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Ever since Patrice Chereau saw Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (through the eyes of G.B. Shaw) as a critique of 19th-century industrial capitalism and staged it as such for his centennial Bayreuth Ring 30 years ago, directors (saving perhaps Otto Schenck at the Met) have been unable to present it as Wagner wrote it. The latest travesty is an "American" Ring staged by Francesca Zambello. Washington National Opera presented Das Rheingold to open the second half of its golden-anniversary season (Apr. 2). Die Walkure will follow next Fall, Siegfried in 2007-08 and we'll get the whole shebang in 2009.

Musically, WNO's performance was excellent, despite the lacklustre conducting of Heinz Fricke with a slightly reduced orchestra. Leading the very strong cast, Robert Hale demonstrated both vocally and dramatically why he is one of the two or three leading Wotans today. He was ably partnered by Elizabeth Bishop (Fricka) and supported by the lesser deities: Jane Ohmes (Freia), Elena Zaremba (Erda), Corey Evan Rotz (Froh), Detlef Roth (Donner). Tenor Robert Leggate was outstanding as Loge. Gordon Hawkins' Alberich was well sung and well acted, even if his curse on the stolen Ring was less chillingly foreboding than it should be. In their cameo roles, Gary Rideout was an effectively grovelling Mime, bassos John Marcus Bindel and Jeffrey Wells perhaps underplayed the gruffly sonorous giants (Fasolt and Fafner), while what Anna Russell dubbed "the acquit Andrews Sisters"--the Rhinemaidens Woglinde (JiYoung Lee), Wellgunde (Frederique Vezina) and Flosshilde (Jennifer Hines)--were effective in their haunting and mocking sweetness.

So what was "American" about WNO's Rheingold? One wouldn't have known without reading Zambello's comments in the program, where one learns Alberich is in suspenders and boots because he's a Forty-Niner prospecting in the Colorado River and the nymphs cavorting on his sluice are mining-camp doxies. Act II jumps ahead to what Zambello calls the "sanguine" 1920s. The gods are clad in summer whites (Froh in gold knickers, Donner in tennis flannels and sweater, and so on), the overall-clad giants arrive on a swinging crane and Erda is garbed as an Indian squaw. Do costumes and set props really add up to an "interpretation"? Not in my book. Of course, not all critics would agree. One enthusiastic reviewer even went so far as to discern in Zambello's use of dark-skinned children in Nibelheim a strong political statement about child labor, apparently unaware that, dwarfs being in short supply for opera, companies have traditionally used children as Nibelungs.
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Title Annotation:United States
Author:Dolmetsch, Carl
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:May 1, 2006
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