Bark, not Bayreuth
Is Der Ring des Nibelungen responsible for the transformation of Seattle from a gray, damp, low-rise Boeing company town where half the jokes had punchlines in Norwegian (and were about lutefisk in any case) into today's booming cultural metropolis? I like to think so. The Ring has certainly been central to the process, in three incarnations over almost forty years.
When Glynn Ross founded an opera company here in 1975, he produced Wagner's Ring for a summer blowout, in a cheerfully thin production (painted flats, horned helmets, bearskins and breastplates). The cycle was given twice that summer and succeeding summers, once in German and once in Andrew Porter's English translation. Singers and orchestra were less adept than you'd get back east or in Bayreuth, but it was the Ring all right. It was a ballsy stunt, but it put Seattle Opera on the map.
Bear in mind that, in 1975, though everyone in the Western world could probably hum the Ride of the Valkyries, the Ring had not yet been televised and its performance in North America was pretty much confined to major companies like the Met, Chicago and San Francisco. The cycle was not yet fodder for every cheeky opera house from Manaus to Bangkok.
By 1982, when I saw the Seattle show, the company had a reputation and the Ring was a source of local pride. If not everyone attended, everyone knew about the thing, and Seattle was bursting with it: We can do the Ring! We can do a Ring Wagnerians all over the world come to see! We can do anything!
When Speight Jenkins (who retires this month) took over the company, Microsoft had replaced Boeing as the fount of local wealth, and the art and theater scenes were beginning to bloom. This called for a new, more professional Ring, the one designed by Francois Rochaix, with — get this! a first! — valkyries on flying horses. There were also supertitles. Wagnerians came from all over; even those who had been to Bayreuth did not scorn to attend. Often, they liked what they heard and saw. Reputations began to be made.
A golden cultural age dawned in Seattle. Skyscrapers filled the skyline. It was the era of Mark Morris and Dale Chihuly, of Kurt Cobain and Dan Savage and Frasier. A more musically ingratiating opera house, McCaw Hall, arose on the Seattle Center site. And, with the new century, the Rochaix Ring, with its abrupt curtainfalls and steampunk gadgetry, was replaced by Stephen Wadsworth's Ring, which is having its last ho-jo-to-ho this week.
Wadsworth's Ring has been called the “green” Ring. In fact, it is a Pacific Northwest Ring, the great trees and distant waterfalls sure to thrill anyone who has trekked to Rainier or the Olympics. It is sumptuously detailed, with mountain backdrops and switchback trails, pine forests for one set, deciduous for another. The fishy costumes of the Rhinemaidens (by Martin Pakledinaz) and the scaly cols of Dragon-Fafnir emerging (bewinged and behorned) from Thomas Lynch's rocky cavern have never been more delectable. Wotan and Loge jump about like vaudeville comics to mask the vanishing Alberich. Siegfried tosses berries at the Forest Bird.
Wadsworth's take on the drama is to underline the Asgard Family Romance, shifting the focus from archetype and myth to more intimate problems. I am less than delighted with this approach; it undercuts Wagner's deeper meanings, but I'll go into that in more detail when the cycle is complete. Altering mood and emphasis is fair game for stage director nowadays; most of the packed houses at cycle 3 (including many old but also a surprising number of very young opera-goers) ate it up, thrilled to get good singers (and actors) in appropriate costumes and gorgeous sets. Nor did anyone object — certainly not the singers! — to Wadsworth's usual trick of shoving all the stage action to the front of the set for clearer declamation.
Greer Grimsley has worked his way into Wotan over several seasons; he sings with an authority, a certainty of dramatic point that was not always his, and he cuts an agile and attractive figure. It is not an overwhelmingly sensuous voice and the Walkuere Wotan wears him out — there is a beat in the last pages.
Stephanie Blythe enjoys playing Mrs. Fricka Wotan rather than the usual whining nag; she gets all lovey-dovey with her Wotan, and often sings her more lines at what appears to be a conversational murmur. Being Blythe, her murmurs are audible in every seat in the house, but they are sensual murmurs just the same.
Mark Schowalter's Loge is attractively sung but robbed of his usual ironic stance — Wadsworth has him nearly hysterical at Wotan's decision not to return the Ring to the Rhinemaidens. Can this really be a surprise? Loge is the guy who set the deal up. Lucille Beer, the Erda, made a striking entrance through the mossy forest floor, and sang her eleven o'clock number with luscious sound.
Richard Paul Fink is the commanding, anguished Alberich; Dennis Petersen a Mime who could probably manage Siegfried and who, for once, had the muscular arms and commanding voice of a proper smith. Daniel Sumegi sang an ominous Fafner. Andrea Silvestrelli has little voice left and a lisp to boot, but as both Fasolt and Hunding, his characterization was so magnetic, so magnificently surly, that you couldn't take your eyes off him. Jennifer Zetlan, Cecelia Hall and Renee Tatum were the vocally and aerially adept trio of Rhinemaidens. The valkyries got laughs for swatting each other on the backside with their spears, but Wagner's dialogue for them is hardly less risible.
In Die Walkuere, Stuart Skelton sang a impressive, lyrical Siegmund to Margaret Jane Wray's shining Sieglinde. They did not make the mistake of being drawn to each other too soon, and we got a full taste of Sieglinde and Hunding's unhappy marriage: This is a battered wife. I missed, however, the overwhelming excitement of Sieglinde's final ecstasy: Wray seemed unable to reach the proper pitch of world-saving excitement.
Alwyn Mellor, who sang Brunnhilde, is a handsome woman and an able actress, with the gleaming sound, the risk-taking fire of a proper valkyrie, though again the sense of underlying desperation, of tragedy, did not reach across the footlights. It is probably not her fault or Skelton's but the curiously anti-epic staging that robbed the “Todesverkundigung” of its otherworldliness.This should be the central pivot of a Ring, the instant when a goddess, in mid-transition to a human being, feels mortal pain and chooses to take humanity's side in any case. Skelton felt no awe and therefore we felt none; Mellor seemed to be making no special decision. There was a playful tussle, which cut the emotional impact of the entire drama.
Asher Fisch, who led a couple of fine performances of Parsifal at the Met last spring (and has conducted it in Seattle as well), leads a direct, energetic Wagner that interacts tellingly with the singing and action onstage. Several touches (the rippling harps for the final songs of the Rhinemaidens, the luscious strings for Siegfried's view of the sleeping Brunnhilde) came very immediately into the auditorium. He inspires confidence but not total submersion. His tempi are never too swift to savor, but lack the geological majesty the layers of the epic sometimes call for.
Photo: Elise Bakketun