Sunday, May 1, 2016

Washington's Wagner Ring Draws Young and Not So Young

The night before the Washington National Opera's grand opening of its first complete Ring cycle, I was having dinner with friends who commented on the fact that the tickets were sold well in advance and that people were traveling from far and wide to see it. Almost like a pilgrimage, they said. But one gentleman hailing from California bemoaned the future of the opera in general. He said he was seeing only elderly people at the opera and wondered what will happen when this generation is gone. On the opening night Saturday at the Kennedy Center, the audience was far from old. In fact, grey heads were in the minority any many people looked younger than 30. There was not one empty seat in the venue that sometimes has difficulty filling the house for the most popular of operas. What magic is Wagner's Ring wielding to draw crowds wherever it shows up?  

For sure, much of its attraction is due to the timeless themes of love, power and greed. But I think what makes it irresistible is the way in which Wagner wrapped these themes in the tapistry of ancient myths and classical fairy tales, that fascinated us in childhood and continue to speak to our inner child. What woman would not like to be woken up by a kiss from a true hero and what man would not like to wield power over the world, or at least over his own life.  So it is consoling to see the rich, the powerful and the beautiful who are as flawed and as vulnerable as we are, and have to atone for their sins just like we do for ours.  

The opening night suggests that Wagner has young fans...

...and attracts diverse audience

I saw my first complete Ring in the 1980's thanks to the WETA Television broadcast of a Met recording. I planned to "suffer" through it as a matter of education. But instead of dreadful boredom and fatigue I expected, even the longest operas kept me awake and mesmerized.  I could not wait for the next evening to see who did what to whom, just as in the past I had waited for a new season of Dallas to see who killed J.R. And there started my love affair with the Ring.

In his book A Night at the Opera, Sir Denis Forman says: "There was a time when Wagner and especially The Ring divided mankind into the Wagnerites and the rest. Today the war is won." And guess who is the winner!

Das Rheingold, Scene 3, Alberich and the enslaved Nibelungs

On Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, when the first Ring cycle opened with Das Rheingold or The Rhinegold as the WNO calls it, the undisputed winner was Wagner. The first of the Ring operas was last seen here 10 years ago, the other three followed one by one. The production I remembered as being firmly grounded on the American soil - with gold prospectors, robber barons and Erda as a Native American in a fringed suede dress, moccasins and feathers in her hair - has seen much improvement. I liked it well the first time, but the new version has a dreamy quality to it, including video projections of falling water, the mist rising over the river and changes in costuming that suggest universality and timelessness. In another fun new touch, this production has Freia afflicted with Stockholm syndrome, reluctant to  leave her captor Fasolt. 

A couple of chat forums took me by surprise with expressions of outrage that Wagner's gods should be using cell phones and boarding a cruise ship called Valhalla, instead of entering some sort of Norse heaven. For me Wotan, Donner, Frohe, Loge, Freia at alia were not gods even in the original version, but rather a privileged upper class fighting to retain its status. If you believe Bernard Shaw, The Ring expresses Wagner's view of his own society. In his booklet The Perfect Wagnerite, which I highly recommend, Shaw gives a detailed account on the subject. There were greedy industrialists in the 19th century as there are greedy businessmen today. Ecologists could argue that The Ring speaks in defense of the environment and protection of natural resources. In any case, why would it be easier to find Wotan more believable as god than as a CEO of a global corporation? Even the British queen calls her domain "the firm." 

Francesca Zambello had good reason to envision places and characters from the Ring in the United States. As I watched Das Rheingold, every scene and every dialogue made me think of something happening in the world today: Wotan and his group - of the political leaders of our time, weakened by the need for money and their own vanity, Alberich exploiting the Nibelungs - of a Chinese industrialist squeezing the life out of cheap labor.  Laws in The Ring are made to be broken even by those who make them; heroes are naive and therefore vanquished... 

And all this comes wrapped in some of the finest music ever written. Maestro Phillipe Auguin did a great job on Saturday safely guiding a huge ensemble of singers, players and extras through the treacherous waters of the mighty river, which is Das Rheingold opera. Overall, I think I was more impressed than 10 years ago, and I was impressed then too. In terms of portrayals it was good to hear fresh voices.  Lindsay Ammann's Erda, William Burden's Loge, Rhein maidens of Renée Tatum, Jacqueline Echols and Catherine Martin and giants Fafner (Soloman Howard - can't wait to hear him in Siegfried) and Fasolt (Julian Close) stood out for me.  It was a little surprising to see the return of some familiar faces in no less than the main roles. Alan Held as Wotan was as solid as I remember him, and Elizabeth Bishop's Fricka was as bland as I remember her from a decade ago. I could never quite understand Washington's infatuation with Bishop, but there it is.

Overall, it was a memorable opening of the cycle, certainly worth a trip to Washington. Even though I know who does what to whom in the next installment, I still can't wait to see it.

If literature on Wagner is to be believed, few contemporaries liked him except Ludwig II and Cosima von Bulow. His progeny also has a dubious reputation. But even his worst enemies today can hardly deny the glory of Wagner's music.