Riveting Human Interplay and Ravishing Orchestra in Final Wadsworth Ring

30/08/2013

United StatesUnited StatesWagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen: Soloists, Stephen Wadsworth (director), Thomas Lynch (set designer), Martin Pakledinaz (costume designer), Peter Kaczorowski (lighting designer), Beth Kirchhoff (chorus master), Seattle Opera, Asher Fisch (conductor), Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Seattle, 20-21-23-25.8.2013 (BJ)

 The final quadrennial go-around for Stephen Wadsworth’s superb 12-year-old Ring production came with an especial freight of emotion for Seattle Opera and its public. In addition to being dedicated to the memory of the late costume designer, Martin Pakledinaz, the 2013 cycle was the last to be presented under the stewardship of general director Speight Jenkins.

The company’s leader and inspirer for 30 years, Jenkins promised his devoted audience—in a speech after the final curtain—that the Ring would go on after he hands over the leadership next year to Aidan Lang. Whether or not Lang’s appointment was subject to an assurance from him to that effect, The Ring is to such a degree Seattle Opera’s signature tune that any successor could attempt to phase it out only at dire risk.

This was only my second encounter with Wadsworth’s production. I heard longer-established habitués declare that this year’s performance was the finest ever, and I can believe it. With Thomas Lynch’s lustrously naturalistic sets, Pakledinaz’s equally apt and unfussy costumes, and Peter Kaczorowski’s often magical lighting, and enhanced by a number of newly-emphasized details, the production itself is at least as fresh and touching as it was four years ago. With clarity, keenness of perception, and deeply engrossing sympathy, Wadsworth concentrates the spectator’s attention on what makes Der Ring des Nibelungen, whatever its flaws, a compelling experience even for a non-Wagnerian like me: namely, the riveting human interplay of even those characters in it who are not actually human. This director’s vision is blessedly free from pretentious “Concepts,” though rich in real ideas without that damning capital letter. One subtly moving touch, in Die Walküre, was his illumination of the family relationships among three of the major characters by having Siegmund and Sieglinde, when they left Hunding’s hut to luxuriate al fresco in their newfound love, take up exactly the same positions on the grass—he stretched out full-length on his back, she sitting fondly and as it were, protectively beside him—as Wotan and Fricka had been in when we first saw them in Das Rheingold the night before.

What a pleasure it was also, in Götterdämmerung, to listen to Siegfried’s Rhine journey undistracted! In the current make-everything-concrete trend of opera production, I imagine nine directors out of ten must be seduced by the notion of projecting some sort of visual travelogue onto the curtain—but not Wadsworth, who allowed us to enjoy the music and imagine the topography for ourselves.

One notable plus, on the musical side of this 2013 traversal, was the orchestral playing. Robert Spano conducted decently enough in 2009, but Asher Fisch brought a new depth of understanding and power of projection to the score. Pacing was unerring, tone ravishing, and dramatic impact awesome, and in consequence each return of the conductor to the podium to begin a new act was greeted by such a roar of enthusiasm from the house as I have never before experienced for the orchestral component of an opera performance.

On stage, meanwhile, there were several excellent newcomers in the cast, and the seven major holdovers from 2009 were all, at the very least, as impressive as they were last time. As before, the outstanding vocal contributions came from Greer Grimsley as Wotan and The Wanderer, and Stephanie Blythe as Fricka and (in Götterdämmerung) as Second Norn and Waltraute.

Wadsworth presents Fricka as the moral core of The Ring. The character commonly comes across as a shrew; you can’t wait for her to stop nagging, so that her husband can get on with reasserting world-domination. But in this production Fricka becomes a genuinely sympathetic character, still tenderly loving Wotan despite all his betrayals, and commanding respect even when—as in defending the forced marriage of Sieglinde and Hunding on law-and-order grounds—she is plainly wrong. Incidentally, to hear Wotan’s defense of the preeminent rights of love, after four years in which so much progress has been made in Washington and around the United States in establishing the right to gay marriage, was to find in it a whole new contemporary relevance.

And, rather like Fricka, this Wotan commands sympathy and affection even in the course of his most immoral scheming—he’s a male, after all: what can you expect? Greer Grimsley is as fine a Wotan as you are likely to encounter on today’s operatic scene. Dramatically, he makes even so experienced an exponent of the role as James Morris seem one-dimensional. Last time around, I suggested that Grimsley was perhaps “not Hans Hotter yet”; in 2009, there were passages, like the lines “zum letztenmal letz’ es mich heut mit des Lebewohles letztem Kuß!” in his Die Walküre farewell to Brünnhilde (the most affecting passage in the entire cycle), where I missed the ineffable hushed tenderness his great German predecessor brought to the music and the words. I am happy—indeed excited—to say that in the last four years he has made significant strides toward emulating Hotter in that regard, while his glorious bass-baritone voice is if anything even more majestic than before, filling the auditorium with not the slightest hint of effort or strain.

A very special tenderness was conveyed also by the scene, in Act II of Die Walküre, in which Brünnhilde tries to find out what is troubling her father so much. Making her company debut in that role, the English soprano Alwyn Mellor may not have been totally convincing in vocal terms—how many Brünnhildes ever are? The voice was sometimes short of penetrative power in the lowest register and also tended to lose solidity at the top. But in the middle range she sounded ravishing; she rose nobly to the vocal challenge of the immolation scene in Götterdämmerung, and from a dramatic point of view her interaction with Wotan was as throat-catchingly affecting as I have ever seen and heard it.

Other new cast members included Stefan Vinke as Siegfried, who deployed a tenor voice of spectacularly heroic heft, if not conspicuous beauty of tone, and portrayed his character with equally phenomenal dramatic conviction, dazzling agility, and welcome humor. Wendy Bryn Harmer was an appealing Freia and Gutrune; there were fine performances of Froh by Ric Furman and of Donner by Markus Brück, who also gave us a suitably, pathetically, sad Gunther. Mark Schowalter’s strongly sung Loge was a touch less mercurial but not a whit less convincingly cynical than Kobie van Rensburg, his predecessor in the role; Lucille Beer deployed sumptuous mezzo tone as an unusually tormented-looking Erda. And there were strong teams of Rhinemaidens in Jennifer Zetlan (also singing the Forest Bird’s part in Siegfried), Cecelia Hall, and Renée Tatum, and of Valkyries in Wendy Bryn Harmer (also a convincing Gutrune), Jessica Klein, Suzanne Hendrix, Luretta Bybee (doubling as First Norn), Tamara Mancini, Sarah Heltzel, Renée Tatum, and Cecelia Hall.

Among the holdovers from last time, in addition to Beth Kirchhoff’s excellent chorus, Richard Paul Fink’s Alberich, as pitiable as it was dislikable, was as consummate a portrayal as ever—I loved the sleazily nasty tone he brought to the word “Liebe” in proclaiming his curse.  Dennis Petersen’s Mime was repellently devious and impressively sung. Andrea Silvestrelli and Daniel Sumegi were authoritative as, respectively, Fasolt/Hunding and Fafner/Hagen—the last a powerfully malevolent portrayal that yet provoked some sympathy. And Stuart Skelton’s Siegmund, having gained appreciatively in vocal stature over the past four years, was thus better balanced than before with the clarion-voiced Sieglinde of Margaret Jane Wray, who returned in Götterdämmerung as Third Norn.

As for the tetralogy itself, well: I think Act II of Götterdämmerung is an astonishing stylistic regression, dumping us in an instant from a human drama into a ludicrous bout of Ye Olde Victorian melodrama, and the stage-villain Hagen’s gloating over his prospects at the end of that act would have been accomplished by Verdi in one-tenth the time and with twice the intensity. But the best things in the cycle—the majestic orchestral opening and the entry into Valhalla in Rheingold, the Todesverkündigung and Wotan’s Farewell in Die Walküre, the love duet in Siegfried, and much of the last act of Götterdämmerung, its ending staged with a remarkable combination of imagination and restraint by Wadsworth and his visual team—were overwhelming in this realization. Indeed, Seattle’s Ring of 2013 surpassed even the towering artistic stature of the 2009 version. Whoever takes over directing duties next time will have as hard an act to follow as Aidan Lang will have in succeeding the charismatic and brilliant Speight Jenkins.

Bernard Jacobson

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