Review: Wagner, Wadsworth and Lynch Team for Seattle’s Magical “Rheingold” Revival – August 9, 2009

Stage director Stephen Wadsworth returns to Seattle for the second revival of his now world famous Seattle Opera production of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen”. Wadsworth’s conception of the work closely follows Wagner’s intentions and stage directions in an era in which the “Ring” is presented in ways its author-composer could not possibly have imagined.

But Wadsworth is no routinier. Since his Seattle “Ring’s” previous presentations (in 2001 and 2005), New York City’s Juilliard School has appointed him the be the Juilliard Opera Center’s Director of Opera Studies, providing gifted students in the vocal arts advanced training in operatic acting.

Wadsworth’s masterful staging not only brought new insights into the work, but reaffirmed the conviction of decades of fans of Wagner’s four opera masterpiece that the “Ring” is filled with inherent treasures.

His set designer, Thomas Lynch, who has collaborated with Wadsworth on operatic productions at several major world companies, has achieved a definitive presentation of Wagner’s ideas.

Some have sought to define the Wadsworth “Ring” as the exposition of a particular point of view, in the way we think of so many of the “Rings” of the past half century. But to me it appears to be presenting the “Ring” in a straightforward way, telling a wonderful and important story, for which we can develop whatever meaning and moral we as the audience wish to do.

There are many ideas, some of which would have seemed pretty obvious to “Ring” audience of, say, 75 years ago, that are revelatory in this “Ring”. For one thing, everything is in the scale of humans as they relate to the natural environment. I suspect that the U. S. National Park Service would be able to show us a natural wonder somewhere in their system that corresponds to almost every image in the Wadsworth-Lynch “Ring”.

The gods, dwarves and Rhinemaidens inhabit worlds that seem natural to us humans (although part of this world would require us to obtain SCUBA certification). As we join Wadsworth, Lynch, Conductor Robert Spano and the gifted cast in their exploration of this Wagnerian world, we can understand how all its parts fit one to another.

We are in the forest primeval. This is a pre-urban area, and not one in which forests have been cleared for agriculture.  We can relate to the environment of the Rhine’s depths, and to the dense, riparian forest that begins at the Rhine’s shoreline and ascends to the tree line of the craggy heights on which Siegfried will find the sleeping Bruennhilde.

Notes on the Performance

Conductor Spano, as he is before each “Ring” opera, is in place at his podium when the opera is ready to begin, eschewing the traditional walk across the orchestra pit greeted by audience applause that begins most operas.

Soon the orchestra intones the elements, first very slow, then gradually quickening,  of the E flat major chord on which the introduction to the Ring is built.

This is the moment of in which we as the audience commune with the mysterious forces of the Earth, of Erda and the Norns, and the ancient origins of the River Rhine. Then we are transported into the games of the Rhine Maidens and what proves to be their ill-conceived whim to sexually tease and humiliate the dwarf Alberich.

The scene in the Rhine depths is an extraordinary one by “Rheingold” standards, with the three maidens – Julianne Gearhart, Michele Losier and Jennifer Hines –  constantly swimming, diving, and turning somersaults, even treading water while standing in place.

To produce this effect of swimming and singing requires a combination of aerobic stamina and acrobatic skill on the maiden’s part, as well as masterful handling by the unseen technicians who are coordinating their movements.

The lighting does make it seem like they are immersed in water, but this illusion belies the fact that since opera singing requires abundant moisture and aerobic exercise depletes it, the demands made on this Wellgunde, Woglinde and Flosshilde were quite incredible, and the quality of their singing under these circumstances was remarkable.

The Alberich, Richard Paul Fink, also appeared in the 2008 San Francisco Opera “Rheingold” reviewed (twice) on this website. Always an exciting artist, he was especially effective in the Seattle performance, in this first scene himself doing an onstage somersault down the river’s slippery sloping sides.

[Below: the Rhine Maidens, Flosshilde (Jennifer Hines), Woglinde (Julianne Gearhart) and Wellgunde (Michele Losier) taunt Alberich (Richard Paul Fink); edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

After Alberich’s renunciation of love, he climbs up the underwater hill to seize the Rheingold and then jumps into the subterranean world of the Nibelungs through the crevice from which he originally emerged. (Crevices are  convenient portals for the inhabitants of one of this “Ring’s” worlds to travel to another.)

In the first of Wagner’s great “Rheingold” interludes, the world of the Rhine dissolves into the realm of the gods, which is a forest setting, though one not so dense  as the part of the forest that Hunding’s hut in “Die Walkuere” is located.

We first come upon a moment of seeming marital bliss in which Wotan (Greer Grimsley) is resting while his wife Fricka (Stephanie Blythe) is gazing at him with affection. But we soon learn that she is not happy with what Wotan has done. Soon Wotan will be forced into the unpleasant dilemma of attempting to renege deceitfully on a contract that he is bound by duty, honor (and law) to enforce. The return of Blythe and Grimsley, veterans in this production, helped assure the success of the 2009 “Ring”.

The other gods and giants introduced in this scene all proved to be excellent choices. Marie Plette, cast as the goddess Freia, has an attractive voice that shone in this leggiero role brilliantly.

The giants Fafner, sung by Daniel Sumegi, and Fasolt, by Andrea Silvestrelli, were important Seattle Opera debuts. Sumegi makes a sonorous Fafner (who will return in “Siegfried”), and I look forward to his performance as the sinister Hagen in the final opera.

Silvestrelli,  reviewed on this website for previous appearances as Fasolt, among other assignments, is emerging as one of the important new basso profondo voices of our day. Having seen and heard him in good health several times recently in live performance, I could tell that he was fighting some form of congestion (not announced to the audience), although he still managed to make a decent impression on his debut night.

[Below: Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli, right) holds Freia (Marie Plette) as Fafner (Daniel Sumegi) looks on; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Kobie van Rensburg, the Loge, has a lighter voice than is often heard singing Loge, a role that some heldentenors have chosen to sing. But the musical highlight for Loge is his highly lyrical monologue on the state of the world, and this van Rensburg performed affectingly.

As an actor and trickster (whose Loge tosses fireballs and has flames shoot up from various points in the ground whenever he is annoyed or wishes to tease someone), van Rensburg was a delight whenever on stage.

[Below: Wotan (Greer Grimsley, center) confers with Loge (Kobie van Rensburg, right) within earshot of Fafner (Daniel Sumegi) ]

Jason Collins, the Froh (whom I had liked in the two performances of the San Francisco “Rheingold” reviewed previously) is emerging as a heldentenor clearly ready to move into the next group of Wagnerian tenor roles. His appearance as Froh has to be regarded as luxury casting in this relatively small part.

Gordon Hawkins, last reviewed here in the lead male role in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” is a well known Alberich. His assumption of the role of Donner, another brief role, although one with some of the opera’s most spectacular music, was another example of the depth of casting in this performance.

[Below: Donner (Gordon Hawkins, left) and Froh (Jason Collins) observe the events; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Blythe, whose rich and powerful mezzo voice is evident from her first notes, was from a musical standpoint extraordinary. Even so, her musicianship was complemented by her acting ability.

Often in a “six day Ring”, the Rheingold” and “Walkuere” Frickas are played by different women. (A lighter voice can handle the “Rheingold” music, and, I suppose, the part is supposed to be a younger person, even though immortals are not supposed to show signs of aging.)

Having Blythe portray both Frickas partnered with the same actor-singer who sings the “Rheingold” and “Walkuere” Wotans  permits this talented actress to build a multi-dimensional character. The continuity of the story arcs is immeasurably strengthened by having the same actors-singers playing their characters in these two operas on successive nights.

[Below: Fricka (Stephanie Blythe) expresses her strong feelings to Wotan (Greer Grimsley); edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Because the second and fourth scenes of “Rheingold” use the same sets, the other Lynch set for “Rheingold” is that of the Nibelheim, the subterranean world inhabited by Alberich and the slaves, including his brother Mime, who are held hostage to the Ring.

The musical interludes before and after this third scene of the opera include the otherworldly hammering of anvils that is one of the many delights of the “Ring”. In Seattle the anvil hammers, with their rhythmic musical tones, were heard in stereophonic sound throughout the theater.

The Nibelheim set (of which no satisfactory production photographs have come to my attention) is a dark and foreboding mine, whose gold ore can be seen glistening in veins that formed the stage’s backwall.

Fink’s Alberich, cracking his whip with savage purpose, torments Mime, magnificently played by San Francisco Opera veteran character tenor Dennis Petersen, another Seattle Opera debut.

[Below: From the left, Loge (Kobie van Rensburg), Mime (Dennis Petersen) and Wotan (Greer Grimsley) discuss Alberich’s dangerous new powers; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

After Loge’s trickery to deprive Alberich of his freedom, he is brought to the realm of the gods through a crevice that Wotan and Loge used to invade his world.

[Below: Wotan (Greer Grimsley, standing) overpowers Alberich (Richard Paul Fink); edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Fink’s Alberich is forced to pay his own ransom with the Rheingold, and the magic tarnhelm and Ring fashioned from it. Here Fink’s portrayal of Alberich’s distress and his curse on the Ring makes a powerful impression.

[Below: With Wotan (Greer Grimsley, seated left) and Loge (Kobie van Rensburg, standing top) supervising, the Nibelungs carry the Rheingold from the Nibelheim to the realm of the gods; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Wotan and Loge are able to persuade Fafner and Fasolt to accept the Rheingold and tarnhelm in lieu of the goddess Freia as payment for the construction of Valhalla, if Wotan will agree to include Alberich’s Ring. At first adamant that he will not yield the Ring, Wotan is finally persuaded by the goddess Erda (Maria Streijffert) to surrender it as well.

[Below: the goddess Erda (Marie Streijffert) appears for the first time to Wotan (Greer Grimsley) to warn him to surrender the Ring to Fafner and Fasolt; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of Seattle Opera.]

Alberich’s curse is first shown to have real consequences when Fasolt seeks to take possession of the Ring, and is slain by Fafner. Fricka stares at the body of Fasolt and ponders the meaning of the curse.

Under Wadsworth’s direction, Loge, the chief proponent of returning the Ring to the Rhinemaidens, has shown a degree of rapport with Fricka – at least knowing how to phrase things to get her support for his projects.

Then  –  a strikingly insightful psychological touch – after Fricka’s contemplation of Fasolt’s fate, Loge and Fricka touch in a momentary shared knowledge that something is seriously awry. This as the orchestra plays the theme of Nothung, representing Wotan’s long-term scheme to regain possession for himself of Alberich’s Ring.

Ultimately, all the gods, except Loge, decide to cross a Rainbow Bridge, created by Froh to Wagner’s dazzling music, to Valhalla, leaving Fasolt’s body in the forest clearing.

[Below: the gods prepare to cross the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of Seattle Opera.]

This being a six day “Ring”, we all will return in 20 and a half hours for the opening chords of the “Die Walkuere” storm.

The Present and Future Seattle Ring

Although this review is principally about the Ring’s prologue opera, “Das Rheingold”, and separate reviews will follow for the performances of “Walkuere”, “Siegfried” and “Goetterdaemmerung”, one need not go to far into this magical world that Wagner, Wadsworth and Lynch have created without raising some issues for future discussion.

It has become a tradition for Seattle Opera to produce a new Ring every 16 years, presenting three full cycles every four years. Since the Wadsworth-Lynch Ring was created in 2001, it assures that its fourth season will be in 2013, Wagner’s bicentennial year.

As of today’s date, it is still possible for Wagnerians, or for music lovers who do not even consider themselves Wagnerians, to make last minute decisions to attend the second or third 2009 Rings  (although the caches of remaining tickets are dwindling.) Certainly, there will be strong interest in the 2013 Rings, which in the Wagner-mania we would expect in that year, should sell out early. But the decision appears still to be open as to what happens to this production after that.

As one will see from the images that are described, and to some extent presented on this website, this is a production that deserves to be recognized as a “world heritage production” with safeguards against its destruction. Future generations should not be denied the opportunity to see this Ring in live performance.

Obviously, the administration of Seattle Opera will determine what happens, but the rest of the world should be kibitzing in support of this Ring’s preservation for the distant future.