Richard Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen
Seattle Opera House,
Speight Jenkins General Director
Conductor, Robert Spano
Director, Stephen Wadsworth
Set Designer, Thomas Lynch
Costume Designer, Martin Pakledinaz
Fire Designer and Flight Technical Director, Charles T. Buck
Lighting Designer, Peter Kaczorowski
Hair and Makeup Designer, Joyce Degenfelder
English Captions, Jonathan Dean
Associate Directors, , Gina Lapinski and Tomer Zvulun
Cover Conductor, Evan Rogister
Language Coach, Irene Spiegelman
Wotan, Greer Grimsley
Fricka, Stephanie Blythe
Alberich, Richard Paul Fink
Loge, Kobie van Rensburg
Erda, Maria Streijffert
Mime, Dennis Petersen
Fafner, Daniel Sumegi
Fasolt, Andrea Silvestrelli
Freia, Marie Plette
Froh, Jason Collins
Donner, Gordon Hawkins
Flosshilde, Jennifer Hines
Wellgunde, Michèle Losier
Woglinde, Julianne Gearhart
Brünnhilde, Janice Baird
Wotan, Greer Grimsley
Sieglinde, Margaret Jane Wray
Siegmund, Stuart Skelton
Fricka, Stephanie Blythe
Hunding, Andrea Silvestrelli
Gerhilde, Miriam Murphy
Grimgerde, Michèle Losier
Helmwige, Sally Wolf
Ortlinde, Marie Plette
Rossweisse, Maria Streijffert
Schwertleite, Jennifer Hines
Siegrune, Sarah Heltzel
Waltraute, Luretta Bybee
Brünnhilde, Janice Baird
Siegfried, Stig Andersen
Mime, Dennis Petersen
The Wanderer, Greer Grimsley
Alberich, Richard Paul Fink
Fafner, Daniel Sumegi
Erda, Maria Streijffert
Forest Bird, Julianne Gearhart
Bear, JC Casiano
Brünnhilde, Janice Baird
Siegfried, Stig Andersen
Hagen, Daniel Sumegi
Gunther, Gordon Hawkins
Gutrune, Marie Plette
Alberich, Richard Paul Fink
First Norn, Luretta Bybee
Second Norn, Stephanie Blythe
Third Norn, Margaret Jane Wray
Waltraute, Stephanie Blythe
Flosshilde, Jennifer Hines
Wellgunde, Michèle Losier
Woglinde, Julianne Gearhart
I am extremely reluctant to take a position as a Wagnerian traditionalist. Life is hard enough as it is without entering a futile battle against the now generation-old invasion of directorial Goths, who consider all the specifics of Wagner’s poems and especially the stage directions in them to be automatically transferrable to some other set of references entirely different from Wagner’s own mythological cosmos. I’ve also had the luxury of having Otto Schenk’s fine Metropolitan Opera production as my “home” Ring. I’ve also done my best to keep an open mind for the good qualities of more manipulated efforts like the Warner-Lazarides production at the Royal Opera House, which I mostly liked, because it was intelligently conceived and maintained a trackable relation to Wagner’s original…although in retrospect I think I spent an undue amount of time meditating on the meaning of the crashed aeroplane in the first act of Siegfried—which was in itself just as cool as it gets. I’ve referred to the final performances of the Ring as a last call for traditional Rings at major opera houses, but I was wrong. The Seattle Opera, which is most definitely a major opera house, has just presented the third of four iterations of a production, which is recognizable as a traditional production, even more than Schenk’s, although its organizers deny that it is intended as a “traditional” Ring. They prefer to call it the “green” Ring, because their primary purpose from the inception of the project in 1995, was to put nature at the center of their conception, since it was such a prominent feature of Wagner’s original conception. I agree that it would encourage a misconception to call it a traditional Ring, although it has all the virtues of a traditional Ring, even to a greater extent than the late lamented Schenk Ring, but the most important elements of this production involve things living Ring-goers have never seen before—above all an attention to drama and acting,* both over the long duration and in momentary detail. The painstaking attention to detail in the current Seattle Ring, developed over years of design and months of rehearsal give it a bespoke quality which I’ve not seen achieved in older houses. There was a lot of rapid movement in it, fast entrances and exits which required nimble singers. It was also the funniest Ring I can remember—almost entirely intentionally, either through a fine realization of Wagner’s wit through dramatic insight and imagination, or through the broader humor of a sight gag: sometimes a bit surprising (a good thing), but almost always well-conceived and in reasonable taste (also good).
The presence of nature must be one of the first things a newcomer to the Ring notices. The three Rhinemaidens are quintessential nature-spirits. Their playful ease in their element shows their unity with it. The flow of E flat arpeggi itself suggests the primeval quality of a pure element. Erda and nature share another arpeggiated Leitmotiv. These and others constantly bring nature to mind throughout the four evenings. The node of gold gives them direct pleasure, as it provides light in their dark environment. When the Nibelung dwarf, Alberich, steals it and gives it an new application, or power, related to his will, Wagner’s mythic world takes its first step in acculturation, just as Wotan contracts the giants, Fafner and Fasolt, to build a fortress to protect the gods. In this false contract the gods nearly lose the means of one of their primary natural qualities—their freedom from aging, which they acquire from Freia’s apples. In Die Walküre, the Wälsungs and their enemies inhabit a tribal world of close kinship, primitive architecture using the available vegetation and other natural materials, and primitive technology, mainly directed towards the forging of weapons. On a moral level, the effects of Alberich’s theft, Wotan’s cheating, and Fafner’s fratricide have already manifested themselves in the loveless marriages by which the system of kinship propagated itself. In Siegfried Mime’s technology is already further advanced and more versatile, although it is no match for the magic Wotan put into Nothung. After the first act of Siegfried we move into a purely mythic world populated by dragons, Nibelungen, and gods. In Die Götterdämmerung the Gibichungs’ world of court life and feudal society, in which they inhabit an earthly palace, is a debased human one. In the end, all of the culture we have seen develop over the four works is engulfed in Wotan’s and Brünnhilde’s cataclysm, as the Rhinemaidens’ music resounds for the last time.
Although nature begins and ends the cycle, prevailing at the conclusion, many recent productions, following Chéreau’s example, show a nature overwhelmed by technology, either that of Wagner’s own age, our own, or some science fictional world. There are of course lots of reasons why an opera-goer might love or hate one of these productions, but it is undebatable that devices like Chéreau’s famous (or notorious) hydroelectric dam exaggerate Wagner’s rather mild conception of humans’ technological invasion of nature: the anachronism provides a gloss, an interpretative intervention by a stage director-commentator. Hence the motivation behind Seattle’s “Green” Ring is not to preach ecology, but to respect the letter of Wagner’s story and stage directions. The Gibichung palace marks the very height of human acculturation—to the point that Siegfried, who has lived in the wild thus far, cannot stop gawking at it. And in it there are no television screens, no electronics of any kind. Thomas Lynch has offered us no more than a characteristically early medieval palace, built mostly of wood, with elegant vegetal patterns abstracted from the deep forests which surrounded the palace, where Siegfried was at home. There was another motivation behind this “green” Ring, a desire to celebrate the natural glories surrounding Seattle on stage. The thick forests and the peaks of tall pines piercing the cloud cover evoke scenes only a couple of hours from McCaw Hall, which I saw with my own eyes on a day-trip to Mount Rainier. Never mind the fact that Mr. Lynch, when interviewed, remarked that he intended to use as a model the Blue Ridge Mountains he knew from his formative years in North Carolina.
I don’t mean to imply that the Seattle Ring is to be characterized by any sort of literalism, except as a creative tool and a salutary respect for the creator. Flourishes like the local scenery just mentioned abound in the production, even exuberant ones, like the astonishing realization of the Rhinemaidens. At its core, however, there is always the element that mattered most to Wagner: pure drama, as evinced by the acting of the singers, which was throughout of the highest order. The production may have had its share of impressive effects, but it made it clear that the work of the singer-actors and the orchestra are vastly more important than spectacle—although that is not to be ignored.
Well yes, I am convinced that they got it right. Before venturing too far into the production itself, I should say a few words about how it was presented. Since Wagner’s lifetime, audiences have been losing themselves in his vast sea of music and drama. After an individual performance and over the course of a Ring Cycle, one always faces the perilous descent from Wagner’s fictive musical and dramatic macrocosm. Speight Jenkins and his education department, however, offered plentiful alternatives. The morning of each performance Mr. Jenkins gave three-hour lectures exploring each music drama in detail, and, both for entertainment and educative value, they were none too long. Jenkins began his career in the arts as a writer and lecturer, and he hasn’t lost his gift of communicating with a general audience without condescension or dumbing-down. These marvelous lectures could hold the attention of neophytes, giving them a the larger picture they need, while remaining fully satisfying to seasoned Wagnerians. The unerringly chosen musical examples spanned the entire history of recording, and while they included classic singers like Melchior, Nilsson, and Windgassen, it was a joy to hear undeservedly forgotten voices like Gertrude Grob-Prandl, Helena Braun, and Sigurd Björling. Jenkins had warm and appreciative remarks for all, even for Max Lorenz, who has suffered harsh criticism for performances recorded late in his career. In general, Jenkins wisely maintains the inclusive attitude of Barry Millington, who encourages his readers and listeners to absorb the full range of Ring interpretation, from the Shavian social view to Donington’s Jungian perspective. Like other great works of art, the Ring is open to many different viewpoints, but never to one alone.
Following these substantial efforts, Mr. Jenkins still had energy for hour-long question and answer sessions following all the performances but Rheingold. I must confess I was not always in the mood to leave the imaginative world of the music dramas so abruptly and to enter into a rational forum of that sort, but again, I can have nothing but praise for the effort. The quality of the questions showed that a mixed audience was listening and thinking keenly. There were further morning lectures on technical aspects of the production, as well as a symposium, which included an elegant and thoroughly prepared lecture by Barry Millington on Wagner and love (including Wagner’s sex life, if you will, which, according to Millington, was not as colorful as has been thought), a lecture by Philip Kennicott on Mark Twain and Wagner, which was more germane and useful than one might think, as well as interviews by Clare Burovac with Gordon Hawkins, who sang Donner and Gunther, and set designer Thomas Lynch—a balanced concoction of the scholarly and the artistic. This wealth of resources for appreciating the Ring in an informed and fully conscious way is clearly an important and highly laudable part of Seattle’s presentation of its efforts to the public. All of these well-attended sessions allowed one to appreciate the event as an eminently civilized gathering of Wagnerians in one of America’s most beautiful and interesting cities. Have you ever met anyone who visited Seattle and didn’t come back raving about it?
What we hear and see on the stage is of course the important thing—what people travelled to Seattle, called the “American Bayreuth” by many, from all over the world for. Every singer seemed to have been cast for some good reason, and the vocal and dramatic achievement was so high that the performances demanded a different kind of listening—or passive theatrical participation—than the sort of Wagner performance we are accustomed to in most houses—and I believe it is closer to what Wagner intended.
We still live in the shadows of Melchior, Flagstad, Schorr, Leider, although few people are still alive who actually heard them sing in their prime. Most of us know only their commercial 78s and a few complete operas recorded in varying quality from radio broadcasts. It is hard to imagine that Wagner’s major music dramas would have survived in the repertory if there hadn’t been a generation or two of singers who were truly equal to the task. In my review of the largely excellent Tristan at the Met (and I thought Dalayman a marvellous Isolde) last December, there were nonetheless vocal problems which made me question whether the tradition was still truly alive—and that was all because I have heard singers of tremendous physical power who could sing these long, torturous roles with some ease and maintain a consistent timbre throughout their range, as well as a bel canto line. When we go to hear the Ring or Tristan, we usually enter the house wondering if the principals will be even adequate in comparison with a bygone standard. We devote more attention to wrestling with our expectations and ticking off our scorecard on the singers than with taking in the drama as a whole. In the Seattle production I found myself for the first time fully concentrating on the Ring as theatre without distractions stemming from faulty singing—or, of course, absurdities in the staging. In Dorn and Rose’s Tristan at the Met, I have found the knightly toys laid out across the stage in Act III affecting, if the music is well performed, and irritating, if it is not.
The success of the 2009 Seattle Ring is due to a combination of factors, intelligent casting and staging, to begin with, the painstaking dramatic preparation of the singers, and Robert Spano’s brilliant conducting, above all his flawless control of dynamics, so that the singers could always be heard in balance. Thanks to this, and the excellent acoustical design of the hall and sets (discussed by Thomas Lynch in the symposium), even the singers’ diction was almost always clear and understandable, adding greatly to the dramatic impact of each scene. Even the supertitles deserve a word of praise, since they were largely accurate, convincing as English, and even witty now and then.
The rich sets and brilliant ensemble acting in Das Rheingold prepared us for the particular character of the entire cycle…but I am jumping ahead. How can I pass over the Rhinemaidens and their amazing machinery in the opening scene. Harnesses were devised, which supported their lower bodies and left their torsos free, so that they could sing and act comfortably while moving about in the air, suspended by cables. Their elaborate and polished swimming movements, including forward and backward flips, seemed not to distract Jennifer Hines (Flosshilde), Michèle Losier (Wellgunde), and Julianne Gearhart (Woglinde) one bit from their impressive vocal performances, both as individuals and as a group. Each Rhinemaiden was markedly distinguished in voice and manner, and their initial scene together, then interacting with Alberich, was full of color and detail. The splendid effect was achieved with a conceptually simple device, which was most likely difficult to carry out in practice, involving extensive training on the part of the Rhinemaidens—not much different from Robert Lepage’s aerobatics in his recent Damnation de Faust at the Met, but the relevance to the Wagner’s concept and the intelligence and wit with which it was executed made all the difference.
The second scene is a faithful and richly detailed rendering of Wagner’s stage direction. It is clear that Wotan (Greer Grimsley) and Fricka (Stephanie Blythe) are still very much a married couple, even rather amorous, and their ensuing discussion of the problem of Freia does not bring alienation. Grimsley is a lean, urgent Wotan, and Blythe a grand, expansive, but care-worn Fricka, who also projects unusual warmth for her husband. Director Stephen Wadsworth is not at all keen on caricature in Wagner, and he is careful not to let Fricka come across as a shrew, although one moment of unintentional laughter arose in her confrontation with Wotan in the second act of Walküre, when the international audience showed that they had very much their own conception of marital dynamics. There is no trace of vocal or dramatic caricature in Das Rheingold—not in Alberich, nor in Mime (making his part infinitely more interesting), nor in Loge or the giants—but there is plenty of humor, adding a sparkle to each scene. Marie Plette lent a rounded, three-dimensional voice to her frightened, impotent, but still dignified Freia. In fact each god was precisely characterized in costume and portrayal: Gordon Hawkins as an impatient, not excessively bright Donner, who thinks he can, with his hammer, relate to the giants on their own terms. Kobie van Rensburg was a constantly interesting, ultimately tragic Loge, whose amusing pyrotechnics did not distract us from the essence of his characterization—an outsider conflicted by his contractual position vis à vis Wotan and his clear understanding of the realities of the situation. Jason Collins’ Froh was also vivid and individualized. Daniel Sumegi as Fafner and Andrea Silvestrelli as Fasolt made the most of every nuance of the giants’ differences of character and interest in the deal at hand. Strikingly visualized and very big (in appearance at least), they acted and sang splendidly. Erda (Maria Streijffert) appears suddenly out of the earth. Wotan approaches her and touches her intimately, while she is still embedded in the earth up to her waist—a scene which is both bizarre and humanly touching. Wotan’s desire for her knowledge progresses rapidly into physical desire, and at the end of her scene, we know that more will transpire between them. As entertaining and nuanced as the episode in Nibelheim was, it is difficult to single out particular scenes in this tightly knit, impeccable demonstration of the kind of ensemble acting Wagner dreamed of. Robert Spano’s tempi were urgent, establishing a strong forward impetus in the musical narration, but he was also flexible, drawing out introspective and passionate sections and producing lovely playing from solists and the entire orchestra, all in the right places.
Die Walküre was equally distinguished. Stuart Skelton sang Siegmund impeccably and acted the role with more complexity and detail than most of us are used to, and Margaret Jane Wray sang Sieglinde with a capacious, but bright, almost Traubel-like voice. The singers’ and Stephen Wadsworth’s attention to detail gave the audience an intimate perspective on their discovery of one another, as their mutual passion emerged. A good example is the section which begins with Siegmund’s “Winterstürme” and ends with Sieglinde’s “Du bist der Lenz.” Everyone, Maestro Spano, above all, worked exceedingly hard at preventing these two purple passages from sticking out and disturbing the structure of the scene as it builds toward revelation and a paroxysm of desire. (Often, even sound conductors allow them to bring on a premature climax.) With Spano’s control, Wray and Skelton’s intelligent acting, and the clarity of the text as they sang it, this concluding interaction of Act I followed its structure and course as it should, and revealed the interweavings of passion and self-discovery as seemingly never before.
In Act II of Die Walküre, the Seattle team took a radical departure from Wagner’s indications. Rather than changing the scene to the familiar rocky cliff, they stay right where Act I took place. In this way, Wotan and Fricka have their encounter on the scene of Sieglinde and Siegmund’s love-making. The divine couple and Brünnhilde can wander reflectively about the scene of the incestuous explosion of the previous act. The haunting of this place, of Hunding’s dreary abode, by these supernatural beings, who discuss what has happened most urgently, has something very sad and deeply moving about it, especially as it will result in grave losses for them all in Act III. This adjustment, which actually transferred the first scene of Act II from an impressive mountain set to a quiet domestic one, allowing them to get beneath the surface of Fricka and Wotan’s meeting and to allow them to communicate in a more intimate way. They rupture in their relationship only occurs with Siegmund’s death at the end of the act, after the scene has changed to its traditional location. Here, Mr. Wadsworth makes their alienation absolutely clear by bringing Fricka on at the very end, so that she witnesses Siegmund’s death and is physically present when Wotan tells Hunding to go kneel before her…but, as far as he is concerned, it is as if she weren’t there at all.
Act III begins with a jolly assembly of the Valkyries, full of black humor, as they play with the body parts of the fallen warriors they are to take up to Valhalla. Again the producers succeeded in making a familiar set piece fresh. The Valkyries are all individualized in appearance and characterization, within the limits of their traditional appearance: in armor, wings on the helmets, etc. Progressively, things begin to get serious as Brünnhilde approaches. Janice Baird has of course already had an opportunity to make an impression on us with her deeply humane portrayal of Brünnhilde in Act II, where she is a warlike divinity, entirely as Wotan created her. In Act III, as she uncomprehendingly prepares to become a mortal, Baird expands her interpretation further. There is no character in opera or in any stage work, who changes—really metamorphoses—so vastly as Brünnhilde. In Act II she is a fierce goddess, at one with her father Wotan, in Act III Wotan cuts her off from himself and from divinity and she must learn resignation. In Siegfried Act III she awakens as a young and very inexperienced woman, and in Götterdämmerung she begins as a fulfilled young woman, loving and loved; then she must struggle with Waltraute, sealing her total separation from Wotan and the other gods—over a ring which Siegfried has already betrayed. Then she must endure Siegfried’s incomprehensible—and in this production, downright nasty—behavior, emerging first as a bitter, vengeful woman, who finally understands what Wotan is trying to teach her, ending in her suicide, the grandest suicide ever staged. The scope of this role defies the imagination. Janice Baird brings impressive intelligence and thoughtfulness to her interpretation, and she succeeded magnificently, as her ovations at the end of the cycle made clear. Her voice is quite unlike the larger-than-life, monolithic instruments of Flagstad and Nilsson. It has four or five different registers, each with its own distinct color. This obliges her to break up her longer line into shorter, distinct phrases. She understands admirably how to exploit this psychologically and dramatically, and if her more lyrical parts lacked the perfect beauty of Flagstad, she more than made up for it in her more commanding and dramatic sections. The touching, softer qualities of her portrayal came through her acting and her emphasis on her warmer, richer registers, when she was able to access them. Baird’s Brünnhilde is a unique creation unlike any other, and it is all the more valuable for it.
Greer Grimsley was recognisable as a great Wotan already in Das Rheingold in the directness and strength of his portrayal, and well as the dark, flinty quality of his voice. He is neither capable of, nor interested in the subtle nuances of a Hotter. His Wotan is a creature of the will, who is tortured by his curiosity’s restless drive to transcend his limitations, a feat which tragically lies beyond his grasp. He is caught in an increasingly futile game of fulfilling destiny and striving to avert it, or at least delay it for his own advantage. In his fallen state, his thirst for knowledge through wandering compensates for his impotence. Grimsley’s consistent, leathery voice is the perfect vehicle for this obsessive interpretation—and it is very beautiful in its intensely masculine way. His return as the Wanderer and an evolved Wotan in Siegfried, both his comical scenes Mime and Alberich, as well as his heart-breaking encounter with Erda, magnificently sung by Maria Streijffert, was masterful.
In Siegfried, the old-fashioned caricatural portrayal of Mime has mostly disappeared. Speight Jenkins expressed his disapproval of in his morning lecture. In fact it is very hard to listen to these days. Dennis Petersen avoided this entirely, as one might expect, and he brought an astonishing range of tone and expression to the role, which encompasses all sorts of genuine emotions, as well as a host of feigned ones. In his absolutely brilliant performances in Das Rheingold and Siegfried, Mr. Petersen even sang with striking beauty. In places one could almost imagine him as a Florestan or a Walther von Stolzing. His Mime was constantly fascinating, contributing as much as Stig Andersen’s Siegfried or Robert Spano’s brilliant conducting to banishing the myth that even staunch Wagnerites find the first act of Siegfried a trifle boring in places. In this performance, absolutely not!
Stig Andersen is without a doubt the finest Siegfried I have heard in the house. His voice is not enormous, at least in comparison with Melchior, but he certainly had no trouble making himself heard, especially with Spano’s exceptional consideration for his singers. The role is hardly effortless for Andersen, but his voice never lost its burnished golden luster, and he was never working too hard to phrase his lines beautifully, to forget what the words mean, or to sing with the highest subtlety of expression. He had a definite and many-sided concept of Siegfried as a character. He never lost his sense of Siegfried’s youth and naiveté. His mixed emotions on killing Fafner and Mime were marvellously projected, as well as the progress of his feelings towards Brünnhilde in the last act, and his infatuation with Gutrune in Götterdämmerung, and his abuse of Brünnhilde. His final scene, with his interaction with Hagen and Gunther and his returning memory of his true relationship with Brünnhilde, was unforgettable.
It was revelatory to hear Siegfried’s final scene sung with such strong acting and such meticulous attention to the meaning of the text. As with all the singers throughout the cycle, Janice Baird and Stig Andersen sang as if their words meant something and as if they were vitally eager to listen to what the other had to say. As in the Immolation Scene, Robert Spano paid close attention to its musical and dramatic structures.
Some find Götterdämmerung a descent into base human interactions, but in the end it reaches the most exalted peaks of Wagner’s conception in Brünnhilde’s suicidal consummation of life, her purification of a corrupt world. It poses challenges at both ends. Thomas Lynch pointed out that identical sets on opposite faces of huge swinging panels returned as visual leitmotifs with no more than variations of detail. This established continuity through the production and saved the Seattle Opera some money as well, I imagine, although some of the scenes in question are often performed against a shadowy, unlit background, which is perhaps a less resourceful cost-saver. By the opening of Götterdämmerung, the cliff and cave where Brünnhilde went to sleep was getting a bit familiar, and our eyes were relieved by the elegant Gibichung palace with its striking vegetal designs, which were also true to the aesthetic of the earlier Middle Ages. This handsome set seemed modest at first, but as the action became more complex during the course of Acts II and III, the splendid staging made its impression. The servants and courtiers made their entrances and exits—vivace, as in the spirit of Stephen Wadsworth’s imaginative and energetic production—running in planes parallel to the proscenium. The supenumeraries’ arrangements were all the more affecting for their artificiality, deliberately recalling compositions of Mantegna, even to the quattrocentesque caps of the men, and expressing the naive enthusiasm of the masses, who are excited about a double state wedding without understanding its true nature. The stage work behind this would have suited a Meistersinger or a Lohengrin in its disciplined magnificence, and it was perhaps the most impressive tour de force of the entire Ring. I, for one, was totally enthralled by it, from the conscious point of view of one appreciating the grand spectacle, its visual allusions, and the bitter point it gave to the event, which in fact brought the protagonists and the entire society one step closer to annihilation.
After Brünnhilde’s heroic good-bye to Siegfried, Gunther and Gutrune appear as entirely ordinary people. Gunther is troubled by his failure to show the achievements expected of a lord of his station, while Gutrune dutifully carries out her “woman’s work,” a bit of knitting or needlepoint. It is not lost on us that Marie Plette, who sang Freia in Das Rheingold, has returned to sing Gutrune as a sincerely loving woman who has absolutely no clue of the plot Hagen has concocted. No less significant and musically rewarding was Stephanie Blythe’s return as Waltraute (and earlier as the Second Norn) in a vivid and powerful interaction with Brünnhilde. Blythe and Baird gave this important scene all its full meaning and power. The Fafner of Rheingold and Siegfried, Daniel Sumegi, returned as Hagen. After a witty performance as a suspicious lout, he created a complex, fascinating portrayal of the saturnine bastard son of Alberich. he is so deeply and constantly miserable, that one could almost sympathize with him. Gordon Hawkins similarly made a rich character study of Gunther, a villain out of cowardice and ambition, but not without some sensitivity to other people’s feelings.
The Rhinemaidens bandy words with Siegfried from a real pool. They are wet, and they can dive down into the Rhine. We even hear the substantial splash of one of them plunging into the water, and we see a flash of her fish’s tail. Stephen Wadsworth and his associates clearly had room for creative exuberance. When Grane came on stage in the horseflesh it aroused some tittering in the audience, which betrayed some distraction, but when the beautiful animal reappeared to take Brünnhilde to her death, it was quite moving, although a handler merely displayed the horse and Brünnhilde herself had no contact with it. That was a trifle puzzling in itself. The final destruction had impressive light effects of fire and water. We saw Wotan light the fire for the final extinction of the gods. Brünnhilde, under the waters of the Rhine with Hagen and the Rhinemaidens, held up the ring, as if to tease him, but he fell down the abyss and the Rhinemaidens seized it from her hand. Then all goes blank, and the world order is restored.
This splendid production was as much an education for the singers as the audience. Above all, we learned that spectacle is part of the Ring, but it isn’t everything. The central and most indispensable element is the drama.* When the words are clearly projected and convincingly acted, it adds tremendously to the power of this great work. All of the singers are fully capable of acting out each scene as if they understood the text and meant it. Over the next four years, until the Ring returns in Seattle, they will be scattered in opera houses around the world, working with different directors. In Gordon Hawkins’ interview, we got a vivid picture of his experience working with Achim Freyer on LA Opera Ring, which promises to be entirely different. He will sing Alberich, and, yes, he is frustrated with the huge mask he has to wear. There will be a Ring in Washington and San Francisco, but it will probably be Robert Lepage’s Ring, which hits the Met in 2011, which will ultimately hammer this lesson home to us.
* For an excellent survey of Wagner’s obsession with the acting abilities and psychological perceptiveness of his singers, see Katherine Syer’s, “From Page to Stage: Wagner as Regisseur” in Richard Wagner and his World, ed. Thomas S. Grey, Bard Music Festival Essays, Princeton, 2009, pp. 3 ff.