Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Washington National Opera opened its triumphant new production of Richard Wagner’s “Die Walkure” Saturday at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House.

This production, the second installation of the company’s “American Ring Cycle,” reunites the primary cast members from WNO’s near-legendary “Walkure” performances at DAR Constitution Hall in 2003.

In “Walkure,” star-crossed mortal lovers, Siegmund and Sieglinde — twins sired by Wotan, king of the gods — are pursued by Sieglinde’s thuggish husband, Hunding, and his clan. The pair also has incurred the wrath of Fricke, Wotan’s spouse, who manipulates Wotan into destroying them. But Brunnhilde, Wotan’s favorite Valkyrie, attempts to alter fate’s course.

Based on Norse legends, Wagner’s Ring is a deeply complex musical and dramatic epic charting the rise and fall of an ancient world order set in motion by willfulness, greed and treachery and redeemed by individualism, heroism and love. Only a comparative handful of vocalists have the necessary stamina and power to project each role.

By all measures, WNO’s production is a world-class, Met-beating “Walkure.” Each soloist — from the smaller parts of Hunding and Fricka (bass Gidon Saks and mezzo Elena Zaremba), to the major characters of Siegmund, Sieglinde, Wotan, and Brunnhilde — possesses the range, nuance and sheer lung power that are an absolute necessity for successfully navigating Wagner’s dense musical thicket. And the company’s youthful Valkyries (Claudia Huckle, Jane Ohmes, Beverly O’Regan Thiele, Caroline Thomas, Rebecca Ringle, Stacey Rishoi, Heidi Vanderford and Magdalena Wor) are simply the best ever.

As Siegmund, star tenor and WNO general director Placido Domingo soars, and is clearly at the peak of his impossibly long and successful career. His characterization of Siegmund as a confused, primal hero is deeply affecting, and his now-classic voice carries effortlessly above the work’s considerable orchestral forces.

He could not have found a better Sieglinde than soprano Anja Kampe, previously a near-unknown, whose electrifying performance of this role in 2003 briefly made Constitution Hall the unexpected center of the opera world. If anything, Miss Kampe was even better on Saturday, traversing Wagner’s intensely emotional gantlet with her uniquely gifted instrument, one that retains its sweetness and luminosity even at its greatest volume, defying the least hint of strain. She and Mr. Domingo are the definitive Sieglinde and Siegmund of this century’s first decade.

Likewise, similar plaudits are in store for the other “odd couple” in this work, Wotan, the fast-weakening king of the gods, and Brunnhilde, his illicit child. Reprising their 2003 roles, bass-baritone Alan Held and soprano Linda Watson imbue each with a humanity and pathos that often is lacking. Each displays brilliant vocal gifts enabling them to blend as one with Wagner’s sweeping score, superbly conducted by WNO’s music director, Heinz Fricke.

Deftly directed by Francesca Zambello, the company’s new “American Walkure,” debuting at these performances, seemed more coherent than its grab bag “Rheingold.” Michael Yeargan’s sets intersperse an Appalachian-style cabin with a post-industrial freeway interchange, concluding at a mountaintop military fortress that was the perfect setting for the famous “Flight of the Valkyries.” They dropped in, somewhat comically, by parachute, with an arch wink at “Apocalypse Now.”

The only sour notes in this near-perfect “Walkure” were sounded by a couple of nervous horns in the orchestra and by the company’s dramaturg, whose program essay on the “American Ring” inexplicably degenerated into a PowerPoint litany of tiresome post-socialist talking points.

WHO: The Washington National Opera

WHAT: “Die Walkure,” by Richard Wagner

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN:Wednesday, April 5, 9, 14, and 17 at 6 p.m.; Sunday at 1:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $45 to $300.

INFORMATION: Call 202/295-2400 or visit


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