Cher Public

Walvater knows best

There is a mighty appetite among both old Wagnerians and new ones to see a Ring that follows—if not too slavishly—the scenic requests of the libretto. A company hoping to draw a broad audience, especially to a distant or obscure locale (Seattle is distant but no longer obscure)—can work with this sentiment. A company that can sell out three such Ring cycles at top dollar would have been foolish to neglect that appetite.  

Don’t compete for the most outrageous or avant-garde or technologically supersophisticated Ring (is that what we had in New York? The Techno Ring? I’m not sure). You can’t win those contests and hardly anyone will care of you do. Seattle can claim one of the most beautiful recent Ring productions and a fairly traditional staging, though not entirely without diversions and surprises. One surprise, perhaps, is that it was musically of such impressive overall quality. This speaks very well for the organization behind it.

But they’ve had time for trial and error. The Seattle Opera has been giving the Ring for nearly 40 years, in, I believe, 30 different seasons. Attendees come from many countries and all fifty states. There are introductory talks before performances and witty seminars on the days between operas. Some performances are followed by talk-back sessions for the tireless. There’s a range of Ring-related tchotchkes on sale (even after the final curtain!) and an alcove full of props (horned helmets, spears) for anyone wishing to pose for a camera.

Let’s treat the production and the occasional botherations of the staging after giving the singers their due.

Stefan Vinke gave Seattle “Siegfried the adolescent athlete.” He sang this exhausting part with exuberance and credit (fading just a bit when he had to summon Gutrune to the altar in Act II of Götterdämerung), with explosions of triumph and youthful good cheer that shook the rafters of McCaw Hall. He was constantly on the move, climbing part of the mountain scenery, leaping down from another, tossing berries to the Forest Bird and stones at enemies or over his shoulder. He played it sullen with Mime, rambunctious with the girls, patting even the dead Fafnir on the cheek. This Siegfried was eager and ignorant and having a wonderful time, an infectiously enjoyable performance.

This naturalness was the cue for the entire Stephen Wadsworth staging. Dennis Petersen’s strong Mime sang rather than whined his complaints, hugging the great lout with what resembled real affection (belied by Wagner’s words) and exchanged some well-aimed rocks with Richard Paul Fink’s creepy Alberich. Greer Grimsley did not maintain a godly or grandfatherly distance from Siegfried but sat on the ground playfully with him, an attitude in keeping with Wadsworth’s family romance of a staging but rather at odds with the story. Siegfried is naïve, but he’s never seen this armed stranger before—is he really this cozy with him?

Markus Brück’s Gunther was weak but scrupulous—unable to look his “bloodbrother” in the eye when he knows murder is in the air, lacking the courage of his conniving. Daniel Sumegi sang a gravel-voiced Hagen, not inappropriately for the character—how pleasant to hear the Gibichungs outsung, for once, by the Walsung!—but his ominous figure, ramrod straight throughout the long and elaborate action of the final scene, filled us with uneasy awe as the denouement unfolded. Wendy Bryn Harmer’s Gutrune, seemed, like her brother, bewildered by the fine print in Hagen’s plot, but having her commit hara-kiri seems an eccentric way to suggest her discomfort.

Luretta Bybee, Stephanie Blythe and Margaret Jane Wray sang the Norns, the latter two with exceptional grandeur. Jennifer Zetlan, Cecelia Hall and Renee Tatum made a very handsome and fluttery trio of Rhinemaidens. Blythe doubled as Waltraute with her customary power but Zetlan seemed out of sorts as the Forest Bird, the music a bit light for her darkly-colored soprano.

Alwyn Mellor, who has sung the various Brünnhildes in opera houses from Paris and Leipzig to her native English north country, was a new factor in Seattle. She is a handsome woman and an able actress with a sizable and tireless voice if not the oceanic emotional sweep for which Wagnerians grow nostalgic.

It was a curiosity of this Ring, one I have noticed on other occasions in this hall, that many of the voices sounded brilliant on top notes but appeared to lack support in the middle range where Wagner tends to call for most of the meaning and most of the work. There was a gleaming brightness from Mesdames Mellor and Wray and from Mr. Vinke and the promising Froh of Ric Furman that seemed to be separate from the less solidly placed registers below. Is this a curious acoustic of the house, or of my seat (orchestra, row S), or of the taste in voices of the company’s leaders? Or was it a feature of this particular occasion? Only Ms. Blythe seemed able to fill the house with volume at every level of her range, and to appear to do it effortlessly. (We all know it takes effort; appearing effortless is what the stage calls for.)

Asher Fisch is an experienced Wagnerian—he has led eloquent Parsifals at the Met as well as in Seattle—and he works well with singers, following the dramatic arc, guiding with an elastic beat. His sound—and that of the Seattle Opera orchestra—is not sumptuous or majestic; neither is anything rushed or slighted. There were occasional bloops and there were long, glorious passages where the serene strings or the agitated harps or the flutes (often ignored in Wagner apprehension) wrung the heart and left nothing to be desired.

The Wadsworth production (which may or may not be replaced in the company’s new directorate), dwells happily on its Northwest visual motifs and possesses the finest dragon and flying Rhinemaidens of my experience. The ravens are well done, too, and the Forest Bird visible and viable.

But there are one or two fussy eccentricities. There is the scarlet ribbon, first seen unattractively furtive in Sieglinde’s hair, then turning up when Mime tells Siegfried about his mother and, at last, in Alberich’s hands in Hagen’s dream. There is the red bathrobe Sieglinde wears and Siegfried later treasures (it looks ridiculous on him) and gives to Brünnhilde. Surely the Ring was enough to treasure? All this ribboning distracts us from the Ring, and Wagner didn’t give us any music for a ribbon. A house spokesman told me, “They’re visual leitmotifs, in case you thought the Ring didn’t have enough leitmotifs.” But it has, actually; new ones clutter the story, like a Victorian parlor.

Happier was Martin Pakledinaz’s inspiration of making purple the Gibichung color, wedding costumes and all, and Thomas Lynch’s garish, vaguely Viking-Deco knotwork for the Gibichung Hall. This was kept sedately backgrounded by Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting, but when the hall caught fire and flickering red showed through it, the intricacies leaped out at us as if the walls were made of flame. Bravo! (Seattle Rings always have done fire well.)

Back in the “God” scenes of Das Rheingold, we were on a rain forest floor, with an enormous fallen log central to the action, as always (with a Wadsworth staging), thrust close to the footlights. In the concluding image of the cycle, after the palace has fallen and the world has burned and the Rhinemaidens have returned and the gods have been seen in tableau, we found ourselves back in the woods—but the fallen tree has become a “mother log,” and new young saplings are sprouting from it. A perfect recap and image of renewal. I hope it is an omen.

Photo: Elise Bakketun.