‘Ring’ In Seattle: ‘Echt’ Wagner From Spirited Ensemble

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Seattle Ring Box Set (Avie)
Seattle Ring Box Set (Avie)

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen: Alwyn Mellor, Margaret Jane Wray, Wendy Bryn Harmer (sopranos); Stephanie Blythe (mezzo-soprano); Stefan Vinke, Stuart Skelton, Dennis Petersen, Mark Schowalter (tenors); Richard Paul Fink, Markus Brück (baritones); Daniel Sumegi (bass-baritone); Andrea Silvestrelli (bass); Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Seattle Opera Chorus, Asher Fisch (conductor).
(Avie, 14 CDs)

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW — Against all odds, a relatively small, upstart opera company in Seattle made Wagner’s Ring Cycle — still the greatest show on earth — its signature achievement in 1975, and just as astonishingly kept at it for nearly four decades. And now, Seattle Opera is taking its Ring out to the world in the form of an audio recording of its 2013 production, released appropriately by a relatively small label, Avie.

Seattle Opera's 'Ring Cycle' on Avie
Seattle Opera’s ‘Ring’ Cycle on Avie

This may be surprising only to those who recall that for a long time, the Ring was so colossal, so demanding, and so expensive to produce that only the big boys dared to try. But nowadays, the majority of new Rings are issued by smaller specialist labels, and they often come from such once-unlikely Ring cities as Rotterdam, Barcelona, Valencia, or Adelaide.  So why not Seattle, which becomes the first North American company other than the mighty Met to document a complete Ring on discs.  (Christoph von Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra got halfway through in the 1990s, recording Das Rheingold and Die Walküre before the beleaguered Decca pulled the plug on the cycle.)

While we may not get the visual impact of the Seattle Ring — it was nicknamed the “Green” Ring for its sets depicting nature and the evil forces bent upon destroying it — the CDs do suggest that this is one of the last so-called traditional Rings that respects what Wagner wanted onstage. When Wagner’s copious stage directions call for thunder, which is often, the sound rumbles through the room in tremendous rolls right on cue, and a variety of stage noises come right out of the instruction book. Singers who are supposed to be off in the distance sound that way most of the time, and elsewhere, the engineers usually achieve a pleasing balance between the voices onstage and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in the pit.

Speight Jenkins, former general director, Seattle Opera
Jenkins, former general director, Seattle Opera

The packaging for a change gives you just about all that you would want from an opera set — 14 CDs, each in their own sleeves adorned with a photo from the production, packed into a flip-top box along with four booklets containing complete librettos and a good deal of Wagner’s stage directions, and a fifth stuffed with more photos and two essays by outgoing Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins. A former music critic himself, Jenkins’ essay, “The Timeless Humanity of Wagner’s Ring,” is a terrific read because it dispenses with the usual historical fol-de-rol and shows us how Wagner’s characters relate to us as human beings.

Moreover, the performances at times seem to reflect Jenkins’ insights into the psychology of the characters. Alwyn Mellor’s Brünnhilde often sounds overwrought, tremulous, wildly trying to hit the high Cs, with a final Immolation Scene with more grief than heroism. But this fits Jenkins’ explanation of Brünnhilde’s pain, first losing her father Wotan’s approval, then her magic powers as a Valkyrie (i.e., her freedom as an independent woman) and finally losing her husband Siegfried as a result of her own misinformed plotting.

Stephanie Blythe sings Fricka (with Greer Grimsley as Wotan) among other roles. (Chris Bennion)
Blythe as Fricka (Grimsley as Wotan) in ‘Rheingold.’ (Chris Bennion)

Stephanie Blythe is one of the two standout singers in this Ring, delivering a strong, steady Fricka who thoroughly takes Wotan apart in Act II of Walküre, yet without being a shrew about it. Blythe also shines as Waltraute in Götterdämmerung, conveying the long narrative so that the listener stays with it, and doubles as a fine Second Norn earlier in Act I. The other is Dennis Petersen’s full-voiced, accurately-sung Mime; not for him the whining and conniving that can suggest an anti-Semitic caricature to Wagnerphobes. The danger here is Mime upstaging Stefan Vinke’s Siegfried — which does happen early on — but Vinke may have been cannily conserving his resources for Siegfried’s arduous final duet where he holds his own.

Greer Grimsley’s Wotan is serviceable in the first two operas, with some heft and authority that finally gathers stature in Siegfried. Richard Paul Fink treats Alberich as the embodiment of pure unfiltered evil, Stuart Skelton’s Siegmund is best when in narrative mode, Margaret Jane Wray’s Sieglinde exudes compassion yet can be harsh in the upper regions, and the singers in the bass roles are generally weak. The Seattle Opera Chorus sings with robust, rowdy gusto in Acts II and III of Götterdämmerung.

Dennis Petersen as Mime with Stefan Vinke as Siegfried in 'Siegfried' at Seattle Opera 2013. (Elise Bakketun)
Petersen (left), a full-voiced standout as Mime, with Vinke as Siegfried. (Elise Bakketun)

In his second recorded Ring, Asher Fisch leads a mostly straight-forward, shipshape, conventionally paced set of performances, with Walküre taking the checkered flag as the most electric performance of the four operas.  Some of the famous passages do not come off with much impact, yet others, like “Siegfried’s Funeral March” at a more-propulsive-than-usual tempo, a beautiful “Forest Murmurs” and “Winterstürme” through the end of Act I, hit the mark squarely. The biggest asset of this set is the steeped-in-the-idiom playing of the Seattle Symphony, whose lower strings and biting lower brasses dominate the sound and give it a deep, dark, hefty coloring that comes surprisingly close to the Bayreuth sound as heard on live recordings from the Festspielhaus.

Asher Fisch
Asher Fisch conducts a Seattle Opera orchestra steeped in the idiom.

Now to the hard part: Can this set compete in a field where the blue-chip names (Solti, Karajan, Furtwängler, Böhm, Barenboim, Levine, etc.) still dominate the Ring listings and dozens of later renditions and newly unearthed historical artifacts — sometimes at bargain prices — jostle for the shrinking space on a Ring-nut’s sagging shelves? Let’s face it: For those who insist that the Golden Age of Wagnerian singing is long gone, or that Furtwängler’s or Solti’s or name-your-legend’s way is the only way, the Seattle Ring is not going to convince them otherwise.

Yet I found myself consistently drawn into Wagner’s universe by this set, getting involved with the characters, the issues at stake, and the communal let’s-make-a-Ring feeling among the cast and in the audience. The old saw applies; this set produces an effect greater than the sum of its parts, and it makes me want to venture up to Bayreuth-by-Puget Sound when they put it all together again someday.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.