From Rhine Gold To Gods’ Twilight, Seattle ‘Ring’ Glows

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The lush Pacific Northwest was the inspiration for the Seattle Opera Ring Cycle, revived in August 2013 (Elise Bakketun)
By Ken Hoover

The Seattle Opera’s latest Ring cycle, directed by Stephen Wadsworth, shows the influence of the  northwest environment – lots of trees, cliffs, etc. In that sense, it may be closer to Wagner’s original concept than any Ring currently being performed. 

The Rhinemaidens hover over their gold (Elise Bakketun)
The Rhinemaidens hover over their gold (Elise Bakketun)

I saw the first of this summer’s three cycles with high expectations, and I was not disappointed. From the opening E-flat major chord, which conductor Asher Fisch developed in a leisurely manner from virtually nothing to the gloriously rippling Rhine, I was impressed by his handling of the 100-plus piece orchestra, drawn from the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and incorporating Wagner specialists from near and far.

The Rhinemaidens swimming in the depths (suspended from above) were very effective. Their taunting of Alberich was actually humorous and drew laughter from the knowledgeable and involved audience. The Rhinemaiden trio was hauntingly melodic and Richard Paul Fink‘s Alberich was sung with dramatic attention to the foil he plays.

Wotan leads the gods to Valhalla (Elise Bakketun)
Wotan (Greer Grimsley) ascends to Valhalla (Elise Bakketun)

Fasolt was sung by Andrea Silvestrelli and Fafner by Daniel Sumegi, both returning from the 2009 Seattle Ring production. The giants’ introductory theme was played with menacing power, the lowest notes in the tuba seeming to emerge as if from the bowels of the earth. The descent to Nibelheim was dramatic and mystical, and the entrance of the gods into Valhalla was golden glory.

Die Walküre was especially lyrical. Stuart Skelton’s Siegmund and Margaret Jane Wray’s Sieglinde realized the romantic peaks of the first act with Silvestrelli’s villainous Hunding adding superb drama.

Stage director Stephen Wadsworth’s insightful touches add a great deal to this production. His view is that Fricka is not the shrew so many directors make her out to be but is instead faithful to her responsibility of protecting marriage and the home. Stephanie Blythe gave Fricka a noble character, and the first scene of the second act was fascinating under this interpretation. Wotan, sung marvelously throughout by Greer Grimsley, was majestic and powerful in the beginning, but in this pivotal scene in the Ring, he realizes he is wrong, that he has made some bad decisions, and that the end is inevitable.

Alwyn Mellor as Brünnhilde in 'Die Walküre' (Elise Bakketun)
Alwyn Mellor as Brünnhilde in ‘Die Walküre’ (Elise Bakketun)

British soprano Alwyn Mellor, making her Seattle Opera debut as Brünnhilde, won the hearts of the audience from her first “Hojotoho,” which embodied elements of both lyricism and heroism. Unfortunately, she fell victim to a virus and withdrew from Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Lori Phillips, who recently sang the title role in Turandot in Seattle, was a rapturous and flawless Brünnhilde in the final two operas. Her sister Valkyries performed as an ensemble that had been together for a long time.

Typical of the uniquely intimate and personal feel of the Seattle-Wadsworth Ring, each of the Valkyries bids individual farewell to Brünnhilde as the music swells toward the “Leb’ wohl.” Grimsley was magnificent in this heart-wrenching, beautiful scene, and the magic fire was impressive.

Siegfried is dominated, of course, by the character Siegfried — until the third act “awakening” scene, which is shared with Brünnhilde. German tenor Stefan Vinke, making his Seattle Opera debut, delivered a heroic performance. He sang at times with such gusto that I feared he might not make it through the demanding final scene. One slight intonation slip on a high fortissimo note took nothing away from a memorable performance.

Siegfried kills Mime and is alone (Elise Bakketun)
Vinke and Peterson: The death of Mime (Elise Bakketun)

My favorite Wadsworth moment occurred in Act II of Siegfried. After our young hero runs his sword through the irritating Mime, delightfully sung and portrayed by Dennis Petersen, he kneels down and momentarily cradles the despised dwarf’s head in his arms. I have always felt that Siegfried had to have some residual affection for the only father he ever knew. It is true that even children raised by abusive parents have a remarkable degree of affection for them. It felt very right to me.

Götterdämmerung, the grand opera of the Ring, moved with meaningful purpose through the Norns’ review of history, Siegfried’s Rhine journey, the glorious choral work in the second act, all the gimmickry and trickery that takes place at the hall of the Gibichungs, and on to Siegfried’s death and Brünhilde’s immolation scene. Sumegi (Fafner in Das Rheingold and Siegfried) sang a strong Hagen. Fink’s Alberich in the Rhine watch scene was diabolical.

Alberich and Hagen in 'Götterdämmerung' (Alan Alabastro)
Sumegi, Fink: Hagen under Alberich’s spell (Alan Alabastro)

Wagner wisely ended his massive excursion into human struggles, relationships and stewardship of nature with the shimmering theme that Ernest Newman tagged as “redemption by love.” It is in a glorious major key, and most of those who leave the theater surely carry with them a warm sense of hope that we have learned enough that the future will be better than the past we have vividly experienced over the past sixteen or so hours.

McCaw Hall, which accommodates some 2,900 guests with unobstructed views of the stage, was packed for all four operas. The acoustics are rich and generous. This was the fourth three-cycle presentation of the Wadsworth production.

The Seattle Opera board of directors and staff have a solid commitment to Wagner’s thrilling music dramas. The primary force behind the excellence they have achieved is undoubtedly the intrepid general director, Speight Jenkins. He put together the remarkable ensemble cast and engaged the extraordinary Asher Fisch, one of the finest Wagner conductors of our time. Jenkins sees to it that resources go first to support performance excellence. And after each performance he meets with a large contingent of the audience in a lively question-and-answer period, which is a delight because of his broad knowledge base of all things operatic and his open and generous personality.

Next year, Jenkins steps down after 30 years as general director. The general director-designate is Aiden Lang, who will be coming from the New Zealand Opera and will assume full responsibilities in September 2014. There will be another Ring cycle in four years, or maybe six. It may be one more repeat of this production or a new production. These decisions will be forthcoming. But be assured, the Ring will be here in Seattle.

Ken Hoover, a regular contributor to CVNC, was educated at Richmond College and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His work in Clinical Pastoral Education brought him to Duke University Medical Center in 1971; he retired after 30 years as a substance abuse counselor. The landmark event of his life was a 1950 trip to hear Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra in Richmond. He sang in the Choral Society of Durham (NC) and has composed ten choral anthems and a number of service pieces, some performed widely.