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A historic ‘Ring’ at a historic moment: Two critics’ thoughts

The Norns (Marcy Stonikas, Lindsay Ammann and Jamie Barton) spin the thread of Fate in Francesca Zambello’s “The Twilight of the Gods,” the final opera in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle at the Washington National Opera, which ended Sunday night. (photo: Scott Suchman/WNO).

Anne Midgette: And finally, sadly, Washington National Opera’s “Ring” — the “Ring” that was more than ten years in the making, almost bankrupted the company, and ended up involving several hundred people, including three Brünnhildes who could claim to be the best singing the role today — has come to an end with the “Twilight of the Gods” on Wagner’s birthday, Sunday night, leaving many people with an acute case of “Ring” withdrawal in the weeks ahead.

It’s been an intense run, which we’ve covered in considerable depth. After Nina Stemme arrived in “The Valkyrie” on Wednesday, I wrote about the difference each of the three Brünnhildes — Christine Goerke in the first “Valkyrie,” and Catherine Foster in the rest of the first two cycles — made in the role, creating what became in effect a different story, with Stemme as the most physically vulnerable of the three. She sang gloriously on Sunday, though I found her dramatically somewhat distant, without Foster’s regal quality, and with a naturalness that was refreshing on the one hand but left her feeling a little undefined as a character. In any case, I found that each performance — I saw all of Cycle I, and two operas in Cycle III — was something of a personal journey, consistently involving and consistently powerful, whatever the ups and downs on a given night.

Philip Kennicott: I felt withdrawal pangs, too, after Sunday’s deeply moving conclusion to the cycle, as powerful a dramatic experience as I’ve had in Washington for a very long time. I think this iteration of Francesca Zambello’s “Ring” was even stronger and more cohesive than the version presented in San Francisco five years ago. The cast was stronger, with a winsome Siegfried sung by Daniel Brenna, an exciting debut by mezzo-soprano (and 2015 Tucker Award winner) Jamie Barton as the Second Norn and Waltraute, and a wonderfully menacing and vocally resplendent Hagen sung by Eric Halfvarson. Stemme, who sang the San Francisco Brünnhildes in 2011, has grown too, both vocally and dramatically. She made thrilling sounds on Sunday and though I still find her lower range underwhelming, it too was stronger, and the deficit little apparent given conductor Philippe Auguin’s sympathetic control over all aspects of the orchestra. Auguin, as you said in your review of the first “Twilight of the Gods,” is the hero of this affair, and it was very satisfying to see him, and the orchestra, rewarded with enthusiastic applause before every act, and lustily after the last curtain.

[“Twilight of the Gods” confirms the triumph of WNO’s “Ring”]

ALM: Our debate is again hampered by our failure to disagree. Over the “Ring’s” run, I’ve heard from people who weren’t as taken as we were with Zambello’s production — who feel, basically, that Wagner shouldn’t be updated. Robert Reilly, writing on, opined that you shouldn’t “demythologize the mythological.” I would argue that is exactly what Wagner himself does — the entire “Ring” cycle is filled with flawed and human gods, toppled from their pedestals and messing up the world. It’s notable that two of the scenes Reilly found the strongest in the production were the ones I found the weakest: the opening scene of “Rhinegold” (in which the Rheinmaidens and Alberich flailed unconvincingly on a nearly empty stage) and the first act of “The Valkryie;” my feeling was that Zambello didn’t really know what to do with the end of that act, and left Siegmund and Sieglinde somewhat adrift as a result.

[Two critics trade thoughts on Wagner’s “Ring” in D.C.]

My bottom line for any production, updated or not, is the quality of its storytelling, and this is where Zambello excelled. When a production creates characters that move you, and gets you to re-engage with the work in new ways, it is succeeding. Zambello delved into the texts and brought out little details that stayed with you (the bruises left on Sieglinde’s arms in “The Valkyrie;” Wotan hugging the stuffed wolf, Siegfried’s childhood toy, in “Siegfried”), as well as powerful character portrayals — and also allowed the singers room to grow. Brenna’s death scene on Sunday had evolved markedly from the Cycle 1 “Twilight of the Gods” on May 6 — both in the singing and in the acting.

All of this was backed up by Auguin’s expressive conducting, though I found it a little muted on Sunday. His restraint and his eye to detail sometimes add up to a slightly passive picture, which I heard most in the opening “Rheingold” and in the final “Twilight.” I still concur that his was an impressive achievement.

PK: I heard a boo or two after the final act yesterday, so clearly there are people who disagree with us, and strongly. But that’s also the mark of a powerful interpretation. A work as large, and sprawling, and internally inconsistent as Wagner’s “Ring” will never yield an interpretation that satisfies everyone. The director has to find the strands that work, emphasize them, and weave them together as best as possible. Zambello does that, as satisfyingly as any director I’ve encountered in this work before. And I’m not quite sure what “demythologizing” even means, unless it means something as trivial as de-emphasizing the Gods and their supernatural powers. This is a hybrid work, woven of too many sources to live happily in either the “real” or the “mythological” world. Accepting that hybridity is the price of admission, if you want to get anything at all out of Wagner.

[Put a lid on the operatic Viking helmet cliche.]

I should add yet one more reason why I think this “Ring” hit with such power, and that is the historical moment we’re in. The creation of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle spanned one of the most politically and philosophically tumultuous periods of European history, from the revolutionary year of 1848 through almost three decades and the creation of the German state under Otto von Bismarck. During that period Wagner had philosophical encounters with Feuerbach (which deepened the role the gods play, and the drama of their downfall) and Schopenhauer (which injected an almost Buddhist sense of self-abnegation into some parts of the drama), and many critics have emphasized the growth of pessimism and renunciation in the evolving texts of the four operas. I was particularly sensitive to some of the darker political themes in the tetralogy: the idea of an old order falling to pieces, the inherent corruption of that order from beginning to end, the painful price of “stability,” and the powerful lure of outsiders who promise to shatter the old covenants and remake the world.

To see these things played out in the nation’s capital, at a moment of profound unease about the viability of large democratic processes, was unnerving. And yet I was also newly aware of how art transcends politics through an empathy that is deeper and more redemptive than anything politicians can generate. So many of the magical moments of this “Ring” are moments of sympathy between characters who otherwise have every reason to hate each other. In this production, Brünnhilde is reconciled with her rival Gutrune in an encounter of mutual forgiveness, an act of selflessness that is anathema to the very idea of political striving. Things that we have banished from public life — especially self-doubt and uncertainty — are dramatized with amazing sensitivity in this “Ring.” As Siegfried is about to betray Brünnhilde, he is shaken by something, some memory of his better self; he masters it, but we are left with a sense of decency even in the character most likely to inspire comparison to reckless, bullying, populist demagogues.

It was enough, almost, to make one believe that if the world falls apart, we can retreat into art. That’s an illusion, of course, because when the world falls apart, no one has time, or money, or even the appetite, to make art on this scale.

ALM: Illusion indeed. When I interviewed Philippe Auguin about the “Ring,” he talked about this increasing pessimism — meaning that Wagner himself lost his faith that art will triumph, and reconceiving his original vision for a happy ending. At the end of the “Ring,” the God-creators are silenced (Wotan is so often interpreted, in productions, as an alter ego of Wagner), and we’re left with a brave new world. It’s certainly a timely allegory, even if Zambello didn’t need quite so many allusions, like the somewhat heavy-handed Abu Ghraib visual quote as Hagen was executed, to make the point.

[A conductor’s view of Wagner’s “Ring.”]

There’s another way in which both this work and this production demonstrated anew their relevance (that hideous buzzword of justification that institutions have to invoke these days when presenting great works of art from the past). The “Ring’s” primary focus is story-telling. There are very few moments in this tetralogy when a character stops and indulges in the standard operatic trope of expressing how he or she is feeling. Rather, they’re always telling each other their own stories, endlessly rehashing different versions of the plot, just as the orchestra keeps putting out and transforming and developing leitmotifs that indicate what’s happening in another way: text and music both undergoing comparable processes of development. There’s a lot of talk these days about the importance of story-telling: it’s supposed to be what we do as journalists, and what the institutions we cover do in presenting themselves to the world. And a work that is at some level about sifting through and finding the right story — the way that we humans tend to hone our own personal narratives — has a lot to say to today’s audience.

PK: I like that idea a lot. Wagner’s recapitulations can be maddening if they’re not staged well and even when they are, you always wonder, why? Why so many reiterations of what we’ve just heard? But the “Ring” is a story that the characters of the “Ring” tell about themselves. Our political life is similar in some ways, a collective story we tell about ourselves that then takes on a life of its own, reified into something tangible in the world.

We live in serious times, and this “Ring” felt like serious work. And so these last three weeks should be a case study for the Washington National Opera, and the Kennedy Center. It’s hard to make the Kennedy Center festive and to generate a sense of community around an event. The WNO helped spark some of the excitement by enlivening the cavernous main atrium of the Kennedy Center with alphorn players before the events, and on Sunday the two singers who did such a fine job as the Giants in “The Rhinegold” (Julian Close and Soloman Howard) were in costume and joining in a few hundred selfies with admiring fans. But the real draw was the art, serious, substantial and well-presented, with a world-class cast and a production that has grown and deepened over more than a decade. It’s hard not to be a bit disappointed by next season, with little on the schedule likely to have the gravitas and depth of what we’ve seen since April 30. The Ring cycle is always exceptional, of course, but it’s heartening to see the size and enthusiasm of crowds that made the commitment to this cycle. And they need artistic regular nourishment, too.