Rheingold in Seattle
|Greer Grimsley as Wotan (photo Alan Alabastro)|
In place of crocodiles and blow jobs, director Stephen Wadsworth gives us a spear and a rainbow bridge and chain-mail headgear, as well as various other items and situations that can be encountered in Wagner's libretto. This, of course, is not necessarily a desideratum in its own right; a by-the-books approach is perfectly capable of being dull and predictable. But it does clear the decks, as it were, for some uncluttered attention on the musical and dramatic specifics of the work. And a director as brilliantly sensitive as Wadsworth can bring out worlds of emotion and moral complexity without resorting to shock tactics or cheap symbolism.
The Rheingold that opened the first cycle on Sunday night focused chiefly on two themes that will resonate throughout the ensuing operas: love, and the intricate moral calculus underlying the entire drama. The portrayal of Wotan and Fricka's relationship — sexy, profound, and prickly — is one of the great triumphs of Wadsworth's staging, especially in the extraordinarily nuanced and sure-footed performances by Greer Grimsley and Stephanie Blythe. These two share a deep bond whose vicissitudes have nothing to do with henpeckery or ball-and-chain cliches.
At the beginning of Scene 2, Fricka wakes her husband from sleep with a long, impassioned kiss that stiffens his entire body (no blow jobs here, but at least one implied boner); and the pride with which she gazes on the new-built Valhalla carries a poignant suggestion that there was a time, at least, when this was a shared project between them. What subsequently happens to that feeling, and to the changing emotional tenor of their long marriage, has its roots in that first scene.
The other thing Wadsworth zeroes in on is the moral imbalance unleashed by the chain of thefts in Rheingold — Alberich from the Rhinemaidens, Wotan from Alberich. Four years ago, Wadsworth had Fricka stay behind as the other gods passed into Valhalla, mourning the corpse of Fasolt as the first in a series of victims of the ring's curse. This time, Loge joins her, expostulating silently about the urgent need to get the ring back into the Rhine now. I'm not sure I quite buy this idea, which is at odds with Loge's studied cynicism, but it adds an interesting layer to the scene.
On top of the precision and specificity of Wadsworth's Personenregie, there is the utter visual beauty of this production — the gleaming greens and blacks of Thomas Lynch's mountaintop sets, Peter Kaczorowski's expressive lighting and the sumptuous colors of the late Martin Pakledinaz's costumes. After the final notes of the opera and before the actual bows begin, the curtain rises on a magnificent tableau, with the entire cast splayed across the stage with all the glamour and care of a Vanity Fair cover. It's pure delight.
Grimsley and Blythe were the vocal as well as dramatic stars of Sunday's performance, turning in performances of effortless power and tonal elegance. Richard Paul Fink, Seattle's Alberich since seemingly forever, returned in all his dark-toned malevolence, and there were superb contributions by Mark Schowalter as Loge, Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia and Ric Furman as a clarion-voiced Froh.
The weak spot in the Seattle Ring has always been the conducting, which has never quite measured up to what was on stage. After his splendid San Francisco Symphony debut in October, I was hoping Asher Fisch might be the one to break that curse, but his efforts were inconsistent; there was some fine orchestral work (especially during Donner's mustering of the storm clouds), but rhythmically the performance tended to be a little sluggish. Perhaps that will improve as the week progresses.