The expectation upon deciding to experience the four operas of Richard Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung is that the operagoer attends consecutive performances. Washington National Opera presented three cycles of the four operas from April 30 to May 22, 2016, running each cycle within a week or less. Given that some attendees show up wearing Viking headgear--helmets with a pair of bovine horns, the Dresser thinks that attending The Ring operas is something like a convention for Rocky Horror Picture Show fans. People love The Ring operas so much, they want to participate beyond being a lump of skin and bones sitting for endless hours in the audience. That said, the Dresser divided her time between the opening nights of The Rhinegold (April 30) and The Valkyrie (May 2) and the end performances of Siegfried (May 20) and Twilight of the Gods (May 22).
Of the four operas, Siegfried, a four-hour and fifty-five minute event (with two two intermissions totaling 75 minutes) about a teenage boy who becomes a super hero--but mind you he is mortal--is the Dresser's least favorite. The three acts, while suffused with glorious music under the baton of the much beloved Philippe Auguin, are textually tedious. Despite the Dresser's prejudice, Francesca Zambello's Siegfried was an outstanding last performance, made so by all the theater arts employed--excellent casting of singers who could act with convincing movement, stage sets, lighting, special effects, and glorious projections.
What an operagoer needs to know before understanding what happens in the three acts of this opera, is:
--Siegfried (Daniel Brenna) is the offspring of the God of Gods Wotan's mortal twins Siegmund and Sieglinde. We met the twins in The Valkyrie. Sieglinde was pregnant with Siegmund's child and had to flee Wotan's wrath. Because of his marital infidelities and the righteous anger of his wife Fricka, Wotan (Alan Held) was forced to kill his only son.
--Eighteen years have gone by since The Valkyrie. Sieglinde has died in childbirth and turned over her son to the Nibelung Mime (David Cangelosi) who hopes to use Siegfried to conquer the giant Fafner (0Soloman Howard) and recover the gold that Mime's brother Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) stole from the Rhine maidens.
--Fafner has transformed himself into a dragon to guard the gold he was given by Wotan in payment for building Valhalla. (Wotan stole the gold from the dwarf Alberich who stole the gold from the Rhine maidens.)
--Meanwhile Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme), punished by her father Wotan for not following his orders to kill Siegmund, lies sleeping in a ring of fire. She awaits the mortal man who will brave the fire, wake her up, and claim her as wife. In this rescue, she will become mortal. (She is the offspring of Wotan and the goddess Erda.)
Act I establishes that Mime hopes to use Siegfried to vanquish the dragon that Fafner has become given that he owns the Tarnhelm, a magic swath of gold netting that allows the person wearing it to become something else. The catch is that Siegmund's broken sword needs to be reforged and Mime is not equal to the job. Wotan in disguise and known as The Wanderer shows up and conducts a battle of wits with Mime. The upshot of this visit is that Wotan tells Mime that only a person without fear can reforge the sword and that person will kill Mime. Mime is then conflicted because he knows that only Siegfried can do the job of both fixing the sword and killing Fafner. Mime attempts to teach Siegfried fear and doesn't succeed. Siegfried forges the sword and then leaves their trailer encampment to slay Fafner and reclaim the Rhine gold. As insurance against his own death, Mime has prepared a poisoned drink for Siegfried.
What stood out in this act were the antics of David Cangelosi as Mime (he turns cartwheels and dances on the roof of the trailer they are camped in) and Daniel Brenna as Siegfried (he is good at effecting the behavior of rowdy teenage boy who slaps at Mime and swaggers at his own prowess).
Act II opens with Mime's brother Alberich keeping watch over Fafner because he wants to reclaim the gold. Wotan appears and warns Alberich that Mime is plotting to get the all-powerful ring. Wotan awakens Fafner, who has become a mechanical dragon. Alberich attempts to cut a deal with Fafner so that Alberich will warn him that Siegfried is coming but Fafner isn't subscribing. When Siegfried arrives, Mime attempts to make Siegfried fear the dragon but the young man sends Mime away. Siegfried then learns how to communicate with birds which proves extremely useful since one particular bird then warns him about Mime's treachery. By the end of Act II Siegfried has killed the dragon; taken possession of the gold, the ring, and the Tarnhelm; and learned about where to find his soul mate Brünnhilde. This boy might be cocky but he is very lonely since he got no nurturing from Mime.
What the Dresser absolutely adored in Act II was the performance by Jacqueline Echols as the Forest Bird. Her red costume by Catherine Zuber is eye-catching. However, it is the music that Forest Bird sang so well that called so much attention to this character.
One aside about Fafner as the mechanical dragon: the Dresser, ever since she saw this mechanical dragon the 2009 production of Siegfried, has thought the dragon was clunky. In fact in 2009, it even broke down causing the dress rehearsal to be off-limits to a public audience. While the Dresser was waiting to enter the Kennedy Center opera house, a neighbor of hers struck up a conversation that produced the following gem. She too hated the mechanical dragon. Why not make the monster, cars from the Washington subway system? After all, they too have spewed fire and caused death. Given that Zambello has put an emphasis on current day artifacts like photos of real American soldiers who have fallen in battle, why not make a statement about the sorry state of affairs with the DC subway system?
Act III opens with Michael Yeargan's simple but elegant set as Wotan seeks Erda's help up on her mountain. He knows the gods are in for a disastrous end. She tells him to get guidance from their daughter Brünnhilde. However, Erda shuts down once Wotan tells her about how he has punished Brünnhilde. Before she parts company with him, Erda hears Wotan say he will give Siegfried control of the world. Then Siegfried shows up and the two men have an altercation. Siegfried accuses Wotan of killing his father (true) and Siegfried shatters Wotan's spear. The act (and opera) ends with Siegfried braving the fire to find the sleeping Brünnhilde. He awakens her and then begins the dance of courtship. While she tells him she always loved--even before he was born (a revelation that does not deter Siegfried), she says she is not worthy of such a hero as he.
The performances of Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde and Daniel Brenna as Siegfried made for a wrenching emotional experience. The psychology of these two as lovers requires perspective because the operagoer has to keep in mind that while she is a virgin (she tells us she has never been touched by the gods), her knowledge of the world from having been a god is vast compared to the super hero but mortal Siegfried who led a sheltered life with the unethical and unfatherly Mime.
Throughout Siegfried, the Jan Hartley/S. Katy Tucker projections before and between the acts and scenes continued to be every bit as interesting as those seen in the first two Ring operas. The Dresser was particularly attentive to those appearing in the third act which included landscapes spelling out the 21 century problem of environmental pollution.
In Marilyn McCabe's poem "The Dark Is Shifting Almost Imperceptibly," the title alone foreshadows what will happen in Twilight of the Gods. But of course the poem itself broadens the experience of these two doomed lovers who at this moment in The Ring cycle are hoping for the best, even as Wagner's grand music is expressing the possibility that more than flames (be they flames of Siegfried and Brünnhilde's passion or the actual flames that are protecting her from cowardly men) will light the way.
THE DARK IS SHIFTING ALMOST IMPERCEPTIBLY
toward you. I know that much
of endings. As usual I'm mistaken,
though, about what's moving.
Not the dark onward but you
and I falling toward it, and sometimes
it is beautiful, framed in flame,
and some days, as today, obscure.
Hymn will lead you
humming. I hope.
by Marilyn McCabe
from Glass Factory
"The Dark Is Shifting Almost Imperceptibly" copyright © 2016 Marilyn McCabe
Production Photos by Scott Suchman