My Ring journey: Twilight and beyond

It’s been more than a week since Janice Baird immolated the world in the Seattle Opera’s first Ring cycle of 2009. Since her debut as Brunhilde earlier in the cycle, More than a few people familiar with the role, doubted the wisdom of casting Janice Baird as Brunhilde which demands so much from her voice and interpretative abilities.

Yet, when Twilight of the Gods wrapped up there was no doubt Baird was the right choice. Baird replaced Jane Eaglen, who was Brunhilde in 2005 and in the first run of the “green” Ring in 2001. Eaglen’s voice is rock solid. She was one of the finest Brunhilde’s of the last half of the 20th Century. But, Speight Jenkins was looking to take the role and the production in a new direction. Was it ultimately Eaglen’s size? The quality of her voice? Who knows. At this point the reasons for Jenkins’s decision are irrelevant.

Baird’s voice is different. It’s thinner. She is best near the top of her range, but wobbly on occasion. She saved her finest work for the final Immolation scene in Twilight of the Gods. As the world “burned” around her, she finally dominated the stage with a white-hot performance.

Even as Baird finally met the challenge of singing Brunhilde, she was overshadowed by a staging and set miracle. All around, sets changed quickly, and effortlessly. A gauzy screen slid in front of the stage and licking flames were projected onto the surface. When Valhalla was consumed in fire, a pillar emerged from the stage. Perched in the middle of the pillar, were the immolating gods. Early in the opera, the Norns let us know that Wotan and the rest of the gods are resigned to their fate, cutting down the world ash tree and building their own pyre around Valhalla.

As good as Brunhilde finally became, it wasn’t Janice Baird who impressed me the most by the end of Twilight of the Gods.

Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is a miracle – a miracle of music and stage. The Ring is an even more astounding achievement when you consider how late Wagner came to music and the banality of his early operas and orchestral compositions. The concept of the Ring is too big to be truthfully captured by audio recordings and DVD’s alone. Engineering and camera angles can turn mediocre productions and performances into fraudulent revelations.

There are so many ways to interpret and sing the Ring who can honestly say one way of singing, acting, and staging the Ring is objectively better than another? Rhinemaidens can swim, fly, standstill, and even look like prostitutes. With Wagner’s orchestral music framing the entire epic there is room for as many interpretations as there are ideas.

The Seattle Opera’s Ring is a miracle in its own way. Out here in the forested, perpetually rainy Pacific Northwest Speight Jenkins has created an American Bayeruth. When the current production was unveiled in 2001, someone remarked the goal for the production was to do for Wagner what Jurassic Park did for dinosaurs. Dragons, dwarfs, magic helmets, and a burning world come to life because of the collective efforts of stage hands, costume makers, set designers, set painters, director, orchestra, conductor, singers, and even a computer or two.

Sitting in McCaw Hall with the lights dimmed, it is easy to focus just on the efforts of the singers on stage. But they are only part of what makes Wagner’s tetralogy of music dramas work. Enough has been made about the herculean efforts of the singers and the quality of their singing and acting.  But not enough attention has been paid to the countless others who make this Ring so special.

Away from the stage costume makers and set designers created visuals which added dimension to the characters on stage and the story being told. Hagen, the villain in Twilight and a character Wagner neglects to construct fully, is even more evil because of his brooding black costume; an outfit that communicates as much as Daniel Sumegi’s menacing performance. The sets of this Ring are lusher than an old growth forest and contribute to the interpretation that the Ring is a story of continuous death and rebirth. This is a theme the set designers give a nod to at the end of Twilight of the Gods when the final set – a forest scene we get to know in the earlier operas – is moved onto the stage showcasing saplings growing out of the spot a fallen log once occupied.

The sets and the costumes would be meaningless without the hard work of the stage hands, makeup artists, and others who have their own contribution to make. A malfunctioning computer which raises the curtain at the end of each prelude dramatically made this point during the first Twilight.  The episode caused Spano to scurry away from the podium long enough to call up to the control room. I imagine the stage hands pushed the curtain up the old fashioned way – by hand – or found some way to circumvent McCaw Hall’s own uncooperative HAL.

While singers come and go through out the four operas, down in the pit, the orchestra plays for the entire time. When Twilight of the Gods ended I savored the experience by slowly leaving McCaw Hall. Outside, I walked along the north side of the building and tried to decipher the contorted expressions of the departing musicians. They have been living with Wagner’s music since at least July. With a Ring every four years and a Wagner opera every summer in between, Wagner is in the musical blood of the Northwest. But, that doesn’t mean the mass of instrumentalists stuffed into every corner of the pit don’t get tired. Most looked exhausted as they stumbled to their cars or waiting rides. Wagner’s four-part music drama was propelled forward because of the Iron Man effort of the orchestra, Robert Spano’s thoughtful guidance, and dramatic pacing. The Ring begins simply but ends with a tangle of manipulated motives. It is a considerable feat for an orchestra and conductor to make sense of Wagner’s four days of music and this is precisely what Spano and the orchestra did.

When the world finally burns one more time this coming weekend, the Ring will be packed up and put in storage for four more years. Wagnerites need not worry, because just like the world, this Ring will be reborn one more time in 2013.

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