Arts & Culture
8:43 am
Mon August 17, 2009

Seattle Opera offers magnificent 'Ring' revival

SEATTLE – Like a towering fir tree that survives after the primeval forest around it has vanished, the Seattle Opera's production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle now stands alone as the only traditional depiction of the epic music drama on an American stage.

And tall and proud it stands, indeed.

The current revival of the production by Stephen Wadsworth, inspired by the forests of the Pacific Northwest, is as magnificent to look at and imaginatively staged as at its premiere in 2001. The cast, seen in the first of three cycles that ended Friday night, includes some world-class performers, several returning from previous years, along with two new singers in key roles who succeed despite vocal limitations.

This "Ring's" reappearance comes just three months after the Metropolitan Opera retired its deliberately old-fashioned "Ring" to make way for a more avant garde production by Robert Lepage. Los Angeles, meanwhile, is assembling a highly abstract and symbolic "Ring" by German artist Achim Freyer; Washington and San Francisco are sharing an "American Ring" by Francesca Zambello, which includes scenes set in a Manhattan skyscraper and a trailer park.

That leaves Seattle as the U.S. destination for Wagner enthusiasts who want to see his four-part "Der Ring des Nibelungen" performed over the span of a week in a production that sticks closely to the composer's original vision. That's not to say radical reinterpretations can't be faithful to the spirit of the work. Or to suggest that the Seattle production is a slavish imitation of the first Bayreuth production mounted by Wagner himself in 1876.

Wadsworth and his design team (sets by Thomas Lynch, costumes by Martin Pakledinaz and lighting by Peter Kaczorowski), working closely with Speight Jenkins, the company's general director, have given us a "Green Ring" that emphasizes the destruction of the natural environment by the gods, dwarfs, giants and other creatures who battle for possession of a magical golden ring. At the cycle's end, after the heroine, Bruennhilde, sends the world up in flames, nature is reborn in a final tableau that shows the forest blooming into new life with saplings sprouting from a dead tree. That ending was tweaked after the 2001 premiere to make clearer that the gods themselves and their home, Valhalla, are destroyed as well.

Unchanged, but as spectacular as ever, is the very first scene of the opening opera, "Das Rheingold," set at the bottom of the Rhine River, with the three Rhinemaidens in harnesses suspended from the flies that allow them to simulate swimming while singing full-blast.

Wadsworth's directorial hand is much in evidence again, particularly his fondness for underscoring the tender side of many characters who, on the surface, have little claim on our sympathy. Fricka, wife of Wotan, king of the gods, often comes off as a nagging shrew; here she is a majestic and loving figure who feels the weight of the world as much as her husband. Even Mime, a conniving dwarf who plots to murder the hero, Siegfried, shows signs of affection for the youth he has reared from infancy.

None of these production values would count for much if the musical side didn't hold up, and fortunately Jenkins has assembled a cast that would do any company proud. To mention mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe first is only to acknowledge that she is one of the greatest singers before the public today. Her Fricka in "Rheingold" sounded so powerful and incisive that at times she threatened to overwhelm the other performers. New to her repertory this year is the small but crucial role of Waltraute in "Goetterdaemmerung"; her monologue was steeped in intensity and pathos as she revealed to her sister Bruennhilde the dismal state of the gods in decline.

As Wotan, Greer Grimsley was a pillar of strength, his firmly focused bass-baritone unstinting and untiring. Baritone Richard Paul Fink reveled in the exuberant side of Alberich, the dwarf whose theft of the ring from the Rhinemaidens triggers the plot. Australian tenor Stuart Skelton made a terrific local debut as Siegmund, with a large voice, solid as a rock throughout his range, that suggests a future in more arduous heldentenor roles. As Erda, the earth goddess who warns Wotan to relinquish the ring after he has stolen it from Alberich, Swedish mezzo Maria Streijffert made her U.S. debut with sumptuous tone and regal bearing. Another standout was tenor Dennis Peterson as Mime, big in figure as well as voice.

Soprano Janice Baird, who sang the role of Bruennhilde (replacing Jane Eaglen from the 2001 and 2005 cycles) is a puzzling singer. Where many sopranos do fine with the role until it rises toward high C, Baird has the opposite problem. Her middle voice is weak and she struggles to sing on pitch; once she rises above the staff, however, her sound takes on power and accuracy, and many of her high notes were exciting to hear at full throttle. As an actress, she seemed uneasy in her first scenes in "Die Walkuere," but she gained in confidence as the cycle wore on to create a character grand both in love and in anger.

Stig Andersen, a Danish tenor who has sung the role of Siegfried at the Met, was announced to be recovering from a throat infection, and on Wednesday night he struggled audibly. Two nights later he sang better, though his upper register still sounded weak. To his credit though, he is one Siegfried who takes a lyrical, rather than barking, approach to the role. And with his engaging looks and manner, he comes as close as possible to making this rather boorish young superman into a sympathetic character.

Conductor Robert Spano started off in "Rheingold" with some overly deliberate tempos, but he and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra soon found their footing and wove a compelling tapestry of sound that built in power and momentum throughout the week.

The company is staging two more cycles this summer, Aug. 17-22 and Aug. 25-30. Then this "Ring" production is due to return for one final revival in 2013, the bicentennial of Wagner's birth.