There’s nothing quite like Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung’s. Known to most people as The Ring Cycle, the 15+ hour long series of four operas (including The Rhinegold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried, and Twilight of the Gods) took Wagner more than twenty years to complete. Not to mention, he had an entire theatre in Germany constructed solely for the Cycle. It was more than just his personal magnum opus, the Ring Cycle is one of the most famous operas of all time. I cannot think of a more apt description than to tell you than it really is the Super Bowl of opera.
And the Kennedy Center is the perfect place for it. After attempting to bring the entirety of the Ring Cycle there for five years, I can honestly say, I’ve never seen a stage production like it in my entire life, and I probably never will. I may see operas I love more, but I highly doubt those productions will be able to compete with the sheer scale and quality of what the Kennedy Center has managed to put on. They certainly have an excellent source material to work with, but their visual interpretation has been consistently incredible.
While I was not able to catch The Rhinegold (and it will forever haunt me that I wasn’t able to complete the entire Cycle), I did see The Valkyrie, Siegfried, and Twilight of the Gods all in one week (that’s 15 hours of opera, including intermission) and even though I was pretty sure I was going to die at the Kennedy Center, it was the experience of a lifetime.
Perhaps the most popular of the Ring Cycle operas, The Valkyrie tells the story of Siegmund, Sieglinde, Brunhilde, and Wotan. Wotan, the god of light, is looking for a mortal hero who can help him steal an all powerful ring from a giant turned dragon named Fafner. He suspects his mortal son Siegmund might be the ticket, and attempts to guide him through life, giving him the skills to one day defeat the dragon. Unfortunately, Siegmund falls in love with his twin Sieglinde, which draws the wrath of Fricka (goddess of marriage and wife of Wotan), who tells Wotan not to aide Siegmund in an upcoming battle. Wotan tells Brunhilde about his secret wish to help Siegmund, but commands her to ensure he dies, just as Fricka wants. Brunhilde, seeing her father’s true desire, allows Siegmund to die, but saves Sieglinde, who is carrying her brother’s child. Wotan is furious with Brunhilde for disobeying him (even if he knows on the inside that she did the right thing) so he strips her of her Valkyrie powers, making her mortal, and leaves her on a mountain ringed with fire, for any man brave enough to survive the flames to take.
It would be an understatement to say that a lot happens in this opera. A lot happens in all of Wagner’s operas, but there is a reason why this is the most popular part of the Cycle because even though it mostly centers around the lives of gods and demigods, it is easily the most human of the four operas. The relationship between Brunhilde and her father is complicated in the most relatable sense. Here he is, telling her that he needs a hero who can do the things he can’t, and when she does exactly that, he punishes her. He’s looking far and wide for a son that can save the world, but his incredibly capable daughter is right in front of him the entire time. It’s heartbreaking.
Of course, few are better suited to play Brunhilde than Christine Goerke, who stepped in for Catherine Foster after she injured her leg during rehearsal. I was excited to see Foster in the role, since she has a very commanding presence, but Goerke was an absolute treat. She managed to make the audience laugh more than once (which is crazy considering this is a very sad opera for Brunhilde), but also handled the emotional moments like a pro, which is not a surprise considering she’s performed as Brunhilde more than a few times. Not to mention, Alan Held killed it as the commanding god Wotan. He was a force to be reckoned with. Anytime the both of them were on stage, I was awestruck.
Seventeen years later, Brunhilde is still dead asleep on that fiery mountain, and the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, Siegfried is being raised by a dwarf. Siegfried begs for knowledge of his parents and eventually learns about his father’s sword, Notung. After forging the sword, Siegfried finally has the power to defeat Fafner and retrieve the all powerful ring. He does that, finds Brunhilde on her mountain, and takes her as his wife. A lot more happens then that. There’s talking birds, Wotan walking around dressed as a homeless man telling everyone riddles, and a whole side plot that involves a bear, but all of those are secondary. What’s important to note here is that Siegfried is the absolute worst.
He’s the biggest bro in the entire Cycle and that’s saying something considering the ring was originally forged because a dwarf couldn’t get laid (I’m serious about that). He doesn’t care about anyone but himself and he’s a huge idiot with no motivation besides the fact that he enjoys showing off his strength. There is no reason why strong and intelligent Brunhilde should be into him, but there’s no getting around that.
Despite my undying dislike of Siegfried, Daniel Brenna did an excellent job with the role. Much like my feelings for Anthony Bourdain, I enjoyed every minute of hating him, so much so that I looked forward to hearing Siegfried’s signature horn. Also, all of his scenes with Mime (his dwarf caretaker) were so goddamn fun. The physical comedy of Siegfried running around with his sword and Mime running away from bears was a good break from the despair and torment that closes The Valkyrie.
However, the thing I was most impressed with was the fight between Siegfried and Fafner. All of the sets and props in The Ring Cycle are amazing. From the lush and magical sets in The Valkyrie to the architectural wonders in Siegfried. I’m certain it’s set a bar so high in my mind that no other performance will be able to top it, but in my opinion the fight takes the cake. The giant mechanical beast that is Fafner would be impressive if it just sat on the stage motionless, but seeing it move around and watching sparks fly as Siegfried attacked it with his sword was incredible. The prop team deserves any and all of the accolades they could possibly receive.
TWILIGHT OF THE GODS
The longest and most action packed opera in The Ring Cycle sees the destruction of the gods and the purification of the world, with the help of Brunhilde. Siegfried, seeking more adventure and opportunities to kill people, leaves Brunhilde on her rock with the ring and runs into Gunther, the king of the Gibichungs. Gunther’s councilor / half brother (who desperately wants Siegfried’s ring) convinces him to give Siegfried a magical potion that will make him fall in love with Gunther’s sister. Then Gunther will be able to take Brunhilde as his bride, and at some point his councillor / half brother will take the ring. Everything almost goes according to plan, except Brunhilde refuses to marry Gunther and instead plots with him and his half brother to kill Siegfried. That happens, Brunhilde takes the ring from Siegfried and returns it to the Rhine, thus restoring order in the world. She then rides her horse into Siegfried’s funeral pyre as Valhalla burns in the background. It’s very heavy metal.
Twilight of the Gods is a lot to get through. It’s five and a half hours and includes one of the longest arias in opera, but it’s so intense. Catherine Foster (who was finally well enough to take on her role as Brunhilde) played quite the badass, while Gunther’s councilor / half brother (played by Eric Halfvarson) was as skeevy and power hungry as you could imagine. Again, the sets were incredible. The steel skyscraper where Gibichungs lived was modern and slick and I couldn’t stop staring at it.
I’m telling you right now, if you have an opportunity to see any of The Ring Cycle shows at the Kennedy Center, take that opportunity and run with it.