The murmuring ebb and flow, the ceaseless foreboding suppuration of the orchestra held the audience riveted and hinted at the sea, but it was not the earthly sea--it was the sea of events set in motion by Wotan's terrible will as the curtain raised for Seattle Opera's Die Walküre, the second chapter of Wagner's great tetralogy being performed on Monday August 5 at the McCaw Hall in Seattle.
A word must be said about Thomas Lynch's fantastic set design. The primeval forest in which Sieglinde and Hunding's hut is set immediately impels the viewer into the universe unfolding before them...the titanic tree branching through the dwelling like Yggdrasil, the ancient, darkling woods into which the stage recesses...without exception Lynch's sets have been key to creating the suspension of disbelief necessary to become engrossed in this apocalyptic story.
Stuart Skelton's feisty, fiercely intent Siegmund was well met by Margaret Jane Wray's trembling though brave Sieglinde. There is never any doubt for a second, from the moment she lays eyes on his sleeping form at the hearth, that theirs is an unbreakably magnetic attraction--indeed it is something far beyond their control. Skelton's and Wray's interactions are completely convincing. And vocally they are spectacular...as Siegmund cries out his father's name "Wälse!", his note was held for so long, with such heldentenor power, purity and surety that my breath caught and everything else was forgotten but this incredible moment of sound and myth. Of special note was Wray's lower register--incredible and magisterial, imminently audible no matter the volume of the orchestra. Andrea Silvestrelli's basso, something I remarked upon as he sang Fasolt in Rheingold, was if anything in even finer form as the bestial Hunding; so rolling, thunderous and penetrating at these Stygian depths that it was frankly astonishing.
Peter Kaczorowski's lighting was key to making the spring love scene between Sieglinde and Siegmund so believable--as the blessed sun thunders into the hut and their love begins to bloom, it is a striking and deeply symbolic contrast between the dim, gloomy depths of despair in which Sieglinde exists with Hunding, and as the light slowly dawns so does their love, and their realization of their kinship.
Grimsley's Wotan reveals himself to be many things in Die Walküre, and at first is an earthly approachability, convincing us that he is merely a husband being subject to a wife's wroth. But Fricka is unlike an earthly wife. Stephanie Blythe's peregrination from rage to sorrow, pleading to iron and undefiable sternness is the only thing that allows one to make sense of Wotan's decision to send his own spider web of plans into wrack and ruin...it is less for love of Fricka than in deference to her implacable certitude. Grimsley makes us truly sad for Wotan---such lyricism and softness as he tries to convince himself and Fricka of the necessity of following through with the path that has been set, though it seems he knows even to himself that his pleas will be fruitless. When he finally invokes his own curse, praying for his own death, we understand why.
Wray's portrayal of Sieglinde's anguish is so believable as to almost be uncomfortable to behold as she tries to persuade Siegmund to leave her. Alwyn Mellor, in her SO debut as Brünnhilde, is compelling as an actress, and as she wrestles with deciding whether or not to defy Wotan her volume becomes so low at points that there was positively no sound in the hall...everything hung upon her every note. The final duel between Siegmund and Hunding was a bit underwhelming when it arrived--not terribly convincing, and the "lightning flashes" throughout seemed unfortunately more like strobes than lightning, minor asides that distracted somewhat from the overall verisimilitude.
The epic ride of the Valkyries too, while musically spectacular, left something to be desired from a set standpoint. Given all the grace and aerobatics granted the Rhine Daughters in Das Rheingold, it seems like something more could be had from this set in the way of blocking. Still the monolith upon which these lusty sisters congregated was magnificent and imposing, and the laugh-out-loud merriment and mirth with which they transported the corpses (and parts of corpses) of the fallen warriors to Valhalla was great fun to watch.
The final sorrow between the defiant Brünnhilde and her anguished father showcased the spectacular upper registers of Grimsley's baritone, and revealed a sometimes too-quiet lower range from Mellor--her voice was entirely swallowed by the orchestra at key moments. As she further exposes Wotan's fallacious reasoning, in a sense continuing the castigation that Fricka began in the first scene, Grimsley shows Wotan's dimming furor and growing anguish and Mellor's performance forces us to beg the question: is Wotan really caught in a web of his own design, or does he ultimately choose to be there? The fiery mountain was beautiful and ominous to watch as this chapter came to a close.