Two critics trade thoughts on Wagner’s ‘Ring’ in D.C.

Christine Goerke, Alan Held, Francesca Zambello
The Washington Post

Anne Midgette: The news last night was Christine Goerke. At 9:30 Monday morning, the Washington National Opera announced that America’s reigning Wagner soprano would be making a last-minute substitution for Catherine Foster, who had injured her leg during the dress rehearsal a week before, in that night’s premiere of “Die Walküre,” the second opera in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. Goerke, who had just sung “Siegfried” in Houston on Sunday, arrived, slipped into costume and delivered some of the best Wagner singing I can recall, making a regal, gleaming Brünnhilde as the centerpiece to a memorable night.
The other news was Philippe Auguin, WNO’s music director, who led one of the most nuanced and sensitive and powerful Wagner performances I’ve ever heard. Under him, the Kennedy Center Opera Orchestra played with chamber-music delicacy, brought out themes I’d never noticed, and made it impossible for anyone’s attention to stray for the whole five hours.
Today’s review offers two critical viewpoints, mine and Philip Kennicott’s, but the concept may fall a bit flat since it’s hard to imagine anyone who loves Wagner waxing anything less than enthusiastic after the triumph of last night’s performance.
Philip Kennicott: I’m eager to hear Catherine Foster, and I hope she’s back in fighting trim for Wednesday’s “Siegfried.” But no one ever complained when they hear Christine Goerke is showing up, and she was magnificent on Monday. Knowing the backstory, I half expected to see some signs of tentativeness as she tried to fit herself into the complexity of this staging. But she bounded on with youthful vigor and infectious bravado, delivered a spine-tingling “Hojotoho!” and the performance built from there, through to the extraordinarily touching farewell to her old life, her father, and her immortal perks as a Wagnerian One Percenter. Getting Goerke as a last minute replacement is like getting bumped up to Business Class on a transatlantic flight. Actually, better.
I think one sign of a good “Ring” is an experience of gathering force, a cumulative performance that “grows” on you. I was initially ambivalent about Auguin’s conducting, in “Rheingold,” in part because I missed the grandeur in certain spots. “Rheingold” is also the hardest of the four installments to love, with its family squabbles, extensive exposition and the odd, hybrid world Wagner creates, not always comfortably balanced between the mythic and the recognizably human. But Auguin’s approach, in which the orchestra is often quite reserved, makes more and more sense. I’m hearing things I haven’t heard before, including many solo instrumental lines woven into the vocal exchanges. It’s subtle, and often seemingly reduced in texture; and the larger boon is that the orchestra always has something in reserve when it needs it. One small example came Monday night when tenor Christopher Ventris sang the magnificent love music of “Winterstürme.” This often sung in a leather-lunged lusty fortissimo; but Auguin followed the score, and the orchestra responded with delicacy. It wasn’t necessarily as vocally thrilling as some performances, but the larger effect is to hold back the emotions so that the finale of the act has even greater force.
ALM: If there was a weak link in last night’s “Walküre,” it was the casting of Ventris and Meagan Miller, both a little vocally light for the roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde, but Ventris, especially, so rose to the challenge with his acting (and had very good German to boot), that I felt they overcame it. I thought everybody else was outstanding (and how often do you get to say that about any opera?). That was as fine a group of Valkyries as you can hope to hear. Elizabeth Bishop was strong and dignified and nuanced as Fricka; Raymond Aceto was a powerful Hunding, and Alan Held broke my heart as Wotan in Act III. As for Goerke, I can only concur with you; I’ve never heard it sung better, and she seemed so at home in the staging that she made the stage business her own and got a big laugh from the audience within two minutes of her first entrance.
It’s testimony to the artistic depth of these operas, by the way, that they stand up to this intense scrutiny and can support such detailed direction. Wotan’s Act II monologue is widely supposed to be very boring. But as sung by Held and enacted by Held and Goerke, with Auguin explaining everything musically in the pit, it was, quite simply, compelling theater.
PK: I agree that “this is not a concept ‘Ring,’ but a narrative one.” Most of the discourse about Wagner’s “Ring,” and many of the great productions over the last century, has been about concepts: Marxist and Jungian ideas, nationalism, race, even an “environmental” interpretation in a Seattle production a few years ago. The refreshing thing about Zambello’s take is that it focuses on story and details, especially psychological motivation. One thing I noticed on Saturday—that I didn’t in 2011—is the implied affection between Freia, the goddess dragged off as ransom by the giants, and Fasolt, one of her captors. This delicate tweak to Wagner’s libretto makes the debate between the giants—do they take the money, or take avatar of youth and beauty?—more meaningful. Consistently throughout “Rheingold,” I was drawn to characters who make little impact in other productions, including the Rheinmaidens, Fricka, Froh and Donner. I thought William Burden’s Loge was wonderfully oily, and surprisingly lyrical.
ALM: I wonder about that. Some people look to opera for a kind of profundity that “Rheingold,” at least, doesn’t really have without its philosophy. A couple of my friends who had never seen “Rheingold” before, as well as a colleague who is new to the cycle, found the opera just plain silly. I think that’s mainly a response to the opera itself, with its gods and dwarves and giants, though I submit that Zambello’s opening scene, with its clouds of stage smoke swirling around but not quite covering the Rheinmaidens and Alberich as they made unconvincing, stylized gestures, was not a good beginning, and may have colored subsequent reactions. In any case, when I said to one friend that I found that the characterizations of the gods were unusually telling in this production, she thought I must be joking. Read the rest of the review here