Das Rheingold in Seattle

From August 12-17, 2013 I attended performances of the Seattle Opera's Der Ring des Nibelungen. The contemporaneous reviews, initially written for friends, will appear in four separate postings.

When the announcement was made that Speight Jenkins, the General Director of the Seattle Opera, was to retire at the end of the 2013-2014 season, it became evident that the 2013 run of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen would be his last. The ramifications of this will only be known in 20 years, when we are able to accurately gauge whether this is the long-feared end of an era or whether it is merely the end of a long and glorious chapter.

The current Seattle Opera production of Der Ring des Nibelungen premiered in full in 2001 (a demi-Ring of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre took place in 2000) under less than entirely auspicious circumstances. Armin Jordan, who conducted the 2000 half-Ring, was unable to lead the 2001 complete effort, and the baton was turned over to the utterly forgettable Franz Vote, who provided proof that a strong cast and a great production could overcome a kapellmeister in the pit. The 2005 and 2009 Ring productions were conducted by Robert Spano with immense aplomb; this year the baton was turned over to Asher Fisch, the Seattle Opera's principal guest conductor.

One constant from 2000 to the present has been the production team of director Stephen Wadsworth, set designer Thomas Lynch, (until his death) costume designer Martin Pakledinaz and lighting director Peter Kaczorowski. The production is now in its fourth complete iteration, and the issue of "Can a fourth presentation retain its freshness and vigor?" may be disposed of quickly. The answer is "yes." There are a few things on which one may rely in the opera world, and Stephen Wadsworth's commitment to compelling stagecraft is among them. I cannot say of a certainty that Wadsworth loves working in Seattle; I can say that Seattle audiences love his work.

When it was first premiered this production became known informally as "The Green Ring" for its naturalistic settings, reminiscent of the Olympic National Park. Lots of rock, lots of trees, much natural scenery. This is not in and of itself remarkable, but it is remarkable in contradistinction to the European mania (not, sadly, restricted to Europe) of setting The Ring in odd locales as far removed from Wagner's setting and experience as placing Oedipus Rex in, say, Sri Lanka or Timbuktu or in timeless, spaceless, abstract settings. A few years ago a European visitor to Seattle for the Ring noted that he had never seen a tree in a Wagner opera in Europe.

Naturalistic settings are these days dismissed as mindless conservatism or hide-bound fealty to a theatrical concept that died and was buried decades ago in other art forms. And, to be sure, the idea of setting a drawing room comedy in a drawing room is looked upon as trite and hackneyed in the legitimate theater. But opera is different, for although the words may be mutable and the setting flexible, the music requires a certain rooting in order to have the impact the composer intended. A director might, for example, envision Valhalla as a two bedroom raised ranch in Levittown, New York, but the music conveys a wholly different message. In other words, if you accept the concept of the music -- as much as the libretto -- setting the frame in which the drama is set, you quickly grasp that working at cross-purposes to it is both futile and harmful.

So last evening (August 12) began the second cycle of Speight's Last Ring with a stunning performance of Das Rheingold. One issue needs to be addressed at the outset: Although the Seattle Symphony is an accomplished and well-rehearsed Wagner orchestra, it does not have the smoothness, sheen, and consistent orchestral brilliance of The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. This is neither good nor bad, it simply is. Although the Seattle Symphony does not sound like The Met Orchestra, it has one immeasurable advantage: It is conducted by a man who understands that with Wagner, slow is not always better. Sometimes, slow is just slow.

By this point, Seattle audiences have come to expect extraordinarily high quality work from Asher Fisch. But there is something unconventional, and unpredictable, about Fisch's Wagner. When you least expect it, he will unburden himself of a fascinating orchestral insight -- often at very high volume. This adds to the excitement. Please do not get me wrong; the occasionally glandular elements are perfectly fine, and they do not detract one whit from the overarching conception of the work that, at least in Das Rheingold, could not have been more solid.

When this Ring first saw the light of day in 2001, Stephanie Blythe was Fricka, and no one else has sung the role in Seattle since. She remains, to me, the Fricka of our era, a vocal marvel who, despite a lack of gazelle-like movements, adds new layers of depth every time she assays the role. Similarly, when I last heard Greer Grimsley's Wotan four years ago I had pronounced it both vocally and dramatically fully formed. It has only gotten better. The vocal heft is slightly greater, the characterization deeper, and with the passage of time Grimsley has gotten even better at acting with the voice. Richard Paul Fink's Alberich remains fresh and oozing malevolence itself, a nice foil to the craven, skittish Mime of Dennis Petersen. Andrea Silvestrelli and Daniel Sumegi were not only vocally fine as the builders Fasolt and Fafner, they actually showed some dramatic depth.

But the real surprise of last evening was Mark Schowalter. It is amazing how a Loge who is vocally secure from one end of his range to the other, as well as a convincing actor, can change the dynamic of the opera. Meaning no disrespect to the esteemed and talented Peter Kazaras, Schowalter was an extraordinarily fine Loge, perhaps the best I have seen on a Seattle stage (and since this is my fifth Ring in Seattle...) With Greer Grimsley's Wotan having a solid Loge to play off of, the game of "Can you top this -- skullduggery division" became fascinating...and great theater.

So (at last) in short, Das Rheingold, the longest and most musically involved table-setter in theater history has whetted the communal appetite for the festival of immorality, criminal behavior and glorious music that is Die Walküre. Just a couple of hours before curtain...