My Operatic Adventure, Part 2: Das Rheingold and Siegfried at the Seattle Opera, Cycle III

Drawing in front of the entrance to McCaw Hall

Drawing in front of the entrance to McCaw Hall

After seeing the wonderful Die Walküre and solid Götterdämmerung last week, how could I not finish off the cycle this week?  After all, it will be at least 4 years before the cycle arrives in Seattle again.

Alberich steals the Rhine gold, Scene One

Das Rheingold

From the low E-flat that begins the overture to the last note, I was treated to a great Das Rheingold.  The Rhine daughters (Jennifer Zetlan, Celia Hall, and Renée Tatum — the latter two making their Seattle Opera debut) swim in a stage set to look like its underwater, due to a translucent screen in front and the use of lighting in back.  As in Götterdämmerung, they were excellent, though Woglinde started her aria at a slightly different tempo from that of the orchestra.

Alberich (Richard Paul Fink) has a voice closer to Stolze’s Mime than Neidlinger’s Alberich, but his characterization was fantastic.  While he made a very menacing Alberich, I actually felt sorry for him when, tied up by Wotan and Loge, he sang of his shame at having the Nibelungs see him; and then, after the ring is taken from him by Wotan, singing “Der Traurigen traurigster Knecht!” (“Of wretches the wretchedest slave!”)  He also performed an excellent curse (slower than I’ve heard), even if he “hiccuped” one of the notes at the end.

As Wotan, Greer Grimsley was once again very good.  In fact, because his role here is not as complex as it becomes in Walküre, he was excellent (though, as I point out in my Die Walküre review, he is just shy of greatness in that opera).

But for this opera to work, I have discovered that it depends largely on how good the Loge is.  In his Seattle Opera debut (and his debut in this role!), Mark Schowalter is one of the best I’ve heard.  A trickster trying to play all sides, but also aware of the higher stakes in not giving back the Rhine daughters’ gold.

Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli) has the more layered role of the two giants, as he sings of his wish to have a wife.  In this brief aria, and others related to Freia, one felt his humanity.  Incredible that Silvestrelli would play a merciless Hunding in the next opera!  Fafner (Daniel Sumegi), on the other hand, has more of a one-note role, but Sumegi played that one-note well.  He seemed craftier than Fasolt, but also more practical.  Nowhere did he seem to have the heart that his brother had.  In Götterdämmerung, he would play a more complex variation of this in Hagen.

As for the other supporting roles, Donner (Markus Brück, also making his Seattle Opera debut and later to play Gunther) and Froh (Ric Furman) were solid as Freia’s brothers.  Donner sang a slow but by no means dragging rendition of the “Heda! Heda! Hedo!” aria at the end of Scene Four (complete with hammer blow), while Froh played a sympathetic brother and god.  Fricka (Stephanie Blythe) was her usual excellent self, while Freia (Wendy Bryn Harmer, also in her Seattle Opera debut) was likewise excellent, as she was as Gutrune (she also plays Gerhilde, one of the Valkyries, in Die Walküre).  Particularly affecting was how she acted toward Fasolt, and the sorrow she displayed after he was killed.  Mime (Dennis Peterson) was a bit of a sniveling whiner, but he was not as whiny or annoying as this role is sometimes sung.

The special sound effects, including the sound of anvils as Wotan and Loge descend to and ascend from Nibelheim, Alberich’s whip cracks, thunder, and Donner’s hammer blow, were all excellent and welcome, while the orchestral interludes (the overture, the descent, scene changes) were likewise excellently played.  Even Alberich’s use of the Tarnhelm was effective, even if the rubber snake could have been a bit more menacing.  The rubber frog, on the other hand, was played for laughs.  Indeed, like Die Walküre, the humor was highlighted, though I did go to a talk on Die Walküre in which I found out that some of the humor during Fricka’s confrontation with Wotan was unintentional, due to the translations.  Here, though, I doubt Wotan covering his eyes with the Tarnhelm was meant to be serious.  An effect that was played seriously was when Erda (Lucille Beer, also making her Seattle Opera debut!) rose out of the ground to warn Wotan to give up the ring.  She played the part like a spirit of the earth, and there was almost a silent film star quality to her portrayal.

The sets were beautiful, from the Rhine River to the glittering view of Valhalla (set in the same woodland scene that Götterdämmerung ends with).  I particularly enjoyed the glittering caves of Nibelheim.  I haven’t mentioned the lighting before, but I should mention now that it has played a huge role in creating the right atmosphere for these operas.  In Das Rheingold, it was most apparent in the Rhine daughters scene, in the Nibelheim scene, and in the final scene, when Donner’s hammer cleared away the fog and the darkness before the gods entered Valhalla (I should note that in this production, Fricka is the last to enter, while Loge remains outside.  Also, all the gods touch the ring as they pass it to the giants — except Loge, who is a demigod).

I was a bit surprised that the section I was seated in was slow to rise to its feet and give the cast a standing ovation.  As it was, I waited as long as I could before rising, which was when everyone was up there together.  Perhaps that is proper.  This is an ensemble opera, and while Alberich and Loge are standout roles, there is not much emotional heft to this opera, which seems to be needed for people to get out of their chairs.  Still, almost everyone was standing and applauding by the end, and while this production confirms for me that Das Rheingold is the weakest of the Ring operas, it also revealed new insights to me, particularly concerning the text, and new connections with the other operas, which is what any good production of a Ring opera should do.

Siegfried forges Notung, Act I

Siegfried

I ended my complete Ring cycle with my favorite of the four operas–when it features a great Siegfried.  I’ve already mentioned in my Götterdämmerung review how this Ring features a Siegfried that can actually sing the part.  Well, Stefan Vinke is even more tremendous in Siegfried.  Act I ends with the best Forging Song I’ve heard this side of Lauritz Melchior.  In fact, an audience member let out a whoop after the final note rang out.  In the role, Vinke is youth incarnate.  He possesses not only a youthful voice, but is also an excellent physical actor.  I was shocked when I saw a picture of him out of costume, as he is a few decades removed from being a teenager, and yet his carriage onstage and his facial expressions instantly transform him into one (with less of a suspension of disbelief than this role often requires).  In Act II, when singing of his father and mother (in the spots where his father was killed and his mother rested on their flight from Hunding, respectively), he still needs to get more inside the character, as I didn’t feel Siegfried’s pain as much as I could have.  Despite this, Vinke made me like Siegfried, and he actually sounded stronger than Brünnhilde in their Act III duet, despite the fact that she hadn’t been singing for the last two acts!   While one or two passages at the end may have sounded like they took some effort for him, I couldn’t tell for sure, making me think that the man may actually be from another planet.

Another great physical actor was the Mime of Dennis Peterson.  I felt sorry for his Mime when Siegfried killed him (and Wadsworth made Siegfried feel sorry for him, too, which is important).  Throughout, the portrayal was of someone who was always one-upped by his brother and now has a chance to be better than Alberich.  Sure, it requires killing Siegfried and using him to kill the dragon, but one can understand why Mime would go to such lengths, and put up for so long with Siegfried’s dislike of him.  Even better, Peterson actually sung the role, unlike Gerhard Stolze on the Solti recording, who adopted a cackling voice for the part.  And unlike Paul Kuen on the Krauss recording, he didn’t whine and snivel his way through the opera.

Though he is in this opera for only a little of Act II, Richard Paul Fink made much of Alberich’s confrontations with the Wanderer (Greer Grimsley) and Mime — the first one serious, the second one comic.  In fact, Siegfried probably contains the most comedy of any of the Ring operas, which was highlighted but not overplayed.  I especially liked Alberich and Mime throwing rocks at each other as they fought over who would get the ring and the Tarnhelm once Fafner was dead.  I do think, however, that the audience laughing at Siegfried’s realization that Brünnhilde is not a man shows that Seattle audiences are sometimes too sophisticated for their own good.  Also returning from Rheingold, Daniel Sumegi was equally creepy and wise as Fafner.  And we actually had a dragon onstage (which you can see in the video below).  I especially enjoyed the fact that Siegfried first sees the tail.  While he is addressing it, Fafner’s head and neck come into view.

Greer Grimsley continued his strong reading of Wotan/the Wanderer, with a beautifully rich bass-baritone voice.  His Farewell was solid, but not inspired.  Otherwise, he was excellent, whether playing at riddles with Mime or his mood shifting from amusement to anger at Siegfried’s rudeness during their confrontation in Act III.  His scene with Erda (Lucille Beer) was strong on his part, but Beer’s voice was not as flexible as his was in bending notes for meaning.  As the Forest Bird, Jennifer Zetlan (who was Woglinde, one of the Rhine daughters, in Das Rheingold) sounded a little strained singing in that range, which sometimes led to scooping between notes and some noticeable loss of volume on the highest notes.

And now we come to Alwyn Mellor, once again playing Brünnhilde.  Again, her top notes were there from the beginning of her awakening (and they are sumptuous and creamy in tone), but some of the other notes did not project as well over the orchestra…until her voice warmed up.  Then, from the legato phrases that immediately precede the “Siegfried Idyll” section until the end, the role posed no problems for her musically or interpretively.  And when both she and Vinke hit that high C at the end of the opera, I could only shake my head in disbelief as chills went down my spine for the third time THAT ACT.  For the second curtain call, Vinke even held up four fingers and mouthed the words “four C’s,” which I’m assuming he either sang in that act or in the opera as a whole.

Since I mentioned how gloriously the opera ended, I should mention how it began.  The curtain opened on Mime sharpening a sword.  Then he stopped, looked out at the audience in a daze, then went back to sharpening the sword.  Only then did the orchestra start playing, as Mime alternately sharpened the sword and stared out in a daze.  While I doubt the anvil was built to Wagner’s specifications, as it was for Solti’s recording of the Ring, the sounds Siegfried made while swinging the hammer came close.

Minus a few flubs that passed quickly, the orchestra was excellent, though I do wish they had built to an even louder crescendo in the high strings at the beginning of Brünnhilde’s awakening.  Also, there were two sections done a little differently from what I’ve heard before.  In the first section, the tempos sped up drastically when Mime started singing near the end of the Forging Song, for no reason I could discern.  In the second section, Siegfried took more time in between making the reed instrument on which he tried to imitate the Forest Bird and playing the notes, meaning that there were long silences as he made the reed shorter and whittled the mouthpiece anew.

I mentioned that Act II of Siegfried used the same scenery as Act II, Scene 3-5 of Die Walküre.  Also, Act I looked a bit like Scene Two of Das Rheingold, but had enough differences to make it a new location, while Act III began at the same place that the Prologue in Götterdämmerung begins (of course, it ends in the same place as Act III of the previous opera).  In the props department, many red motifs showed up.  In addition to the coat that the Notung shards are wrapped in, there were red flowers picked by the Wanderer.  These items join other red motifs that have occurred throughout these operas, the most prominent being the red ribbon in Sieglinde’s hair, which showed up several times in Die Walküre and then again in Götterdämmerung, and Wotan’s robe, which he leaves with Brünnhilde.  Like the recurring locations and the musical motifs, these props serve to tie in the different themes, characters, and moods of the operas together.

With Sunday’s performance of Götterdämmerung, the final Ring Cycle under Speight Jenkins has ended.  Der Ring des Nibelungen will now go back in the vaults for another 4 years.  All I know is, the next time it comes to town, I will be seeing the operas in order.

Texts and translations for all of Richard Wagner’s operas can be found here: http://www.rwagner.net/e-t-opere.html

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