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Der Ring des Nibelungen
Seattle Opera's Siegfried, with Petersen and Vinke
© Elise Bakketun 2013
When will Seattle Opera next present Wagner's Ring? Will it be in a new physical production? Or will the current production — the company's third — return, as it has at four-year intervals since it bowed in full in 2001? These are big questions for Seattle's general director designate, Aidan Lang, and his board.
Judging by the response to Seattle's current revival of the cycle — the last of general director Speight Jenkins's tenure — audiences certainly don't seem ready to let the company's beloved "Green Ring" go. This year it was better than ever, for many reasons but three main ones: Stephen Wadsworth's staging reached new levels of thoughtfulness and intensity; Asher Fisch's conducting gave unprecedented musical strength; and German heldentenor Stefan Vinke's Siegfried was outstanding, the best Seattle has experienced. (I saw the first of three cycles, Aug. 4–9.)
In this Ring, the most-loved of set designer Thomas Lynch and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski's scenes derive from today's Washington state. Das Rheingold's gods and giants convene among stately Douglas firs on a rocky, mossy ridge inspired by Olympic National Park's Hurricane Ridge; two generations later, Mime dwells there near a decomposing log, which in the cycle's hopeful, moving last image is a nurse log sprouting saplings. Brünnhilde's rocky height looks like a trail blasted into a cliff face, like the Kendall Katwalk on the Pacific Crest Trail east of Seattle. Used three times is a scene a Northwest hiker sees countless times: a trail descends to a stream, and instead of Wagnerians in Martin Pakledinaz's timeless robes, one half expects to see backpackers with trekking poles. The three uses enable Wadsworth to invoke visual leitmotifs: Siegfried wonders what his father was like on the spot where Siegmund was slain — and where Siegfried will slay Fafner and himself be slain — and wonders what his mother was like on the spot where Sieglinde slept.
Wadsworth finds good in apparently unsympathetic characters and love in apparently toxic relationships. Loge, no cynic here, mentions the Rhinemaidens every chance he gets, not to bait Wotan but because he's a real advocate for them. Fasolt's death deeply disturbs the gods, even macho Donner, who sensitively, softly begins his call, only gradually raising the volume to dispel the mists and rouse the gods from their funk. Fricka, conscience of the world, is powerful enough to vehemently oppose Wotan and at the same time passionately love him. Siegfried throttles then cradles Mime, the only parent he ever knew. Even Hagen has a conscience and seems driven to pursue a ring he doesn't really want.
Each time Fisch mounted the podium for a second or third act, the audience gave him and the orchestra, composed mostly of Seattle Symphony musicians, a mighty roar. No wonder, for they played beautifully, varied dynamics, built satisfying climaxes and expressed the intensity of Wadsworth's staging. Act II of Die Walküre, for instance, stormed to its finish with slashing chords that echoed the ferocity of the Siegmund–Hunding fight, Sieglinde's screams and Wotan's anger.
As Siegfried, Vinke exposed his one flaw early — an occluded midrange in which he was no match for Dennis Petersen's superb Mime in tone, technique, expressivity or diction. But when the line rose at all high, whether singing tenderly or heroically, Vinke excelled. And he had energy to burn: whether forging his sword, whittling his reed pipe, leaping among rocks or twirling the Wanderer's hat on his sword point, he reveled in the role's physicality. In Götterdämmerung, his two high Cs were the most full-voiced I've ever heard from a Siegfried. Stuart Skelton sang an exemplary Siegmund, with long, gleaming held tones at "Wälse!" Loge could be a character tenor or a heldentenor, but Mark Schowalter took a lovely, lyrical third approach. Add Ric Furman's sweet-toned Froh, and the tenor casting was five-for-five.
English soprano Alwyn Mellor, Seattle's new Brünnhilde, showed an easy-enough top in Die Walküre's battle cry and final scene, but in her midrange she repeatedly struggled to produce much sound, perhaps already affected by the virus that would sideline her for Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Lori Phillips, her cover, who had rehearsed the operas but never with orchestra, sang the last two evenings of the first cycle. Phillips glanced anxiously at Fisch a few times but seemed comfortable with the staging. Her singing showed remarkable security and, especially in the immolation scene, good upper-register power.
In the roles of Wotan and the Wanderer, Greer Grimsley's black, George London-like bass-baritone again ruled, with acting even more intense than before. Also mining expressive depths was Richard Paul Fink's Alberich, a pillar of the production from its start, along with Margaret Jane Wray's Sieglinde and Stephanie Blythe's mother of all Frickas. Wray, always able to "out-decibel" her Brünnhildes, was searing at full throttle. Blythe, magnificent as Fricka, scaled down her huge voice while singing Waltraute's narrative in Götterdämmerung. Luretta Bybee (First Norn) couldn't be faulted for not equaling Blythe (Second Norn) and Wray (Third Norn). Lucille Beer was a weak, tremulous Erda.
Markus Brück sang handsomely as Donner and Gunther, Grimsley's starter roles in this production in 2001. As ideal as Jeanne Cook and Marie Plette seemed in past iterations of this cycle, Wendy Bryn Harmer's bright-toned, beautiful singing set new Seattle standards for Freia and Gutrune. The swimming, flipping Rhinemaidens, who played the focused piping of Jennifer Zetlan (Woglinde) off the round, sensuous tones of Cecelia Hall (Wellgunde) and Renée Tatum (Flosshilde), also raised the bar. Harmer (Gerhilde), Hall (Rossweisse) and Tatum (Grimgerde) were among the best of an uneven Valkyrie octet. Zetlan warbled winningly as the Forest Bird.
Neither bass was fully satisfying. Andrea Silvestrelli's very individual sound — wild and woolly, uncouth and barbaric — was apt for Hunding, less so for the sympathetic Fasolt. Daniel Sumegi, solid and biting but dry and colorless as Fafner, rallied for a moderately strong Hagen. The Gibichung vassals he summoned were powerfully vocalized by the men's chorus.
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