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Review: The 'Ring' at Seattle Opera

Photo: Elise Bakketun for Seattle Opera

by Melinda Bargreen

(Note: KING FM broadcasts of the Ring, hosted by Seattle Opera's General Director, Speight Jenkins, continue every Saturday at 7pm through the end of August.)


It’s Ring time in Seattle, with fans from all 50 states and 22 foreign countries gathering in McCaw Hall to hear three cycles of Wagner’s epic four-opera mega-classic, Der Ring des Nibelungen (now through August 25).

Is this Seattle Opera’s greatest Ring ever, of the company’s three successive long-running productions spanning over three and a half decades? For this reviewer, the answer is a resounding “Ja.” The so-called “Green Ring,” premiered in 2001 and repeated in 2005, 2009, and 2013, is beautiful to look at, imaginatively staged, and, for the most part, wonderfully sung. The arrival of conductor Asher Fisch in the orchestra pit has transformed and supercharged the symphonic sound, giving a surge of excitement and majesty to the score that was never quite there before.

The epic pairing of baritone Greer Grimsley and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, as Wotan and Fricka, has never worked better, both vocally and theatrically. (Blythe continues to amaze in her other two Ring roles, Waltraute and Second Norn.) The debut of young German heldentenor Stefan Vinke as Siegfried, mighty of voice and believable of acting, revolutionized the two operas in which he stars. (As San Francisco reviewer Joshua Kosman observed of Vinke: “Zowie.”)

It wouldn’t be a Ring without the sort of last-minute emergency that always seems to strike an enterprise this complicated. In last week’s Cycle 1, the singer in the pivotal role of Brünnhilde – Alwyn Mellor, in her company debut – made a strong initial impression in the first opera in which she sings (Die Walküre), then had to cancel for her second (Siegfried) and third (Götterdämmerung) appearances because of allergy attacks. You couldn’t exactly call the substitution by Lori Phillips a “star is born” moment; Phillips already is a star (she sang the title role in last year’s season-opener, Turandot), but it was certainly a save of the finest order. A graceful and believable actress, Phillips also provided the vocal firepower required of Brünnhilde, thrilling the grateful crowds.

The visually stunning impression of Thomas Lynch’s Northwest-forest sets and the gorgeous costumes by the late, great Martin Pakledinaz gave the Ring fans plenty to look at, but Stephen Wadsworth’s emotionally jam-packed restaging of all four operas was the factor that riveted the house. Passion, fury, vengeance, and regret have never been clearer. On the lighter side, the three Rhinemaidens (Jennifer Zetlan, Cecelia Hall, and Renée Tatum), beautiful singers trained to a fare-thee-well in their daring aerial maneuvers, also provided some of the richest comedy in the cycle, naughtily dunking each other as they disport in the Rhine.

Another portrayal that has grown steadily richer over the lifetime of this Ring production is the Alberich of Richard Paul Fink, more deeply steeped in self-righteous villainy this year than ever before (and just as powerfully acted and sung). Dennis Petersen was in fine form as his scheming brother Mime. We had a pair of powerfully excellent singers in Siegmund (Stuart Skelton) and Sieglinde (Margaret Jane Wray).

Classical KING FM has done music lovers everywhere a tremendous service this summer by broadcasting the first cycle, much to the joy of those who couldn’t afford the tickets or the travel. Das Rheingold has already aired, but there are three chances to hear the rest of the Ring: Die Walküre on August 17, Siegfried on August 24, and Götterdämmerung on August 31, all at 7 p.m.

Just think: Instead of beautiful and truly Wagner-specific sets, and intelligently motivated staging, we could be in Germany at the Wagnerian holy of holies, listening to and seeing the current Bayreuth Festival production of the Ring – where the Rhinemaidens are grilling bratwurst while Alberich smears mustard on his nipples, and Die Walküre takes place in an oil-drilling station in Azerbaijan. The London Financial Times titled their review “Wagner’s ‘Ring’ at its Wurst,” and critic Shirley Apthorp went on to call it “Terribly, frustratingly boring.”

Call me stodgy, but I’m glad I stayed home this summer.
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