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Magnificent Wagner Ring Cycle in Seattle
Dazzled Local Opera Buffs
by Mort Levine

Seattle Opera is now well established in its US primacy as the place for Richard Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung. Thus understandably at least a dozen or more San Jose Opera Guild members made the pilgrimage during the three August cycles of these masterworks. Six days comprising the four operas were coupled with an array of lectures, films, and nightly post-performance question and answer session with General Director Speight Jenkins well into the midnight hour.

There was great singing, especially from the women. The staging and direction from veteran theater director Stephen Wadsworth was imaginative and taut. The conducting by Robert Spano, music director at the Atlanta Symphony and the avant-garde Brooklyn Academy of Music, showed just how well a polished orchestra can integrate into the drama. It is the music that transports us so effectively using motifs, or bits of melodic theme, to carry the story on through the four operas.

We witnessed the third cycle which overcame the few opening night glitches. Discussions with other operagoers revealed a uniform sense of awe about this most complete of any opera experience.

Jenkins managed to assemble an astonishing array of world-class Wagnerian sopranos, mezzos and even the reigning contralto of our day, Ewa Podles who comes up from the earth as Erda. Jane Eaglen's Brunnhilde was a compelling, spellbinding voice. Stephanie Blythe's mezzo portrayal of Fricka elevated that role from a submissive wife to one who forces her husband to confront his shortcomings as a god, husband and father.

Instead of the usual Wotan who is all-powerful, knowing and authoritative, this is an immortal head of the gods who is deeply troubled by his own human failings. Greer Grimsley played the tormented god with a strong bass baritone and virile stage presence. His encounter with Erda offered a pivotal point to the entire cycle, when he confesses to her that he will accept his destiny and permit the destruction of the palatial Valhalla (home of the fallen heroes) and the twilight of the powers of the gods.

Mary Jane Wray was an impassioned Sieglinde, who gives birth to Siegfried (sung by Alan Woodrow, a bright-voiced tenor) and wife to Siegmund (performed by Richard Berkeley-Steele, a darker-voiced heroic tenor). Other female voices which seemed to hit perfection included the Rhinemaidens (Mary Phillips, Jennifer Hines and Wendy Hill) who sang "under" the Rhine in virtually invisible harnesses permitting amazing acrobatics. Marie Plette was a convincing Freia and Thomas Rolf Truhitte, a graduate of the Opera San Jose resident program, gave a respectable tenor to Froh, both in Rheingold. Plette also came back as Gutrune in Gotterdammerung.

Character roles of the evil Alberich and his brother, Mime, were sung by Richard Paul Fink and Thomas Harper respectively.

Thomas Lynch gave the cycle some Pacific Northwest Olympic peninsula overtones with massive trees and rocky caves and outcrops. Wagner, who composed the music and wrote the libretto in the mid 1800's, and who included extensive staging notes, would have been comfortable with these productions. Opera lovers who respect the Wagner tradition have complained mightily about directors shifting the works to more contemporary times.

There will be other Ring Cycles performed worldwide. The Kirov Opera from St. Petersburg is bringing the cycle to Orange County in October 2006. Chicago Lyric Opera is doing one later this year. And there are others going forward in Europe. But no one who went to Seattle in August felt shortchanged in the least. And that was probably what Wagner intended all along.

(SJOG Newsletter November, 2005 Issue)

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