Land of strong lumberjacks and even stronger coffee, Seattle moves ever onward toward its unlikely transmogrification into the Bayreuth of the West. In little more than a quarter-century, the city’s intrepid operagoers have had three separate and distinct versions of Ring des Nibelungen set before them, unalike in appearance and conception, triumphant in audience acclaim. In a summer in which Seattle’s other hot-ticket item, its baseball Mariners, were running roughshod over the competition in both leagues, there was enough local glory left over to consecrate this third Ring as the Seattle Opera’s best-yet realization of Wagner’s stupendous design.
It had been a brave, perhaps foolhardy, venture in 1975 for Glynn Ross to arm his fledgling company, a mere dozen years old, for its first Wagnerian ascent; the results, tradition-based if a patchwork at times and with alternating performances in English and German, were hardly disgraceful. Speight Jenkins, who succeeded Ross as general director in 1983, presided over the last years of that production. In 1986 he instituted a second Ring , a new staging by François Rochaix in a new conception: the postmodern look that was all the rage at the time, with the Valkyries riding on carrousel horses and an Erector-set Fafner. Version Number Three, which presented the cycle three times – each within six days – during this past August, and which had sold out at the box-office exactly one year before, was neither of the above.
It was, as insistently described by Jenkins and stage director Stephen Wadsworth, a “Green” Ring. Designer Thomas Lynch’s forest of tall conifers, among which the Gods laid their malicious plans, Siegmund courted Sieglinde and Wotan bickered with Fricka – and which returned at the very end to honor the perpetuity of life and love – could have been any glorious woodland within a few miles of Seattle. (Time and again in the frequent speech-giving at which he is a virtuoso, Jenkins has insisted that this Ring is not up for borrowing, that it is Seattle’s alone.) Two rugged, rocky crags framed the scene of Siegmund’s murder in Die Walküre; the same structure, more heavily forested, served as Fafner’s habitat in Siegfried and, with its greenery in autumnal decay, as the scene of Siegfried’s fall under Hagen’s spear in Götterdämmerung – all aglow in Peter Kaczorowski’s wondrously naturalistic lighting designs.
If the settings were grand, the gadgetry was no less so: the trick lighting that rendered Alberich instantly invisible and transformed Loge into tongues of flame, the Rhine-Maidens as highly skilled trapeze artists at the cycle’s beginning and end, a realistic Forest Bird hopping from branch to branch and, above all, the stage-filling Fafner, a Velociraptor out of Jurassic Park, at once terrifying and adorable.
Director Stephen Wadsworth, who bestrides both opera house and theater in his burgeoning career – including a previous Lohengrin and Dutchman for Seattle – had most recently won plaudits for his staging of Aeschylus’ Oresteia in San Francisco, thus confirming his Ring qualifications with his insight into dysfunctional families. In the light of contemporary stage interpretations imposed upon the Ring — with a George Lucas treatment for the Los Angeles Opera on the not-too-distant horizon — Wadsworth’s Seattle production, with enlightened support from his design and tech crew, could be considered downright retro, but in the best sense. The Valkyries sported winged helmets, as they did at Wagner’s Bayreuth. Valhalla’s Gods lumbered around in Martin Pakledinaz’s all-purpose, all-century robes familiar from any opera you’ve ever seen. Siegfried’s
immortal howler, “dass ist kein Mann!” got the audience laughter that it has since its ink was wet.
Some small deviations from the Wagnerian writ did occur, and they made sense – or, at least, captured the interest. Wotan and Fricka held their Die Walküre confrontation outside Hunding’s recently violated home – the scene of the crime, in other words — rather than up at Valhalla. The Rheingold Erda made her entrance from behind a rock, and, in her Siegfried reincarnation, from a cleft in a rock wall – all because Seattle’s stage lacks the trap door to her subterranean abode. (There will be one in the remodeled house, which will be opened in time for the next Ring-around.) The Siegfried-disguised-as-Gunther outside Brünnhilde’s cave in Götterdämmerung was sung this time by the actual Gunther rather than the prescribed Siegfried, clarifying a moment that has baffled more than one audience in the past. Confronted with the carnage around her near the end of it all, Gutrune also conveniently killed herself, thus resolving a persistent one-survivor-too-many problem. And the final scene, in Wadsworth’s reimagining, turns from the prescribed Valhalla burnup to a joyous family reunion at the bottom of the Rhine: Brünnhilde back in Wotan’s arms, the Siegmunds, parents and son, standing by, the Rhinemaidens cavorting overhead (where they remained, by the way, through the curtain calls).
Seattle had mounted the first two Ring operas in Wadsworth’s staging in the summer of 2000 as a kind of sneak preview, and most of the musical forces remained as before – including conductor Franz Vote, who had stepped in last season to replace the indisposed Armin Jordan. Born in Los Angeles, Vote has conducted at the Met and at Bayreuth and at other European companies. At the head of a full-size Wagnerian orchestral contingent drawn from Seattle Symphony ranks, — but not above an occasional bad-horn moment — he delivered a performance best described as workmanlike: a fine, steady orchestral flow but with some of the most-awaited moments – Siegmund’s withdrawal of the Sword for one – somewhat undernourished.
Jane Eaglen was her usual glorious Brünnhilde, reaffirming her current ownership of the role on both American coasts and at points in between. There were no surprises; you got what you paid for, and in brimming abundance – a dramatic intensity conveyed entirely though the steely glint of one of the era’s great, gleaming voices, a command of phrase so natural as to seem instinctive, a stage presence uncluttered by further information requiring visual delivery. As Fricka in the Rheingold and Walküre and as the Second Norn in Götterdämmerung, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was little less exhilarating: a huge, rich voice and, again, an acting presence rudimentary but honorable. Margaret Jane Wray was the immensely appealing Sieglinde; Marie Plette, the Freia and Gutrune, small of voice but tidily stageworthy; even more noteworthy among the lesser women’s roles was the uncommonly vivid Forest Bird and Woglinde of Lisa Saffer, best known as an ardent explorer of out-of-the-way repertory in New York and elsewhere.
The greater problems occurred among the male contingent. One day before the first Siegfried Canadian tenor Alan Woodrow took a fall while working out, and severed a leg muscle. Considering the roistering, galumphing, teenage Siegfried of Stephen Wadsworth’s action plan, Woodrow’s appearance on the stage was unthinkable. To the rescue, however, came the enterprising Speight Jenkins. British tenor Richard Berkeley-Steele, who was covering the role, had learned the action but hadn’t yet had vocal rehearsals, was sent out to lip-synch, with the crippled but vocally agile Woodrow singing from a chair at stage right. (Despite successful surgery, Woodrow bowed out following the first week’s Ring-, replaced by Berkeley-Steele in sound as well as sight.)
Mark Baker’s Siegmund was of solid coinage; a stronger hand at the podium might have reinforced the gleam at the great moments in the role. About the ensemble of the lower men’s voices — that dark and fragrant ground in which the organism that is the Ring is most firmly rooted – the report must be mixed. Philip Joll, Welsh-born and mostly active in European houses (although he was a Met Donner in 1988) was the hard-voiced Wotan, toneless in the role’s heartbreaking moments, clearly motivated by the drama but just as clearly outclassed by the resonance of its music. From the rich eloquence of Richard Paul Fink as the adversial Alberich, ironically enough, one heard the sound of a potential, magisterial Wotan; such a feat of lip-synch was, alas, not to be. Denmark’s Stephen Milling was the Fasolt in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre’s Hunding, a stunning young bass, a Sarastro, a Philip II and, in Seattle’s announced Parsifal, surely a Gurnemanz for all seasons.
Like its Ring, Seattle’s Opera House has had its share of incarnations. Built as a flat-floored civic auditorium in 1927, it was totally remodeled, within its original shell, in 1962, the time of Seattle’s World’s Fair; that provided the impetus for Glynn Ross to start up the company the next year. For an audience of 3,017, it provides reasonably good acoustics and benevolent sight-lines; backstage it is more a disaster area, with cramped rehearsal and storage space, wretched dressing rooms and the aforementioned lack of a trapdoor on stage. Now the house shuts down on January 1, 2002, for another total remake that will correct present deficiencies and forestall new ones – with a small loss of seating but even better sightlines. The company will move a few feet eastward, where another performance space – stage, pit and raked seating – is being built into an adjacent sports arena. Plans for the Opera House reopening, in the summer of 2003, are already in place: Parsifal, in a staging by François Rochaix (of the previous, hi-tech Ring), the one major Wagner work the company has not yet tackled and, thus, the completion of the collection.
And the Ring? As a latter-day Erda, but without her overlay of doom’n’gloom, the affable Jenkins has that future well in focus: repeat performances at four-year intervals – 2005, 2009, 2013. The way things move among Seattle’s true Wagnerian believers, the box-office line is probably already in place.