Der Ring des Nibelungen

Franz Vote
Chorus and Orchestra of the Seattle Opera
20 August 2001 (R), 22 August 2001 (W)
24 August 2001 (S), 26 August 2001 (G)
Dexter Horton Building Seattle
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio

Das Rheingold

Die Walküre


San Francisco Classical Voice

The scaffolding around an old office building (the “Dexter Horton”) on 3rd Ave. in downtown Seattle sports a banner advertising the company contracted to do some renovation work on the vintage 1915 edifice, with the legend: “What’s Old is New Again.” That could well be the motto for this month’s new production of Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Seattle Opera. It has been delighting audiences since its first run a week ago (August 5-10) with the “shock of the old.” It transports them from the accustomed conceptual abstractions of the post-Wieland Wagner and Patrice Chereau era of the late 20th century to a level of pictorial realism virtually unheard-of since the early years of Wagner’s own Bayreuth festival. This viewing was of the second cycle, beginning with Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, August 13 and 14.

With this third new production of Wagner’s tetralogy since the company first mounted the cycle in 1975, the Seattle Opera continues to consolidate its status as Bayreuth West. While Ring cycles have been a worldwide phenomenon for over a century, Seattle is the only place outside of Bayreuth to stage the work on a (semi)regular basis, in a series of week-long cycles during the summer. The first Seattle production, a distinctly traditionalist affair, ran four nine seasons, while the lightly post-modernized 1986 production had just four (up to 1995).

The new Ring production, directed by Stephen Wadsworth and designed by Thomas Lynch, is scheduled for revivals in 2005, 2009, and 2013, all in the new Marion Oliver McCall opera house due to open two years from now.

Rhinemaidens a-Swimming”

If the original Seattle Ring was “traditionalist,” the Wadsworth/Lynch production is downright radical in its return to lavishly realistic visual detail and close observation of the librettist-composer’s stage directions, though modified by a few carefully chosen, prominent departures. After decades of gloomy post-apocalyptic visions of the Ring cosmos or interpretations stressing the cynical corporate power structure of Wotan’s Valhalla, this is a defiantly back-to-nature Ring, eschewing any artificial substitutes for the natural symbols of Wagner’s Romantic-primitive mythos. The Rhinemaidens “swim” with remarkable verisimilitude (and the help of an elaborate network of trapeze-wires), even sporting genuine mermaid tails in Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes.

The mountaintop “waiting room” for Valhalla, where the lengthy scenes 2 and 4 of Rheingold transpire, is no longer the bland, rocky lunar landscape of so many productions (even in the supposedly Romantic realism of Gunther Schneider-Siemsen’s long-running Metropolitan opera staging). It is a high-Alpine forest glade, with variegated crags and caves, richly carpeted with moss and lichen. Hunding’s hut is nestled in among a dense, almost too cozy-looking fairy-tale forest, and Brünnhilde’s rock is surrounded by a genuinely alarming quantity of real flames.

Gods and Mortals Related

One result is that the actions and behaviors of Wagner’s all-too-human gods are further humanized, an effect even more pronounced when Wadsworth (in one of his deliberate departures from the text) stages the opening scenes of Act II of Walküre in the same setting as Act I: Hunding’s hut, tucked into a small clearing in a dense old-growth oak forest. Watching Wotan deliberate with Brünnhilde and later Fricka over his plans for his human offspring, Siegmund and Sieglinde, as he wanders in an out of Hunding’s temporarily abandoned dwelling, we are vividly reminded of how intimately related the lives of gods and mortals really are in this mythology.

When Fricka pokes about idly among the rude implements of Hunding’s and Sieglinde’s hearthside, we glimpse her ruminating for a moment on how the domestic trials of these ordinary humans strangely resemble her own. With this, Wagner’s largely unsympathetic portrait of her is softened, but not erased. Even the mossy, forested mountain-top of the gods’ scenes in Das Rheingold are surprisingly effective in conveying the idea that, at least before their move to Valhalla, these immortals inhabit the same earthly sites that will be the stage for the mortal dramas to follow.

Conductor Franz Vote (replacing the ailing Armin Jordan) provided something analogous to the lush realism of the Wadsworth/Lynch staging in his rather deliberately paced rendition of the big orchestral sections of the first two operas (the transitions and the “entry into Valhalla” that concludes Das Rheingold, the various act-preludes in Walküre), highlighting the richly detailed textures of Wagner’s orchestration. The results of this were mixed: the prelude to Act I of Walküre lacked stormy impetuosity (even as the staging lacked any notable storm effects). To some the “Ride of the Valkyries” might have sounded bloated, bombastic, and earthbound, reviving what one would normally consider the “bad habits” of a late-Romantic performance practice.

A Comfortable Grandeur

But especially in the context of this luxuriant, unashamedly picturesque staging, I found much to admire in Vote’s conducting (and in the Seattle Opera orchestra’s playing, occasional scrappiness notwithstanding,). The Valkyries’ music, the magic-fire music, the Rainbow-bridge at the close of Rheingold, and other “big” moments exuded a comfortable grandeur appropriate to the unrestrained ethos of the composer’s creative vision. One could savor to the fullest the textures of Wagner’s orchestral writing, and to feel it envelop the voices and images of his drama like a sumptuous, ornate, and finely-worked sonic costume.

Balancing these occasionally “indulgent” tempos, however, Vote moved many of the more declamatory passages (and those driven by the rhetorical structures of the text) at a surprisingly fast pace. Siegmund’s and Sieglinde’s narratives in Act I of Walküre, for instance, parts of Wotan’s monologue, and much of the long final scene between Wotan and Brünnhilde moved more quickly than usual as Vote imparted a nervous edginess to some passages that was, in most respects, plausible, even persuasive.

As Fricka, Stephanie Blythe’s rich, commanding tones and self-assured stage presence tended to upstage Philip Joll’s Wotan in the scenes they share in Rheingold and Walküre. (The combination of her imposing mass, haughty bearing, and air of injured dignity in the argument with Wotan over the incestuous Volsung twins was reminiscent of Hilda taking down her barrister husband a few notches in one of their domestic altercations on “Rumpole of the Bailey”.)

Cosmic Weltschmerz and Quotidian Realities

Aided by Vote’s swift pacing of the Act II monologue and the closing scene of Walküre, Joll rose to meet the demands of the role more than halfway, though the voice lacks depth of support in the lower register. His fine dramatic diction served the monologue well, while Wadsworth’s setting of this scene inside Hunding’s hut, Wotan exchanging confidences with Brünnhilde over the kitchen table, as it were, was a marvelous way of relating the god’s cosmic Weltschmerz to the quotidian realities of those human lives intertwined with own grand schemes.

Like Joll, Mark Baker (heard in San Francisco’s 1999 Walküre) excelled in his clear, sensitive delivery of Siegmund’s more declamatory or dramatic lines more than in sheer vocal power or lyrical bloom. Also like Joll, however, he was to some extent vocally upstaged by his female partner in Walküre, Margaret Jane Wray.

Wray imparted a splendid, deeply burnished tone to Sieglinde’s music, giving a strength and resilience to a character who is occasionally at risk of turning shrill and hysterical. There was considerably more excitement to Wray’s Sieglinde than to Jane Eaglen’s Brünnhilde. Eaglen’s performance is still vocally consummate, and Stephen Wadsworth’s direction seems to have given some added warmth to her portrayal of Wotan’s erring-but-loving daughter in Act III. But neither Eaglen’s singing nor her stage presence conveyed the level of dramatic engagement with other characters that Wadsworth’s nuanced direction has elicited from many others in this cast.

Vocal Lyricism and Indignant Outrage

Among these, Stephen Milling as both the “gentle” giant Fasolt in Rheingold and a thoroughly brutish Hunding in Walküre was particularly outstanding. In these contrasting roles Milling matched flawless text declamation with a magnificently sonorous bass, which he modulated effortlessly between tender vocal lyricism and indignant outrage (as Fasolt) and the various shades of sullenness, suspicion, and barbarian bravado of Hunding’s role.

As Alberich, Richard Paul Fink impressed more by his acting in the first and third scenes of Rheingold (wielding an ear-splitting whip in the latter) than by his vocalism, though the two came together impressively in a powerful delivery of Alberich’s parting curse. Thomas Harper presented an appropriately diminutive figure as Mime, though he seemed to aim for a slightly more dignified, less whining-wheedling tone than usual in this part. As the Rhine-maidens, Lisa Saffer (familiar to Bay Area audiences from appearances with the Philharmonia Baroque), Mary Philips, and Laura Tucker maintained beautiful intonation and ensemble even while dipping, swooping, and somersaulting (their aquatic acrobatics had the audience itching to applaud more than once in the first scene).

Wadsworth and costume designer Pakledinaz seemed to want to portray Loge (tenor Peter Kazaras) as “one of the gang” with the rest of the gods, rather than the usual outsider. (The giants, on the other hand, are costumed as something between Saracen and Samurai warriors, setting them apart from the more conventionally robed gods.) Wadsworth and Pakledinaz also presented Erda (impressively intoned by Nancy Maultsby) as less of an alien intrusion, less eerily elemental than usual, and more comfortingly maternal: in the context of the Grimm’s fairy-tale look of the sets, this Erda was more Mother Goose than mother earth.

A Thoroughly Persuasive Formula

The realism of the production did not extend to flying horses for the Valkyrie crew, though one of them did some agile rock-climbing as the others were collecting voodoo-doll-like figures of slain heroes in a sack. While some of their solo lines were faint, the eight of them delivered the ensemble music with force but without undue shrillness. The lighting, by Peter Kaczorowski, was beautifully calculated to bring out the depth and contours of the sets, but, aside from abundant lightning flashes, there was surprisingly little effort to realize any of the dynamic, shifting effects of atmosphere in which the first two Ring operas abound. Whether the back-to-nature realism of the new Seattle Ring will preserve its novelty and freshness for another decade or more, only time will tell. For the time being, at least, the vivid pictorialism, thoughtful stage direction, and solid (sometimes inspired) musical performances of the 2001 Seattle Ring is proving to be a thoroughly persuasive formula.

Thomas Grey

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 1.9 GByte (MP3)
Two minutes at the beginning of act 1 Siegfried is missing.
In-house recording
A production by Stephen Wadsworth