Chaos and twilight: Seattle Opera's Ring, part 2

The first cycle is marred by an ill Siegfried and a subpar Brünnhilde. But there are some wonderful singers and just-right moments, and the subsequent cycles are likely to be better.
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Stig Andersen as Siegfried and Dennis Petersen as Mime

The first cycle is marred by an ill Siegfried and a subpar Brünnhilde. But there are some wonderful singers and just-right moments, and the subsequent cycles are likely to be better.

On Wednesday and Friday Seattle Opera finished its first cycle of Wagner'ꀙs grand tetralogy Des Ring des Nibelungen with Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Many good things happened, but were overwhelmed by misfortune, much like the doomed Wälsungs, the Ring'ꀙs heroes.

Before the beginning of Siegfried, General Director Speight Jenkins parted the curtain and told the audience that 'ꀜhe was not here with bad news'ꀝ and then announced that the Siegfried, Stig Andersen, was ill with a viral infection but would sing anyway. (I guess bad news would have been his being eaten by Fafner in rehearsal.) Andersen had very little voice that night, but from what he did manage to do it was clear that he is a fine musician with an appropriate instrument.

In Götterdämmerung there was much improvement, and by the time Act 3 rolled around he had enough left to sing his mostly lyrical music with distinction, including a very moving death scene. By the end of the series (two more cycles, with a few tickets still available) Andersen will be worth the price of admission. One of the fine things about his Siegfried was the unaffected projection of a likable and intellectually challenged young bumpkin entirely at the mercy of sinister forces. Contrary to the belief of later German nationalists, Siegfried is no übermensch, just one of Wagner'ꀙs 'ꀜpure fools'ꀝ who are enlightened far too late.

More troubling was Janice Baird'ꀙs Brünnhilde. Her Elektra at Seattle Opera showed a well-projected voice in a healthy state and she has sung Isolde at the Met. It was a bit of a shock that her Walküre was completely substandard. The lower voice was non-existent, and in the midrange she could only force with a wobble wide enough for Fafner to waddle though (sorry: I just love reptiles). Only an occasional high note had any purity.

Puzzled, I contacted Seattle Opera for a health update and was told that, to their knowledge, 'ꀜthere were no health problems.'ꀝ I can only conclude that her busy schedule has caused a case of extreme vocal fatigue. In Siegfried things were pretty much the same, and with Andersen'ꀙs illness the final duet scene in Act 3 was largely a visual effect as we listened to the orchestra and watched the singers open their mouths. By Friday she did manage her voice a bit better and there were a few moments in which she sounded like Brünnhilde, but the basic sound was still very unsteady, an impossibility in this role. Unfortunately this problem wasn'ꀙt limited to Baird, as will be seen.

The star of Siegfried was without question the San Francisco-based tenor Dennis Petersen as Mime, a role usually tackled by aging and hammy character singers. Petersen actually sang all of his music well without losing any of the humor and even pathos of this fascinating, annoying, and complex role. When Andersen fully recovers, the first act of this opera will be totally enjoyable, since Greer Grimsley is a better fit for the Wanderer than Wotan in Walküre. Julianne Gearhart was a lovely Forest Bird, undaunted by a tempo too fast for successful projection of the text.

Daniel Sumegi sang a satisfying Daland in the Seattle Opera Dutchman in 2007, but doesn'ꀙt have the immense vocal presence needed for Fafner or Hagen and, again, the vocal production was too unsteady. The same must be said of Gordon Hawkins as Gunther and Marie Plette as Gutrune, although her touching little scene after Siegfried'ꀙs Funeral Music came off quite well. Richard Paul Fink was a reliable Alberich, and the Rhinemaidens (Gearhart, Michèle Losier, Jennifer Hines) were again superb. Maria Streijffert would be a fine singer of early music or lieder but is not able to impersonate the imposing Erda. Stephanie Blythe was a great Waltraute and Second Norn and Margaret Jane Wray and Luretta Bybee were fine as the other Norns. The chorus, in the boisterous scene of the calling of the vassals, made plenty of joyful noise.

The staging is more or less as in the first two operas, although especially in Götterdämmerung the ensemble acting perks up here and there. Also, the need for a chorus in this opera necessitates a Hall of the Gibichungs cavernous enough to allow movement. Once director Stephen Wadsworth gets his hands on some supernumeraries, though, you can be sure that they will run in and out incessantly in a most distracting manner. Another leitmotiv emerged from the staging: people throwing things at each other, usually food. The Alberich-Mime scene is funny enough without shenanigans.

The remaining element, and for me the most thought-provoking, was the conducting of Robert Spano. Spano is a fine technician with a total command of the score, and the necessary awareness of the orchestra'ꀙs needs at all times. He cues virtually everything for the singers, as well the orchestra. After the hapless Franz Vote in the 2001 Ring, who as far as I could tell gave no cues or help to the orchestra at all, it is clear that Spano has bonded well with the band. As a result, the playing was quite good and will improve as the series progresses. The lyrical aspects of the Ring clearly appeal to him most and these were superb. Something is missing, however. To put it into words is difficult but necessary.

Few, if any, conductors of Spano'ꀙs generation have made their reputation on what used to be thought of as the mainstream of classical music — the Germanic composers from Bach, through Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, to Schumann and Brahms, ending with Wagner. They are better known for later music of a different aesthetic and feel more comfortable with Stravinsky'ꀙs Firebird than Beethoven'ꀙs Fifth.

Spano is typical in this respect. In Brooklyn and Atlanta he has championed a variety of 20th century music, ranging from the tepid neo-Romanticism of Jennifer Higdon to the truly interesting Osvaldo Golijov and Kaiji Saariaho. To my knowledge the only 19th century composer in his discography is Berlioz. Whereas many of the famous Wagner conductors of a few generations back approached his music as the end result of a language that was part of their bloodstream, a language they instinctively understood, Spano and the others have to come at it from the outside and take it as an object in itself, out of context.

Spano'ꀙs Ring was never less than workmanlike. But the vital flow, the sense of both the large-scale architecture and the small forms (completely analyzed by Alfred Lorenz in his essential book The Secret of Form in Wagner) that make up each section of the Ring was not clarified in these performances. The last Seattle Ring conductor to fully understand the work, in my opinion, was the late Hermann Michael, who once showed me his scores, totally marked up with references to Lorenz.

Mysticism and grandiosity, at least of Wagnerian proportions, didn'ꀙt seem to interest Spano. The opening of Rheingold, one of the most original beginnings in music, passed by like wallpaper, without atmosphere or surge. The same can be said of the conclusion of that opera and the fiery prelude of Walküre. In general, the last two operas were much better, and that was the case in 2005 as well. To sum up, this was conducting that was totally reliable in terms of technique but often a bit off in pacing and sound.

What makes this case interesting to me is how symptomatic it is and what it says for the future. Where are the great Wagner conductors going to come from? And even more basically, who is going to be able to do a Beethoven or a Brahms symphony convincingly? The generation before Spano was already showing this trend: anyone who has heard Seiji Ozawa or Leonard Slatkin, not to mention Gerard Schwarz, conduct repertoire like this has heard this disconnect.

Period musicians have already taken most of the Baroque repertoire: Will everything before Mahler gradually fade away? That would be a Twilight of the Gods indeed.


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