Washington National Opera puts a homegrown spin on the Ring cycle, Wagner’s Übergerman, four-part saga.
Rings of truth: Francesca Zambello’s staging of the Ring cycle for WNO uses American settings—a Gold Rush mountain range, a skyscraper, a deserted parking lot—to explore the tetralogy’s themes. In the second opera, Die Walküre (shown), a rocky mountain passage becomes a seedy highway underpass.
In the second opera of Wagner’s mammoth, 15-hour Ring des Nibelungen, the king of the gods looks out from his perch in the clouds, tormented by the way his greed has caught up with him. But instead of a mountaintop, he’s in the boardroom of a skyscraper, his bronze breastplate traded in for a snazzy pinstripe suit.
In Francesca Zambello’s production—dubbed the “American Ring” by opera critics—all-American iconography seamlessly supplants Wagner’s Old Norse and German visual language, playing up the timeless themes, she says, of “the destruction of nature, the quest for power, cutthroat corruption, and the plight of the powerless.”
The 59-year-old artistic director of Washington National Opera, where the production has its East Coast premiere, sees direct parallels between the work’s themes and our current economic and climate crises. “We all have watched the events of America unfold on our screens,” says Zambello. “We have all looked on in shock as many parts of this country collapsed, taking down the men of myth and an economy built on avarice and magical numbers: bad deals, bad faith, bad banking, greed, and ambition on a colossal scale.”
Correlating German myth and American history has taken a while—she’s been thinking about the project since 1981. Says Zambello, “The Ring takes a long time to gestate in one’s mind!” April 30–May 22 at the Kennedy Center, 202-467-4600