Commencing with Richard Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” the Washington National Opera has embarked on a bold, multiyear journey to present the company’s first-ever Ring Cycle. And, to help realize this vision, Francesca Zambello’s production team set out this past weekend to create a refreshingly new “American Ring” at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. The result: a smashing, nontraditional prequel that should have audiences clamoring for the Cycle’s next three installments.
In this version of “Das Rheingold” (“The Rhine Gold”), the Zambello team has reconceptualized Wagner’s mythic tale as a series of riffs on the American experience, making expert use of the kinds of scenic projections introduced during the company’s Constitution Hall diaspora to stir up the composer’s sometimes dreary expositions.
Thus, the nasty dwarf, Alberich, becomes a Forty-Niner prospecting for gold when he runs across the Rheinmaidens who guard the ultimate stash while scampering up and down mining sluice gates and scaffolding. Meanwhile, the gods, at their peak of power, are nattily attired in sporty whites like Jay Gatsby and his pals in the 1920s, while two huffing giants labor mightily to finish Valhalla, the gods’ new sky-high digs.
The two giants, Fafner and Fasolt, are this “Rheingold’s” most distinguishing feature. We first glimpse them descending from the new castle’s heights, jauntily seated on a steel beam and rakishly clad in stylized denim coveralls. They’re just a pair of brawny (and very tall) working stiffs — albeit with Popeye limbs and Terminator-like steel fingers. They now must weasel their pay — the goddess Freia — from Wotan, king of the gods, before he figures out a way to welch on the deal. Yep, it’s the capitalists vs. the trade unionists. But it works just fine.
Further, as sung by bass-baritones Jeffrey Wells and John Marcus Bindel, these are giants with attitude. They genuinely steal the show, adding a hefty dose of something new to Wagner — a Yankee sense of class-bashing humor. Who can remember the last time he or she laughed out loud at the composer’s high seriousness? Mr. Wells and Mr. Bindel seemed to inhabit the clumsily majestic music Wagner wrote for these parts. And their insistence on a square deal and some dignity strongly foreshadow the eventual fall of the ruling elites in “Gotterdammerung.”
The rest of the cast was outstanding. JiYoung Lee, Frederique Vezina and Jennifer Hines, as the coquettish trio of Rheinmaidens, were a delight as they tempted Alberich into his fateful vow. Robert Hale’s powerful bass-baritone gave voice to a Wotan that seemed less a god and more an artful schemer increasingly hemmed in by his own deceit. As his consort Fricke, mezzo Elizabeth Bishop gives an impressive portrayal of the put-upon wealthy wife, with arch little touches of Margaret Dumont’s haughty demeanor. Jane Ohmes, Corey Evan Rotz, Detlef Roth and Gary Rideout were also excellent in smaller roles, as was mezzo Elena Zaremba in her brief turn as an American Indian earth-mother Erda.
Intriguingly, however, it’s the characters lower in the social pecking order who made this production dazzle — fitting for an American Ring, cast in a country where the lower classes see no reason why they can’t aspire to the top. The giants were a case in point. So to was baritone Gordon Hawkins, last fall’s Porgy, as Alberich. Mr. Hawkins was a malevolent sensation, his every resentful note curling with menace, giving profound meaning to the Curse of the Ring.
Equally intriguing was tenor Robin Leggate’s trickster-god, Loge, the master of fire. Mr. Leggate’s silvery voice iced his portrayal of Loge as a lawyerlike master schemer who makes and breaks deals like a judo master, causing his opponents’ strengths to work against them. With his impeccable sense of dress and his brushy little moustache, he conjured up the casual moral relativism of Claude Rains’ Capt. Renault in “Casablanca.” In the end, however, neither the Zambello edifice nor the fine singing would have been as powerful or effective without a master Wagnerian music director like Heinz Fricke at the helm of the WNO Orchestra. Maestro Fricke and his ensemble wove, with the greatest of care, a richly complex sonic tapestry against which the singers created their magic, transforming into reality the near-perfect unity of story, song, stagecraft, and symphonic poem that the composer originally envisioned.
WHO: The Washington National Opera
WHAT: Richard Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House
WHEN: March 30, April 5, and April 14 at 7:30 p.m., April 2 at 2 p.m., April 8 and 10 at 7 p.m.
TICKETS: $45 to $290
INFORMATION: 202/295-2400 or visit www.dc-opera.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS