Review: THE RHINEGOLD Magically Opens WNO's The Ring Cycle

By: May. 03, 2016
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In 2006, then Washington National Opera Artistic Director Placido Domingo announced that the Opera would take on their first complete cycle of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). In the subsequent years, the opera produced the first three of the four-some, but not in quick succession. As the opera and the nation suffered an economic downturn, the complete cycle was never realized. Until now.

WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello has undertaken what is to be the largest endeavor in the 50 plus years of the company. Presenting Wagner's Ring is a feat of epic proportions. On Saturday, April 30 in the grandiose Kennedy Center Opera House, the prologue of the four part series opened. The opera, masterfully conducted by Phillipppe Auguin, is not only an aural wonder, but a visual delight as well. The epic sets, courtesy of Michael Yeargen and the costumes by the brilliant Catherine Zuber beautifully transported us to this mystical world. Mark McCullough's lighting design with the help of projection designs by Jan Hartley and S. Katy Tucker add a sense of emotion with the appropriately colored worlds.

As the overture of Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold) begins, the low bass begins an unsettling rumbling, followed by the entrance of the bassoon, then horns. As each instrument begins, Maestro Auguin has expert control over the sound and brings beautiful life into the score by the time the celli start their eighth note pattern as if to emulate the flowing river.

The first scene shows how this one magical ring began its journey from gold stolen away from three river nymphs (Jacqueline Echols, Catherine Martin, and Renée Tatum) by the scheming Alberich (Gordon Hawkins). Together the trio of singers playfully teases Alberich while Mr. Hawkins' voice and presence is commanding and powerful.

The second scene finds the ruler of the Gods, Wotan (Alan Held) and his wife Fricka (Elizabeth Bishop) marveling over their new fortress, Valhalla. Upon the descent of the giants (Julian Close and Soloman Howard) there begins an argument over payment for the construction, which is to be the goddess Freia (Melody Moore). With the help of the Gods Froh, Donner, and Loge (Richard Cox, Ryan McKinney, and William Burden) the giants are persuaded to take a gold ring forged from the gold that Alberich has stolen. While the entire opera is beautifully sung the second scene is the most powerful with a bevy of strong singers masterfully navigating Wagner's complex patterns. Particularly strong is DC native, bass Solomon Howard. Mr. Howard is an alumnus of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program at the WNO and it is evident that a future star is in the making.

The visually stunning third scene takes place as the Gods try to steal the gold from Alberich in his fiery underground cavern. This scene displays Ms. Zambello's command of the stage in her luscious direction. Between creating a vast underground cavern with the help of Mr. Yeargen's sprawling set and the seemingly hundreds of young slaves this scene is visually striking and musically rich.

The final scene back on the mountain after reclaiming the gold brings us the entrance of the God Erda. Erda is expertfully sung by contralto Lindsay Ammann. Erda has a more pivotal role in Siegfried, later in the cycle, but her brief appearance here is a taste of what is to come with both the character and Ms. Ammann's gorgeous voice.

Because of the Wagnerian scale of even one of these four operas it is rare to see a production so vivid and alive. But to see the entire cycle presented is nothing short of spectacular. The complete Ring cycle is a once in a lifetime event and we are lucky that Ms. Zambello continued Maestro Domingo's original vision to present this complete epic and did so in such a marvelous fashion.

The Ring of The Nibelung plays through May 22, 2016 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Visit the Kennedy Center for tickets and the remainder of their schedule including additional programs surround this event.

Photo credits: Scott Suchman

Artwork by Michael Schwab