Review: Zambello’s Dazzling American Ring ”Walküre” at Kennedy Center – Washington National Opera, March 28, 2007

Washington National Opera’s second installment of its new production of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (co-produced with the San Francisco Opera) debuted at the Kennedy Center in late March. I attended its second performance.

Circumstances had prevented me from attending the WNO production of its prequel opera “Das Rheingold” in 2006, where the Rhinemaidens are reported to be Girls of the Golden West and Alberich a miner, the gods live in a Great Gatsbyish 1920s social set, the giants are construction workers, and Erda is an American Indian (although I hold tickets to see that production at the San Francisco Opera in Summer, 2008.)

The two sequel operas to “Die Walküre” are now a year behind in the production schedule, but the third opera, “Siegfried”, is definitely on at Kennedy Center for Spring, 2009. I decided not to immerse myself in information on the prequel to avoid any preconceived opinions on the not-yet-seen-by-me “Rheingold”, but to judge the “Walküre” on its own merits.

Set designer Michael Yeargan conceived (or, at least, realized the concepts of director Francesca Zambello’s production team) four distinct sets for the three acts. Act One was centered in a small rural house – a hunter’s cabin in a forest setting. The second act began in penthouse offices located in a skyscraper towering above a Coastal metropolis. The act’s second scene took place in the trashed area below an urban concrete roadway. The third act were the industrial staircases and metal platform that surrounded a concrete slab that would serve as Brünnhilde’s rock.

My descriptions of these four scenes (and hints at what went before) might leave one with the impression that the American Ring is a vivid series of snapshots of disparate but All-American iconic elements that the conceptualizers use to advance their points of view. This might worry those patrons that have battle scars from attending the misguided products of certain contemporary operatic concept designers.

In fact, the creative team has stated that this Ring captures the spirit of their political views – that include concern with environmental degradation and capitalist exploitation and other such thoughts. However, the conceptualizers also clearly love Wagner’s story and present it straight. The unexpected trappings that derive from Zambello’s vision never really interfere with Wagner’s. Therefore, whatever was intended in the costuming and stage images, it is the power of that story that transcends all.

Zambello, like the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, is the kind of stage director who likes to ponder every word and emotion displayed in the libretto, and to teach her six principal singers to act (and they did so brilliantly) in ways that illuminate the story.

If you take a pessimistic view of any significant human activity (and this is Washington, where everyone is both for something and against something else), you are likely to discover elements in “The Ring” that might be employed at least allegorically to support your positions.

Therefore, the audience was likely comprised of persons from all parts of the political spectrum, since the Kennedy Center is only a few miles from the U. S. Capitol. Yet most of the opera’s patrons, I suspect, do not see the opera house as a place for political instruction anyway, so all can sit side-by-side and enjoy a stunning show. And stunning show it is. If Randy Jackson were judging Zambello’s “American Ring” instead of Fox-TV’s “American Idol” he might say, “Check it out, dogs! This one is hot!”

As Conductor Heinz Fricke, music director of the Washington National Opera and resident Wagnerian expert, led the opera orchestra in the storm music that begins “Walküre”, a dark blue sea surge is projected onto the front scrim. The waves of the surge turn first into a whirlpool, then more abstract shapes, until we are propelled into the image of a redwood forest.

A fire is seen burning at center stage. As the scrim is raised, we see that the fire burns in a hearth outside of and adjacent to a modest house, with three wooden steps leading to a back screen door. The house reminds me of the kinds of structures one sees in a 1920s Buster Keaton film, placed here in a bucolic setting with conifer woodlands appearing in the background.

[Below: Placido Domingo as Siegmund; edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

Placido Domingo, the Siegmund, is in hunter’s attire, with a leather jacket and knee boots. The Sieglinde, German soprano Anje Kampe, appears barefoot in a simple dress with apron that we might associate with a poor-white girl in an impoverished Appalachian town.

Kampe’s stage movements remind one of a film actress who has studied the mannerisms of young wives in the rural American South. When Kampe’s Sieglinde brings Domingo’s Siegmund the thirst-quelling drink he has requested, she blushes with embarrassment when Domingo asks her to taste the drink also.

When she moves, she darts about quickly, taking small steps, but chasing ahead of Domingo to block his path when he indicates that he will not stay to await her husband’s return. When she persuades him to remain there, they go up the stairs through the screen door into the house. At that point the the backside of the house that the audience first saw disappears, so that we can see that the inside of the house is decorated as a hunter’s retreat.

In the middle of the house a tree is growing. Hunding is into taxidermy, with mounted specimens of owl and partridge, and the walls of the house are blazoned with mounted deer heads. Even the wall hanging is a picture of a buck with a full head of antlers. A more domestic decorative touch is a china cabinet with Hunding’s and Sieglinde’s hoard of plates, cups and glasses arranged in neat rows.

[Below: the interior of Hunding’s abode; edited image, based on a copyrighted Karin Cooper photograph for the Washington National Opera.]

Hunding (Gidon Saks) arrives with nine mates, all in hunting gear and watch caps. He shows off to his buddies by kissing Sieglinde roughly on the lips. Understandably suspicious of Siegmund, he frisks him and laughs, while Sieglinde feeds the other hunters from a stew pot. Sieglinde then serves tall bottles of beer to both Hunding and Siegmund.

[Below left: Sieglinde (Anja Kampe) is reunited with her brother Siegmund (Placido Domingo); edited image, based on Karin Cooper photograph, courtesy of Washington National Opera.]

Siegmund narrates his activities of the past hours and days, while Sieglinde sits next fo Hunding on the steps, snuggling up to him and feeding him his dinner from his plate. But her interest in Siegmund’s story overcomes her and she falls to the floor. Hunding deliberately drops his plate, and Sieglinde rushes over to pick up the broken pieces.

Now convinced that Siegmund is an enemy to be destroyed the next day, before which rules of etiquette bind him to a temporary display of backwoods hospitality, Hunding kicks open a trunk and pulls out a sleeping bag for Siegmund.

In a concession to the “Walküre” story line that perhaps caused some heated discussion among the creative team implementing the American Ring concept, Hunding plays with a U. S. Cavalry sword and challenges Siegmund to find a similar weapon for a duel to the death the next morning.

Obviously, a Civil War sword makes it easier to maintain the link with Wagner’s libretto, even if the American Ring concept cries out for revolvers at a Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, or South Boston cops and gangster weapons, a la Scorsese’s film “The Departed”, or something else beyond a rather un-American fatal duel with swords.

The highlight of most “Walküre” first acts is Siegmund’s Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond, where Wagner intends for some transformation of Hunding’s house to take place. In this production, its back wall splits and joins the side walls, so as to reveal an enormous white moon rising in a blood-red sky.

[Below: Siegmund (Placido Domingo) a moment after Hunding’s house disappears: edited image, based on a copyrighted Karin Cooper photograph for Washington National Opera.]

Unlike all other productions I have seen, Wotan planted Siegmund’s sword-to-be Nothung on the backside of the tree outside of the audience’s view, depriving it from witnessing the extraction of the sword. As soon as Siegmund possesses Nothung, the stage is lit red and the tree flies upward and disappears through the top of the stage.

This is the second production of “Die Walküre” that I have seen in the past six months, both with Domingo as Siegmund. Prior to this performance, a representative of management begged the audience’s sympathy because Domingo was battling a cold, as occurred in Los Angeles in December 2005 when I saw him perform the title role of Wagner’s “Parsifal”. My comments on both of these previous Domingo performances in Wagner roles are hyper-linked at the end of this review.

As with his Parsifal, I sat close enough to the performers to notice that he did occasionally cough or clear his throat when not singing, but my experience has been that when Domingo says he is not feeling well, but will still sing, the quality of his performance is undetectable from when he is in the best of form.

His other “Walküre” was part of Valery Gergiev’s Kirov/Mariinsky Theatre “Ring” presented at the Orange County (California) Performing Arts Center last October. There we were treated to incomparable vocal performances and superb acting by Domingo, Mlada Khudoley (Sieglinde) and Gennady Bezzubenkov (Hunding), If anything, the Kennedy Center team’s first act trio of Domingo, Kampe and Saks was even more impressive.

Kampe, with the only role in “Die Walküre” to appear in all three acts, combines all of the attributes that should assure her super-stardom in the German repertoire – a beautiful voice with the range, power and expressiveness to conquer the Wagnerian roles; an extraordinary acting ability, that suggests that she could have been a film or TV actress had she not chosen an operatic career; and physical attractiveness.

For the Act II light show on the scrim, we are in a river raging through a forest. We get a glimpse of Siegmund and Sieglinde being chased by Hunding and his hunting companions. Then we return to images of the banks of a stream, then a rivulet rushing down a rockface, then billowy clouds, through which we arrive at the penthouse of some large corporation, with a spectacular view of a city far below.

Wotan (Alan Held) is sitting at a desk the size of a small boardroom conference table, in dark gray slacks, a white shirt and suspenders. He wears glasses, but the lens of his bad eye is darkened. At points of emphasis, he will take off his glasses and we see his one eye blackened like a raccoon’s.

Brünnhilde (Linda Watson) dressed in a riding habit accessorized with a burgundy scarf and wearing knee high boots, alerts Wotan to the approaching Fricka so that he can get into his suit coat for her entrance.

Fricka (Elena Zaremba) is in a 1920s style floor length skirt with patterned top. Zambello obviously believes that Wotan and Fricka retain both affection for each other and physical attraction. At one point, Held’s Wotan grabs Zaremba’s Fricka, puts her on his lap, and they snuggle.

[Fricka (Elena Zaremba) uses her feminine wiles to force her husband, Wotan (Alan Held), to reverse his position on a matter of importance to her; edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph for Washington National Opera.]

When Fricka insists that Wotan listen to her demands, he opens a newspaper to avoid her. But when Fricka brings up Wotan’s acts of adultery that produced his nine Valkyrie daughters, she tears the paper out of his hands to get his full attention. When he finally realizes that his own actions have led to his entrapment, and that his own oaths have bound himself to concede her demands, Fricka produces a contract for him to sign.

The Wotan-Fricka exchange is, of course, one of the great scenes in the Ring, and Zambello’s conceptualization of it rang true. The first time I saw Held as heldenbariton was as the “Walküre” Wotan in 1999 in the fourth San Francisco Opera Ring, when he replaced an indisposed James Morris. He also played Gunther in that Ring’s “Götterdämmerung“.

(The first time I ever saw Held was 20 years ago in the tiny role of Gregorio in Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” at the Kennedy Center, in a performance that also included Gregory Kunde’s Romeo and Marcus Haddock’s Tybalt. I am not aware of Held singing much in Second Empire French operas in recent years, now that he is on every impresario’s short list of potential Wotans.)

Held, besides being another consummate actor, has great vocal control, and an especially expressive command of his lower register. Zaremba is an equally fine actor, memories of whose performances in the 1990s and beginning of the new millenium I treasure.

At San Francisco Opera I saw her Helene Bezukhova in Prokofiev’s “War and Peace” (1991), her Ratmir in Glinka’s “Ruslan und Lyudmila” (1995), her Konchakovna in Borodin’s “Prince Igor” (1996), her Maddalena in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” (1997), her Erda in “Das Rheingold” and “Siegfried” and First Norn in “Götterdämmerung” (1999), and her Dame Quickly in Verdi’s “Falstaff” (2001).

In 2000, I also saw her perform in San Francisco Opera’s “Luisa Miller” that brought together four of the artists associated with this “Walküre”. Zambello was its stage director, Yeargan its set designer, with singers Zaremba and Saks performing the roles of Federica and Wurm.

And, in an additional tie to San Francisco, Held and Zaremba performed Wotan and Fricka in 1999’s Third San Francisco Opera “Ring” (not the one I attended). For Washington National Opera, Zaremba is sharing the Fricka part with Elizabeth Bishop, another mezzo-soprano known to San Francisco audiences, but I preferred to have Zaremba’s Fricka for my performance.

Zaremba, however, proved to be vocally disappointing. The healthy, tight vibrato that had added a seductive quality to her wide ranging voice has become an unpleasantly constant wide vibrato of the kind associated with vocal disrepair. The person who will see Bishop’s Fricka may have the better deal.

(Since Zaremba, as many operatic artists are in these financially dismal days for the recording industry, is under-recorded, after her “Walküre” performance, I browsed Apple Corporation’s i-Tunes and downloaded one of Shostakovich’s “Six Poems of Marina Tsetaeva” for my i-Pod, as a memento of how she sounded a decade ago.)

On Wotan’s desk is a large square photograph of Siegmund. When Brünnhilde returns, a triumphant Fricka smirks, shows a reluctant Brünnhilde Wotan’s contractual signature, and hands her Siegmund’s photograph, with the instructions that he is to be killed in the upcoming sword-fight.

After Fricka’s departure, Held and Watson conduct a master class on how to present convincingly the important scene between Wotan and Brünnhilde, in which she discerns that there is more to the confusing orders she has just received than meets the eye.

Then we return to the scrim images, where we find ourselves crossing a suspension bridge. When the scrim rises again, we are beneath the concrete approachway to a bridge or highway that curves to stage right. It is obviously adjacent to a seedy neighborhood with junk – spare tires, wheel rims, a broken down couch – strewn around the concrete pillars and girders. A pedestrian walkway above permits sightseers to view what is going on at ground level. The sightseers include Wotan, then Fricka with Hunding.

Hunding’s gang (and in this neighborhood, that is what they have become) try to rough up Sieglinde. By now, Sieglinde (whose sexual affair with her brother has brought about monumental impacts on all sorts of forces in the universe) is filled with remorse and self-loathing.

[Below right: as Siegmund (Placido Domingo) takes care of his sister Sieglinde (Anja Kampe), Brünnhilde (Linda Watson) appears to Siegmund to foretell his death the next morning; edited image, based on Karin Cooper photograph, courtesy of Washington National Opera.]

For the Todesverkuendig, Brünnhilde appears from the murky backstage area to inform Siegmund of his impending death and transportation to Valhalla. One by one, during the conversation between Siegmund and the Valkyrie, a dozen United States Armed Forces personnel, in battle uniforms, camos, or fatigues, slowly, with halting steps, cross the stage carrying large square photographs of themselves, like the one of her half-brother Siegmund that Brünnhilde received from Wotan and Fricka.

After Brünnhilde’s disobedience, forcing Wotan’s intervention to assure Hunding’s victory, Wotan affectionately caresses the body of his son, then breaks Hunding’s neck. Zambello has Brünnhilde and Sieglinde return quickly to the fight scene to grab the broken sword pieces, a gesture that, even if ignored by other stage directors, is smart stagecraft that enhances storyline continuity with “Walküre Act III” and “Siegfried”.

[Below left: Wotan (Alan Held) strikes down Siegmund (Placido Domingo) as the disobedient Brünnhilde (Linda Watson) determines to protect Sieglinde (Anja Kampe); edited image, based on Karin Cooper photograph, courtesy of Washington National Opera.]

Which brings us to the beginning of Act III, and the Walkürenritt – hands down the most famous part of the “Ring”. It is music that has become so mainstream, that I doubt that one would have much trouble convincing many young adults that this is a contemporary piece, written by John Williams, composer of the music for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones film franchises, for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”.

The act begins with an extended session in which Brünnhilde’s eight sisters are performing their chaotic battlefield functions, that have nothing much to do with the subject matter of this part of the opera – the personal interrelationships between the two gods, the lead Valkyrie and the only human who started the opera who remains alive.

How do you fit eight exotic extraterrestrials into an American Ring? Make them paratroopers! Thus, as the act begins, clouds cover the scrim, but then we see images of bombers, then bombers and parachutes, at one point even a Huey helicopter, but in time the parachutes become the dominant image.

As the scrim rises, we see Valkyries in paratrooper uniforms, some packing and unpacking their parachutes, others running in and out carrying photographs of heroes, and a couple of Valkyries attached to – by means of their parachute rigging – the ceiling of the industrial staircases and platform that constitute the third act scenery, doing a bit of bungie jumping as they sing their hoyotohos.

[Below: Brünnhilde’s eight sisters, bringing fallen heroes to Valhalla; edited image, based on a copyrighted Karin Cooper photograph for Washington National Opera.]

Several metallic structures, which one imagines IKEA might sell in the future, function as both ladders and as repositories to hang the likes of the square pictures of the servicemen that we saw in the Todesverkuendig. Brünnhilde and Sieglinde appear and the latter is provided with both a champion horse and instructions as where to go to avoid Wotan or any person who will be a danger to herself or the future hero to whom she will give birth.

When Wotan orders the eight sisters to leave his sight and never again come near Brünnhilde, all eight disappear, unlike the Mariinsky Ring, where two valkyries are left behind to help move stage scenery.

In a moving rendition of Wotan’s farewell, as he tells her about his decision to put her into a long sleep, Brünnhilde looks at the towers of pictures of dead soldiers. Just like her mother Erda and stepmother Fricka, two other women who proved able to dissuade Wotan from following through on his plans and strategies, she convinces him that her disobedience to him was to save the unborn Siegfried.

Because he will be a hero who will have power to alter fate, independent of any of Wotan’s Loge-inspired schemes, Wotan needs for Siegfried to exist (and Wotan’s realization of this fact was performed with great insight by Held). Therefore, Brünnhilde’s love for Wotan redeems her actions. Conductor Fricke summons from his opera orchestra a masterful playing of the Redemption by Love leitmotiv, that will be one of the most prominent themes at the end of “Götterdämmerung“.

[Below: Brünnhilde (Linda Watson) explains to Wotan (Alan Held)  why she could not follow his orders; edited image, based on a copyrighted Karin Cooper photograph for the Washington National Opera.]

Wotan then kisses Brünnhilde, withdrawing her immortality by that gesture, places her on the concrete structure at center stage, and ignites a line of fire that burns up and down the staircases and across the connecting platform.

The opera closes with the Magic Fire music, the final great orchestral anthem of one of opera’s supreme masterpieces.

[Below: Brünnhilde (Linda Watson) is surrounded by the Magic Fire; edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph for the Washington National Opera.]

Last month, I spoke in support of Ian Judge’s quite unconventional staging of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” at the Los Angeles Opera and find myself again supporting Zambello’s American “Ring” as I did the Gergiev’s Mariinsky “Ring”. I believe that all three, which have elements that some Wagnerians might find shocking, are all basically conservative readings of these operas, whose non-traditional elements do no harm to, and often illuminate, aspects of the story.

The “Kirov/Mariinsky Ring” travels to New York City this summer and the “American Ring” begins its cycle in San Francisco in Summer, 2008. On the basis of my attendance at the full Kirov/Mariinsky Ring last October and of this “Walküre”, I recommend experiencing both the American and Russian reconceptualizations of this great German operatic tetralogy.

For my comments on previous Wagnerian performances by Placido Domingo, see:

Domingo, Kirov “Walküre” in Costa Mesa – October 7, 2006

Domingo is the Redeemer of L.A.’s spellbound “Parsifal”: December 8, 2005

For an essay noting the 50th anniversary of my first “Walküre”, see, Die Walküre- November 4, 1956