

For this interlude and in honor of Siegfried's death we are treated to a gorgeous moon-rise, with the orb subtly tinted blood-red. As the horns blare from the orchestra pit (the pit's an invention of Wagner's, by the way), the moon makes its slow and stately progress into the heavens; this symbolic apotheosis must be seen to be believed, and felt. Jan Hardley and S. Katy Tucker's projections give an already compelling production greater emotional depth, and sometimes reveal the ineffable, mystical aspects of this ancient legend.

You will notice that I haven't even gotten to the singing yet; don't worry, it's a thing of beauty too; read on, brave reader. The production being six hours (with two generous breaks for meals and calisthenics) you have time to savor every aspect of Zambello's vision.

This Götterdämmerung is truly awesome-in both the original and contemporary senses of the word. The conclusion of a four-part epic, this six-hour installment depicts the final struggle for ownership of a magical ring whose owner might rule the world-but which also holds a dire curse for all who come into contact with it. And because the ring is composed of primal gold, its fate symbolizes the fate of the earth itself. Hence no sooner do we see the lovers Siegfried and Brünnhilda express their undying love for each other than the couple is torn apart by the plotting royals Gunther and Gutrune, with the help of the vengeful Hagen.

Based on an ancient Germanic/Nordic saga, The Ring of the Nibelung is a classic tale of greed, corruption and sex (much of it incestuous -- ick) that leaves almost no survivors, human or divine. It is also an allegorical tale about the exploitation of nature for personal gain and the destruction of a world that, if left untouched, could have remained vibrant and bountiful. In the end the world can only be redeemed by love, in this case Brünnhilde's for Siegfried. It is this goddess' forgiveness and greatness of heart, not empty macho posturing ("Make Valhalla Great Again!") that holds the key to the world's renewal.

The plot of The Ring of the Nibelung is complex-it would a long essay in its own right. But for those who are new to Wagner you could do worse than to check YouTube for the famous 20-minute summary of the Ring Cycle by British comedienne Dame Anna Russell, which is as hilarious as it is spot-on. Canadian animator Kim Thompson gives an even shorter version (with hand-puppets) in her classic "All the Great Operas in 10 Minutes." Satire being the sincerest form of flattery, both Russell and Thompson clearly adore Wagner; and now you have a chance to see what all the fuss is about.

The effects here are phenomenal, from Hartley and Tucker's eerie projections to Catherine Zuber's costumes, which coodinate in fascinating ways with Mark McCullough's lights. You will never regret spending a few hours (and a hefty wad of cash) to witness one of the most monumental productions ever staged in Washington, D.C.

This production is especially fortunate to have sopranos like Catherine Foster in the role of Brünnhilde; it is this role which defines the final chapter of the Ring Cycle, and it requires a vast emotional range. Far from the "fat lady" of sports fame, she is the embodiment of the nobility and love that we are all capable of; her love for Siegfried motivates much of what happens here, and her final decision to return the ring to its original owners (the Rhine Maidens) ensures a new dawn, and a reincarnation of the world. Foster's passion fills the Opera House and, when her Brünnhilde discovers she has been betrayed, raises the very roof.

There is a brilliant cameo here from Alberich-the maker of the Ring, who visits his son Hagen in his sleep and-with a nod to Shakespeare's Hamlet-urges him to take revenge for Siegfried's seizure of his Ring. Gordon Hawkins creates a haunting, unnerving presence as Alberich while his son, Hagen, is given a forceful incarnation in Eric Halfvarson. Hagen's contempt for Siegfried and just about everyone else is palpable from the moment he enters; when he actually appears to be in a good mood at one point, even the chorus seems surprised.

Daniel Brenna, meanwhile, is every inch a Siegfried-the bold, heroic, but terminally dumb hero of the cycle. Because he has no idea what all that gold is for, he treats the Ring like it was a trinket from a Cracker Jack box and gives it to Brünnhilde for their engagement. It's hardly surprising to find he is conned by a potion into forgetting completely about his betrothal to Brünnhilde. Returning to his fiancé's mountain home, he disguises himself in order to force her to marry the Gibichung prince Gunther (the solid Ryan McKinny). Siegried, under the spell of this potion, also makes plans to marry Gunther's sister Gutrune (the radiant and surprisingly amusing Melissa Citro).

Zambello has fun with her portrayal of the Gibichung palace as a sort of mod bachelor pad with wet bar, and there were knowing nods all around the house when Siegfried behaved like a typical heel (I mean, all it takes is one cocktail and he's completely forgotten his bride-to-be? Sheesh ...).

The theme of the environment's exploitation is given full force in the many stunning projections that bridge the scene changes here, but there is room for a bit of fun even on this subject: the Rhine Maidens appear as bag ladies, collecting empty plastic bottles for recycling. Their fury at being reduced to trash collectors (a nice metaphor, that) is punctuated by frustrated tosses of empties left and right and renders their attempts at seducing Siegfried all the more amusing.

I could go on forever with favorite moments, arias, etc., from this production; sadly, however, unless you have at least $300 in your pocket your chances of seeing any of this fantastic Ring Cycle are nil. If there is any justice-and any common sense-the Washington National Opera will take this opportunity to create a film version of this production before it closes in late May. Having seen some truly execrable film versions of the cycle, I am convinced that this one would stand the test of time, and make a welcome addition to the opera films that bring this amazing art form to new audiences worldwide.

After seeing this production I don't hesitate to say that no Hollywood director could ever accomplish art on this scale in their wildest dreams. Richard Wagner isn't content to dump massive walls of floating text on his audience, he wants us immediately immersed in the musical world of his story. And instead of breaking up the opera into neat, bite-sized arias with sing-along choruses, he also gives you an unbroken story line, using the orchestral accompaniment to draw you inexorably forward with no time for reflection whatsoever. The innovations here are too numerous to mention, but suffice it to say that Wagner, even today, stands as an artist of unique accomplishment. He is the grand-daddy of all blockbusters, all epic series, everything that we look for in entertainment that is designed to flood the senses.

Production Photo: From left to right (in hunter's jackets): Ryan McKinny as Gunther, Eric Halfvarson as Hagen, and Daniel Brenna as Siegfried. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The Ring of the Nibelung performs from April 30-May 22 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. For the few tickets that remain, call 202-467-4600 or visit

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