Anne Midgette: The news last night was Christine Goerke. At 9:30 Monday morning, the Washington National Opera announced that America’s reigning Wagner soprano would be making a last-minute substitution for Catherine Foster, who had injured her leg during the dress rehearsal a week before, in that night’s premiere of “Die Walküre,” the second opera in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. Goerke, who had just sung “Siegfried” in Houston on Sunday, arrived, slipped into costume and delivered some of the best Wagner singing I can recall, making a regal, gleaming Brünnhilde as the centerpiece to a memorable night.
The other news was Philippe Auguin, WNO’s music director, who led one of the most nuanced and sensitive and powerful Wagner performances I’ve ever heard. Under him, the Kennedy Center Opera Orchestra played with chamber-music delicacy, brought out themes I’d never noticed, and made it impossible for anyone’s attention to stray for the whole five hours.
Today’s review offers two critical viewpoints, mine and Philip Kennicott’s, but the concept may fall a bit flat since it’s hard to imagine anyone who loves Wagner waxing anything less than enthusiastic after the triumph of last night’s performance.
Philip Kennicott: I’m eager to hear Catherine Foster, and I hope she’s back in fighting trim for Wednesday’s “Siegfried.” But no one ever complained when they hear Christine Goerke is showing up, and she was magnificent on Monday. Knowing the backstory, I half expected to see some signs of tentativeness as she tried to fit herself into the complexity of this staging. But she bounded on with youthful vigor and infectious bravado, delivered a spine-tingling “Hojotoho!” and the performance built from there, through to the extraordinarily touching farewell to her old life, her father, and her immortal perks as a Wagnerian One Percenter. Getting Goerke as a last minute replacement is like getting bumped up to Business Class on a transatlantic flight. Actually, better.
I think one sign of a good “Ring” is an experience of gathering force, a cumulative performance that “grows” on you. I was initially ambivalent about Auguin’s conducting, in “Rheingold,” in part because I missed the grandeur in certain spots. “Rheingold” is also the hardest of the four installments to love, with its family squabbles, extensive exposition and the odd, hybrid world Wagner creates, not always comfortably balanced between the mythic and the recognizably human. But Auguin’s approach, in which the orchestra is often quite reserved, makes more and more sense. I’m hearing things I haven’t heard before, including many solo instrumental lines woven into the vocal exchanges. It’s subtle, and often seemingly reduced in texture; and the larger boon is that the orchestra always has something in reserve when it needs it. One small example came Monday night when tenor Christopher Ventris sang the magnificent love music of “Winterstürme.” This often sung in a leather-lunged lusty fortissimo; but Auguin followed the score, and the orchestra responded with delicacy. It wasn’t necessarily as vocally thrilling as some performances, but the larger effect is to hold back the emotions so that the finale of the act has even greater force.
ALM: If there was a weak link in last night’s “Walküre,” it was the casting of Ventris and Meagan Miller, both a little vocally light for the roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde, but Ventris, especially, so rose to the challenge with his acting (and had very good German to boot), that I felt they overcame it. I thought everybody else was outstanding (and how often do you get to say that about any opera?). That was as fine a group of Valkyries as you can hope to hear. Elizabeth Bishop was strong and dignified and nuanced as Fricka; Raymond Aceto was a powerful Hunding, and Alan Held broke my heart as Wotan in Act III. As for Goerke, I can only concur with you; I’ve never heard it sung better, and she seemed so at home in the staging that she made the stage business her own and got a big laugh from the audience within two minutes of her first entrance.
I was also struck anew by how well the production works. In 2011, when we both saw this cycle in San Francisco, I was less enthusiastic than you were, though many of my reservations concerned the performances rather than the production. However, after “Das Rheingold” on Monday, which was so consistently insightful about the individual characters, I was brought back to my original observation, not necessarily a criticism, that this is not a concept “Ring,” but a narrative one. And “Walküre” reinforced my additional claim that this is in fact a woman’s “Ring.” The staging of Wotan’s monologue, in which he voices his intense frustration that he can’t find a hero who is able to do things that the gods can’t, while Brünnhilde stands in front of him so obviously about to say, “But what about me? I’m right here!” seemed so right that it’s permanently colored my understanding of the opera. And then Brünnhilde goes off and does exactly what Wotan says he wants — making a decision of her own free will that he is not free to make — only to be cruelly punished for it. This is also a strongly feminist take.
It’s testimony to the artistic depth of these operas, by the way, that they stand up to this intense scrutiny and can support such detailed direction. Wotan’s Act II monologue is widely supposed to be very boring. But as sung by Held and enacted by Held and Goerke, with Auguin explaining everything musically in the pit, it was, quite simply, compelling theater.
PK: I agree that “this is not a concept ‘Ring,’ but a narrative one.” Most of the discourse about Wagner’s “Ring,” and many of the great productions over the last century, has been about concepts: Marxist and Jungian ideas, nationalism, race, even an “environmental” interpretation in a Seattle production a few years ago. The refreshing thing about Zambello’s take is that it focuses on story and details, especially psychological motivation. One thing I noticed on Saturday—that I didn’t in 2011—is the implied affection between Freia, the goddess dragged off as ransom by the giants, and Fasolt, one of her captors. This delicate tweak to Wagner’s libretto makes the debate between the giants—do they take the money, or take avatar of youth and beauty?—more meaningful. Consistently throughout “Rheingold,” I was drawn to characters who make little impact in other productions, including the Rheinmaidens, Fricka, Froh and Donner. I thought William Burden’s Loge was wonderfully oily, and surprisingly lyrical.
I grew up on the Otto Schenk production at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1990s, and while the stage business was always impressive, everything seemed to happen behind a scrim, about two miles away. The evocative Washington National Opera video projections sometimes require a scrim in this production too, but that’s mainly for scene transitions. And once it comes down, the characters feel more vital than anything I remember from the often turgid Schenk staging. Perhaps it took a century to discover, or rediscover, that Wagner had a story to tell, and that while the “Ring” has mythic status among opera goers, it is ultimately just an opera, or collection of operas. If you stage it as a philosophical treatise, you’re going to lose your audience.
ALM: I wonder about that. Some people look to opera for a kind of profundity that “Rheingold,” at least, doesn’t really have without its philosophy. A couple of my friends who had never seen “Rheingold” before, as well as a colleague who is new to the cycle, found the opera just plain silly. I think that’s mainly a response to the opera itself, with its gods and dwarves and giants, though I submit that Zambello’s opening scene, with its clouds of stage smoke swirling around but not quite covering the Rheinmaidens and Alberich as they made unconvincing, stylized gestures, was not a good beginning, and may have colored subsequent reactions. In any case, when I said to one friend that I found that the characterizations of the gods were unusually telling in this production, she thought I must be joking.
PK: You are friends with someone who has never seen the “Ring”? What an admirably wide social circle.
ALM: Oh, Philip, j’accuse – you are a generation too young to pretend that even a majority of your friends have actually seen the “Ring.” I think it’s a good wakeup call to remember that even in this eminently narrative staging, and even among a generation who came of age with “Star Wars,” images of gods running around the stage seem fundamentally silly. I am pretty sure that had a couple of these friends seen the Achim Freyer staging in Los Angeles, which I believe was one of the most-misunderstood “Ring” productions in the history of the work, they might not have found it so “silly” – I think Freyer got in touch with some of the archetypes that inform this work in a way that might resonate more with an artistically sophisticated audience without a lot of opera background.
PK: Perhaps there’s some small trace of irony in my implication that all my friends know the Ring. Of course not, though in an ideal world they would, and no one can accuse of me being a lax evangelist. We can’t invest this much time in a single work of art without wondering–and worrying–about how it gets transmitted and passed on to the next generation. On Saturday night, at the opening of “Rheingold,” I thought there was an exceptional buzz in the air at the Kennedy Center, and that pleased me, seemingly a sign that the “Ring,” and opera, are alive and well. But during the opera itself, I kept thinking: How can this survive in today’s fragmented and frenetic world of social media, perpetual communication, constant distraction? To love opera today is to be in a kind of low-grade mourning, even as you are enjoying its splendors. The root of this mourning isn’t just the fear that something wonderful may not survive, but that the social networks, the commonality of language, the particular connectedness that this art gives us won’t survive, either. It is strange to live so long with Wagner only to feel that just as you are becoming fluent in the expressive language he created, that language is in peril of extinction.
As for your friends’ reaction to “Rheingold,” I can’t dismiss their sense that there are silly bits to it. But I can offer this historical perspective: The “Ring” has always been in danger of self-deflation. Think of Nietzsche’s deep ambivalence about everything Wagner did. It is incredibly easy to parody the “Ring” because it is pitched on the precipice between literary ambition and turgid pomposity. And it does cross that line, from time to time (I loathe all the silly business with names, and naming, for example, passages in Act One of “Die Walküre” in which Siegmund tries on and rejects various epithets). The challenge is to approach the work with a calibrated tolerance for these things, neither dismissing them, nor allowing them to color the whole of one’s experience. Refining that balance between acceptance and critical detachment is essentially what critics struggle to do all the time. If you put “Wagner’s Ring Cycle” up on your Facebook feed, there’s no one “reaction” button that will ever be sufficient to record the depth of attraction and repulsion it inspires.
ALM: So true. The corollary, however, is that we were at “Die Walküre” with another first-timer, someone who had been particularly apprehensive about the opera’s length, and the performance was so great that she completely got it, and found it more moving than long. When something reaches that level of excitement and excellence, it can’t help but communicate — as you said earlier. Kudos for Zambello for daring to take Wagner as drama. Turns out, it works — if you take the time to tease out a valid interpretation, and have Philippe Auguin in the pit to back you up.