Friday, August 21, 2009

Ringblogging IV (belated): Götterdämmerung in Seattle

OK, Friday's Götterdämmerung made it official — I'm in the Janice Baird camp now. Whatever was going on during her unimpressive Walküre Brünnhilde (nerves, adjustment, an off night) faded away during Siegfried and was fully gone by the last opening night of this first cycle. Instead, we got a full-blown, vibrantly heroic rendition that was every bit as impressive vocally as it was theatrically. She's the real deal.

My Ring date (Mom) didn't care for something about Baird's tone, and I understood her objection without sharing it — there's a dark and slightly acidic quality that could hit you in the wrong place if you're in the mood for something laser-like and clean. And there's no denying that her power is iffy in the lower register. But her voice gets bigger and bolder as it goes higher, and she had no problem at all being heard over the orchestra in the more athletic passages of the role.

Nor was it all stratospheric exertions — Baird's more intimate singing in the emotionally charged second act was shapely and specific, informed throughout by a very detailed take on Brünnhilde's travails. I'd also add that she's just about the best-looking Brünnhilde I've ever seen, which is not dispositive, but it's not, y'know, nothing either. This is theater, after all, and when Siegfried starts hollering about a beautiful warrior maiden, it's kind of exciting for once not to have to suspend your disbelief for a second.

Aside from Baird's contributions, Götterdämmerung was somewhat hit-or-miss. Stig Andersen was either recovered from his ailment or not, who can say; there was no announcement, but there was still something a bit hesitant and underwhelming about his Siegfried. Maybe that's all he's got.

The whole Gibichung plotline, as is so often the case (at least for me) didn't amount to much. There are few things that make me more impatient than people who complain, in connection with some work of fiction or theater or cinema, that there aren't any characters they "like" or "care about" or "can identify with"; but it's a sin that I myself am guilty of when it comes to this aspect of Götterdämmerung. The various Nibelungen live the fullness of their villainy, Hagen no less than his father and uncle, and Siegfried, for all his obvious character flaws, really is a Held. But Gunther, and to a lesser extent Gutrune, are merely contemptible and tedious; it's a rare performance in which I don't feel they're wasting my time with their whining and sniveling. This wasn't one. Gordon Hawkins, a middling Donner in Rheingold, thundered unconvincingly as Gunther, and Marie Plette, who had brought such fresh ardor to Freia, sounded acerbic as Gutrune. Daniel Sumegi's Hagen came to life most fully in the Act 2 scene with Alberich, perhaps prompted by Richard Paul Fink's insinuating ferocity.

Stephanie Blythe, God love her, returned as both the Second Norn and Waltraute. I had slightly conflicted feelings about the former assignment — her singing was so extraordinary, so potent and full of dark, rich colors, that she put her colleagues into the shade, which in turn upset the balance of the first scene. I'm not sure what a performer is supposed to do in that situation — tone it down to the level of her lesser collaborators? Maybe so, but on the other hand I wouldn't have wanted to miss the opportunity of hearing her sing at full strength. Waltraute's scene, in which Baird held her own, was unalloyed delight.

Whatever intermittent misgivings there might have been about individual performances, there were none about Stephen Wadsworth's staging. The big crowd scenes of Act 2 were impeccably choreographed, as was the more intimate scene of the Norns; the frolicking of the Rhinemaidens in Act 3 was the funniest I've ever seen. And although the ecological theme runs very lightly through this production, the final, post-cataclysmic stage image — the very pine forest we saw in Das Rheingold, now charred almost beyond recognition but still clearly poised for eventual regeneration — felt deeply, movingly apt. Only four more years until the next go-round.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Ringblogging III: Siegfried in Seattle

Seattle's Siegfrieds are evidently somewhat snake-bit. When the Stephen Wadsworth production was first unveiled in 2001, Alan Woodrow tripped over an exercise machine shortly before his company debut and severed his quadriceps, which left him unable to walk; he sang from the wings while the cover tenor, Richard Berkeley-Steele, leapt and cavorted and slew dragons.

This week, the Danish tenor Stig Andersen kept up the tradition by coming down with a viral infection just before his company debut. Speight Jenkins made the announcement before the curtain went up on Wednesday's Siegfried, and it brought on all the usual emotions — apprehension at his appearance, relief that there was no cancellation, frustration over the fact that there was going to be no reliable way to gauge what we were about to hear. And so it was.

Andersen sounded convincingly like a decent heldentenor still in the grips of a bronchial something-or-other, which is about all I can say. His singing was ragged and hazy by the end of each act (the Forging Song was particularly strained), although he did muster a sweet, precise tone in Act 2. I wasn't much taken with his stage presence (somewhere between nimble and heroic without quite being either) but again, there's no knowing how much of that was due to the vocal struggles.

Oh but look — I buried the lede. The great revelation on Wednesday was Janice Baird's Brünnhilde, as potent and gleaming and theatrically vivid as her Walküre Brünnhilde had been wan and unimpressive. This was a Tarnhelm-like transformation (though to judge from some of the comments here, this sort of inconsistency or unpredictability is something of a trademark), and once again the direction things were headed was obvious before she even opened her mouth.

The first moments of Baird's awakening were an intensely physical display — rubbing one arm and then another, raising her face to the sun in a worshipful grin of delight, moving each muscle in her body, and at last turning a slow whirl of exuberance that would have been an awkward milkmaid cliché under any other circumstances. I don't know when I've seen the thrill of being conscious and alive conveyed with such solid specificity.

And then came "Heil dir, Sonne," and I practically fell out of my chair. Here at last was the big, radiant and superbly controlled sound that you want for Brünnhilde (and especially at this juncture). And she kept it up all the way through the long final scene, launching volley after volley of effortlessly heroic tone over the din of the orchestra and evidently inspiring Andersen to similar feats. If this version of Baird shows up again for Götterdämmerung we're all in for a treat.

The rest of the evening was no less fine. Greer Grimsley finished out his assignment with a resplendent Wanderer, full of regrets and autumnal wisdom; his dialogue with Erda (the rich-toned Swedish contralto Maria Streijffert) was particularly probing. Richard Paul Fink's saturnine Alberich made a welcome return.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night, though, was tenor Dennis Petersen as a strong-toned and incisively acted Mime. Petersen came up through the San Francisco Opera training program a good while back (I'm pretty sure I reviewed his debut recital as a cub critic more than 20 years ago) and since then he's been mostly relegated to small character roles — at least in San Francisco, where he's been the go-to Goro practically forever.

Turns out he's been underused all these years. His Mime was a prodigious display of vocal muscle and unapologetic physical vigor, with nary a hint of cringing, whining or wheedling. The effect was to make him loom as a formidable antagonist both to Siegfried — the notion that he might succeed in chopping off the boy's head suddenly didn't seem so laughable — and to the Wanderer in the riddle scene, which I like to think of as the Wagnerian version of Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me! ("Answer three questions about the events of the past few nights and win Carl Kasell's voice on your answering machine!").

Siegfried also contains what may be my favorite of Thomas Lynch's gorgeous sets, the mountain-and-forest combo of Neidhöhle in Act 2. Most of the sets to this point have been either rocky cliffs or piney woods, and whenever the curtain goes up on this new setting — divided right down the middle of the stage between the two — I start trying to figure out which of those previous sets we're revisiting. The answer, of course, is none. This is a transmuted blend of themes already encountered — which is to say, nothing less than a visual counterpart of Wagnerian leitmotif technique.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ringblogging II: Die Walküre in Seattle

To exemplify the sensitivity and imagination at work in director Stephen Wadsworth's superb Ring production, you could hardly do better than the scene between Wotan and Fricka at the beginning of Act 2 of Walküre. I've had occasion to rhapsodize about other aspects of this scene before, but what struck me on Monday night was how fierce and yet tender the argument between these two becomes in Wadsworth's staging.

Think about that showdown too often goes — an onslaught of legalism and passive-aggressive whining in which a henpecked husband is brought to heel (yes, he concedes that Fricka's right, but always reluctantly and generally without a hint of grace). But Wadsworth takes a much more humane view of this marriage — particularly in Rheingold, which is studded with little interludes of smooching and schmuggling, but here too, as the relationship comes under its most severe pressure.

In this version — and I've never witnessed the scene enacted with the degree of musical and theatrical vividness that Greer Grimsley and Stephanie Blythe lent it this time around — Fricka brings Wotan around to his better side through the sheer force of her love and the bond they share. She looks him face-on — fearlessly and firmly but sympathetically — and leads him, rather than merely chivvying him, through the steps of her unassailable case. And when she invokes the sanctity of marriage, it's not (or not only) in the spirit of a patroness protecting the prerogatives of her constituency. She's reminding Wotan of their own marriage, of what it has meant and still means to him. It's as though Brünnhilde, with her catty, callow remarks about storm and strife and womanly battles, is the child watching a parental fight with no understanding of the depth of feeling underlying it.

As I say, that's just one splendor among many. You could also point, for instance, to the extraordinary flux of emotional tension in Act 1, dispelled in a huge rush of liberation in the Winterstürme duet, or the contrapuntal skill with which Wadsworth deploys and individuates a gaggle of Valkyries in Act 3. It's a joy to hear and see this story told so fluidly and with such resourceful energy.

Musically, the performance was mostly superb as well, though I continue to wish that Robert Spano's conducting could match the zest and vibrancy of the staging. Stuart Skelton and Margaret Jane Wray were phenomenal Wälsungs, singing with unbridled power, precision and tonal freshness; their Winterstürme was a masterpiece of erotic urgency. Andrea Silvestrelli made a strong Hunding, and Grimsley was first-rate, from that detailed beginning to Act 2 all the way to the emotionally capacious Farewell.

The one problem — a big one — was Janice Baird's tentative, underpowered Brünnhilde. I knew even before she opened her mouth for the first "Hojotoho" that trouble was on the way, because I could see her going through the same mental calculations my cat makes before leaping onto the kitchen counter: gauging the height of the ascent, envisioning a practice run or two, re-checking the calculations, and finally making the jump. She boasts a lively, girlish stage presence, and there was some probing lyricism to her singing in Act 3; but she's no warrior maiden.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ringblogging I: Rheingold in Seattle

One of the first things people like to point out about the Ring cycle is that the "cyclical" part is key — by ending Götterdämmerung where Rheingold began, Wagner reinforces the idea that this is a timeless yarn that plays out again and again into eternity. And not just the story, but the reenactment thereof, so don't wait to buy your tickets for next year as soon as this year's performances are over.

Like so many of Old Klingsor's ideas, this one is easy to mock and hard to resist. When the curtain went up on the first scene of Rheingold Sunday night and I saw those wonderful swimming Rhinemaidens, twirling and somersaulting in the depths of the river, it felt exactly like the recurrence of an old and welcome ritual. It's been four years since the last outing of director Stephen Wadsworth's brilliant, emotionally probing Ring for the Seattle Opera, and those years melted away in an instant.

I can't even pretend to any kind of equanimity about this production, with its phenomenally beautiful physical trappings (sets by Thomas Lynch, costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, lighting by Peter Kaczorowski) and Wadsworth's riveting blend of traditionalism and theatrical vividness. I absolutely love it.

Freed from the crippling dictates of an overarching concept, Wadsworth's staging is at once faithful to its roots and entirely autonomous. He relies on the basic story as Wagner conceived it, but finds room for innovative or imaginative touches that shed new light on what's happening — particularly the lively erotic charge between Fricka and Wotan, which makes clear that his philandering has nothing to do with any caricatured notion of her as nag or shrew. Wadsworth also makes Fricka a force of conscience by having her linger behind, contemplating Fasolt's corpse in silent horror, while the other gods process over the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla.

The sheer visual splendor of the production is almost embarrassing in its profusion. The green, piney mountaintop of the even-numbered scenes is like an idealized version of the reality looming nearby; the waters of the Rhine look cool and fluid enough to dive into.

And the opening night promised the best musical incarnation of this production yet, even under Robert Spano's blandly capable leadership. As always, Stephanie Blythe's Fricka outshone everyone else for vocal heft, tonal elegance and interpretive clarity. If you're determined to do so, you could spin that negative, as an all-too-cynical young critic of my acquaintance managed to do ("You know you're in trouble when Fricka is the best singer of the night"), but really, why would you want to? In what opera is Stephanie Blythe not the most magnificent performer on stage?

The happiest news was that Greer Garson Grimsley has finally grown into the role of Wotan. When he took on the role for the first time four years ago, Speight Jenkins' advocacy for him seemed touching but a bit misplaced; he was callow, tentative, underpowered. Not any more. This was a commanding, vocally resplendent performance.

Most of the rest of the cast was first-rate, too — Richard Paul Fink returning yet again in his signature role of Alberich, Marie Plette as a bright-toned Freia, Jason Collins, a new name to me, as a clarion Froh (yikes — turns out I heard him as Froh in San Francisco just a year ago, but he didn't make a similar impression). The one weak point was Kobie van Rensburg, a dull, blockish Loge; with all the magic happening onstage, his performance was the least magical.