Classical music critic/The Classical Beat

People travel from all over the world to watch the 17-hour "Ring Cycle" performances. (Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle is among the most compelling, massive, monumental, off-putting and expensive works of art in the Western canon. It’s about 14 solid hours of music theater — more like 17 hours, if you calculate intermissions into the time it takes you to watch all four operas. The Washington National Opera production that opens this weekend has a price tag of some $10 million, about 10 times what the company pays to stage a regular opera — in fact, it almost sent the company into bankruptcy and had to be suspended in 2010 for lack of funds. And yet people willingly pay thousands of dollars and travel around the world to see it.

The “Ring” is the antecedent of our blockbuster movie franchises, our TV miniseries, our concept albums. It’s the ultimate comic book come to life (indeed, there is a DC Comics version); it’s a destination performance to rival the Cirque du Soleil (Wagner built a special theater, in Bayreuth, where people still flock to see it). When it was conceived, it was beyond anything anyone had attempted on the stage — Wagner’s goal was a Gesamtkunstwerk, a feat of complete art, the ultimate fusion of music, text and visual effects in a multi-media spectacle. The stagecraft alone is staggering: underwater nymphs and fire-ringed mountains, Valkyries on flying horses and a dragon, and, ultimately, the end of the world. The huge orchestra includes instruments Wagner designed to fit his own needs, including the Wagner tuba and tuned anvils used to illustrate the Nibelung dwarves smithing their gold. Singing the main roles requires a vocal stamina and power virtually unequalled in the repertory. Rather than paving a way into the future, Wagner set a benchmark so high that posterity has been kept busy simply with meeting it — with, that is, simply getting the thing on stage.

And yet what intoxicates people about Wagner is not only the scale. It’s the subtlety. It’s the fact that this comic-book panoply of gods and heroes — Wotan, leader of the gods; Brünnhilde, his Valkyrie daughter; Siegfried, the hero he engenders to save the world, only to have his plan go awry — remain so eminently human. It’s the way that their emotions are expressed at such length but also in such detail. Counterbalancing the long scenes are the signature leitmotifs, like musical tweets summing up the major characters and themes, often giving the music the narrative flavor of a film score. And the music is filled with nuance, subtlety, human emotion in sound.


“The Ring” by Victo Ngai for The Washington Post (Victo Ngai/For The Washington Post)

“Wagner really wanted a talking orchestra,” says Philippe Auguin, WNO’s music director. “He wanted the orchestra to be like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, anticipating, showing, commenting what happens.”

In D.C., Auguin will be conducting the “Ring” for the 13th or 14th time — he has lost count.

“It is not an opera as such,” he adds. “[Wagner] wants to create something else. So you have to [approach] the piece in a different way than other pieces that you know.”

The ‘American’ Ring?

Francesca Zambello has been wrestling with the “Ring” in Washington for 14 years. When she directed Wagner’s “Die Walküre” at DAR Constitution Hall for the WNO in 2003, she had no idea what she was getting into. That production — which has nothing to do with the current “Ring” — was a resounding success; Tim Page, in The Washington Post, called it “the best thing this company has ever done.” In his remarks at the post-premiere reception, in a mood of conviviality, Plácido Domingo, then WNO’s general director, announced that he wanted Zambello to direct Wagner’s entire Ring cycle — not only “Die Walküre,” but also three other operas.

The announcement, Zambello says, caught her by surprise. But the “Ring” is an offer a director can’t refuse — so she accepted and started over with a different approach. In 2006, she began the cycle proper with the first opera, “Das Rheingold.” And in a cycle that was announced as the “American Ring,” the action moved from Wagner’s world of Norse mythology and medieval epic to an American setting involving capitalists and slaves, in which the action began with gold not in the river Rhine, but being panned in California.

The “American Ring” was set to roll out one opera at a time over several seasons. But as the first decade of the new millennium progressed, the WNO was increasingly struggling. Lack of funds forced it first to postpone its plans, then suspend them altogether. Instead, Zambello’s “American Ring” had its premiere as a cycle in San Francisco, its co-producer, in 2011. “One of the best ‘Ring’ cycles in more than a quarter of a century,” said Philip Kennicott in The Post.


The Act 1 finale from “The Valkyrie,” the second opera in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. Performed in San Francisco in 2011. (Cory Weaver for SFO)

Alan Held as Wotan and Catherine Foster as Brunnhilde in “The Valkyrie” from the Washington National Opera’s production of Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle. (Scott Suchman/WNO)

Now, years later than expected, Zambello’s “Ring” is arriving at the WNO in a completely overhauled, tweaked, brand-new version. It’s not quite the “American Ring” she originally envisioned. The visual vocabulary of the work draws heavily on American movies — “Citizen Kane” and Deliverance” among them. But the iconography of slavery and Native Americans was, she said, “too pat.” “It’s been softened,” she says. And reworked: “Rhinegold,” especially, has changed considerably from its 2006 beginnings. “The first time we did it,” she says, “we didn’t have it all figured out.”

And while San Francisco was the first to get Zambello’s whole cycle, this Washington iteration may be the definitive one. “It was conceived for here,” she says. “The notion of power drove it. It’s not like Valhalla was the White House or that Götterdämmerung was 9/11, but you want to suggest those things. You want the audience to think about it.”

It will also be the first time the director sees all four of the operas in her production in performance as a cycle. When Zambello brought the “Ring” to San Francisco, she had just been named head of the Glimmerglass festival in Cooperstown, N.Y. — and she had to leave to go run that festival before she could actually see the performances. Now, at the WNO, as artistic director — a post she never foresaw when her “Ring” journey began — she’ll be watching the cycle three times in a row.

“When you direct the ‘Ring,’ ” she says, “you don’t realize how hard it is. Nobody does. The time it takes.”

“You think you know the ‘Ring,’ and you don’t know the ‘Ring,’” she adds. “You just keep going back to those [operas]. I don’t ever tire of them, because our life experiences are so different.”

Flawed heroes

Even those who don’t know the “Ring” well know it has a dark side. Wagner remains forever tarred with the brush of his most unpleasant views (which were profoundly unpleasant, including his open anti-Semitism) and associated with what transpired in Germany after his time but, some said, in his spirit and most certainly to the strains of his music. (Hitler was a regular visitor to Bayreuth and a family friend of the Wagner descendants.)

And that ambivalence is in fact the very theme of the “Ring” — from the moment that Wotan, king of the gods and thus supposedly on the side of right, breaks his treaty with the giants who build his castle, and then steals the gold, and the Ring, with which he pays them off. At the heart of the “Ring” is the abuse of power in the hands of both gods and mortals. Everyone is flawed, even the gods; everyone is human, even the villains. As Zambello points out, the only real hero in the piece is Brünnhilde, and Wotan, in his search for a perfect hero, overlooks the fact that he has one sitting right in front of him — because she is a woman. Perhaps in spite of himself, Wagner wrote what can be construed as the ultimate feminist opera, which ends with women redeeming the world that men were supposed to save. That, at least, is Zambello’s point of view; but it works well with the story.

But even feminism isn’t black-and-white. Zambello was so caught up in this interpretation that in the San Francisco staging, Siegfried, the character, was downright silly.

“I thought, ‘Okay, I’m not going to hate Siegfried this time,’ ” she says now, of the definitive, D.C. version. “I feel I’ve shifted a little on the character, and tried to give him some sense of forgiveness, of retribution or acceptance, so that you can understand why she loved him.”

WNO will offer the whole “Ring” cycle three times — “The Rhinegold,” “The Valkyrie,” “Siegfried” and “Twilight of the Gods” — from April 30 to May 22.

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Want to see ‘The Ring’ in D.C.’s first-ever full cycle? Expect to pony up.