Sunday, August 25, 2013

GUEST REVIEWER EB ON THE SEATTLE OPERA RING CYCLE

How to describe the Seattle Opera bicentenary Ring cycle?

Greer Grimsley as Wotan and Stephanie Blythe as Fricka
(Photo: Seattle Opera)
I suppose the only fair description is unique, although the same could apply to any Ring performance. I stand by the word though; there is something quite particular about the Pacific Northwest and in particular its cities' and people's relationship to nature. This production's USP is the 'green', naturalistic staging by Stephen Wadsworth, with its über-realistic scenery by Thomas Lynch and costumes by Martin Pakledinaz. This is the fourth iteration of the production which first saw the light of day in 2001, and it has gained great notoriety. Far from being staid or old-fashioned, it finds itself at a paradoxical cutting edge of Wagner staging by virtue of its closeness to the composer's vision. And whatever else one may think of the sets (mostly beautiful, sometimes astonishingly so) and costumes (an improvement on the tatty efforts seen at the Met and elsewhere in recent months), this is emphatically not a show in the 'Park and Bark' tradition. Indeed, this cycle is perhaps distinguished by the sheer detail in the direction of individual characters. Long swathes of the score that can occasionally drag (such as Walküre Act 2) are compellingly realized, and it is possible to focus on many of Wagner's original details rather than a directorial concept.

The gods enter Valhalla,
Das Rheingold
(Photo: Seattle Opera)
I will talk about the individual parts in turn, but some general comments first. The theatre is beautiful, spacious, and audience-friendly. It also has a slightly curious wide horseshoe shape which I think leads to some diffusion of the sound; balance is mostly excellent but the sheer volume for the Gods' Entry to Valhalla or the Ride of the Valkyries isn't always achieved (the Funeral March came closest). The stage is wide and relatively low and this is in part responsible -- along with some of the designs -- for voices evaporating into the flies. The wonderful flying Rhinemaidens suffer in their first scene particularly, whilst the sudden focus brought to Alwyn Mellor's Brünnhilde simply by singing from in front of a shiny rock face was very striking.

Any Ring stands or falls by its conductor. Asher Fisch has benefitted from the tutelage of Daniel Barenboim and cannot have been ignorant of the latter's incandescent performances recently at the BBC Proms. To be fair, this reading was very much his own. Of course this was not the Berlin Philharmonic playing music that forms part of its lifeblood. But it is a perfectly tuned, skilfully played and artfully paced reading (with exceptions -- Why slam on the brakes just before the end of Siegfried? Not kind to one's hero and heroine at 11pm). I've already griped about missing the last ounce of raw power and I feel mean mentioning some flatulence in the brass which marred some important moments (but really, it didn't help Donner raise the storm - just a few titters - and the split in the horn call at the start of Act 3 of Siegfried was a bit unfortunate). The orchestra played better and better cycle went on though, and delivered a magnificently confident Götterdämmerung which left me (and probably others) wishing to return the next cycle.

Alwyn Mellor as Brunnhilde and
Stefan Vinke as Siegfried
(Photo: Seattle Opera)
I saw the second cycle, which began with Das Rheingold on Monday, August 12th. The opening scene is charming: the flying, 'swimming' Rhinemaidens apparently situated underwater (Jennifer Zetlan, Cecelia Hall, Renee Tatum - mellifluous if underpowered) are guarding their glowing gold. Richard Paul Fink is perhaps one of the most experienced Alberichs we have, if a little undernourished vocally these days--although still delivering the curse with telling, rasping power. Wadsworth directs this scene better than any producer I have seen, and Alberich's speedy disappearance below the earth with the gold chased by the Rhinemaidens is excitingly dynamic.

Indeed, throughout the cycle both scenery and direction manage to be both naturalistic, with big, solid scenic pieces, and mercurially fleet-footed. The Niebelheim scenes are achieved with the slightest of means, and the transformations are effective. Stage directions are meticulously followed, and for the first time the business of Freia being hidden by the gold made complete sense..

Meanwhile, we had an experienced Fricka (Stephanie Blythe, the classiest voice on stage and more complex and sympathetic than many) and Wotan (Greer Grimsley, a Seattle Ring veteran). The action of Rheingold is played "straight" with a sure directorial hand, avoiding longeurs. Particularly enjoyable was Grimsley's interaction with Mark Schowalter's Loge - crystal clear of voice and diction and perhaps the most sympathetic character in the piece, unusually; I have rarely seen the longevity of this relationship so clearly depicted throughout the cycle.

Praise too for Wendy Bryn Harmer as a vocally keen-edged, dramatically urgent Freia and Daniel Sumegi as Fafner, who both returned later in the cycle; Andrea Silvestrelli sounded off color as Fafner; I have heard this singer do much better and wondered if he had been unwell.

Indisposition had, in fact, already struck during Cycle 1. British soprano Alwyn Mellor, who has recently relaunched herself as a Wagnerian in Europe with some success, was a brave choice as Brünnhilde as she has not sung the complete cycle before (though she has been studying with Anne Evans, one of last century's greatest exponents of the role, and like Mellor a Brünnhilde in the lyric, rather than the dramatic, mould). She had gained good notices for Die Walküre but disappeared for the rest of Cycle 1, owing apparently to allergies, and was replaced by Lori Phillips, by all accounts a success. It was unclear by the time I saw Die Walküre on August 13th whether she would indeed appear (she did, of which more later).

As it happens, this was a pretty seasoned Seattle Walküre cast with most of the leads having sung them there before. Scenically, Hunding's hut and surrounding forest served both Act 1 and half of Act 2 -logical, if you think about it, to have Wotan, Brünnhilde and Fricka holding a post-mortem of the previous night's events at the scene of the crime. The annunciation of death and duel take place at a bare mountain pass and the Valkyrie Rock is the stuff of tradition - decent (hardly thrilling) pyrotechnics at the end, but once again detailed, thoughtful direction of the characters at every point - the value of which cannot be underestimated.

Siegmund was Stuart Skelton, gaining month by month in reputation as a Heldentenor. He had already appeared as Siegmund here. He is a burly and headstrong but sympathetic hero, burnished of tone but with an attractive glint at the top of the voice. I wondered, though, if the part lies a tad low for him; although the cries of 'Wälse!' hold no terrors, the voice can fade at the baritonal end of the part. To me he sounds like a thrilling Siegfried-to-be: here's hoping. His twin , Sieglinde, is the highly experienced Margaret Jane Wray - ample and generous if a little metallic of voice, touching of character (who didn't love her upturning of Hunding's crockery as she fled the house?). Her sound is reminiscent of Violeta Urmana's - herself a Bayreuth Sieglinde - but lacks the long phrasing that characterizes the greatest exponents of the role. Nonetheless she did not shortchange us at 'O hehrstes Wunder!', for which much thanks.

Returning from the night before were Blythe- again, a conflicted, plush voiced Fricka who won the argument fair and square - and Grimsley, who grew in stature as the evening went on. He is more baritone than bass - meaning the start of his narration is thin - but his acting is imbued with his years of experience in the role and his performance with Mellor in Act 3 heartbreaking. And he sings the last lines - daring he who is without fear to brave the fire - with a ringing security I have not heard bettered (and yes, I've heard Terfel). Silvestrelli returned as Hunding, again sounding watery and underpowered, although playing a convincing bully. We had good, loud, boisterous Valkyries who thankfully we not tempted to overplay their business in the Ride, owing to Wadsworth's sure hand.

And the titular Valkyrie herself? I remember Mellor from her days as Musetta, Mimi and others at English and Welsh National Opera; the voice was always big, with a dusky, almost throaty sound and a fast vibrato. The sound is beautiful and she is accurate in alt - the battle cry unusually so. Some of the low-lying parts such as annunciation of death were hard to hear (some residual indisposition too, perhaps). She made Act 3 her own and I left hoping her recovery continued as my instinct was that she would succeed where most Brünnhildes don't: Siegfried.

My chance to find out came with Part 3 on August 15th. It was quite wonderful, in no small part owing to the casting of the title role. I had been fortunate enough to hear Stefan Vinke's Siegfried in London last year, and though him the best I had heard. He received reasonable notices for his singing but less enthusiasm for his characterization. I find his voice solidly, cleanly produced and well-tuned if not conventionally beautiful (I have yet to hear a truly beautiful Siegfried). This production plays him as a sympathetic, innocent bruiser; his violent behaviour towards Mime, Fafner and Der Wanderer takes place in in the context of his own understanding of their communications to him (and I must mention the excellent English surtitles, translation uncredited, at this point - lagging slightly irritatingly behind the singers at times, but illuminating nonetheless). Perhaps oddly for a native German speaker, his diction wasn't always clear. Nonetheless he was tireless, fearless and always musical, and he was deservedly cheered to the rafters.

I did wonder during Act 1 whether this might be the best rendition of the piece I have yet seen; Dennis Petersen's wonderful Mime was vocal match for Vinke's at times during the forging song and throughout gave a dark and detailed rendition of this conflicted character. With them returned Grimsley as Der Wanderer, whose antiphonal, grave, noble music is some of the greatest in the cycle. The work of singer and director meant his situation has never seemed clearer to me; both desperate to goad the characters into asking him what he wants to tell them, but powerless to intervene. His majestic performance across the evening crowned his wonderful rendition across the whole cycle.

Acts 2 and 3 went similarly well - Wadsworth brings Siegfried to the same scenic point where his mother slept before Siegmund's death for his own musings about her; Fink's Alberich crept and snarled with Grimsley and Petersen most expertly. The dragon (balefully voiced offstage by Daniel Sumegi) was achieved by good old-fashioned stagecraft - no animatronics, video or 3-D - and wonderfully so. Jennifer Zetlan's Waldvogel sounded far away (I suppose she is); Wadsworth's realization of this character has rather less élan than that of Fafner's. Lucille Beer's occluded contralto robbed Erda's wonderful scene of some impact (as in her appearance in Das Rheingold), especially against the vivid Grimsley. Mellor, having benefited from her long sleep, fielded plenty of bright, womanly tone and the top Cs were present and correct (if not without effort). An ecstatic house left ready and excited to hear Vinke and Mellor again in the flame-grilled finale.

Götterdämmerung was on August 17th , played to an excited house. As I have indicated above, this was a wonderfully assured performance, masterfully paced. Wadsworth largely continues his vision of the previous episodes although the very human world of the Gibichungs feels rather different from the 'natural' world we have seen elsewhere. The set for their hall in Act 1 is the first 'building' we have seen in the cycle; it is a solid yet dynamic and theatrical space, full of shadowy corners. Wadsworth introduces extras throughout both to convey the sense of life during the wedding but also to produce a sense of unease and subterfuge; members of the household are present during the Immolation as is Hagen, who appears to be present just about everywhere in this production. The Rhinemaidens are earthbound this time, still singing gorgeously, and their play in and around the river is charming. The ending is economical but moving, using projections of fire and water, the Rhinemaidens once again airborne behind a gauze to take back the Ring (and drown Hagen), before a heart rending view of Wotan, Fricka and Loge in Valhalla. The final image, the forest scene from Das Rheingold and elsewhere, is beautiful, and right; order is restored and we are ready for Cycle 3.

The singing was mostly terrific. Vinke didn't put a foot wrong, less sympathetic than in Siegfried, of course, but really sings every note of this killer role. The occasional critical sniffiness round his performances mystifies me as I can't think of another singer today who could do the part better. Stephanie Blythe swept all before her in the Waltraute scene, a real highlight, and was a luxurious 2nd Norn (with Margaret Jane Wray returning as the 3rd and Luretta Bybee - a Valkyrie earlier in the week - as the 1st). Daniel Sumegi lacked the sumptuous, blackest tone of the great Hagens, but was constantly engaged and alert, dramatically holding the stage throughout Act 2 to propel the drama onwards - his scene with Fink's reliable Alberich went well. Strong Gibichungs from Markus Brück (an unremarkable Donner in Rheingold) and especially Wendy Bryn Harmer, whose ample voice and presence made me think she will be a Brünnhilde in the future, and an exciting one.

Götterdämmerung is carried, though, by Brünnhilde, whose personal journey traces the overall arc of the story and who of course brings proceedings to a close with the Immolation. Mellor herself takes us on a journey, vocally and dramatically, and presents a very different character from the teenager of Die Walküre. She has power for the big moments - fire-snortingly so in Act 2 - and isn't afraid to sing softly. Her voice production is very reminiscent of Cheryl Studer's (a distinguished Wagnerian although never a Brünnhilde) and her tone is always beautiful; however, a consistent lack of ballast at the lower end of the voice makes me question if hers is truly a Brünnhilde voice. She is a musical, touching and communicative heroine, though, and it will be exciting to watch her interpretation of this great role develop over time.

At the end an ecstatic house received Wadsworth and Seattle Opera Director General Speight Jenkins - presiding over his last Ring as he is about to leave the company; he exhorted attendees to retune -- the company would perform the Ring again. I believe him.


To conclude, this Ring is, above all, much more than the sum of its parts. There are some stellar individual performances, some indelible images and wonderful conducting; yet it is as a complete experience that I will treasure the memory of this cycle, perhaps the most satisfying I have yet seen. As the pioneer of the Gesamtkunstwerk, I suspect Wagner would have approved.

1 comment:

jhrhodes said...

Minor typo: "Andrea Silvestrelli sounded off color as Fafner" should be as *Fasolt*.