Climbing the Wagnerian summit: Seattle Opera reaches for greatness in staging of ‘Ring’ cycle

[2 September 2009]

By John Von Rhein

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

SEATTLE — “Ringheads” have plenty of reasons to rejoice.

No fewer than four major productions of Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” are popping up from coast to coast between now and 2013, the bicentennial of the great German composer’s birth, drawing acolytes from across the globe to worship at the various shrines where this monumental four-opera saga is being presented.

The Seattle Opera’s summer revival of its “Ring” production — the third and final cycle ends this week — is just one manifestation of an unusual burst of “Ring”-mania. Within the next four years, Wagner’s massive 16-hour epic will have new productions by the Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles Opera, San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera, with Washington and San Francisco sharing theirs.

Wagnerians are, of course, famously obsessive in their devotion to this marathon masterpiece, perhaps even more so than the Hobbit-eared Tolkienites who have made a cottage industry of a certain other “Ring.”

Thousands of Ringheads representing 49 states and 24 foreign countries virtually sold out the three cycles the Seattle Opera mounted this month at McCaw Hall — the third of four planned quadrennial revivals since the Stephen Wadsworth production debuted in 2001. Even with seats priced as high as $308, the $8.5 million extravaganza is expected to break even; what’s more, it’s expected to generate almost $9.5 million in economic benefits for Seattle, 45 percent of that from Wagner buffs coming from outside the Seattle area.

The most monumental fairy tale composed continues to enthrall opera-goers, challenge musicians and absorb scholars, 123 years after it was first staged as an integral work in Bayreuth (the Bavarian hamlet whose theater has become synonymous with Wagner’s works), even as it strains the resources of every company that produces it.

Undaunted, Seattle Opera has notably built its international reputation on its “Ring” cycles, having mounted the tetralogy 38 times since its first cycle in 1975. The Wadsworth staging is scheduled to be given a final time in 2013 as a kind of swan song for Speight Jenkins, the company’s visionary general director who has produced all 10 of Wagner’s mature operas since taking over as general director in 1983, and who plans to retire in the company’s 50th anniversary year in 2014.

A key question for Seattle, as for all the other opera houses that would mount “The Ring of the Nibelung,” is how anyone can successfully produce the single most difficult work in the repertory at a time when great Wagner singers are not exactly thick on the ground. Jenkins pinned his hopes on a number of relatively young though experienced singers, while cutting a few production corners — with somewhat mixed results.

Hopes ran especially high in the case of Janice Baird, a Brunnhilde perhaps best known for stepping in for the ailing Deborah Voigt midway through the second act of “Tristan und Isolde” at the Met in 2008. The New York-born Baird is young and beautiful, and she brought both coltish energy and dramatic presence to the role. But her vocal instrument proved too slender for the role, losing focus and quality the higher it climbed, wobbly and patchy at full cry.

Although her Siegfried, the Danish Stig Andersen, is no true Heldentenor, he used his attractive lyric voice intelligently and expressively, and he paced himself shrewdly through his two operas.

As the light and dark forces battling for control of the all-powerful ring that drives the drama, Greer Grimsley as Wotan and Richard Paul Fink as the dwarf Alberich brought vocal and histrionic command, as well as telling psychological depth to their pivotal roles. Stephanie Blythe sounded glorious as Wotan’s consort, Fricka.

In a production marked by double and even triple castings, Stuart Skelton and Margaret Jane Wray sang capably but generated little erotic heat as the incestuous Siegmund and Sieglinde. Andrea Silvestrelli growled menacingly as Hunding and Fasolt.

Daniel Sumegi made an effective Fafner but a blank Hagen. Gordon Hawkins and Marie Plette were merely adequate as the halfsiblings Gunther and Gutrune. The strong turns of Maria Streijffert as the Earth goddess Erda and Dennis Petersen as the slimy dwarf Mime were undermined by odd directorial choices. Robert Spano’s conducting gained authority as the cycle went on, but it was hard to detect a coherent, overarching vision of the work or consistently firm dramatic impetus, despite the committed playing of the orchestra.

Wadsworth’s “green” production favored storybook naturalism over concept, framed by designer Thomas Lynch’s pretty Olympic Rain Forest-style vistas of dense pines, mossy banks and rocky ledges. There were real jets of fire, a real horse and a nifty mime in a bear suit. The director’s detailing of character relationships, particularly that of Wotan and Fricka, was absorbing but skirted the larger themes of the work. And apparent economies backfired, most notably the gods of Valhalla occupying, in Act 2 of “Die Walkure,” the same humble hut in which mortals Hunding, Sieglinde and Siegmund had appeared in the previous act.

Oh well. Give Seattle an “E” for noble effort. So outsized are the demands of the “Ring” that no single production could satisfy every listener, while the music dramas are so rich with possible meaning (also ambiguity) that no interpretation could be considered definitive. The very inexhaustibility of Wagner’s epic — and the magnificence of its music — are a large measure of what keeps Ringheads returning again and again to this sacred monster, joined communally in a musico-dramatic experience like no other.

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