From the astounding prelude -- 136 measures of orchestral music awash in E-flat major evoking the river Rhine-- to the profound close, when that river overflows and Valhalla burns up, Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" exerts a mighty pull.
Since its 1876 premiere in Bayreuth, Germany, the four-opera "Ring" Cycle has stood out for its musical brilliance and multilayered saga of a magic ring, giants, a dragon, mortal heroes and flawed gods.
Washington National Opera is about to present its first "Ring" — "Das Rheingold" ("The Rhinegold"), "Die Walkure" ("The Valkyrie"), "Siegfried" and "Gotterdammerung" ("Twilight of the Gods"). The cycle will be presented three times, each one spread out over a week.
"The 'Ring,' for any company, is a huge Mount Everest of a work, the ultimate challenge for every individual involved," says Washington National Opera artistic director Francesca Zambello.
The production at the Kennedy Center involves 370 people, among them 39 principal singers, 74 chorus members and an orchestra of 94. There have been more than 230 three-hour rehearsals for the "Ring," which takes about 14 and a half hours to perform, not counting intermissions.
"If you binge-watched 'House of Cards,' we're here for you," Zambello says.
Responsible for the concept and direction, Zambello started on this "Ring" 10 years ago with a "Rheingold" for Washington National Opera, which added the next two operas in subsequent seasons. But funding ran out for a full "Ring"; "Gotterdammerung" was presented only in concert form in 2009. The project's co-producer, San Francisco Opera, staged the complete cycle two years later.
The director's distinctive production, with set design by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Catherine Zuber, has been dubbed "the American Ring."
"Yes, it has an American landscape, but it could be many other places in the world," Zambello says. "The things Wagner touched on speak to us constantly. Greed, defiling nature, usurping of power — they're all in there."
Allan Starkey, a retired educator in Baltimore, took in the first three "Ring" works when they were done separately in Washington and is looking forward to completing the picture with "Gotterdammerung."
"I wasn't crazy about [Zambello's] concept the first time, but I suspect I will like it more this time," says Starkey, who has attended "Rings" at the Metropolitan Opera, Bayreuth and elsewhere. "The music is absolutely marvelous, well worth the long sit — and it is a long sit."
People from 45 states and a dozen countries, as far away as Australia, are heading to the Kennedy Center for that long sit. People like 86-year-old Jean Scarr. This retired teacher from the Cleveland area has at least a couple dozen "Rings" under her belt.
"I attended my first complete cycle in 1987 in Seattle," Scarr says, "and I just kept doing them after that. I could sit through all four of the operas with nothing but bathroom breaks and just be wide-eyed. That's what this music does to me."
She finds much compelling about the story, too.
"Wotan [the head god] is not a nice person," Scarr says. "There are a lot of Wotans in the world today who are corrupt and want to take over other people's lives and land. Wagner was trying to tell us, 'Look what you people are doing to this world.' At the end of 'Gotterdammerung,' the music says, 'You've got another chance to do it better next time.'"
For "Ring" fans, every chance to do it all over again is welcome. Jack Firestone, head of a capital management firm in Miami, has attended at least eight cycles.
"You always find something new in it," Firestone says. "It's one of the greatest works of art produced by anybody, ever. It ranks right up there with Shakespeare's' Folio, not only in its audacity, but what it takes to put on. As Joe Biden would say, it's a big [bleep] deal."