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Götterdämmerung in Seattle

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From August 12-17, 2013 I attended performances of the Seattle Opera's Der Ring des Nibelungen. The contemporaneous reviews, initially written for friends, will appear in four separate postings.

Roy Blount, Jr. once told a marvelous story, the details of which I cannot confirm and which I am certain to get wrong in this retelling. The Governor of Alabama, according to Roy Blount, Jr., was out on Mobile Bay on board the official State Yacht, entertaining guests. The Alabama Air National Guard was putting on an air display, doing barrel-rolls, loop-de-loops, and such like. Something went wrong with one of the planes and it crashed into Mobile Bay amidst spray and spume, stunning those on the official State Yacht. The silence was broken by the Governor of Alabama, who simply exclaimed "Kiss my ass if that ain't a show."

On August 17, 2013 I saw the world end, and kiss my ass if it ain't a show.

None of the Ring operas are easy to conduct, and Götterdämmerung is perhaps most difficult of all. The music is vast, sprawling, and all too often it is in the service of some of Wagner's weakest dramaturgy. So it is not merely that the conductor must convincingly deal with the unconvincing bits (which may be the size of the average concerto), he must of necessity keep the over-arching concept in mind while doing so. For this, the toughest assignment of all, Asher Fisch reserved some of his best work. He kept the music moving forward but he did so without bulling his way through it. There was no slacking off during the last act. The tempi were well chosen, the singers were given space (and were never drown out), and it was among the most convincingly conducted Götterdämmerung I have ever heard.

When I was a callow youth, I expressed the opinion that Götterdämmerung was, dramatically, the weakest of the Ring operas. With the passage of time, I came to reassess the opera in a more favorable light, but these days I am back to my previous low opinion. These days, no matter how hard I try, I am unable to find anything in the least bit interesting about the detestable Gibich family who are, in the last analysis, singing puppets. Wagner's tried and true dramatic device of last resort (when stuck, give someone a magic potion) finally reaches the point of exasperation. In Siegfried the hero is able to read the unspoken thoughts of others. By the time we get to Götterdämmerung he drinks a potion that makes him forget every woman he's ever seen except for Gutrune, and without this chemically induced amnesia none of Götterdämmerung makes the slightest bit of sense. And even with it, vast stretches of it make no sense.

Marcus Brück's Gunther was very well sung, but the characterization was marred by what seemed to be a curious limitation of facial features: Either he looked panic-stricken/terminally confused or he sported the face of an angry baby. Daniel Sumegi's Hagen (described in Das Barbecüe as a "goddamned half breed narcoleptic son of a bitch") was stupendous. All brooding malevolence, he was very difficult to take one's eyes off. Wendy Bryn Harmer's Gutrune was nicely sung if somewhat bland.

That is, of course, if one was capable of seeing. During this run of Der Ring des Nibelungen I was seated behind a man possessed of the bulk of William "The Refrigerator" Perry, which was bad. That he had a head the size of a watermelon or soup tureen was worse. It was like driving down the road to perdition behind a tractor-trailer that you cannot pass. Ah well, perhaps next time there will be a box on the order form for "Please seat me behind a clever dwarf."

If Stefan Vinke was impressive in Siegfrfied, his work in Götterdämmerung can best be described as breath-takingly good. The security of his technique allows him to pour out a huge volume of sound, powerful and on-pitch. His acting was such as to cause me to believe that the production was made for him, which of course it was not. Alwyn Mellor continued to do more than merely sing the role of Brünnhilde; she seemed to occupy it. Her performance was emotionally true in every important respect and, like Stefan Vinke, she moved in what we may call an age-appropriate manner.

It is appropriate to heap credit on Speight Jenkins, the Seattle Opera's General Director, for putting together a cast that was essentially without a weak link. He has waited for a very long time to get singers who can act convincingly and who find no vocal perils in their roles. And his ability to get the most out of his cast is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Stephanie Blythe not only sang a stupendous Fricka (in Das Rheingold and in Die Walküre) but an equally memorable Second Norn and Waltraute last night as well. And by the way, the three Norns of Ms. Blythe, Luretta Bybee (Mrs. Greer Grimsley in real life) and Margaret Jane Wray managed the astonishing feat of actually making the Norn Scene at the beginning of Götterdämmerung seem too short.

Immense credit for the success of this Ring must go to Stephen Wadsworth, who took a bow last evening dressed as a giant cranberry. The production is in and of itself wonderful theater; and given the reviews of the current Bayreuth production (beyond mocking to the point of contemptuous) and the recently retired Met "Gods vs. Machine" production it is especially valued, and many thousands of people will be saddened when it is retired at the end of the current run. It is a testament to Stephen Wadsworth that it has remained fresh and endlessly fascinating through four iterations, essentially because Stephen Wadsworth reimagined it anew each time..

At the end of an ovation that can best be described in Soviet terms (loud, prolonged, thunderous) Speight Jenkins came out to whoops and cheers. The soon to be retired General Director is universally known and much beloved in Seattle, and the audience welcomed the opportunity to express its appreciation for all he has done in the service of Wagner and the Seattle Opera. That he has saved us from Wagner in Burkina Faso (or Baku) and Wotan as Elvis is enough to merit the cheers he received. But that he has also given us one of the great Ring productions of our time (arguably two, in fact, if the Francois Rochaix production is accurately esteemed) gets him the thanks of the audience, as well as a grateful nation.

The gold has been returned to the Rhine, where one hopes the Rhine Daughters will do a better job of guarding it this time. I have enough of a problem putting up with Mitch McConnell; I can't imagine what it would be like if the sacred Spear were to shatter again.