The final episode of the first of 2013’s three four-opera cycles of Richard Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” took place at Seattle Opera’s Marion Oliver McCaw Hall at Seattle Center.
The performance coincided with both the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth and the 50th anniversary of the founding of Seattle Opera.
It demonstrated that the Pacific Northwest can produce a Wagnerian Ring of which the creative composer might have actually have approved. (I suspect that he would have been totally mystified and probably outraged by many, if not most, contemporary Rings.)
Even if the performance proceeded as originally planned it would have been the greatest triumph in the Seattle Opera’s nearly four decade history of presenting Wagner’s incomparable tetralogy of operatic masterpieces.
It sustained what would have caused shudders in virtually all opera company managements, the illness of its announced Bruennhilde for both “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung”.
[Below: Dramatic Soprano Lori Phillips (shown here in the Christopher Alden production of Puccini’s “Turandot”); edited image, based on a production photograph.]
Yet, even that was turned into back to back “Star is Born” triumphs as American dramatic soprano Lori Phillips, an awesome talent who had signed on as cover to all nine Bruennhilde performances in the three “Rings”, wowed the Wagner-savvy Seattle audiences.
The God’s “Twilight” in the Pacific Northwest
Those savvy audiences include considerable numbers of “Ring-heads” – the affectionate term for people who travel long distances to see complete cycles of the “Ring of the Nibelungs”.
There is strong sentiment among these fans of the “Ring” that the work is best seen as a complete “Ring” in the proper order (“Rheingold”, “Walkuere”, “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung”) in a six day period. The Seattle Opera presents its “Ring” in this desired format.
Over the past few decades there has developed a strong American taste for these great stories, be they blockbuster franchise films or cable television epics about such otherworldly locales as outer space in future centuries, power struggles over the fate of ancient kingdoms, or interpersonal, including romantic, relationships between humans and what legends of old taught us were monstrous life-forms.
[Below: the Seattle Opera audience settles in for the third act of “Götterdämmerung”; resized image, based on a Nancy L. Burnett photograph.]
“Götterdämmerung” is the culmination of a long, complicated story that evolves over four operas. The story itself is a great mythic drama in which what we in normal lives would consider surreal (e.g., the presence of non-human and immortal beings in the affairs of humans – and vice versa).
The late 20th century fashion of moving the “Ring” into modern or near-modern times often illuminates aspects of the story, but that illumination comes with a cost.
Seattle’s pure “Ring” emphasizes the traditional story and places it in a natural environment. It fits beautifully both with the American taste for larger than life, multilayered stories and the Pacific Northwest’s concern about the physical state of the natural world.
Enhancing the Senses
The American attention span for such dramas appears to be lengthening. “Götterdämmerung” is a long opera. Its first act exceeds two hours, the longest act of any opera in the standard repertory that has two or more acts.
[Below: the Norns (Luretta Bybee, Margaret Jane Wray and Stephanie Blythe) read the past, present and future from the rope of fate; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Even so, The Lord of the Rings’ Return of the King is much longer, as are several of the Harry Potter films.
Concurrent with the American taste for epic drama is an accelerating preference for technologies that enhance the aural and visual aspects of the dramas. Cinema surround-sound and large, high definition color add to the sensory pleasures of experiencing the epic stories.
[Below: Hagen (Daniel Sumegi, left) acts as a matchmaker for Gutrune (Wendy Bryn Harmer, right); edited image, based on an Alan Alabastro photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Wagner anticipated these technologies with such innovations as the darkened theater, the large symphonic orchestra, and writing for operatic voices that could project throughout a large enclosed space.
The interaction of the Seattle Opera’s orchestra, chorus and principal singers with the brilliant acoustics of the McCaw Hall creates a Wagnerian Wall of Sound that is in itself an important part of the evening’s experience.
Each of the “Ring” operas, especially the fourth, is infused with an intense melodic structure, that weaves through every scene. Experiencing all of the operas in live performance in less than a week tones the ear to subtleties in this melodic structure that I believe one simply cannot get from “Ring” recordings.
[Below: Siegfried (Stefan Vinke, left) and Guenther (Markus Brueck, right) make a pact that will end in both their deaths; edited image, based on an Alan Alabastro photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Even scenes that are mostly expositional are bathed in beautiful music, of a melodic richness that is totally absent from almost all operas of the late 20th and early 21st century.
These include the scene of the three Norns in the first scene of act one (“something terrible is about to happen, we quit and we’re out of here”), and, later in the act, the arrival of the valkyrie Waltraute at Bruennhilde’s rock to plead for the return of the ring. (“You are an outcast that has been stripped of immortality, but now we need you to give up the possession you prize most dearly to help the society that banished you”).
A Perturbation in the Force
I believe that Wagner’s and Director Stephen Wadsworth’s “Ring” stories can be summarized as follows: the earth was in a peaceful state when two powerful forces – to use Wagner’s term Light Alberich (Wotan) and Dark Alberich (Alberich the Nibelung dwarf) – engage in a decades long struggle to achieve the supremacy needed to enslave the other.
But order can only be restored to the universe if nature can take its due course. Thus, the “green Ring” as the Seattle Opera often refers to its production, evokes the natural world, and the restoration of the natural order is symbolized by the return of the Ring to its designated guardians, the Rhinemaidens.
[Below: Alberich (Richard Paul Fink, above) appears in a dream to his son Hagen (Daniel Sumegi, below) to exhort him to seize the Ring for his father’s behalf; edited image, based on an Alan Alabastro photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
In my reviews of the operas of the 2009 and 2013 “Ring” performances, I have not yet made tribute to the costuming of the late Martin Pakledinaz, the Tony-winning costume designer for so many Broadway shows of the 1990s and early 21st century.
Just as there is storyline and sonic continuity throughout Wagner’s tetralogy, so is there continuity in Pakledinaz’ costuming schemes, particularly the association of the color red with Wotan and his progeny.
Details of the costuming add to the story. One observes the reddish-patterned cloth cloak that Sieglinde wears, that becomes the mechanism for carrying the shattered fragments of Siegmund’s sword, and then is carried by Siegfried to Bruennhilde’s Rock, worn by Bruennhilde as Guenther’s captive bride, finally to become the shroud in which the body of Siegfried is wrapped on its way to the funeral pyre that destroys Wotan’s Walhalla.
Thoughts on the production
When pressed to name a favorite opera, I will concede it is”Götterdämmerung” because I regard its music as showing off Wagner’s genius at his most mature and dramatic.
The story line is absorbing and profound in its own right. (The reason so many “non-traditional Rings”, I believe, is because so many creative folks find intense relevance to human experiences that Wagner would likely not have imagined.)
But this “Ring”, as conceived by Wadsworth, Lynch and Speight Jenkins, inspires several thoughts. First, letting Wagner be Wagner – creating productions that follow the stories as Wagner intended – yields its own treasures.
(Next year, San Diego Opera, now the world’s guardian of the Schneider-Siemssen inspired production of Wagner’s “Tannhauser”, will present it again [See Wagner Knows Best: Elegant San Diego Opera “Tannhauser” Sticks to the Story – January 26, 2008].)
[Below: Hagen (Daniel Sumegi, center right, with outstretched arm) summons the vassals to attend a wedding; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
The big story of the Seattle Opera “Götterdämmerung” vocal performances in its first 2013 showing, was the Bruennhilde of Lori Phillips, substituing for another artist, but singing this most demanding of roles with both vocal and emotional power and nuance – an exemplary performance by any standard.
In my reviews of the three previous operas, I praised the conductor, stage director, set designer and cast members, although some of the “Ring” participants sing different roles in “Götterdämmerung”.
The latter includes the (appropriately) sonically sinister Hagen of Daniel Sumegi, the beautifully sung Gutrune of Wendy Bryn Harmer, and the stalwart Guenther of Markus Brueck.
Only Luretta Bybee as the First Norn (returning in this role from previous Seattle Ring cycles) is new to the 2013 “Ring”, joined by the Stephanie Blythe and Margaret Jane Wray as her sisters. Blythe, in a performance as memorable as her earlier Frickas, did double duty as Waltraute.
Stefan Vinke was a superior Siegfried, and Richard Paul Fink a worthy Alberich. Jennifer Zetlan (who had been a bright-sounding Forest Bird in the previous opera) joined Cecelia Hall and Renee Tatum as Rhinemaidens, in an enchanting and often funny vocal display, mixed with their aquatic antics.
The three Rhinemaidens, having regained the Nibelung Ring, swim triumphantly in the opera’s denouement.
The only detail changed between 2009 [see [See Astonishing End to Seattle Opera’s “Götterdämmerung” tableaux in the destruction of Walhalla and the realm of the gods.
I particularly missed the inflammation of the firewood for the funeral pyre that the Walhalla heroes – turned foresters – created by chopping down the world ash tree.
The work for Beth Kirchoff, as chorus master, is concentrated in the tetralogy’s final opera. Her Seattle Opera Chorus sounded glorious in the opera’s big second and third act choral numbers.
Asher Fisch, who has proven to be such an effective and inspiring conductor of Wagner, brought forth the great orchestral interludes that abound in this opera, most notably the Siegfried Rhine Journey that begins at the close of the first of the two act one scenes on Bruennhilde’s rock and the gargantuan chords of Siegfried’s Death that begins at the end of the first scene of act three.
One notes that this “Ring” follows Wagner’s stage directions that calls for the horse Grane to appear in the flesh in two places. In each scene, the horse behaved perfectly. (A person, not in jest, upon seeing my calling card titled Opera Warhorses, asked if I was responsible for stabling the horse seen in this opera.)
Redemption by Love
At one point a year ago, when Seattle Opera’s budgetary shortfalls required cancellation for a future production of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger”, the future fates of the Seattle Ring in general and the Wadsworth “green Ring” caused anxiety among the many who would want to see this production preserved and periodically performed whether in Seattle or elsewhere.
Even now, the Seattle Opera Norns that foretell the future have not revealed what fates they see. But the portents from retiring Seattle Opera general manager Speight Jenkins, who has had an absolutely essential role in the creation of this “Ring”, and from incoming general director Aidan Lang, seem favorable.
There seens to be reason to expect that the maidens of the Rhine will continue to have a hospitable, if somewhat saltier, playground in Seattle’s Puget Sound.
[Below: the Rhine Maidens implore Siegfried (Stefan Vinke, above right) to give them back the ring; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
However, to assure the survival of this world-class “Ring”, in this permutation designed by Stephen Wadsworth and Thomas Lynch, those who appreciate it should show their love for this world treasure.
No one who has enjoyed and been moved by the power of this “Ring” should fail to express their love to Seattle Opera’s management, old and new, and to seek its redemption for performances as far in the future as Norns can see.
For my review of the other performances of the Seattle Opera “Ring of the Nibelungs”, see: A Richly Rewarding, Re-imagined “Rheingold” – Seattle Opera, August 4, 2013, and also,