Elements of Zambello’s American “Ring” were already present in a production of “The Valkyrie” she staged at Constitution Hall, where the company was in residence during 2003 renovations of the Kennedy Center Opera House. Video played a major role in that first, trial run at the larger cycle, but that was in part because the temporary stage at Constitution Hall couldn’t accommodate much three-dimensional action.
The production was a success, and it built momentum for the company to undertake a full “Ring” cycle in collaboration with the San Francisco Opera. Over the past few years, the Washington Opera has added the cycle’s prologue, “The Rhinegold” (in 2006) and a new version of “The Valkyrie” (in 2007). But then the economic crisis hit, and in 2008 the company announced that “Siegfried” (staged in 2009), would be the last of the series.
That meant no production of the cycle’s conclusion, “Gotterdammerung,” in Washington (though a concert performance was given). But the San Francisco Opera, which co-produced the first three installments, forged ahead and is presenting the complete cycle. Washington opera lovers are missing something extraordinary.
Along the way, everything about the American “Ring” got better, even as its putative American theme became less and less important to the production’s impact. Wagner lived with his characters — the gods Wotan and Fricka, Brunhilde the Valkyrie warrior, the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde and their child, the hero Siegfried — for almost 30 years before he staged the first full “Ring” at Bayreuth in 1876. The years that Zambello has lived with them while putting together her cycle has deepened her understanding of their motivations and emotions to an almost uncanny degree. There may be better-sung “Ring” cycles, and some productions may be more visually impressive. But there is not a more nuanced and intelligent “Ring” cycle around.
Embracing the myth
Wagner, who wrote his own libretto, combined three basic narrative threads in the “Ring”: the brutal competition to have and hold a cursed ring, which makes its bearer all-powerful; the downfall of the gods, who purport to rule by law and contract but often resort to theft and subterfuge; and the romance of two couples, Siegmund and Sieglinde, and Siegfried and Brunhilde, who chose love in the face of despair, destruction and fear of an unknown future. The title of the cycle — “The Ring of the Nibelung” — suggests where Wagner placed his emphasis, but many directors, perhaps self-conscious about the bad odor of J.R.R. Tolkien and his tales of a magic ring, seem embarrassed by that strand of the story.