The year of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner and the 50th anniversary of the Seattle Opera was the occasion for the latest and perhaps last revival of the Stephen Wadsworth production of his four opera “Ring of the Nibelungs”.
Wadsworth’s extraordinary achievement, when considered against the rest of the world’s current “Ring” productions, is the one which most closely follows its composer’s expressed wishes.
[Below: Greer Grimsley as Wotan, the head of the gods; resized image, based on an Alan Alabastro photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.
Absent any of the metaphorical intrusions of the human technologies of later times that populate other late 20th and 21st century “Rings”, the Seattle “Ring” might be considered the pure standard of what the “Ring” was originally intended to be.
Seattle Opera’s “green Ring” creates a verdant primeval world in which gods, dwarves and giants vie for power; whose deep rivers contain treasures guarded by tail-finned women; and whose fates are observed by such beings as an Earth Mother with her daughter Norns.
All action is set in what plausibly might be the environments in which each of these beings existed.
[Below: Richard Paul Fink as Alberich; resized image, based on an Alan Alabastro photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Wadsworth, like most of the major American stage directors, eschews the “stand and sing” traditions of operatic performance, for intense studies of each line of an opera’s text.
Working with that text and his performers (one can expect every singer in a Wadsworth “Ring” to be an accomplished actor) , each character’s motivations at each point of the the drama is studied.
The text in Wagner is further illuminated by Wagner’s system of leitmotivs that provide additional evidence of a character’s motivation or emotional state at any given moment.
[Below: Mark Schowalter is Loge; resized image, based on an Alan Alabastro photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
When the director and performers are engaged in a process to determine how each line of text should be acted, the life experiences of each actor (including their performances in previous productions) matter.
Thus, a cast and director’s collective insights into each character can change between the mounting of a production and a production revival if the cast members are different. Even for returning artists this will often occur, because they have had new experiences in their role or in life since the last set of performances.
“Rheingold” is an expositional opera, with abundant information on the backstories of the battles between gods, giants, and Nibelungs – their fears, their intrigues and their strategies.
I had described the 2009 Wadsworth “Rheingold” production in considerable detail. [See Wagner, Wadsworth and Lynch Team for Seattle’s Magical “Rheingold” Revival – August 9, 2009.]
I found the 2013 revival to be even more insightful, particularly in the second and fourth scenes, with the complex emotional interactions between the characters.
[Below: Wotan (Greer Grimsley, left) gives a flower to Frick (Stephanie Blythe, right); resized image, based on an Alan Alabastro photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
The first scene deep in the Rhine River and the third scene in Alberich’s Nibelung underworld tend to be “action” scenes. Even though a lot happens in the second and fourth scenes as well, in the latter scenes there is more opportunity for intimate relationships between characters to build.
The unexpected power of Alberich’s curse of the magical Ring begins to affect the judgment and composure of each the characters. With Wadsworth’s methodological approach to the storyline, the 2013 staging builds upon the insights from the 2009 “Rheingold”.
As an example, once Erda (Lucille Beer) has deflected Wotan (Greer Grimsley) from his inclination to defend his possession of the Ring, whatever the cost, Wotan still seems immobilized by the thought of surrendering it to save his sister-in-law Freia (Wendy Bryn Harmer).
Wotan’s wife Fricka (Stephanie Blythe) takes the Ring off of Wotan’s hand, who hands it to Freia, who then gives it to the giant Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli) who is in love with her.
[Below: the giant Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli, right) has fallen in love with Freia (Wendy Bryn Harmer, left); resized image, based on an Alan Alabastro photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Each of these handoffs has emotional significance.
Fasolt, who held the Ring for only seconds, becomes the first of the possessors of the Ring to die. Fafner, and characters we meet in later operas – Siegfried and Bruennhilde – will follow Fasolt into death, as a result of the curse, as will Wotan, who possessed the Ring only for a few moments longer than Fasolt.
Notes on the 2013 “Rheingold”
The technical brilliance of the scene under the Rhine River, with the three flirtatious Rhine Maidens (sung by the returning Jennifer Zetlan, and the debuting Cecilia Hall and Renee Tatum) darting like fish through the vertical spaces of the Seattle Opera stage.
[Below: the three Rhine Maidens swim above the Rheingold; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Each Rhine Maiden had two unseen technicians working with her, to create the effect of swimming through water. Singing Wagnerian opera is in itself an athletic pursuit, but combining it with mid-air somersaults and other aquatic illusions is an astonishing accomplishment.
Thomas Lynch’s sets were as beautiful as ever, evoking a lush, unspoiled riparian forest from which craggy mountainous outcrops jutted.
The Nibelheim, a dark and eerie place from which veins of gold could be seen everywhere through the murky light, was the scene of the outwitting of Alberich, his self-transformation into a laugh-provoking toad creating the series of events that resulted ultimately in the end of the race of gods (some 15 performance hours later).
[Below: gathering around Donner (Markus Brueck, right, with hammer) are, from left, Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli), Froh (Ric Furman), Fafner (Daniel Sumegi) and Wotan (Greer Grimsley); resized image, based on an Alan Alabastro photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Conductor Asher Fisch and the Seattle Opera Orchestra
I had previously commented on Asher Fisch’s memorable musical direction of operas both Wagnerian [see Tristan Tried and True: Clifton Forbis Sells Seattle Opera’s New “Tristan und Isolde” – July 31, 2010] and Verdian [see 21st Century Verdi: Radvanovsky Leads World Class Lyric Opera “Ballo” Cast – Chicago, November 15, 2010].
I found both the conducting and orchestral playing, from the very first E-minor chord, to be alternatively luminous, lyrical and powerful, a near-perfect sound in this acoustically caressing hall for this demanding work.
[Below: Wotan (Greer Grimsley, left) wants to know more of the predictions of the future by Erda (Lucille Beer, right); resized image, based on an Alan Alabastro photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
The returning artists – Grimsley, Blythe, Richard Paul Fink (Alberich) and Dennis Petersen (Mime) – each sounded larger than life. These four artists are not only great contemporary interpreters of their parts, they belong on lists of the major artists of all time for each role.
Also returning, and effective, were the two giants, Andrea Silvestrelli as the amorous Fasolt, and Daniel Sumegi as the sinister Fafner.
[Below: Dennis Petersen as Mime; eidted image, based on an Alan Alabastro photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
There were five new members of the god/demi-god coterie. Mark Schowalter made a strong impression as Loge, whose association with fire was made even more vivid by myriad shooting flames, from the stage floor or from his hands, particularly when his character was annoyed in any way.
Wendy Bryn Harmer was a lusciously voiced Freia, who seems ready for the larger jugendlich Wagnerian soprano roles (such as Elsa in “Lohengrin”).
Markus Brueck (Donner), Ric Furman (Froh) and Lucille Beer (Erda) each displayed large voices and intelligent acting in the important, smaller roles.
Thoughts on the Production
“Rheingold” is only the first part of the large, intricate story. Such innovations in the staging as has been suggested by the changes in “Rheingold” will be revealed to us on the future nights.
I was struck by so many details. In the crevice that exists between the world of the gods and the Nibelheim, Mime (unexpectedly) appears, assisting the Nibelungs who carry the Rhine Gold, in and out of the crevice, then gives a defiant gesture to the gods above.
Perhaps the most interesting emotional innovation in “Rheingold” is just before its finale as all the gods, excepting the skeptical demi-god Loge, depart for their new home in Walhalla. Fricka, who remains suspicious of Wotan’s motives, first stares at the body of Fasolt, Then, she connects with Loge, who until now she has despised, but whose warnings she now begins to understand. They take each others hands momentarily before she leaves to join the others.
[Below: Fricka (Stephanie Blythe, left) finds a rapport with the uneasiness felt by Loge (Mark Schowalter, right; edited image, based on an Alan Alabastro photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
I have listed this production as one of the world’s great operatic treasures among existing productions. Since there are only two additional scheduled performances of this opera, I recommend that any opera goer that has a chance to secure one of the remaining tickets at the Seattle Opera to do so.
I have advocated in the past that there should be some long term plan to secure the future of Thomas Lynch’s sets and to preserve the stage directions and instructions for replicating the technical wizardry of the Rhine scenes (and scenes in three succeeding operas).
For those who saw the 2013 “Rheingold” performance, or will see one of the two remaining performances scheduled, congratulations! This is a wonderful experience.
For my reviews of the other performances of the Seattle Opera “Ring of the Nibelungs”, see: