Washington National Opera General Director Placido Domingo and guest director Francesca Zambello have launched what they are calling The American Ring with their 2005-2006 production of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Except for the Native American style costuming of Erda, a character who appears briefly in the last scene, nothing about this production of Das Rheingold seems to suggest anything American. However, Rheingold’s themes of greed, power, hostage taking, ransom, and dirty tricks all speak to situations depicted daily in American newspapers and broadcast on television and radio.
The story, which Wagner created from a variety of myths, concerns how the god Wotan will pay the giants who built the palace Valhalla. Initially Wotan promised to give them his sister-in-law Freia, the goddess of eternal youth. However, Wotan changes his mind when his family rises up in protest. He employs Loge to renegotiate the deal and that deal is that Wotan must produce the Rheingold, which has recently been stolen from the Rhinemaidens by the dwarf Alberich.
Zambello has assembled singers who move fluidly together. Zambello’s gods distinguish themselves on stage without competing with each other. Most notable performers are Gordon Hawkins as the thieving dwarf Alberich and Robin Leggate as the trickster legal counsel Loge. Their notability has a lot to do with the music Wagner created for these characters, particularly in Scene III where Loge eloquently tricks Alberich into changing his shape to a size that allows Loge and Wotan to capture Alberich and take control of all that is associated with the Rheingold or pure gold.
Of the four operas that comprise Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen— Das Rheingold, Die Walk�re, Siegfried, and G�tterd�mmerung—Das Rheingold is Wagner’s perfection of his vision to create music drama where sung words produce meaning that capture audience attention. And Wagner accomplishes this without arias, recitatives, massed choruses, or ballet and processional interludes. Under the baton of Heinz Fricke, the WNO orchestra played a seamless concert that balanced the majestic orchestral music that includes the powerful percussion of an anvil chorus with the vocal delivery. To interesting effect, Jan Hartley’s projections that include images of water, mountains and other abstract images enhance the orchestral interludes.
The most engaging scenery provided by Michael Yeargan occurs in the caves where Alberich, who seeks more gold, has enslaved the little Nibelungen people and his brother Mime. The dark set includes highly textured cave walls outfitted with ladders. WNO has appropriately cast children as the Nibelungen dwarfs.
Anita Yavich provides an array of distinctive costumes that include the eloquent white costumes of the gods (the look is European spa or cruise wear), the denim work uniforms of the giants Fafner and Fasolt, the pleated rags of the Nibelungen, and the airy flowing garments of the Rhinemaidens. Zambello creates an impressive spectacle when the giants are lowered on an I-beam hanging from a building crane. Their huge feet and hands (not to mention how tall they stand above the other characters) effectively open the opera when they come to collect the goddess Freia as payment for having built Valhalla.