Not only has the Washington National Opera been presenting a world-class “Ring” production this month, but it’s featured no fewer than three excellent Brünnhildes, at a time when finding even one is a rarity. Catherine Foster was Brünnhilde for the first two cycles; Christine Goerke replaced her in one “Die Walküre” due to a leg injury; and now, for the third cycle, Nina Stemme has, as scheduled, stepped in, appearing in “Walküre” on Wednesday night.
Each singer brings something very different to the role. Goerke, in the first Walküre, was a complete package, at once engagingly girlish and tough and vulnerable, with a gleaming powerful voice from top to bottom. Foster was a cooler, more imposing presence, a warrior maiden indeed, with big easy top notes and a less distinct middle. Now comes Stemme, veritably petite next to the other two, glrlish and slight and seeming a bit daunted by the famous “Ho-jo-toho” high Cs at her first entrance in the second act, but pulling out a radiant warm humanity in the middle and upper middle of her voice in the heartbreaking Act III. You couldn’t really go wrong with any of them, but Stemme’s singing in Act III was memorable enough to make it exciting to hear how she will do in “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung” on Friday and Sunday.
For the rest, the performance was pretty much as it was on the first night, which is to say, wonderful and moving, with extraordinary conducting from Philippe Auguin and playing from the Kennedy Center Opera Orchestra carrying the whole thing along. It’s a mark of solid preparation when an opera sustains its level from one evening to another. My impressions were consistent with those on the first night, though intensified. Christopher Ventris sounded fatigued as Siegmund; Meagan Miller, as Sieglinde, still showed a wide vibrato that kept carrying her in between the notes, and Elizabeth Bishop almost stole the show with her tremendous and moving singing as Fricka. Bishop is one singer who has accompanied this production from the beginning, and it must be bittersweet to be letting it go.
The same is true of Alan Held, whose Wotan is a complete performance: a fusion of singing and acting into a whole, rounded character portrayal that stays lodged in the mind and heart. Held has been an artist-in-residence for the Domingo-Cafritz program this season, and will be artist-in-residence at Wolf Trap this summer (he is in fact one of 13 Wolf Trap alumni taking part in WNO’s “Ring,” testimony to the track record of the Wolf Trap training program), but if he has more Wotans in his future, they have yet to appear on his otherwise active performance calendar. He certainly sang the Farewell with particular poignancy, in a scene that Stemme put her own stamp on: small and submissive, rather than staggering briefly like Goerke, as her divinity was stripped away. Leb’ wohl, indeed, though we can always hope that this production, so long in the making and so successful in the realization, will return.
The “Ring” concludes with “Siegfried” on Friday and “Twilight of the Gods” on Sunday.