My Operatic Adventure: Die Walkure and Gotterdammerung at the Seattle Opera, Cycle II

Previous to watching these two operas, I had only see Die Walküre live.  In fact, not only was it the only Ring opera I had seen, it was the only Wagnerian opera.  I’ve heard all of his operas from Der Fliegende Holländer on, and I own two sets of the Ring, but this would be only the second time that I had seen a Wagnerian opera in person, or at all.

Siegmund embraces Sieglinde after pulling the sword from the tree, Act I

Die Walkure

The first Die Walküre I saw was in New York City on April 12, 2004.  Assembled were the dream cast of Placido Domingo as Siegmund, Deborah Voigt as Sieglinde (coming off being fired from a Covent Garden production of Ariadne auf Naxos because she was too large to fit in a cocktail dress), Matti Salminen as Hunding, James Morris as Wotan, and Jane Eaglen as Brünnhilde, not to mention the excellent conducting of James Levine, who by that time was conducting a quicker Ring than he had previously (sadly, I forgot who played Fricka, Wotan’s long-suffering wife).  Afterwards, I got signatures from all of the above, minus James Levine, Placido Domingo, and Matti Salminen (the latter two die at the end of Act II, after all).

This Seattle production had no names I recognized (minus Stephanie Blythe), but I haven’t been paying attention to the world of opera recently.  Anyway, my knowledge would encompass the globe-traveling talent, rather than the homegrown variety.

I noticed that the overture was played slower than I’d ever heard it played before, which lessened its dramatic impact.  “Oh no,” I thought.  “Here comes a glacial reading of the Ring.”  But that never happened, or if it did, I didn’t notice.  Wagner’s music is more about the ebb and flow and smooth transitions between tempo changes.  What I did notice was how glorious the music sounded, how many details I caught that I hadn’t heard before (particularly leitmotifs), how the climaxes didn’t hold back.  It also supported the singers nicely, while detailing the psychological complexity woven into each scene.  I had never heard of conductor Asher Fisch before, but according to the program notes, he first came to Wagner working with Daniel Barenboim on Parsifal.  He certainly learned his craft well while spending time with one of the greatest living Wagnerian conductors.

Which leads me to the orchestra.  Beautiful strings, low through upper range, and a wonderful brass section (especially French horns and tubas).  Plus, the acoustics in McCaw Hall are sensational.

Compared to Domingo, Stuart Skelton as Siegmund had a stronger voice (he held those “Wälse!  Wälse!” notes longer than anyone I’ve ever heard, including Melchior), but his reading wasn’t as complex as Domingo’s  (again, I’m basing this on a remembrance of an almost ten-year-old event).  I do remember that Domingo also took most of Act I to warm up, whereas Skelton was ready from the beginning.

Margaret Jane Wray was also solid as Sieglinde, with a beautiful and powerful voice.  In fact, all the singers had good voices, though occasionally the orchestra would drown them out at the climaxes.  Better that than to hold back the climaxes.  One singer who didn’t have this problem was Andrea Silvestrelli, who has a beautiful (and large) voice as Hunding.  Stephanie Blythe, playing Fricka, also didn’t suffer from this issue, while Alwyn Mellor as Brunnhilde (making her Seattle Opera debut) had the most issues with softness, particularly in supporting notes that had to be taken below forte (though her “Hojotoho” cries were great).  While she may not be Flagstad for sheer vocal power, her interpretation was quite moving.  Her acting was one of the reasons to see this opera, rather than just listen to it.

In fact, the directing throughout was so excellent as to be noticed, to which credit must be given to director Stephen Wadsworth.  I’ve always gotten chills when Wotan promises Brünnhilde that he will make sure that only a hero wakes her (with the orchestra building to a stunning climax), but this was the first time I teared up, and that was because of the directing decision to have Wotan and Brünnhilde look at each other while the music builds, and then have Brünnhilde run and launch herself into her father’s arms when the climax is reached.  I was not so moved in New York, though that might have been because my nose was dripping like a busted water pipe.  In addition, the cast brought out the bits of humor that can be found in Wotan and Fricka’s marital spat and in Brünnhilde’s response that the quarrel must have ended badly for Wotan, since Fricka looked happy.

Two other aspects I enjoyed were the sets (very naturalistic, as they would have been for the Ring‘s premiere) and the special effects, particularly the sound effects.  Wagner calls for them, and they are necessary to create a mood.  This is why the Solti set, for all its musical flaws, always feel like so much more of an event than other recordings of these operas often do.  There’s thunder, lightning, and Wotan stomping his staff on the ground, calling for Loge to encircle the mountain with flame at the end of the opera.

And now we come to Wotan, one of the most complex characters in all of opera.  Greer Grimsley played him with tireless voice (a tall order, when even the great Hans Hotter would tire near the end of Act III), made Wotan’s monologue interesting, and was justifiably angry at Brünnhilde for her betrayal.  At different times in the opera, he was frustrated, angry, sad, and forgiving, but in Act III, when he should be conflicted while singing lines such as “nicht kos’ ich dir mehr den kindischen Mund” (“Never again will I kiss the mouth of my child”), he was merely angry, instead of angry, sad, and disappointed.  Grimsley is a good Wotan, but he is not yet a great one.  Much could be said of the rest of the cast in their respective roles, but when they are put together, with this orchestra, on this stage, in this setting, something wonderful happens, and good becomes great, and moving, and everything that one could wish for from a staging of Wagner’s masterpiece.  It deserved its standing ovation.

Siegfried encounters the Rhine daughters, Act III

Götterdämmerung

Götterdämmerung is one of the most difficult of the Ring operas to pull off.  While Das Rheingold is a narrative, Die Walküre a family drama (or melodrama), and Siegfried a legend, Götterdämmerung is an epic.  It has much stand alone music, an Act I that is only slightly shorter than all of Rheingold, and a plot that results from the collision of nature and civilization, oaths and betrayals, power and love.

It opens with troubled chords first heard during Brünnhilde’s awakening, and then we see the three Norns (Luretta Bybee, Stephanie Blythe, Margaret Jane Wray).  All three singers have played other roles in other operas in the cycle (notably Stephanie Blythe as Fricka and Margaret Jane Wray as Sieglinde), and all three are excellent here: strong in voice, beautiful in tone, and great in characterization.  When we get to Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s Morning Duet, I figured out what Alwyn Mellor’s issue is: her high notes are strong and full (as she demonstrates with the wicked high note that ends the duet), but her chest notes are less powerful, and so get drowned out by the orchestra.  Her struggles in the duet made me worry that she would be in poor voice for the rest of the opera, but happily, that wasn’t the case.  She sang well in Act II (particularly when she accuses Siegfried of infidelity) and gave a great Immolation Scene in Act III.  Part of this was due to her terrific acting, but her voice also seemed to give her less trouble later in the opera, perhaps because she knew to conserve it earlier on, or maybe because less of the notes were in her troubled range.

As for Siegfried, Stefan Vinke is making his Seattle Opera debut in the role, and what a debut it must have been for audiences watching him during dress rehearsals!  He still needs to dig in deeper with his interpretation, as his Siegfried seemed little more than a carefree youth in this opera, but that voice!  It always carried over the orchestra, and far from tiring, he held a high, long note during Act III’s “Hoihe” response to Hagen and the vassals.  During the Q&A held after the opera by general director Speight Jenkins, the first question asked was what planet he found Stefan Vinke on.  Jenkins agreed that he is great, pointing out that there is a bel canto aria for Siegfried, after he has sworn on the spear in Act II, that heldentenors always crack or scoop the high C on.  Vinke is so good, the orchestra played that aria slower so that he could hold the high C longer.  Jenkins said Vinke is the only Siegfried he’s known of who can do that.  Windgassen was also a great Siegfried, but he had a small voice.  Vinke’s timbre is similar to Windgassen’s in terms of its youthfulness, but with more heft behind it and slighter darker in the lower range, so that in Act I, he could convincingly sing as Gunther, hidden behind a “rock” in the set that was really a screen, while the singer playing Gunther lip sang to Brunnhilde.  Also, his death scene in Act III carried great pathos, especially as he sang the great aria “Brünnhilde, heilige Braut.”  I can’t wait to see him in Siegfried later this week.

Another standout was Stephanie Blythe as Waltraute (yes, that’s three roles she’s had in this cycle).  Her duet with Brünnhilde was fantastic.  She has a stronger voice than Mellor, with matching dramatic chops!  Perhaps her range is too low to be able to sing Brünnhilde, but man, what a fascinating Brünnhilde she would make.

This performance also included a great Hagen (Daniel Sumegi), and Markus Brück and Wendy Bryn Harmer making as much as they could of the roles of Gunther and Gutrune, respectively (particularly the latter).  Again, the directing was top-notch, especially in how each of the singers were blocked onstage.  Alberich (Richard Paul Fink) also showed up in  appropriately creepy fashion in Hagen’s dream.  To top it off, the Rhine daughters (not Rhinemaidens, as the German is often translated to in English) blended their voices well and made much of their brief scene with Siegfried.

The chorus was also excellent.  I’ve heard that opera choruses often shout everything.  Not this one.  They sung as well softly as they did loudly.  It’s too bad that Beth Kirchoff is leaving after this production of the Ring ends.  Hopefully John Keene will keep up the excellent work she’s done with these choruses.

As for the orchestra, I felt it went slack  in a few parts during Act I, and once or twice in Act II (particularly right before the final notes of the act).  There were also a few occasions were I felt that the singers and the orchestra weren’t quite together, particularly in Act I.  Still, the climaxes lost none of their impact, and both Siegfried’s Journey to the Rhine and his Funeral March were excellently played, the latter with almost an unbearable amount of tension and power, while the final notes of the opera were played with wonderful tenderness.  Unfortunately, cheering the orchestra loudly before Act III jinxed them, as the French horn flubbed one of the notes in Siegfried’s horn call that starts the act, which made the audience laugh (possibly because Siegfrieds Rheinfart is often called “Siegfried’s Rhine Fart” because of the same mistake commonly happening during his Journey to the Rhine).  Sadly, there were no steerhorns for the calling of the vassals in Act II, nor were Wagner’s instructions to have the horns play from the center, then off-stage left, then off-stage right followed (they all came from the pit, and were all “played” by Hagen).  I guess I’ll just have to listen to the Solti recording if I want my steerhorn fix, as I forgot to ask Jenkins during the Q&A if we would ever see a Götterdämmerung with steerhorns.

Finally, I must mention the lighting and the sets.    They have been fantastic, nowhere more so than at the end of Götterdämmerung, where the hall of the Gibichungs, lit with red light from the fire that is burning next to the Rhine, gave way to the Rhine, where the Rhine daughters swam towards Brünnhilde.  She threw the ring to them, and as Hagen sang at them to get away from the ring, one of the daughters knocked him backward into the water, where he drowned.  Then the scene changed, and we saw the gods in Valhalla, huddled around each other (the backgrounds of this are stunning, which you can somewhat see in the video below).  They were standing on top of a pillar.  Wotan kissed Fricka, and then he nodded to Loge, who had a flame in his hand, from which he will burn Valhalla to the ground.  The scene shifted again, to an outdoor wooded scene.  There were trees from stage left to stage right, and a rocky ledge stage right.  Light streamed through the trees as the final chords were played.  Jenkins mentioned that he wanted this Ring to end hopefully, like the music intends, rather than how it ends in most opera houses, particularly in Europe.  The effect here is that balance has been returned to the world — in particular, the natural world.  I should also mention that, in addition to the beauty of these sets, they have helped link the operas together with visual leitmotifs, as when Siegmund and Siegfried die in exactly the same spot.

At the curtain call, not only were the main singers of the cycle (including Wotan) and conductor Asher Fisch brought out to take a bow, but also director Stephen Wadsworth and Jenkins, whose is retiring after the 2013-2014 season, making Cycle III his last Ring.  After his bows, Jenkins had a microphone brought out to him by Wotan’s (Greer Grimsley’s) real-life daughter.  He thanked several people (including costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, who died last year and to whom these three Ring cycles are dedicated), promised the Ring would continue under his successor, and had the microphone taken away to indulge in a few more curtain calls with the entire cast.

Cycle III, the final cycle this season, starts tomorrow night with Das Rheingold and ends Sunday night with Götterdämmerung.  More information can be found at the Seattle Opera website.

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