A Critic's First Ring
As a critic and audience member, I've been to many dozens of operas over the years; I've even performed in an opera (I was a singing waiter in 12 performances of Offenbach's La Vie Parisienne by a small opera company in the early 90s.) So while I'm no stranger to opera, at some point in an opera lover's life, one Ring cycle has got to be his first. For me the week of August 4-9th, in attendance at McCaw Hall for Seattle Opera's Der Ring des Nibelungen, is that first. In fact, it's my first Wagner opera. Period. That hasn't been by accident: Wagner can be intimidating, and many of the well-known and more abysmal components to his weltanschauung are terribly off-putting. But the last thing any critic wants to sound like is a newbie. After all, in the popular mind we're supposed to be people who have heard it all a million times before; world-weary, cynical and crabby. But at a lecture I attended in preparation for this event the speaker noted that, aside from Shakespeare and Jesus, more words have been written about Wagner than any about other man. It was hard to tell whether the remark was tongue-in-cheek or not, but in any case the point was well taken. So, with so many erudite Wagnerians pontificating and criticizing over the years, there surely must be room for one wide-eyed new guy to say honestly: here I am, I love opera desperately, and this...well, this is quite unlike anything I've ever seen before.
The most immediate observation was the truth of the fact that I'd heard many times before: the orchestra is as much a character as any of the singers in a Wagnerian opera. The Seattle Opera Orchestra, under principal guest conductor Asher Fisch, had a quality that was immediately apparent in the opening bars as they summoned the story up from the murky depths of the Rhine with Jovian powers of creation. The lush set was breathtaking to behold, as the Rhinemaidens larked about, shimmering natators in an incredible display of stagecraft. Renée Tatum's Flosshilde was rich and luxurious to hear, and the Rheingold leitmotif was powerful, enrapturing and portentous on its first appearance
Alberich seems to be simultaneously the most sympathetic and most loathesome character in this first work, and Richard Paul Fink's depth of experience with this role was immediately obvious. His Alberich was engaging and pathetic; by the time he renounces love and takes the gold to the shock of the cruel Rhinemaidens, there is no doubt as to why he is doing this or what his motives might be. Throughout the night whenever Alberich was onstage it was a constant battle to pity or hate him; his rolling, husky and sometimes growling baritone only lent added gravitas to the task of acting this complex character, and Fink was at once spellbinding and horrifying. As Alberich makes up his mind to seize the gold, once again the orchestra imbues the scene with the trembling sense that something terrible is building.
When the gods are encountered, Greer Grimsley's Wotan and Stephanie Blythe as Fricka have an immediately intimate and yet troubled connection. Grimsley is appropriately statuesque in his king-of-the-gods bearing, and Blythe has an innate pathos in her anguish over her philandering husband. What a magnificent voice she brings, with every bit of the heft and lyricism one could imagine wanting from a Wagnerian soprano. The rapport between the gods as Fafner and Fasolt try to claim Freia was convincing and sincere: here is important stuff. Andrea Silvestrelli was incredible as the love-besotted Fasolt: immense and terrifying to behold in voice, stature and visage. His basso profonodo was magnificent.
When the scene shifts to the dark and mysterious Nibelheim it feels like a shocking change from the "Green Ring," as this productions is nick-named due to the many green-hued sets. It felt like a guilty pleasure laughing at poor Mime (Dennis Petersen), being lashed by an invisible Alberich now drunk with power after his forging of the ring. When Wotan and Loge (Mark Schowalter) descend to trick the dwarf out of his magical trinkets, the scene is set for high if dark comedy, and Fink, Grimsley (as our straight man) and Schowalter do not disappoint.
Schowalter's Loge is in some ways the most interesting character; although he is a trickster, untrustworthy and conniving, he is yet employed by the gods to do their dirty work. Schowalter's interpretation yields a mirror with which to view the gods: as he is seemingly entranced by the dead Fasolt after the ring begins to work its deadly curse, it is clear whose folly has begun this terrible sequence of events. It's not the actions of Loge, nor even Alberich that will eventually bring the gods' downfall, and Loge is weary unto death of the breathless hubris of these immortals. Schowalter's understanding of this, and his ability to bring it out with such conciseness in his magnificent tenor, was truly one of the joys of this opening night.