Incomparable in scope, Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” is back at McCaw Hall. “Das Rheingold,” the first opera in the tetralogy, opened Sunday night. Before the end of August, three cycles will have been performed to sold-out houses.
Seattle Opera’s first shoestring staging of Wagner’s 15-hour saga — of gods and demi-gods, giants and dwarfs, good and evil, the worldly and otherworldly — helped put the city on the cultural map. In 1975, when the 11-year old company mounted its first cycle — German, then English — in the six days the composer wanted, no one in the United States, much less any place outside Germany, was doing it in that style, if the “Ring” was done at all. The world noticed and came flocking to the city. That production ran every summer for nine years. Even though the production was not of international standards, it helped bring new attention to the glories of the “Ring” and importance of being performed within one week. Now, the “Ring” is produced seemingly everywhere in the Western world.
Soon after Speight Jenkins arrived in Seattle to succeed Glenn Ross, who conceived the original “Ring,” a new production was mounted in 1986, this time taking its visual and intellectual inspiration from the Patrice Chereau “Ring,” premiered in 1976 at Bayreuth. English was banned in favor of two cycles in German. There were many admirers but also plenty of detractors, yelling and screaming at the premiere. Jenkins loved the brouhaha in polite Seattle. However, he took notice and all sorts of subtle changes were enacted over the decade the production ran. In 2001, the third cycle was launched in a remarkable naturalistic setting. A fine cast was assembled. Three cycles were produced, all sold-out a year before opening night. In 2005, the house was sold-out months prior to opening. This year cycles 1 and 2 are sold-out, with a few scattered seats available in cycle 3.
“I wanted this ‘Ring’ to treat nature, not necessarily modern or old or even pro-environment,” said Jenkins, “but something in which he who is good to nature is good and he who is bad is bad. Wagner was deeply interested in nature, but producers stopped paying attention to the idea in the 1950’s because it was considered old-fashioned. I wanted a new ‘Ring’ not only to emphasize nature but also the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t want the cycle to run amok with clichés. I had no idea what it would actually look like, no idea where it would go. That happened with the design team.”
The most compelling image from the second cycle is the set of sister valkyries riding horses high above the stage — a thrilling coup de theatre. The company managed another coup in its third cycle by putting the Rhinemaidens on trapezes and flying them to simulate the underwater creatures they portray. That scene opened the production in 2001 and 2005, and did so again Sunday. The lithe ladies — Juliane Gearhart, Michele Losier and Jennifer Hines — can “swim” and sing, thus helping define this striking production.
Stephen Wadsworth was the stage director for the premiere and has returned in successive years. Something stage directors of his reputation rarely do. Revivals are normally left to assistants. He is a man of details, making sure that each gesture makes sense, that his characters relate to one another instead of merely addressing the audience. Wagner is not easy: there are many places where action is essentially static. Wadsworth turns those sometimes potentially long moments into something telling and relevant to the drama. Text and music are allied. Although they have been much praised over the past eight years, here are words of commendation once again for Thomas Lynch, set designer; Martin Pakledinaz, costume designer, and Peter Kaczorowsi, lighting designer.
It is inevitable there will be cast changes from year to year. Stephen Milling, who sang Fasolt and Hunding, in the first two years of the cycle, is gone. At the time of his local debut, he was practically unknown. He now has a major career. Other singers fade from our memory; he does not. Another singer who went from obscurity to the international stage is Stephanie Blythe. She made her company debut the same year as Milling and sang her great Fricka again Sunday night. She will sing again in “Die Walkure” and in “Gotterdammerung.” The mezzo-soprano has has lost none of the luster from her performance eight years ago. The voice is rich, voluptuous and huge in scale, smooth as cream and even throughout. She is a force of nature.
Richard Paul Fink is a veteran when it comes to his portrait of Alberich. It is a role he has mastered, at once full of malice and musical interest. Dennis Petersen, in his local debut as Mime, made a good, if brief, impression. Also new to the company is Maria Streijffert, as Erda. She has a handsome voice that she uses with skill and artistry. Four years ago, Greer Grimsley sang his first Wotan. It was an impressive debut, with many nuances. This year, his singing was robust, full of bluster. Too much so. Wotan has more breadth to his character than that. Kobie van Rensburg, in his company debut, was an underpowered and bland Loge. In minor roles were Andrea Silverstrelli and Daniel Sumegi, as the giants; Marie Plette, a sympathetic Freia, and Jason Collins and Gordon Hawkins, Froh and Donner.
Robert Spano conducted the 2005 “Ring” and returned this summer. He gave a propulsive reading of the score. There was intelligence and finesse, power and rich detail. The orchestra played well, although the French horns had considerable difficulties early on.