Der Ring des Nibelungen

Robert Spano
Chorus and Orchestra of the Seattle Opera
Date/Location
7 August 2005 (R), 8 August 2005 (W)
18 August 2005 (S), 12 August 2005 (G)
Marion Oliver McCaw Hall Seattle
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast

Das Rheingold

Die Walküre

Siegfried

Götterdämmerung
Gallery
Reviews
wagnersocietyflorida.org

OBSERVATIONS ABOUT THE SEATTLE “RING” 2005

Sunday, August 7, 2005: PRE-EVENING: DAS RHEINGOLD

It must be said that Seattle, its institutions and media, are fully aware of what is descending onto them in the form of Richard Wagner’s tetralogy, “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, a stage festival play for Three Days and a Pre-Evening. Coverage in brochures, newspapers and TV is certainly very prominent, quantitatively and visually.

One fine example is the attention the cycle receives in the Sunday Seattle Times. Music critic Melinda Bargreen gratefully recycles every possible known stereotype about Wagner: from the unavoidable Wagner trademark, the valkyries’ horned helmets, to the simplistic “rampant anti-semitism” of the composer, the ego-maniacal seducer of many wives to the ruthless exploiter of Ludwig II – it’s all there. She sketches an overview of the “Ring’s” happenings that could have been written pre-Wieland Wagner, almost as if his readings and those of Chéreau, Friedrich, Hall, Kupfer and all the others had never happened in-between – a kind of pre-penicillin medical view. Although she tries hard to bring us a bit closer to the world of the “Ring”, there is no reference to the all-important web of leitmotivs that really form the spine of the tetralogy; and she goes on to nonchalantly revising the work’s family tree by naming Hagen Alberich’s father – schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn? (cf. page J3, “Who’s Who in The Ring”). But the visual presence in the paper is certainly impressive. Keep trying!

In the same Sunday Feature the cycle’s conductor Robert Spano showed himself convinced that “Wagner was a rotten person, no doubt about it.” Hm. Despite his qualifications in the same article I am not quite sure as to whether this would be, say, a helpful attitude towards the task at hand. Holy Simplicissimus! (Side thought: an essay about the development of Wagner stereotypes in America.)

Seattle Opera Director Speight Jenkins on the other hand offers us a very insightful introduction to the four operas in the August issue of “encore”. I would think his concluding remarks, that “the Ring’s overall power comes not only through its great music and fascinating story but, in large part, through how the two together relate to each listener’s fabric of memory.” are getting right to the core of today’s reproduction attempts of the tetralogy.

“The two together…”: In recent years we have witnessed an increasing weight shift towards the stage, the direction and the acting, neglecting the musical aspects in favor of the visual. It appears that story and stage are in need of renewed and different interpretation, while the music in a certain sense is still “untouchable”. And I don’t think this can be simply explained because we’ve got no Furtwänglers and Soltis anymore – there are a number of younger hopefuls to take over: Gergiev, Pappano, Thielemann.

They should have the insight and the clout to set that balance straight again. Let’s see.

I have only one strong reservation, however, about Mr Jenkins’ otherwise highly interesting reflections on The Ring, when he says about Götterdämmerung: “…, the text is nowhere near as rich with complex meanings as the text of the others.” I have found The Third Day to be as loaded and summed up with meanings as can be. One example: (“Hagen, mein Sohn!) Hasse die Frohen!” – These prophetic three words must have been bin Laden’s directive to Atta, Zarqawi and a whole generation of haters, and they tell us more than a hundred pages of so-called terror expert analyses. Can this diverging view possibly be explained with the overwhelming difficulties associated with a meaningful translation of Wagner’s texts that we are looking at this so differently? How in heaven do you translate Brünnhilde’s “…Alles ward mir nun frei.”? Certainly not with a simple “…everything became now clear to me.” More about the translation problem later.

Of course Seattle is not Bayreuth. It can’t be, and rightly so doesn’t want to be.

For the “Wagnerianer” Bayreuth feels like going to church on Easter Sunday, while Seattle seems closer to a relaxed outing to Disney Land. It simply is a different world, not only as far as dress code, or rather its absence, or the opera etiquette with regard to scene applause is concerned. Already now I am dreading the “premature” move of the last act’s curtain of “Die Walküre”. Will I be allowed to listen to the final bars of The Magic Fire Music?

I certainly don’t want to belittle Seattle and its opera. To the contrary. I think both the venue and the people who make it happen are extraordinary. Speight Jenkins’ devotion to Wagner and his greatest work deserve unqualified praise. It is a huge task these days to – first of all, have a concept – then bring together a conductor, a director with his multitude of helpers as well as all the singers – characters – required for this world of its own, to craft a coherent sequence of four major operas. Who will be the weakest link?

Whenever I am sitting in the dark, waiting for the broad and quietly flowing E-flat Major to slowly crescend to agitated waters flowing around the submerged rock in the Rhine, I wonder what the journey will show us until the two ravens are sent home by Brünnhilde and Hagen is finally drowned by greed and the Rhine maidens. (Another side note: whatever is Alberich doing at this point?)

This time my disappointment set in very early – as soon as it became clear that this Rhine was not a majestic stream but a shallow muddy side creek, at least in the orchestra. The stage of the first scene, Alberich and two of the three Rhine maidens consoled me to a certain extent, above all Richard Paul Fink’s Alberich and Mary Phillips’ Wellgunde. The first scene stage setting was certainly something special visually!

The two transition parts in the music, Alberich fleeing with the gold, so breathtakingly transforming to that majestic motif preparing us for Walhall, and that dramatic descent to Nibelheim: both remained equally shallow, restrained, even cheap with that tape insert of the anvil hammering. I can’t remember ever having heard such an ill-balanced orchestra, with the heavy brass sounding almost like persiflage from the right, when the giants made their entry. The rest of the brass, the woodwinds and the strings were kept in a kind of Mantovani sound range and lacked both the chromatic qualities so important in this music as well as the coherence and telling development of the leitmotifs.

I thought Loge did quite a good job, although at times he was pretty close to inviting the audience, sit-com conditioned and ever ready for a spontaneous laugh as it seemed, to make their premature contributions to the performance. Alberich’s curse and Erda’s dark voice were impressive. Donner and Froh however didn’t seize their opportunities towards the end of the “Pre-evening”; especially Donner’s “heda hedo” was very, lets say, reserved. Greer Grimsley was a well-balanced Wotan and I’m looking forward to his narration and the farewell from his daughter this evening. Again, the hollow solemnity of the Gods ascending to Walhall was inadequately supported by the conductor. The orchestra leader was certainly my single most disappointment of the first day.

It can be very refreshing to see the Rhine Maidens swimming and fooling around in the Rhine, as designed by Wagner and not by some para-Wagner stage director. The same goes for Walhalla and Nibelheim, but then the “naturalistic” approach, here intended by design, must be supported by an adequately strong contribution, if not almost musical leadership, from the orchestra pit. Unfortunately I didn’t find that on the opening night.

Monday, August 8, 2005. FIRST DAY: DIE WALKÜRE

What can I say about this Walküre? I think it was as good as it gets in 2005. The Wälsungen pair was near perfect in voice and balance. The strong dark bass of Stephen Milling’s Hunding was a revelation, as was his acting. Wagner’s instructions for the stage were recreated to the dot: 1876. Set and lighting designs were absolute state of the art. Even Siegmund’s and Sieglinde’s love had a kind of late 19th century restraint and avoided today’s blatant histrionics.

Again, my only quibble then was about what came from the pit. Wagner’s music is written in a way that brutally uncovers inadequacies from the orchestra. The first few bars of the Walküre’s short overture are revelatory, so to say, like its pendant, the first bars of Mahler’s Second. If that tremolo in the strings does not come across strong, convincing and dry – listen to Solti! – envisioning Siegmund’s flight in the subsiding storm is already decisively reduced. And the Wälsungen-Blut in the coda was simply not blossoming. The heavy brass associated with Hagen’s brutality came removed from the orchestra body again, almost like a deliberate forerunner of the Fernorchester in Mahler’s Eight. On the other hand strings, woodwind and the other brass sounded by far not rough enough but had that polished shine of a toothpaste commercial’s background music.

I don’t want to appear as if I’m just concentrating nagging on Maestro Spano’s output, but I had a look at the orchestra pit during the intermission. It is large enough to house a Strauss opera size orchestra. The first and second violins were divided to the left and right of the conductor, as has become standard today. There seemed to be enough space to integrate the heavy brass into the orchestra texture. And I must say that over time the orchestra’s contribution became more pronounced, the leitmotivs more coherent and the chromatics, above all in the third act, finally became more colorful. Although still,

Wotan’s exit in blazing anger at the end of the second act sounded… somewhat upset, not really, really angry. But enough of that.

Brünnhilde’s “hojotoho” at the beginning of the second act was just glorious (Jane Eaglen, still fresh?), and Wotan’s failed negotiation with his wife was one of the best I’ve ever heard. I have not found any real weaknesses in the second or third acts, neither with the singers nor with the directing, except for my reservations below. The set designs were simply breathtaking and the rocks in the third act looked as hard as Wotan’s initial anger with his daughter. Greer Grimsley’s stamina after the grueling second act stayed rock solid as well. Jane Eaglen’s Brünnhilde made a very convincing plea for a protective fire to her father, although her upper register was not always firm and unforced, and the visual part on stage of the greatest father-daughter farewell ever conceived was influenced by (her) physical realities.

Of course Patrice Chéreau and his two protagonists, Donald MacIntyre and Gwyneth Jones, had, probably forever, set the standard for the stage part of this scene so high I’m always finding myself disappointed by other productions. And given the general naturalistic approach on stage, this (fire marshall approved?) fire most probably would fail to frighten anybody away, with the consequential danger for the real hero to find the place congested once he made it there…

Oh, and kudos to the Seattle audience. Absolute silence until seconds after the last bar! Marvellous! My apologies!

Wednesday, August 10, 2005. SECOND DAY: SIEGFRIED

Again, set and lighting designers Thomas Lynch and Peter Kaczorowski have surpassed themselves. In all three acts! I liked Alan Woodrow’s portraying of a poised nature boy Siegfried and the difficult role of Mime was handled well by Thomas Harper. Alberich and Wotan were again very convincing. Ewa Podles’ superb lower range as Erda made for a fascinating exchange with her former lover who now sees the God’s end coming near. Greer Grimsley as Wotan was certainly clearly supporting his claim as one of the few leading singers of this role today. Jane Eaglen’s “Heil dir, Sonne!” was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. The restrained acting was again maintained on “The Second Day”, especially by Siegfried and Brünnhilde, and the long slow crescendo at the end of the third act maintained balance and tension until the pair finally laughed death in his face. Of course there was a certain physical restriction and stiffness in acting related to Brünnhilde again on stage, and I don’t know to what extent it was the director’s guidance or the lack of natural agility by Ms Eaglen.

I must say I’ve never ever before heard an audience laugh at Siegfried’s findings, “Das ist kein Mann!”. Was it translation again, as there were certainly no overdone histrionics to induce that spontaneous sitcom reaction again? I don’t want to appear as a humorless grim purist, but omnia tempus habent!

It seemed to me that the orchestra and Maestro Spano were slowly raising to the occasion with their contribution. The heavy brass was still sounding separated from the orchestra texture but was no longer so extremely disconnected as in Das Rheingold. And the score’s wonderful chromatics started to blossom – the Forest Murmur was simply poetic, both on stage and in the music. Only that short virtually symphonic poem opening the third act with almost a dozen leitmotifs converging didn’t quite succeed in causing the usual goose pimples.

August 12, 2005. THIRD DAY: GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG

The final day of the tetralogy contains several scenes I myself consider to be of highest importance for the understanding of the whole Ring universe, and many of them are based on that (neglected?) axis of evil, Alberich and Hagen. The latter’s watch of Gibichungen Hall in the first act and then the promise to himself in the second, these scenes are so pivotal for the understanding that their evil is not that simple black and white good and bad we’ve become accustomed to in countless TV stories.

That said I’ve heard darker Hagens, and I would have preferred to hear and see Stephen Milling in that role, although I again liked Richard Paul Fink’s Alberich. The Three Norns, naturalistic again instead of being positioned behind computer consoles, were too static for my taste, although I know this scene requires considerable fantasy and concept to keep it alive. Another great transformation music, Siegfried’s Rheinfahrt, remained unremarkable, but I liked Waltraute’s (Nancy Maultsby) sad and desperate plea to her sister.

The visual impact of Gibichungen Hall was a disappointment for me. Although I realize it was supposed to be sort of an antipode of the (Flimm/Bayreuth) three-story glass and steel Wall Street impression, I am sure Stephen Wadsworth and Thomas Lynch have underestimated the builders of that time. Again I wish Hagen’s call to arms would have been sung by Stephen Milling, but I was very impressed by the choir (excellent language coaching!).

I thought the second act directing was by far not as compelling as Chéreau’s version (just compare i.e. when Brünnhilde is introduced to the crowd by proud and hollow Gunter, her arms hanging as if she were a swan with broken wings…).

Siegfried’s ominous quibble with the water birds opening the last act of the cycle was on track, naturalistic, poetic and deep with the sinister warnings, so extremely difficult to sing and done quite well by the three Rhine maidens. What followed after that somehow fell short of my expectations again, with Siegfried’s murder, the shocked by-standers and the relatively uninvolved funeral march. Of course – again – what happens in the music is so important there, it’s really way more than half the brain impact of these developments.

The two secco staccato chords: nothing comparable has ever been written to describe utter shock. Although the development was seemingly inevitable, now it had become a fact. But I see I’m carried away again… I don’t think Robert Spano succeeded in creating that very shock and the following testament of a hero. I had the impression that Ms Eaglen no longer had the fire, the color and the stamina to carry the final scene. The two ravens were sent home rather unceremoniously, and the twilight of the Gods appeared to be a kind of a final merry-go-round parade involving enormous technical forces, but generating less than adequate emotional impact for me.

I wasn’t really sure if Alberich wasn’t waiting behind the scenes for the curtain to fall, to just start all over again and mount a renewed attempt at the Rhine maidens and the Ring…

FOR ME THERE NEVER IS

a final analysis of a Wagner opera. When I think back to the “Götz Friedrich-Ring” in London (1983?) I still remember the great conducting (Colin Davis), the extremely abstracted stage concept and some impressive singers/actors (MacIntyre, Jones, Behrendt, Salminen as Hagen – whatever happened to Alberto Remedios?), fantastic costumes and surprising stage transformations in plain sight. There are things I recall fondly, others seem to change with time. It will probably be the same with the Seattle Ring.

I will say this: I congratulate Stephen Wadsworth, Thomas Lynch and Martin Pakledinaz for their strict adherence to a concept throughout the four operas. Once the decision was made to go the naturalistic approach, they stuck to it like super glue, and I think that was the production’s greatest success. I’m sure we will continue to wildly discuss the “naturalistic” versus the (what?) “modernist/interpretative/symbolistic” attempt towards an interpretation of a Wagner opera. Attempts they will remain.

For me the highlights were Greer Grimsley as Wotan, Richard Paul Fink as Alberich, Stephen Milling’s Hunding, Margaret Jane Wray’s Sieglinde and Richard BerkeleySteele as Siegmund. To a good extent I also liked Alan Woodrow as Siegfried, and in the beginning, Jane Eaglen’s Brünnhilde. There were numerous others, like Ewa Podleś as Erda or Peter Kazaras’ Loge. Nobody, I thought, really fell short.

Given the fact that the text of Wagner’s operas takes a far more important role in the trio music/text/stage than in other composers works, translation of his texts is a critical question. I must admit that I only found the time at irregular intervals to compare the English captions shown with the original text. I am not sure but I think the English text used in Seattle (Jonathan Dean) was not Lionel Salter’s translation of the Ring text. Any translation attempt must be an almost insurmountable task. In some of the moments I was reading the captions I had the impression of a “modernized” style and vocabulary being used, one possible explanation for a certain, say, trivialization of Wagner’s original intentions.

Again: how can you possibly translate the anger, contempt, bitterness and utter frustration in the words: “…meld ihr, dass Wotan’s Speer gerächt was Spott ihr schuf!” Results can either be long and unwieldy, incongruent with the time available in the process of the drama, or it might be short and more or less fit the music, but miss most of its strong message. I suspect the latter was applicable for the Seattle Ring in most of the instances I was able to make comparisons.

I am still somewhat disappointed about what came from the orchestra pit, although I had the impression of a steady improvement in coming to terms with the tight net of leitmotifs spanning the whole four nights, and with the orchestra colors slowly brightening, although memorable moments à la Solti, Boulez, Barenboim and Davis did not come to me. Robert Spano, like Bayreuth’s last replacement Ring conductor Adam Fischer, was a polished, time-keeping, unobtrusive if unremarkable conductor. But the Ring score demands way more than that.

For right now my ‘final’ thought about the “Jenkins-Ring” is this: Well done, Mr Jenkins, following your conviction it had to be The “nature pure” Ring. But please: given your talent(s), your enthusiasm and not least your resources, try a “modern reading” of The Ring next time. I herewith promise I’ll be there!

Tom Borer

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Many superlatives have been poured on Seattle Opera’s various productions of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” over the past 30 years, but none has surpassed the current cycle, which just concluded Friday night at McCaw Hall.

Two more cycles are to come, continuing through Aug. 28, and all have been sold out for the past nine months. Audiences from around the world are crowding the corridors and promenades of the house, as usual.

The “Ring” is such a prolonged affair, four operas running about 20 hours including intermissions, that one seeks some kind of resolution in “Gotterdammerung,” the final opera. Seattle Opera did just that, with a sense of transformation, of peace emerging from so much destruction. All the operas in the “Ring” have their particular challenges, which Seattle Opera has overcome with astonishing imagination, but “Gotterdammerung” is especially arduous because of its length — more than five hours — and the extreme demands of its creator.

The design work is familiar, from 2001: Thomas Lynch’s evocative sets (Gibichung Castle is magnificent in its modern simplicity and beauty); Peter Kaczorowski’s subtle lighting design; Martin Pakledinaz’s ingenious costumes.

Stephen Wadsworth’s stage direction is an endless feat of invention and swift pacing. Most directors of his standing do not return to their original productions; that is a job for assistants. Wadsworth did, fine-tuning his own work. He tweaked here and there, such as Brunnhilde’s cutting the palm of her hand in the Vengeance Trio — a powerful gesture of a powerful woman. The Immolation Scene has been restaged for the better — smoother and more meaningful.

Several conductors have been in the pit for Seattle Opera’s “Ring,” some more successful than others. I liked Hermann Michael’s reading in the second “Ring” production, in the late 1980s and 1990s, and found Manuel Rosenthal’s take, in 1986, fascinating, especially for its sense of color. However, none compares in depth and sweep with Robert Spano, doing his first “Ring” in Seattle. After he conducted an illuminating “Billy Budd” four years ago at Seattle Opera, general director Speight Jenkins conceived the notion of his doing the “Ring,” in 2005. At the outset, Spano was not interested, but Jenkins persisted, and finally Spano agreed, putting his considerable intelligence and musical instincts to work.

For the past week, one has heard the clarity and brilliance of his vision. There were extraordinary moments throughout the cycle, finely judged pacing, splendid balance and a wealth of details. What had been heard in “Das Rheingold,” “Die Walkure” and “Siegfried” was heard again in “Gotterdammerung.” It would seem there was nothing Spano had not considered: The music flowed evenly and powerfully, and, on occasion, spontaneously.

At his disposal were 100 musicians, mostly drawn from the Seattle Symphony, including the usual strings but also four harps, an equal number of trumpets and trombones, six tubas and eight French horns. Wagner wanted the lightly colored textures of woodwinds, but the weight that only some 20 brass instruments can provide. There was fine playing throughout: The strings had resonance and sweetness; the woodwinds, distinctness; and brass, a mellifluous and dramatic sound. Bravo, one more time, to French horn principal Mark Robbins for his decisive horn calls in “Siegfried” and “Gotterdammerung.”

The only choral singing in the cycle comes in “Gotterdammerung,” and that is restricted to men. But what an impact it makes when it starts in Act 2. Kudos to the superb Seattle Opera Chorus, led by Beth Kirchoff.

The singers were of the highest caliber, a real ensemble, known from the previous operas, beginning with the luxury casting of the Norns, consisting of Ewa Podles, Stephanie Blythe and Margaret Jane Wray. Nancy Maultsby was an able Waltraute; Richard Paul Fink, a decisive Alberich; with Gordon Hawkins as Gunther and Marie Plette, Gutrune. Jane Eaglen sang a potent Immolation Scene, and Alan Woodrow delivered a well-conceived Siegfried. However, the most electrifying character was Gidon Saks’ Hagan, who sang through a developing upper respiratory infection, as Jenkins announced from the stage at the start of the third act. His bass is black and menacing and big — terrifying in word, portrayal likewise, every detail considered and executed. He commanded center stage.

R.M. CAMPBELL | Sunday, August 14, 2005

operawest.com

Seattle’s DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN

Thanks to J.R. Tolkien and the trilogy of films made from his popular The Fellowship of the Ring novels, Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is no longer the planet’s most widely known epic art work dealing with a magical ring that corrupts and destroys even as it confers limitless power upon its owners; nevertheless, neither the films nor Tolkien’s books themselves come close to equaling the moral and philosophical complexity of Wagner’s four-part music drama with its depth of characterizations, richness of symbolism, and inspired, incomparable music.

Of course, unlike the Tolkien films (easily available at any Blockbuster), experiencing Wagner’s Ring requires a substantial investment of time and effort and money on the part of the spectator: one has to purchase tickets for the performances and usually travel to another town and find lodging for about a week (or more in some cases); and all but the most fanatical and jaded “Ringheads” truly need to prepare for the 17 hours of sitting and listening that Wagner expects. That means attending lectures, reading biographies and musical analyses, familiarizing oneself with many sections of the score and Wagner’s system of leitmotifs – and ultimately, preparing to suspend one’s disbelief and sense of the ridiculous. And if one knows the Ring from recordings, one must also be prepared for singers who do not meet expectations and for theatrical stagings that fail to equal the fantastical visions Wagner’s music conjures so vividly in the mind.

One reason Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner drifted towards abstract, non-literal mountings of the Ring at Bayreuth is the notion that nothing a theatrical producer can put on stage could possibly reproduce Wagner’s world of gods, dwarfs, giants, mermaids, warrior maidens, flying horses, magic fires, dragons, physical metamorphoses, rainbow bridges and other wonders. It’s true that Wagner fires the imagination with visions that defy adequate stage representation – and perhaps opera companies should just have everyone don dresses and tuxedoes and do the whole damn thing as an oratorio. But, that would indeed be far from the “master’s” original intentions, so it’s always a delight when some daring company – in this case the Seattle Opera – goes as far as it can to give us something along the lines of what the composer wanted.

The current production was seen last when it was first performed in Seattle in 2001. It is the third of a series of Ring productions, the first (now called Ring I) being unveiled in 1975 and revived in 1984, while Ring II was given in 1986 and 1995. Ring III is already famous as “the green Ring” because of a large number of elaborately forested sets that look for all the world like postcard views of actual Pacific Northwest nature trails not too far from Seattle itself. But there are, in fact, some sets that look more like slices of Bryce Canyon or Canyonlands, those pinkish-brown wonders in Utah’s National Parks. This Ring is also green in that the cyclical story takes us from a state of innocent, undisturbed nature (at the bottom of a greenish Rhine river), through the corruption and destructive activities of Earth’s various denizens (Walsungs, Gibichungs, giants, dwarfs, and gods), and ultimately back to exactly where we began — although in this production the final tableau is not the Rhine but the Pacific Northwest forests reappearing in their unpopulated, virginal state.

Despite this and several other scenic deviations from Wagner’s original intentions, Thomas Lynch’s production designs are frankly literal to the highest degree possible. We got real magic fire, an elaborate dragon, invisibility and transformation effects, a traversable rainbow bridge, ravens and a forest bird, and even a real Grane – although the latter (Brünnhilde’s horse) was employed sparingly. This was definitely a Ring for those who “want to see something,” although there were no flying horses this time around. They were a popular feature of Ring II.

All of Cycle One was extremely well conducted by Robert Spano of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, but the fact that he is new to the Ring showed here and there throughout the 17 hours of music. Several sections in the four operas lacked the dramatic tension I was hoping for, but in the all-important long run, his work was highly impressive. Usually Spano delivered the goods. He may have dwelled too long on some delicate orchestral details, but these stretches were revelatory (at least to these ears), and while the Seattle orchestra could never be fairly compared to that of the Met (with its nearly flawless brass section, among other things), one would have to say it truly rose to the demands of the occasion. I cannot imagine too many Wagnerians were disappointed. Spano was also blessed with an especially fine roster of singers in which there were virtually no weak performers.

Where next to give credit in an artistic effort of such magnitude is easy: stage director Stephen Wadsworth. It is evident that he works with actors very well. Matters of overweight ladies aside (and there were more than a few of those!), every character seemed convincing in his or her part. Indeed, Wadsworth took the trouble to give every single Valkyrie maiden a distinct personality. At the moment in Die Walküre when Brünnhilde’s warrior sisters are bidding her farewell, each one had a distinct reaction: some were glad to get rid of her, others tearfully embraced her, and at least one seemed to be unable to make up her mind just how she felt. Needless to say, with Wadsworth’s commitment to nearly insignificant details of this sort, he lavished attention on the principals and got the greatest dramatic commitment possible of out each of them.

How innovative was Wadsworth? How true to the “master’s” intentions? Well, surprisingly, this Ring remained close to Wagner’s own stage concepts most of the time – something that cannot be said of most Ring productions today, especially in Europe where “director’s theater” still rages. Wadsworth even allows us to see the gods burn up in Götterdämmerung. There they all were, sitting around, waiting for the end with all those flammable logs from the World Ash Tree stacked up around them. Loge even lighted a match, so to speak. I guess all of the folks from Rheingold had to come back and wait around for this final scene. What a midnight party! (And I wonder if they got paid for overtime!)

Elsewhere Wadsworth dreamed up stage business I have never seen before. In Rheingold, Wotan (Greer Grimsley) and Fricka (Stephanie Blythe) smooched and kissed and clearly were in love with one another. And Wotan, whose single roving eye is mentioned in the super-titles, even gave Erda (Ewa Podles’) a few warm embraces when she emerged from her hole in the ground to urge him to “Watch out!” Well, Wotan has in fact sired a whole number of the Ring’s characters from Erda, so why wouldn’t he give her a few affectionate hugs? I enjoyed this touch. Wadsworth also gave Fricka a prominence seldom seen: She appeared at the end of the second act of Walküre so that Hunding (Stephen Milling) could kneel at her feet, something Wotan orders him to do in the text.

It would be impossible to praise Blythe’s Fricka too highly. Vocally she seemed so strong (as did the superb Sieglinde of Margaret Jane Wray) that Jane Eaglen’s sound paled in comparison. As Brünnhlde, Eaglen displayed a blazing top, but as the notes descended from the upper range, they decreased in their ability to project. It was a bit as if a volume control were being turn down. I sometimes cupped my ear to hear. But Blythe and Wray displayed equal strength and beauty of tone from one end of the scale to the other.

I think Grimsely, by the way, may be one of the best Wotans around and may soon set the standard in this country that has been maintained for so many years by James Morris. And before I allow Hunding to go to his fate, let me say he thoroughly impressed as a villainous heavy with a big heavy sound. As for Podles, when you hear this loud, deep contralto, you really believe that Mother Earth is talking.

Normally I find the first two acts of Siegfried an awful trial, and I have often told friends I think it is the ugliest opera ever written. Much of what makes it ugly, though, is a screaming Mime and a Siegfried who is struggling vocally. Thank heavens for the Mime of Thomas Harper: This singer eschewed the usual nasal sound and sang like a human being. He even managed to generate a certain amount of sympathy, whether this is appropriate or not! And while Alan Woodrow looks little like the youthful superhero of our imagination, he sang both of the final Ring operas with surprising musicality, superb stamina – and he even brought off the impossible high C in the hunting scene of Götterdämmerung. Usually it’s the Siegmund (in Walküre) that makes the greater impression, but Richard Berkeley-Steele seemed to lack a certain – “I don’t know what” as the French translates in English – heroic, ringing quality. I prefer Domingo’s recent achievements in this part.

During Cycle One, the terrific Hagen, Gidon Saks, pleaded upper respiratory problems, but he was smashing anyway, and his scene with Alberich, the marvelous Richard Paul Fink, was truly memorable. Other standouts included such fine performances as the Gunther of Gordon Hawkins, the Gutrune of Marie Plette, and the Waltraute of Nancy Maultsby.

There are perhaps better Rings on classic recordings, but I’m afraid those people are not around anymore. This Seattle effort is probably as good as it gets these days.

Mark Burgess | October 25, 2005

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A production by Stephen Wadsworth