Seattle Opera: A “Ring” that Would Make Even Wagner Proud

Seattle, Seattle Opera, Mc Caw Hall  
Preliminary Evening of the scenic saga Der Ring Des Nibelungen, in four days.
Libretto and music byRichard Wagner
Flosshilde RENÉE TATUM
First day of the scenic saga Der Ring des Nibelungen, in three acts
Schwertleite LURETTA BYBEE
Second day of the scenic saga Der Ring des Nibelungen, in three acts
Stimme eines Waldvogels 
Third day of the scenic saga Der Ring des Nibelungen, in three acts
Waltraute/ Zweite Norn STEPHANIE BLYTHE
Flosshilde RENÉE TATUM
Chorus and Orchestra of Seattle Opera
Conductor Asher Fisch 
Horn Call (Siegfried) Mark Robbins
Director Stephen Wadsworth 
Set Designing Thomas Lynch 
Costume Designing Martin Pakledinaz 
Light Design Peter Kaczorowski
Fire Designer, Flight Technical Director Charles Tim Buck    
4 August (Das Rheingold),  5 August (Die Walkure), 7 August (Siegfried), 9 August 2013 (Götterdämmerung) 

For the past ten years I have spent every summer in Europe traipsing from one festival to the next for my fix of opera and concerts. This summer, however, I chose to stay closer to home. The reason: Seattle Opera’s Ring Cycle.
 I was tired of traveling thousands of miles only to suffer through another incomprehensible Eurotrash production, otherwise known as Regietheater, where the Regisseur is given free reign to do whatever he fancies even if it means distorting an original masterpiece into some Frankensteinian abomination. These charlatan directors conceal their mediocrity and lack of creativity with visual gibberish. If the audience cannot appreciate or make sense of their production, surely it could only mean that their ideas are so profound as to be beyond one’s grasp. It has always been my belief that the mark of a true artist is humility, and that it is the duty of the performer, conductor, or director to honor the wishes of the composer as to how his work ought to be presented. I had heard that Stephen Wadsworth’s Seattle Ring is one of the few major productions, possibly the only one, remaining in the world today that stays true to Wagner’s vision. Luckily for me, I was able to catch the first of this Ring’s final set of three cycles at McCaw Hall, and see for myself that Wadsworth is indeed among the few left who has the ability to balance a sense respect for Wagner’s legacy with his own creativity.
“The great thing about this Ring Cycle is that I don’t have to figure out what the director is trying to convey! Here what you see is what you get,” said Monika Whitaker, a Bavarian Ring Head who now resides in Los Angeles. Many of the other audience members with whom I spoke over the course of the week echoed her sentiments. Another woman who frequents Bayreuth told me, “It’s refreshing to be able to just sit back and enjoy the show without trying to make sense of something that’s weird or bizarre. I don’t want to spend my time wondering if there really might be a deeper meaning or if the director has dressed the production in the Emperor’s new clothes.”
When Wagner set about creating the Ring Cycle it was not his intention to make the operas intimidating, nor was it meant to appeal only to the educated, intellectual elite. On the contrary, Wagner wanted his operas to be accessible to everyone. He wanted the audience to gain a sense of self-awareness and a deeper understanding of the human condition in the process of experiencing these operas, much like what Greek dramas did for the people of ancient Greece. Thus Wager chose to use mythology as the basis for his many operas and he chose it specifically for its universal appeal. With gods, giants, dwarfs, mermaids, a magic helmet and dragon, the story of the Ring has enough fantastical elements on the surface to entertain a child with copious profundity underneath that proves inexhaustible for even the most insatiable of intellectuals, musicologists and philosophers alike. Wagner’s Ring is very much like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s timeless novella, Le Petit Prince. Ostensibly a children’s book, it is also cherished by grown ups as it contains layers of meaning that unfold with every new read. The brilliance behind Wadsworth’s Ring lies in its simplicity and straightforwardness. It is intuitive, not over-intellectualized and thus appeals to everyone: young or old, provincial or cosmopolitan, educated or not. The production is visually stunning with beautifully crafted sets, the characters and the dilemmas they face are relatable, and the storyline is easy to follow.
Director Stephen Wadsworth honors Wagner’s idea of his operas being musical dramas, meaning that the music ultimately serves to support the drama happening on stage. As the head of Dramatic Studies at the Met’s Young Artists Development Program, Wadsworth has also launched the first intensive acting program for opera singers at Juilliard. Thus it is safe to say that this director is fully committed to making sure the singers in his productions can also act. His holistic approach to staging the Ring involves creating a nuanced portrayal of the characters. Typically depicted as a cunning viper, Fricka (Stephanie Blythe) in this production is loving and affectionate toward her Wotan. It becomes apparent right away that the pair is still in a loving relationship. Rather than resentment and anger, we instead see disappointment and heartbreak on her face as she helplessly witness her husband’s wrongdoings. These small changes – a gentle stroke of the face or a lingering glance in one’s direction, make a world of a difference to the story and our ability to empathize with the characters. Instead of dismissing her as nagging, jealous shrew, we now see Fricka as a woman of strong moral conviction who stands her ground firmly when she finally confronts Wotan and demands that he upholds her honor in Act II of Die Walküre. I found myself sympathizing with her rather than hating her for being cruel and vindictive as I had in other productions. By exposing the intimacy between Fricka and Wotan, Wadsworth allows us to better understand them on a human level. Only then can we learn to love them, care for them, mourn for their losses, and let their tragedy be ours.
As for the singing, the cast was strong overall with a few standouts. Greer Grimsley, Richard Paul Fink, Dennis Petersen, and Mark Schowalter were all fantastic in their respective roles as Wotan, Alberich, Mime, and Loge. Blythe was consistently excellent not only in her role as Fricka, but also as Second Norn and Waltraute in Götterdämmerung. Her sound is always steady and full; it envelopes you like a warm, cashmere blanket. The shimmering Rheintöchter, Wolinde (Jennifer Zetlan), Wellgunde (Cecelia Hall), and Flosshilde (Renée Tatum) did a fine job swimming, flipping and somersaulting in the air. They sang brilliantly and effortlessly while suspended from their harnesses; their voices did not betray any trace of nervousness. I particularly enjoyed Donner’s “Heda! Heda! Hedo!” toward the end of Das RheingoldMarkus Brück (who later played Gunter in Götterdämmerung) makes the motif blossom from a delicate pianissimo and gradually crescendos to a powerful thunder. Andrea Silvestrelli is an adorable, teddy bear of a giant. His Fasolt reminds me of André the Giant in Princess Bride.
Stuart Skelton was a robust Siegmund, sustaining his two ‘Wälse! Wälse!’ cries for what seemed like an eternity. As Sieglinde, Margaret Jane Wray’s voice paired nicely with Skelton’s, though her high notes sounded a bit forced and labored toward the end of Act I of Die Walküre. She did, however, redeem herself in Act III with the redemption motif which was delivered with beautiful, soaring lyricism.
Alwyn Mellor played a youthful Brünnhilde in Die Walküre with a bright upper register and near perfect ’Hojotojo!’s, but she was sadly indisposed for the rest of the run. Lori Phillips, who stepped in as her last minute replacement, sounded a little shrill and fatigued during the immolation scene, but did a fine job otherwise. Both Brünnhildes were a little lacking in their middle range. Most impressive was Stefan Vinke, who was just splendid as Siegfried with a voice of steel that cuts through the orchestra like Notung’s blade. He is what I consider a true Heldentenor – his sound has a bright heroic ping to it coupled with the richness and dark undertones of a baritone. Vinke is also a smart singer who does not oversing which explains how he has the stamina to stay strong until the very end of a five hour long performance. He backs off his volume at places that do not require him to sing full out thereby preserving his voice for those magnificent high Cs that ring out through the hall and nearly knock you over.
The orchestra sounded lovely under the baton of Maestro Asher Fisch. The occasional blooper from the brass section was to be expected, especially when you’re dealing with Wagner Tuben which are practically impossible to play. Sadly we did not get the 18 anvils for the industrious smithing music of Nibelheim, and the Kurtzweil synthesizer used in lieu of the anvils had some difficulty keeping in rhythm with the rest of the orchestra. Fisch did a fantastic job supporting the singers onstage and not engulfing them with a wall of sound as is often times the case with many overzealous Wagner conductors. While this production has elements that appeal to the first time Ring goer, for a slightly more seasoned Wagner aficionado like myself the real gems are in the details. The addition of the organ pedal on the very first E-flat of Das Rheingold and the presence of Wagner Tuben in the orchestra may have escaped many in the audience, but they are a rare treat for those of us who really care about the texture of the orchestral sound.There were also certain details in the staging of the production that could only have been created by careful study of the score by Wadsworth and likewise appreciated by those who are well-acquainted with the Ring. I especially enjoyed the way Loge was portrayed, not as a mere cynical bystander who looks upon the Gods, Giants, and Nibelung with sneering Schadefreude and reveling in their imminent doom. Rather, he earnestly urges Wotan to do the right thing. I found this presentation of Loge refreshing and unique to this production. I spoke to Wadsworth about his decision to make Loge a concerned, conflicted participant and not just an aloof bystander. “It’s pretty clear from the score,” he says, “and if you look at what Wagener wrote, Loge warns them eight or nine times to give the ring back to the Rhinemaidens.” I smiled when he told me this. Alas, a director who pays attention to the score! At the end of Das Rheingold, there was a moment when we see Wotan kneeling before the captured, miserable Alberich as if contemplating his own self-reflection. This is yet another thoughtful detail deliberately planted for the more advanced Ring devotee, referencing the lesser known fact that Wotan is also known as “Licht Alberich” (Light Alberich) for he and his nemesis are really two sides of the same coin.
There were many other terribly clever little moments scattered throughout the four evenings that evoked bouts giggles from the audience. The Valkyries, for instance, were depicted as individuals rather than a homogenous group of young warrior maidens. Each had her own unique idiosyncrasy, much like the seven dwarves in Snow White, where the grumpy one storms around as one of her goofy sisters follows closely behind, mimicking her stomping while the others look on and laugh. Another priceless moment was when Siegfried, having never seen a dragon before, tried strangling and talking to the tail mistaking it for the head.And then, of course, there were the stunning sets with life like trees, foliage, water, and moss-covered rocks. From where I sat in the tenth row, it was as though I could reach out and feel the textures of the bark. I don’t think I have ever seen such a realistic representation of wilderness on an opera stage. Even the bear, with its formidable paws, moved and looked real not to mention the dragon complete with webbed, translucent membrane stretched between his wing fingers. It was evident that not a single detail was spared in creating this marvelous set.
The Seattle Opera Ring Cycle Festival can only be described as a full immersion week of Wagner. Just the sheer number of activities was dizzying. There were few days where I did not commit a full eight hour work day to Wagner (a 3-hour talk from 10am to 1pm on the evening’s opera followed by the 5-hour long performance). To kick off Cycle I, there was an Open House “Make Some Noise” that welcomed families and offered activities for children: there was a kazoo workshop session where Educational Director Sue Elliot had the kids play leitmotifs from the Ring, an instrument petting zoo, innovative performance art, and a make your own instrument workshop. There was also a premiere of a children’s opera trilogy in English, Our Earth, about the devastating effects on the salmon population as a result of the destruction of their Puget Sound habitat. In addition to teaching the little ones how to play the giants’ motif on their kazoos, Elliot also gave four incredible talks on each of the operas. These talks covered a wide range of topics including music theory, the German language, the composer’s life, his brass instruments, and tidbits specific to this production. Her talks were very well balanced and enjoyable. While they were not intimidating for Ring neophytes, they were also not rudimentary – even the most scholarly Wagnerite was guaranteed to learn something new. Between Die Walküre and Siegfried was the Symposium, a five hour long event with various speakers, the highlight of which was the cycle’s conductor, Asher Fisch. The maestro gave a well-organized and superbly articulated presentation on various elements of the Ring’s music (i.e. form, motifs, colour, and rhythm) drawing parallels from examples found in art and nature.
Even more impressive is Seattle Opera’s attempt to make the Ring more accessible to the younger, more tech savvy generation by launching a festival iPhone app (with a built in Twitter feed #RingSea) in addition to their existing program app for the iPad. They also recently launched a microsite dedicated to celebrating the 50th anniversary of General Director Speight Jenkins with pages and pages of photos from past productions.
I was told that Jenkins does not like it when people use the word “traditional” to describe his Ring. He prefers the “Green Ring“, which is actually very fitting in more ways than one. There is a wholesomeness about this production that reminds me of the values of the Slow Food Movement – a reverting back to the pure, simple, honest way of doing things. Many directors today have become lazy, cranking out productions by using cheap tricks (throw in some naked people, neon signs, violent sex scenes) the same way the fast food industry loads their products with high fructose corn syrup, fat and salt. Wadsworth, on the other hand, did not take any shortcuts in creating this production. He did his homework, studied the score, and found ways to be creative within the framework provided by Wagner. His Ring is like food without those nasty hormones, antibiotics, fillers, GMOs, or preservatives. A good dish doesn’t require much manipulation if it has fresh, quality ingredients. Likewise, a good production does not require nudity, violence, or any other bizarre, grotesque, provocative, abstract elements if there’s quality singing, staging and acting. So to me, this Ring Cycle is “green” not only because it was inspired by the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, but in the sense that the components of this production are clean and unadulterated. There’s nothing gratuitous; nothing unnecessary.
More opera houses should turn to Seattle Opera as an example and follow its lead. There is no reason why opera should be a dying art form. Speight Jenkins has found a way to turn one of the most formidable, notoriously “heavy” oeuvres into something that can be enjoyed by the masses, even by children, and he does this without cheapening Wagner’s masterpiece the way the Metropolitan Opera did with their Lepage “Cirque du Soleil” Ring Cycle. Seattle Opera gives me hope that the art form still has a fighting chance for future generations to come. Pictures by Alan Alabastro & Elise Bakketun

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