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.


At 8/11/2009 6:06 PM, Anonymous bratschegirl said...

welcome back, josh! cyberspace has been a less interesting place in your absence. sorry i missed seeing you at the merola cosi last weekend.

At 8/11/2009 10:24 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

Sob. WHY am I not in Seattle right now?

I will bet that you didn't notice Jason Collins last year in SF because of the brilliant light cast by our Loge, Stefan Margita. I wasn't that impressed with Kobie van Rensburg in Rodelinda (I saw both tenors in the run) and scratched my head at the idea of him as Loge.

Grimsley, really? I am not a fan. He seemed out of his league in the small baritone roles in 2001.

At 8/12/2009 4:18 PM, Anonymous Cindy Warner said...

Are you going to the satire Das Barbecu or the other events?

At 8/13/2009 12:29 PM, Blogger Joshua Kosman said...

Patty: Thanks so much; I'm going to try to make more frequent appearances.

Lisa: Why indeed? Or rather, given that you were last spotted in Santa Fe, how long must we wait for a report on The Letter (not that I'm one to talk)?

I first heard Grimsley in Santa Fe in Ashoka's Dream (the opera that turned Lorraine Hunt into LHL) and was absolutely blown away. I thought he'd become a huge star. Speight evidently thought so too, because GG has sung all the Wagner baritone roles up here; and until this Ring I'd never heard him do anything commensurate with that first appearance. Now he has. I hope he keeps it up in Salome at SFO.

And yeah, van Rensburg, WTF? I didn't hear him in the SF Rodelinda, but he was pretty terrible in Wadsworth's fantastic Rodelinda at the Met.

Cindy: Alas no.

At 8/13/2009 12:49 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

I swear, my review of The Letter is more than half-written, so maybe I'll finish it today.

Yeah, Grimsley. He wasn't so good in the 1998 Seattle Tristan. Trying to remember what he sang in the 2003 Parsifal; probably Amfortas, because Fink was Klingsor.

Van Rensburg: Unsurprisingly, David Daniels sang rings around both tenors who appeared in the SF Rodelinda. The guy who wasn't van Rensburg was quite a bit better, as I recall.

At 8/13/2009 12:50 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

P. S. Heard any rumor and gossip about why Seattle is going with a new production of Tristan next year rather than a revival of the Zambello? Which was fantastic?

If not, I've sent an inquiry to the press office.

At 8/14/2009 11:59 PM, Blogger A.C. Douglas said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 8/16/2009 8:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just saw the Seattle Ring, too.
I certainly agree about Blythe. It is too bad she is a mezzo -- if she had the high notes she probably would make a great Brunnhilde. Although I certainly liked Grimsley's Wotan, I think Blythe and Fink as Alberich were the real standouts. Yes, Van Rensburg was an underpowered Loge, but at least he was a good actor.
I was impressed by how well Seattle opera, under Wadsworth's direction, brought the DRAMA to Wagner's great music drama. No great voices slogging woodenly around the stage in this production!

At 8/16/2009 8:25 AM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

Blythe has the high notes for Brunnhilde; it's most likely the sustained tessitura that would render the role a problem for her, especially in Siegfried.

Why Van Rensburg when there are a bunch of better singers around who are his equal or better as actors?

At 8/23/2009 9:36 AM, Anonymous alan said...

While I completely agree with all the alcolades given to Ms Blythe and Mr. Fink, I am a HUGE fan of Greer Grimsley's Wotan. His voice sounded absolutely powerful, rich and in full control. His "Leb Wohl" and the whole final scene with Brunnhilde in Walkure was the most moving I have ever seen. Rarely to I shed tears at the Opera, but I did this time.

At 7/11/2024 3:28 AM, Anonymous Edward said...

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