Monday, August 05, 2013

Rheingold in Seattle

Greer Grimsley as Wotan (photo Alan Alabastro)
The simultaneous appearance of Frank Castorf's bizarre-sounding new Ring at Bayreuth and the final quadrennial outing of the Seattle Opera's achingly beautiful and perfectly traditional Ring is the kind of thing that would cause you to mistrust the writer if you happened upon it in a novel. The contrasts are too glib and obvious — yet another case, in an old friend's ever-useful formulation, of "life imitating bad art." (Although I would love to actually read a novel, even a crappy one, in which competing Ring productions were a governing metaphor for ... well, for anything.)

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.


At 8/05/2013 1:15 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

Asher Fisch's Parsifal ten years ago in Seattle was well-conducted, ISTR, so I figured the conducting would be good this time around.

This is theoretically the last bring-up of the production, but I'm wondering whether Seattle will bring it back again, given that their current financial situation doesn't suggest that they have the money around for a new production in four or five years. Have you heard anything?

P. S. Wish I were there but it is impossible for me to get to Seattle for a while week, though I am daydreaming about a quick trip to see one or maybe two of the opera.

At 8/05/2013 1:21 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

Forgot to say - doesn't Loge promise the Rheinmaidens the ring back at some point in Rheingold? Am I hallucinating? That could justify his lingering in the last scene.

At 8/05/2013 2:28 PM, Blogger Joshua Kosman said...

Oh sure, he says the Rhinemaidens should get their gold back, but Loge says lots of things. Who believes he actually means it?

At 8/05/2013 2:37 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

True, true, but Loge also has a better grasp of the consequences of action or inaction than anyone else in Rheingold. So perhaps I will take a look at the libretto and see whether I believe what he says about this.

At 8/05/2013 7:25 PM, Blogger Axel Feldheim said...

Well, when Fasolt demands the Ring as part of the payment for Freia, Loge argues that it can't be part of the ransom, since he already promised to return it to the Rheinmaidens. But Loge is also pretty mocking towards the Rheinmaidens at the end of the opera, so having Loge be so concerned about returning it is probably against the text. They're a sorry excuse, all them gods, so I wouldn't be much convinced by any expressions of selfless sympathy from any of 'em.

At 8/06/2013 1:40 AM, Blogger john schott said...

Halfway through, and this Ring is all about, for me, very beautiful singing, with sometimes revelatory clarity: the sheer accuracy of pitches and rhythms, the deeply considered phrasing and dynamics, the incredible acoustics of McCaw Hall The direction/acting is, to me, rather pedestrian, (compared to the sublime singing), but I'll say this about the production - it lets sing.
Fine moments from the principals of the orchestra, including cello, bass clarinet, bass trumpet!
Fisch seems to have his hands full directing traffic. But hoo boy, that was some undistinguished orchestral playing, on the whole.

At 8/06/2013 1:42 AM, Blogger john schott said...

sorry, that should have read, RE the production: " lets the singers sing."


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