A New ‘Ring,’ Or Is This ‘Rheingold’ Just Toe In The Wagnerian Stream?

The gods make their way to Valhalla in the Seattle Opera production of Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold.’ (Photos by Sunny Martini)

SEATTLE — Seattle Opera‘s choice of Wagner’s Das Rheingold to open its 60th season is cause for celebration for opera fans in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Wagner’s music has been an enduring focus for the company, which was, as general director Christina Scheppelmann pointed out, producing Ring cycles back in the days when such things were very rare and Wagner’s music generally was neglected by North American companies.

Seattle’s last full Ring was a decade ago, and many have questioned whether the music dramas of Wagner will continue to be a company centerpiece. In the fall of 2022, Seattle Opera mounted Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Jordan de Souza; this summer’s four-performance run of the first of the Ring’s four works may well prove to be a stand-alone event.

With a search on for a new general director (Scheppelmann is off to La Monnaie in Brussels), it seems premature to anticipate any quick resumption of full Ring cycles in Seattle. The continuing presence of a loyal Wagner audience was demonstrated by a nearly full house opening night Aug. 12 in McCaw Hall. Attendees witnessed a strong cast and an orchestra made up of members of the Seattle Symphony, conducted by its gifted and exacting former music director, Ludovic Morlot, in a production directed by Brian Staufenbiel, with projections by David Murakami.

Michael Mayes ‘created a complex, nuanced character’ as Alberich.

Heading the cast was bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, who has been the Wotan of choice in three past Ring cycles, and, predictably, his experience, authority, and gravitas created a rewarding performance. A more recent Seattle favorite, baritone Michael Chioldi, sang the relatively insignificant role of Donner but showed all the right stuff when summoning a tempest of projected clouds in Rheingold’s final scene.

Mezzo-soprano Melody Wilson’s performance as Fricka lacked a certain measure of dramatic complexity, but her singing was stylish and effective. Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves and soprano Katie van Kooten made their company debuts as Erda and Freia, as did bass Peixin Chen as Fasolt.

The greatest vocal and dramatic excitement came from baritone Michael Mayes’ Alberich and tenor Frederick Ballentine’s Loge. Mayes created a complex, nuanced character and seemed enthusiastically prepared to explore what director Staufenbiel saw as the comic aspects of the role in the first scene and then morphed into the acme of malign intensity as he cursed the ring and all who will come to possess it. Ballentine’s Loge was nimble, complicated, and contradictory — everything the character should be. He delivered his extended solo passages with verve and his exchanges with Alberich and Wotan with flair and collaborative respect.

Frederick Ballentine’s Loge ‘was nimble, complicated, and contradictory.’

The Seattle Symphony has its own long, strong Wagner tradition, though after a decade there have naturally been changes in personnel. Occasional blemishes cropped up on opening night, but the score was delivered with care and attention. However, where the orchestra is concerned, it’s necessary to consider the particulars of Staufenbiel’s vision, which had a decidedly negative impact. His Rheingold is a mix of conventional staging and opera-in-concert, with a broadly cinematic scope in which projections do most of the visual heavy lifting.

Staufenbiel puts the orchestra on stage, often behind a scrim; the empty orchestra pit becomes an essential part of the staging, used effectively by the Rhinemaidens and the Nibelungen. On the actual stage, orchestral players toil below a gantry-style bridge from which much of the singing originates, though there are occasional entrances and exits through the instrumental players and some activity at the front of the stage. The singers were often required to rise and fall on small areas of mobile platforms. Obvious safety concerns mandated an old-school “stand, sing, and above all, stay put!” strategy. The giants peered into a camera that projected their images, larger than life, with grotesque visual distortion. As for the gods up on the gantry, they had little choice but to enter, stand, deliver, and exit. The overall effect was initially interesting, but the static limitations of the conceit became more and more evident as the novelty wore off.

Despite Wagner’s famous dictum “Kinder, macht Neues!” (Children, do something new!), he could never have envisioned the whole steamer trunk of technological riches now available for those who want to explore such things. And although Wagner took pride in creating an invisible orchestra for his Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a visible orchestra in Seattle’s McCaw Hall. What goes awry is the sound, and the sound projection, of the orchestra. In an otherwise enjoyable opera-in-concert production of Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila last January, the Seattle Symphony, which never sounds dull and muted on their home turf of Benaroya Hall, just didn’t deliver with full throttle from the McCaw stage. In Rheingold, one longed for the intense orchestral sound that is indisputably one of the score’s chief glories.

Greer Grimsley’s ‘experience, authority, and gravitas created a rewarding performance’ as Wotan.

Costumes designed by Mathew LeFebvre for Minnesota Opera were a steampunk/Game of Thrones affair. They did no harm but added to the already self-consciously trendy vibe. Individual taste will shape audience reactions to the restlessness of the Staufenbiel/Murakami conception. The popularity and expediency of projections have been a fact of operatic life for years now, but one wonders if they haven’t become the 21st-century equivalent of the hack libretti Wagner so strongly objected to in his own day? Do they let down the quality and consistency of the Gesamtkunstwerk?

I enjoyed Murakami’s various weather effects and visual symbols — to a point. The famous extended E-flat major chord that starts the opera was accompanied by a projected mosaic of interlocking gears, a fine visual metaphor for the intricacy of the cycle’s complicated plot. Other effects were less inspired, and some even tacky, particularly the neon squiggles acting as the rainbow bridge that might have been imported from an underfunded gay pride parade. And the sublime seriousness of Erda’s vignette was undercut by costume, lighting, and projections. Even so, Murakami’s final gesture did show insight: the gods up on their gantry, not marching to Valhalla but menaced by an undefined white void.

Seattle’s summer Rheingold is fundamentally an honest attempt to live up to Wagner’s make-it-new challenge. While it is far, far better than the company’s last so-called “Green Ring,” with its ultra-realistic, Disney-esque mise-en-scène, Staufenbiel and Murakami’s flashy effects add less than one might think to a musically solid performance of a magical score.