'American Ring' Loses Citizenship Claim

The Associated Press
Sunday, March 25, 2007; 3:26 PM

WASHINGTON -- Midway through the Washington National Opera's "Ring" cycle, it appears the company has run short of two items: money to complete the project, and ideas that would fulfill the promise of turning Wagner's four-part epic into a uniquely "American Ring."

Not that the production of "Die Walkuere" that opened at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night is lacking in ideas. Director Francesca Zambello and her team are brimming with them, some eye-popping (the warrior maiden Valkyries as paratroopers jumping from planes), some questionable (Sieglinde nearly being gang-raped by her husband's henchmen.)

With last year's opening installment of "Das Rheingold," Zambello set out to present this tale of greed, ambition and love using elements of American history and culture. Alberich the dwarf became a gold-panning '49er, his Nibelungen minions were whipped like slaves, the Earth goddess Erda turned into a Native American seer. But the "Walkuere" sets, costumes and symbols could just as well have come from any modern European staging. And in one case they almost seemed to: The second scene of Act II set underneath an elevated freeway looked like an echo of last year's Bayreuth production.

Musically and dramatically, though, it hardly mattered. This was as stirring a performance as you're likely to encounter anywhere, thanks to a strong cast that included the company's leader, Placido Domingo, and to the vivid emotional connections Zambello established among the characters.

Domingo, as the troubled warrior Siegmund, had a few troubles of his own in Act I. His dark-hued tenor sounded effortful at times and he frequently lost the beat established by conductor Heinz Fricke. By Act II, all was well, and he was deeply moving in the scene in which Bruennhilde, the chief Valkyrie, appears to tell him he is fated to die in battle. Domingo is 66, and opportunities to hear this amazing artist in one of his signature roles are fast diminishing.

As Sieglinde, Siegmund's twin sister and _ this being Wagner _ his lover as well, soprano Anja Kampe sang with prodigious grace and power, her voice maintaining warmth and clarity even on high notes sung over heavy orchestration. Her rhapsodic outburst when she learns she is to bear Siegmund's child, "O hehrstes Wunder!" was a highlight of the evening, and Fricke's deliberate tempo here was welcome as it allowed her to prolong the phrases.

Bass-baritone Alan Held brought admirable vocal stamina as well as keen dramatic instincts to the role of Wotan, king of the gods. As first glimpsed in Act II as a CEO in his high-rise office, Wotan appears to retain the cockiness he displayed in "Rheingold," but that soon gives way to reveal a tormented figure whose empire is crumbling. Here, Zambello's direction is at its sharpest, filled with nice details such as Wotan's wife Fricka, batting the newspaper right out of his hands as he sits reading and trying to ignore her, or contemptuously smashing the portrait he keeps on his desk of his favored son, Siegmund.

Wotan's long monologue recounting to Bruennhilde all the plot developments up to that point can often seem tedious, but Held brought it to life, a poignant figure in a business suit pacing his office.

The two women in his life, mezzo Elena Zaremba as Fricka and soprano Linda Watson as Bruennhilde, were both unfortunately afflicted with vocal wobbles that undercut their effectiveness. Watson did manage to bring hers mostly under control in time for an affecting farewell scene with Wotan in Act III.

The "Ring" project, which is being shared with the San Francisco Opera, has run into a financial hitch. Domingo recently announced that because of difficulties raising money the next installment, "Siegfried," is being put off a year, until the 2008-09 season, with "Goetterdaemmerung" to complete the cycle a year later. So we'll have to wait a while to see whether the production reclaims its American focus in the second half.

Meanwhile, there are six more performances of "Walkuere" through April 17.


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