Washington Opera To Give Wagner's 'Ring' a New, American Setting

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 3, 2006

One test of a masterpiece is its ability to withstand many different interpretations. Who would have imagined that the maverick director Peter Sellars could have set Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" in a lavish apartment in Trump Tower and still have the opera seem absolutely true to its 18th-century origins? Director Jonathan Miller placed the action of Verdi's "Rigoletto" in New York's Little Italy, and Frank Corsaro had the same composer's Violetta ("La Traviata") expire in an AIDS ward.

And now Washington National Opera will present Richard Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" -- an encyclopedic study of the Norse gods, family politics, greed and the redemptive power of love -- as what the director Francesca Zambello calls an "American Ring."

The first of the four works in the "Ring" cycle -- an evening-length operatic prelude titled "Das Rheingold" -- will receive its first performance on March 25. "Die Walkure" (starring WNO General Director Placido Domingo) will follow in March and April 2007. No dates have yet been set for the last two operas, "Siegfried" and "Gotterdammerung."

Although this "Ring" will be a co-production with the San Francisco Opera, each installment will receive its premiere in Washington. When complete, this will be WNO's first "Ring" cycle. The last time the entire 15-hour work was performed here was during a visit by the Deutsche Oper Berlin to the Kennedy Center in June 1989.

"Like any Wagnerian masterpiece, the 'Ring' is always contemporary and speaks to us today," Zambello said in a statement. "We have coined the term 'American Ring,' and the designers and I are using American history, mythology, iconography and landscape to set the operas. We are creating a world in some ways familiar to our audience but also one that will feel very mythic as we look to our country's rich imagery. The great themes of the 'Ring' -- nature, power and corruption -- resound through America's past. In many respects, the politicians and celebrities that are today's superstars perform as if they were the gods of Valhalla. It is especially fitting to undertake an American 'Ring' in Washington, D.C., where the concept of global power is a feature of daily life."

Zambello staged "Die Walkure" for WNO at DAR Constitution Hall in 2003, but the new, unified production of the complete "Ring" will be nothing like that.

"From the very beginning of Washington National Opera's discussions about the 'Ring,' I wanted it to have an American atmosphere," Domingo said in a statement. "I felt that this is not only an original, but also a proper concept for a 'Ring' in the capital of the United States, and Francesca Zambello, the director, was very receptive to that. Francesca's productions are always beautifully balanced between the intimacy of the characters and the sweep of the epic, and I think that she will use the symbols of America brilliantly."

According to Zambello, the costumes "encompass worlds that are both abstract and realistic." For example, Erda, the Earth Goddess, will be clad in Native American attire. Further details will be forthcoming.

The cast will include Robert Hale as Wotan, Elizabeth Bishop as Fricka, Gordon Hawkins as Alberich and Robin Leggate as Loge. WNO Music Director Heinz Fricke will conduct. The production will include sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Anita Yavich and video projections by Jan Hartley. Mark McCullough will be the lighting designer.

"I wanted an American production team," Zambello said. "Many of our artists are American as well, and I felt they could bring a collective experience and personal histories to the piece."

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