Review by Michael Portillo of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen performed by Seattle Opera, for The New Statesman, August 2005.
“One of our Rhine daughters has eaten some bad fish and got sick,” announced Speight Jenkins, the general director of the Seattle Opera before the curtain went up on Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Finding a substitute voice from within the cast of the Ring cycle was not difficult, but no understudy could be expected to master the actions required in this super-realistic production. The three Rhine maidens are suspended from a kind of trapeze, pivoted at the waist to allow them to spin their bodies through complete circles or, assuming a horizontal position, to imitate swimming. Gauze and lighting make it look as though they are indeed underwater.
The problem was solved by drafting in Gina Lapinski, an associate director in this production who had rehearsed the singers in their gymnastics, and while she turned circles and mouthed the words on stage, Sarah Heltzell sang the part from the pit.
Stephen Wadsworth’s production, first seen in Seattle in 2001 is the ultimate naturalistic presentation of the Ring. The forests are constructed with minute attention to detail. Every fern and rotten log has been crafted with botanical exactitude, drawing on the pine woods of America’s Pacific Northwest.
This production follows every one of Wagner’s stage directions. Where the composer demands a dragon dripping venomous saliva, with a wicked flick to its horny tail, Wadsworth supplies it exactly. Brünnhilde addresses her last words to her horse Grane. Most directors ignore that problem. Not Wadsworth. Twice before our astonished eyes a thoroughbred is led across the stage.
Seattle’s climax of Götterdämmerung is a miracle of stagecraft. In the few moments that separate Brünnhilde’s last notes from the end of the opera, the scene changes repeatedly. We see her consumed by fire, then we are back in the river with the swimming Rhine maidens drowning Hagen, then the gods who are awaiting their end in Valhalla appear on a huge hydraulic platform, also to be devoured by flame, and with the final chords we return to the tranquillity of unspoilt nature and the forest scene. Every part is decreed by Wagner or implied in his music, but how often does anyone attempt to show it all?
Punters tend to love it. Having endured many impenetrable interpretations around the world, opera-goers heave a sigh of relief that here is a Ring as Wagner intended it. There is no need to shut your eyes in this one (unless, perhaps, you like to imagine your Siegfried younger and your female leads slimmer than Seattle can offer).
Not that sticking to Wagner’s stage directions renders the production unimaginative. In Die Walküre Wotan and Fricka meet for their Act 2 row about whether the gods are bound to defend the institution of marriage in the very woodland hut where moments before the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde have commenced their adulterous and incestuous union. In Siegfried Wotan lays flowers beneath the bloodstained rock where he unwillingly speared his son Siegmund to death. In Götterdämmerung Siegfried will perish on a spear at the same spot. Such touches suggest a highly intelligent and deep reading of the cycle.
Not surprising, perhaps, since Jenkins is one of the USA’s most knowledgeable Wagner scholars and has now spent 22 years at Seattle, a house that had begun performing The Ring in 1975. This was my fourth visit to Seattle to sample their work.
The orchestra under Robert Spano, conducting his first Ring, produced wonderful colour and excitement, with well-judged changes of tempo. The opera house, remodelled since this production first appeared, now has better acoustics, and even in the loudest passages there is a good balance between human voice and orchestra.
Brünnhilde is sung again by Jane Eaglen, the British-born soprano, who has worked with Seattle since 1994 and lives in the city. She produces her finest performances in this house where she is at home, and where directors take care to plan movements and even sets appropriate to a woman of her size. That sensitivity enabled her to dominate Götterdämmerung not just with the strength of her voice, but with her charisma and stage presence.
Alan Woodrow, for years principal tenor at the English National Opera, was Jenkins’s choice to sing Siegfried in 2001, but injury prevented him from completing the season. Now, having performed the role around the globe, he attacks the piece with self-confidence and, especially during Götterdämmerung, sang powerfully and lyrically. Four years ago Richard Berkeley-Steele was forced to substitute for Woodrow, which was a stretch for him. On this occasion he made a credible and sensitive Siegmund, a role in which he is comfortable.
There was much excitement at the emergence of a new Wotan. Greer Grimsley, who has been groomed through the Wagner roles at Seattle, has limitless staying power and a great richness to his voice that reminded some of George London. Naturally, this being his first Wotan, there is still room for expressive development, but he seemed to have begun that growth even over the course of the cycle.
Ring devotees should certainly have Seattle on their list. It returns in 2009.