- The Washington Times - Monday, November 9, 2009

Richard Wagner’s four-opera “Der Ring des Nibelungen” — better known in English as the “Ring Cycle” — follows the tale of golden ring that confers great powers upon its owner. But it also carries a deadly curse.

Staging this epic multi-evening extravaganza can really put an opera company on the map. The Washington National Opera, with its philosophically flawed but visually arresting “American Ring” productions of the first three operas during the past few seasons, was well on its way to completing its first Ring Cycle. But its upcoming production of “Gotterdammerung” was postponed indefinitely, yet another artistic casualty of the economic recession.

To provide opera fans with at least a taste of what is to come, WNO scheduled two performances of “Gotterdammerung” in concert this fall with as much of the previously scheduled cast as possible. Yet the ring’s curse seemed to cast a pall on even this event. The originally scheduled Siegfried, Par Lindskog, canceled after dropping out of the company’s current “Ariadne auf Naxos” as well. His replacement as Siegfried, Ian Storey, suddenly canceled too, due to illness.

WNO got lucky and unearthed another veteran Siegfried, American tenor Jon Fredric West, to sing the role on short notice. Judging from Saturday evening’s initial performance of the opera, area opera fans got lucky as well.

With minor exceptions, the company’s “Gotterdammerung” in concert was quite simply beyond expectations. The first-string cast was almost uniformly on top of its game. French conductor Philippe Auguin, subbing for WNO’s ailing music director, Heinz Fricke, coaxed a great performance out of the company’s orchestra, sans a few French horn flubs. And the emotional finale of this exhausting five-hour opera gained surprising power even without scenery and special effects.

Clearly, Saturday evening’s superstar was soprano Irene Theorin as Brunnhilde. Her epic, concluding aria, during which her character quite literally brings down heaven and Earth — was a pageant of vocal nuance and emotional brilliance, the kind of moment opera aficionados treasure forever.

Bass-baritone Gidon Saks’ menacing Hagen was a genuine surprise, larger than life and highly convincing as the menacing psychopath who murders Siegfried and destroys a kingdom to get at the ring. His massive voice was never buried in Wagner’s dense orchestral score, and his diction was crisp and precise.

As Siegfried, Mr. West proved refreshingly offbeat. Physically smaller than his counterparts but possessing a robust, well-rounded tenor voice, he made his character seem bigger than life, capturing perfectly Siegfried’s almost mindless, boyish swagger — a bravado that contributes mightily to his untimely demise.

The smaller roles were finely nuanced as well, particularly Alan Held’s Gunther and Elizabeth Bishop’s Waltraute, and Gordon Hawkins’ Alberich. Soprano Bernadette Flaitz experienced noticeable problems singing the role of Gutrune, but this appeared to be due to a vocal malady she was keeping at bay.

★★★★

WHAT: The Washington National Opera presents Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung” in concert

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House.

WHEN: Remaining performance: Nov. 15 at 2 p.m.

TICKETS: $40 to $210; box office, 202/295-2400; Web, www.dc-opera.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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