“Gotterdammerung,” the concluding episode of Richard Wagner’s tetralogy, “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” is an arduous journey, impossibly lengthy and complex. At its best, it is thrilling and sublime, at its worst, boring and just long-winded.
Seattle Opera’s production, its third in some 34 years, is nearly always riveting, making drama both visually and musically, and immensely appealing and human. Credit goes to stage director Stephen Wadsworth, who only stumbles on occasion, and a long list of singing actors who bring their roles to life. Over an amazing three-month rehearsal period, every detail is meticulously worked out, so that the result is an almost seamless flow of action wedded to music. In the pit is conductor Robert Spano, his second Seattle “Ring,” who presides over the affair in a sensitive and alert manner.
“Siegfried” was plagued with a sick tenor in the title role, who lost his voice in the final act. Stig Andersen recovered for “Gotterdammerung” Friday night at McCaw Hall and sang in a lyric yet heroic manner that was the equal to Janice Baird’s Brunnhilde, in the best voice of the three operas in which she appears. Everything went smoothly. Almost. Doing a scene change in the first act, the curtain refused to go up and Spano brought the orchestra to a stop. There was silence and shortly the music resumed and the curtain did its duty. The problem: a malfunction with the computer that controls the curtain. In the second act, it happened all over again, but this time the break was longer and so ominous Wadsworth left his seat to go backstage. Then it rose and the music began. Before the beginning of the final act, general director Speight Jenkins explained to the audience what was going on, as best he knew what was going on. He said in a conversation during intermission that if he can make pre-curtain speeches on behalf of sick singers, why not a ailing computer.
Undoubtedly the electronic glitch struck terror in the heart of company officials. But in retrospect, the problem only added a bit of theatrics to the night because everything else went according to plan. The French horns were exemplary, the soprano hit her high notes, the tired, old world went up in flames and a new one was born, bathed in love.
Several singers are new to Seattle, including Baird and Andersen as well as Andrea Silvestreli, Dennis Petersen, Maria Streijffert and Stuart Skelton. They are all good additions to the production. Unfortunately, Siegfrieds seem to come and go. Andersen, who probably has more experience in the role than anyone else in the world, provided reasons why he is offered so many jobs in this difficult assignment. On a good day — and “Gotterdammerung” on Friday was a good day — he sang with conviction and even vocal splendor now and then. His tenor is essentially a lyric instrument which he turns it into a voice of substantial drama. There is the occasional strain but how many tenors who do this role, do it without discernible effort? My greatest complaint is his reading of the role. Certainly, he can be appealing and appropriately youthful but sometimes that turns into childish behavior. The interpretation may come from Wadsworth, but whatever the source, it is a distortion.
Baird, who also is widely experienced as Brunnhilde, has an inconsistent record over the three operas in which appears — “Die Walkure,” “Siegfried” and “Gotterdammerung.” Her final offering was the most satisfying. The problems with her low register seem not as critical and her wide vibrato less disturbing. What one remembers it is the clarion top, the scale of the voice itself. This is not a handsome sound, but it has a dramatic sensibility that is welcome. What have been constant are her intelligence and attractive stage presence. She moves in a convincing way, at once strong and lithe.
Gunther is often a throw-away part, but on Friday. Gordon Hawkins, long a regular at Seattle Opera, made the figure three-dimensional and an integral part of the action. Daneil Sumegi was not so dark and forbidding as Hagen but nevertheless had genuine presence on stage. Marie Plette’s Gutrune carried the part, and Richard Paul Fink’s Alberich was, yet again, persuasive and powerful. There are three sets of women singers in “Gotterdammerung”: the Norns and the Rhinemaidens. They are equally good. The Norn scene, which opens the opera, can seem tedious and a rather bad beginning. Luretta Bybee, Stephanie Blythe and Margaret Jane Wray, who sang these roles in the 2005 production, are well-matched vocally and physically, and they make sense dramatically. Thank you Stephen Wadsworth. We know the Rhinemaidens from “Rheingold”: Julianne Gearhat, Michele Losier and Jennifer Hines. I liked them on trapezes, and, of course, was utterly transfixed by their acrobatics. They are equally suave on the ground. Blythe did double duty as Waltraute in addition to the Second Norn.
Spano is a conductor of poise and finesse, if not always dramatic urgency, Details are plentiful and inner voices readily heard. He is alert to the needs of singers but does not kowtow to them. He is particularly aware of the importance of the single phrase, sometimes more than the sweeping line. The orchestra — mostly members of the Seattle Symphony — played with aplomb.
“Ring” productions in which a tree is a tree, a rock a rock and the world on stage bears a resemblance to the natural world are rare. You can count them on one hand — at the most — particularly since the Metropolitan Opera’s production was retired earlier this year. Seattle Opera’s is among the best: something real but not a cliche. Thank you Thomas Lynch, the designer, who has done such good work here.
There are two more cycles in August in which there were a few tickets left to the third cycle a week ago. They may be gone now. The production will be given its last performance in 2013.