Die Walkure 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.

I cannot prove the point, but I suspect that it was impossible to win an argument with Richard Wagner. No matter how fact-based your point, no matter the enormity of the evidence you have marshaled, no matter that you are holding all 52 cards, jokers and cellophane wrapper, you could not win. This may explain in part Wagner's treatment of Fricka in Die Walküre

Wagner the librettist painted himself into something of a corner: Fricka had to be right. She had to see through Wotan's not particularly crafty subterfuge, and she had to convince him to do exactly what he did not want to do. Worse, she had to do it because she loved him -- and Wotan had to do it because Fricka was right. So Fricka gets her way, but Wagner goes to great lengths to make us really, really dislike her for doing so. Had Wotan simply said "Shut up you old bat!" and done what he wanted, the end would have likely come about nine and a half hours sooner.

Die Walküre is an opera about solemn contracts and behavior that is arbitrary and capricious. It is an opera about lust, and an opera in which love is punished. Impetuosity leads to catastrophe. What makes it all worthwhile is some of the greatest music ever written, music so good that it makes you want to throw hard objects at the academics who over-analyze the music to within an inch of its life and yell "Just shut up and just listen willya?!"

Speight Jenkins, the General Director of the Seattle Opera, has made no secret of his belief that the cast assembled for Der Ring des Nibelungen in Seattle this year is the best he has ever put together. Speight Jenkins always says this. I have never heard him address an audience and say, for example, "I really deplore the fact that the tenor is very bad indeed, but he was the best I could do with my budget." (I have never heard Peter Gelb say such a thing either, in that Peter Gelb does not speak to mere mortals and he wouldn't know the difference between a lousy tenor and a good one unless the reviews told him so). We still have two installments to go, but after this performance on August 13, 2013 I'd be hard-pressed to take issue with the soon-to-be-retired Texan.

It is not that Greer Grimsley is singing better than he sang four years ago; if he is the change is minor and discernible only to fanatics. The increased depth in his dramatic portrayal, however, is almost impossible to miss. When confronted by Fricka he does not rage, he does not sputter, he acts with immense dignity. When he has to permit Hunding to kill Siegmund, he does so with resignation -- and again with dignity. And when he finally figures out that his rash punishment of his Walküre daughter Brünnhilde needed to be softened, he did so in a way that was at once completely dignified, and completely natural and, thus, heartbreaking.

Alwyn Mellor does not have a voice as massive as Jane Eaglen's, and if the benchmark of your Brünnhilde is sheer lung power, you will not be happy. But there is vastly more to Wagner singing than a volume of sound that could cause a ship to recoil off a reef into mid-ocean. Ms. Mellor, who was unable to appear in the first Ring cycle this year due to illness, is an extraordinary singer who happens to be an extraordinary actress. I do not think I will ever live to see the Recognition Scene done convincingly, but I can say this was about as moving as I have ever seen. The shift from "Oh stop whining and accept that you are going to die" to "Egad! I will save you!" cannot be made real, but it can be made emotionally true. Ms. Mellor came closer than I have ever seen on stage. Her extended third act scene with Greer Grimsley quite literally had me in tears. I usually listen to Siegfried in anticipation of the third act; tomorrow will likely be the same, only more so.

Stuart Skelton and Margaret Jane Wray sang wonderfully as the lustful and incestuous twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, but not even Stephen Wadsworth can make an audience get emotionally involved with their toxic relationship. The critical question with Sigmund and Sieglinde is "How's their singing?" And the answer in this case is "Ardent, loud, and a complete joy to hear." Stephanie Blythe remains the only mezzo-soprano performing today who is capable of presenting a dramatically true, vocally compelling Fricka.

I really do not want this to sound like damning with faint praise, because it really isn't. Stephen Wadsworth has not given us a dramatically compelling, gripping-first-note-to-last Die Walküre because such a thing has not yet existed. That he made the critical Wotan-Fricka scene in Act One work, the Recognition Scene come close to working, and the end of Act Three seem emotionally true is high praise indeed. He was unable to make us interested in Siegmund and Sieglinde, but this is not his fault, since it is hard to make interesting two people who seem to be preoccupied exclusively with fleeing and copulating.

I may appear a tad churlish, but I was not as enthused about Asher Fisch's conducting as the rest of the house seemed to be. There were too many spots where I wanted crispness and drive, but the reins were loosened. It was a solid, entirely defensible Die Walküre, but to my ears it lacked bite. In this, the most glandular of the Ring operas, visceral excitement wasn't quite there. And in comparison with Daniel Barenboim's recent effort at The Proms, it was staggeringly good since Fisch's interest in the score extended to all three acts.

August 15, 2013 is the gabfest known as Siegfried or two acts of Boys Night Out. I can't wait!