My Ring journey: The Rhinegold

Ring Pit

My first encounter with this year’s Ring happened in the middle of July. For reasons that are irrelevant, I was sitting across a table from Bob Spano. Spano first conducted the Seattle Ring in 2005 and made such a positive impression that Speight Jenkins invited him back for the 2009 Ring. Here we were, with a vodka tonic in my hand and a martini in his hand, having a conversation – about The Ring.

I met Spano, and a few other people at a local watering hole. It was 11:30 pm and the conductor had finished a rehearsal of Twilight of the Gods – the nearly five hour conclusion of The Ring. A few minutes earlier Spano had pulled out the mammoth score to the opera he just rehearsed, and placed it with a thud on a nearby chair. The rest of the group, all musicians, marveled at the phone book-sized tome. Soon the musicians – with Spano’s approval – picked up the score and began going through its pages. “There’s a man who has studied Wagner’s music.” Remarked one of the musicians after reading through Spano’s post-it annotations to the score.

“Be careful. Don’t mess with those post-its!” Spano shot back.

While the musicians in the group gawked at the score, my attention was fixed on Spano. When I am around people far smarter, accomplished, and more knowing than myself I tend to go silent. This night was no different. In situations like this, my mind grinds along. I think through my interactions and plan my questions the way a chess player plans his moves. While Spano was holding court with the assembled crowd, I leaned back into my chair’s worn cushions. A conversation about the upcoming Ring swirled in front of me.

“I like Rheingold because it’s the DNA of the whole thing.” Spano’s comment cut through the verbal clutter. His single statement summed up The Rhinegold better than any of the books I had read on Wagner’s epic cycle.

Wagner’s music has always had a place in my CD collection. Since his name falls near the end of the alphabet I tended not to pay much attention to him. I previously picked up a complete cycle – a performance with nothing notable about it – at a bookstore. The Seattle Opera’s impending performance of the cycle, implored me to do more than listen to a poorly recorded, poorly sung, bargain basement performance of The Ring.

In a matter of weeks, my Wagner collection was bursting with a Ring sung in English, Solti’s historic recording of the cycle, Karl Bohm and the Bayeruth Festival Orchestra, Pierre Boulez’s interpretation from the late 70’s, and the Royal Danish Opera House’s production on DVD – the Copenhagen Ring or as it is sometimes called by Wagnerites, the feminist Ring. Wagner books grew like weeds on my bookshelves and Deryck Cooke lectures introduced me to Wagner’s motives. It didn’t take long before I was on Ring overload. Theories collided with motives. Wotan, Wolfing, Wanderer turned to mud in my brain.

Months later, here was Robert Spano, one of the most distinguished conductors in America today, reducing The Rhinegold down to its most basic essence – the DNA of the entire cycle.

Spano is right.

Last night, when the lights went out, the McCaw audience experienced this DNA firsthand. Many of them, like me, were experiencing The Rhinegold for the very first time. Over the week, we would all be hearing The Rhinegold’s themes, music, and characters evolve. All because of the musical DNA being presented.

136 bars of E Flat. Basses first, then bassoons. Before long, Wagner’s protoplasmic music is transformed into the rushing river and nature motive.  Organic and natural are used often to describe classical music, but I can’t think of an introduction to a piece more fitting of this description than the prelude to The Rhinegold. Many of The Rhinegold’s themes and themes that appear throughout the operas derive from this introduction.

Outside of the music, The Rhinegold is the DNA for the story that entire story that began unfolding last night. We are introduced to gods, dwarves, contracts, curses, and of course an all powerful ring. Decisions made by the characters in this opera shape everything yet to come and the inevitable fall of the gods in the final opera.

I am lucky to be one of the thousands of people who experienced The Rhinegold last night and will experience the rest of Seattle’s celebrated production this week. Stephanie Blythe’s very human Fricka and Greer Grimsley’s powerful, stoic Wotan were the winning performances of night one. Kobe van Rensburg’s Loge-as-pragmatist was a novel interpretation. Richard Paul Fink’s is memorable as Alberich because of his singing and acrobatic ability. The orchestra’s sound was gigantic and even a few botched sections couldn’t mar the experience.

My encounter with The Ring might have started in July over drinks, but it ends this week. I can’t wait to see and hear what Wotan, Siegfried, Brunnhilde, and the rest of the characters have to say for the rest of Wagner’s music drama.

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