Seattle Opera's Ring: What's it trying to say?

There are delights, especially Stephanie Blythe's Fricka for the ages and a fine new Siegmund (Stuart Skelton) and Mime (Dennis Petersen). But the sets create cramped spaces for acting and singing, sacrificing characterization and meaning.
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Stephanie Blythe and Greer Grimsley

There are delights, especially Stephanie Blythe's Fricka for the ages and a fine new Siegmund (Stuart Skelton) and Mime (Dennis Petersen). But the sets create cramped spaces for acting and singing, sacrificing characterization and meaning.

The 2009 installment of the Seattle Opera production of Richard Wagner'ꀙs great tetrology, Der Ring des Nibelungen, began this week; here I review the first two operas, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre.

The Ring is writ large in all aspects: musical richness and complexity, enormous scope, huge orchestra, and mythic libretto. This work is really about something, be it mythology, class warfare, economics, history, or something else. It is way too monumental and exhausting to be merely about human relationships. Every Ring production must have a point of view about its inner meaning and reveal it to its audience.

To start with the singers, there was much that was better than the two previous incarnations of this production, and some things that were a step back. Stuart Skelton, in his Seattle debut, was a fine Siegmund, with an ideal voice for the part and an unaffected stage manner. Oddly, his singing was least effective in the 'ꀜWinterstürme,'ꀝ which lacked nuance, but he clearly has a Wagnerian future and was a pleasure to hear. Dennis Petersen, also in his debut, sang a fine Mime which makes one look forward to his long scenes in Siegfried, a statement not often made. The new Rhine Daughters, Julianne Gearhart and Michèle Losier, sounded and looked lovely, and with the returning Jennifer Hines comprised the most euphonious trio yet. It'ꀙs too bad that Losier was not given a chance to sing the Freia-Gutrune doubling: this would have been a great improvement. Jason Collins made the most of Froh.

I have long admired Kobie van Rensburg, but his Loge was only middling, with deftly pointed rhythms and colors, but little voice left and any legato quite gone. The high tessitura of Fasolt was too much for the strangulated production of Andrea Silvestrelli, who fared better in the lower part of Hunding. Maria Streijffert was an adequate Erda. In the other small roles, the Fafner of Daniel Sumegi stood out, with Freia and Donner makeweights at best.

The prize among the returning major parts is the completely indomitable Fricka of Stephanie Blythe, a force of nature overpowering poor Wotan at all moments. This is a Fricka for the ages. There is much to admire in Greer Grimsley'ꀙs Wotan: the steadiness, focus, and stamina (it'ꀙs no mean feat to sing these two Wotans in consecutive nights), but his voice has basically one color, and, as a result, Wotan'ꀙs complexities are only barely suggested. His weakness is projected but little else. Richard Paul Fink'ꀙs Alberich is well-sung but does not capture the stunning malevolence of the character. Alberich can be comical at the beginning, but once he grabs the ring and the 'ꀜrenunciation of love'ꀝ motive sounds in the orchestra he must become the worst nightmare of the upper classes, able to arouse economic, physical, and sexual fear. This doesn'ꀙt happen, even in his final hate-filled monologue. Part of this is due to the staging (discussed below).

Margaret Jane Way is still a fine Sieglinde, with a bit more edge in her voice now; that hurts a little in the first act but helps in the last. I will defer discussion of Janice Baird'ꀙs Brünnhilde and Robert Spano'ꀙs conducting until the second installment of this review. The orchestra was in good form, especially in the lyrical moments. The brass was velvet and well-balanced in the soft music, but in the last act of Walküre there were the usual coarse and poorly tuned octaves.

The staging of Stephen Wadsworth, the sets by Thomas Lynch, and the costumes of Martin Pakledinaz, are familiar enough by now to have attracted all sorts of opinions, so I will offer mine here instead of later. The sets are indeed wonderful stage pictures, but impossible spaces in which to actually act and sing. There is just no room to adequately address dramatic or musical issues. As a result, no characters are created.

Take the second scene of Rheingold, the ensemble scene of the Gods. Instead of something which suggests immense power, energy, and space, we get a bunch of hulking people in drab smocks slouching around on what feels like an overcrowded campsite. There is nothing even remotely godlike about them. They are gods, after all, and should be barely human. Instead they are more like some superannuated gangsters in a Tarantino movie than an upper class capable of ruling and shaping the world. When Freia is captured and they decline into weakness and old age there is scarcely any difference: the energy level drops from 1 to 0.

And Wotan is no different. This makes nonsense of the carefully striated society which Wagner takes such pains to suggest. Surely The Ring is partially about class warfare, but everything is leveled here.

The next scene, in Nibelheim, is even more puzzling. A cliff with a few feet of stage space is wholly unable to suggest the fearsome sweatshop of the underworld, so the scene can only be played for comedy. Again, if the possible rule of the Nibelungen is enough to terrify Wotan, we must see why. In the last act of Walküre the predominant visual impression is one of generously endowed women teetering down inclined planes or clambering up and down rocks. Their slinging around of body parts left over from a slasher flick is another example of an unwillingness to find serious and fitting solutions.

And then there is the acting, or lack of it. The characters never seem to be able to cogently react to each other, choosing either stilted silent-film gestures or stony immobility. In summation, this is my third viewing of the cycle and I still have little idea of what Wadsworth thinks The Ring is about.


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