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Woodstock for Wagnerians

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Every four years, on January 20th a new president is inaugurated. Every four years, roughly seven months later, the Seattle Opera presents Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. Both events provide extravaganzas and spectacles that incite the imagination. Der Ring des Nibelungen is, however, the vastly better show.

When the Seattle Opera mounts the four operas that comprise Der Ring des Nibelungen, it does so in what is as close to a festival atmosphere as America can muster. Following the custom of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany, the Seattle Opera presents Das Rheingold on Day One, Die Walkure on Day Two, Siegfried on Day Four and Gotterdammerung on Day Six. (At Bayreuth In days of yore there was no day off between Die Walkure and Siegfried, until the late Birgit Nilsson demanded it. No one, not even a direct lineal descendant of Richard Wagner himself was in a position to tell La Nilsson to get lost. So a new tradition was born.) In Seattle, as in Bayreuth, you get your Wagner in a highly concentrated dose. Woodstock for Wagnerians without the mud.

According to Seattle Opera General Director Speight Jenkins, the attendees for the three 2009 Ring cycles break down 45% from the Seattle area and 55% from a number of foreign countries and every one of these United States (save, this year, for West Virginia). On each performance day there is a three hour lecture in the morning focusing on that night's opera, and following each performance of the Die Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung Jenkins does a question-and-answer session with audience members inclined to attend. This year, he was also the one giving the 10:00 a.m. lectures.

Thus, for Ring attendees, Jenkins's day formally begins at 10:00 a.m. with his lecture, proceeds to attendance at every performance, and ends well after midnight with the final question and answer. For those used to opera company directors who resemble nothing so much as the Bond Market (seldom seen, even less frequently heard, and generally doing a tolerable impression of Holmes's definition of the common law as "a brooding omnipresence in the sky") this is little less than shocking. It is also sufficiently physically challenging to fell an ox.

Jenkins does this marathon for a simple reason: He loves opera in general and the Ring in particular. He spent many years in his youth as a performance reviewer, and like any good reviewer he has boundless enthusiasm for the music -- and as a man whose current job, at bottom, is to sell tickets to the best possible performance he can present, he shares his enthusiasm with anyone who will listen. Three essentially sold out cycles this month suggest that he is doing his job well.

The trend in Europe, as well as in a number of American cities, is to present Der Ring des Nibelungen in an abstract setting. A purple column of light may serve as Valhalla, a splotch of green may denote the hut of Hunding and Sieglinde. One veteran of several European Ring productions remarked that he did not see a tree in Die Walkure until he saw it in America. The other trend in Ring performance is to set the action in locations never dreamed of by Wagner himself, such as in the American West or in the general vicinity of a hydroelectric dam. Seattle presents a "representational Ring" in which, for example, Siegmund pulls the sword Notung out of a tree (he does not pull a certificate marked "Good for One Free Magic Sword" from a box marked "Break Glass In Case of Emergency") and Fafner appears as a dragon, not as Donald Rumsfeld. This baffles Europeans and delights the Wagner traditionalists.

The difficulty with a "representational Ring" is that it encourages a great deal of bizarre thinking on the part of the all-too involved audience. Listening to several of the questions posed to Speight Jenkins at his post-performance sessions, I found myself remarking to my wife "Don't these people understand that this is an opera, not a documentary?" The good news, I suppose, is that the audience is involved. The bad news is that not all thoughts are of equal worth.

The current Seattle production had its premiere as a cycle in 2001, it was presented again in 2005 and again this year. Thomas Lynch's naturalistic sets have aged remarkably well (there is an awful lot of the Olympic National Park in them), and one or two quibbles aside Martin Pakledinaz's costumes still look great. Peter Kaczarowski's lighting design remains a model, and there is no opera company in the world that can fly singers over a stage as Seattle can. From the outset, this Ring has been directed by Stephen Wadsworth, and he remains a master at his craft.

As anyone who has sat through any of the Ring operas will tell you in excruciating detail, these are not easy works to present. In a representational production the stage director needs to deal with some very unpleasant characters who often do some nearly inexplicable things. While at the same time singing and trying to pay some heed to the orchestra. That this production makes dramatic and emotional sense is a testament to Wadsworth's talents and hard work. To keep that going in a third production (second revival) is an even more glowing testament.

Der Ring des Nibelungen is not, of course, a stage play so there is the small matter of the singing. Wagnerites, as a class, are forever bemoaning the quality of singers heard nowadays; I stopped taking this complaining seriously the day I realized that the (now dead or retired) singers the alleged experts laud today were the very artists they mauled as inadequate wretches when they were actually singing. But no amount of cynicism can mask the fact that there are not many Wotans out there today capable of singing a full Ring cycle with anything approaching adequacy. It was, therefore, a pleasure to hear Greer Grimsley first assay the role in Seattle in 2005, and what was then a promising Wotan has now become The Genuine Article in all of its splendor and glory. He acts as about as well as a Wotan can act, but he sings...well...like a God. The role lies in the heart of his vocal range, and he sings with a rare combination of power and suavity. The world has waited for a very long time for a Wotan who can sing without barking or rasping, and he has arrived.

2009 marks the first time the Seattle Opera has done this production of the Ring without Jane Eaglen's Brunnhilde. In 2001 and 2005 Eaglen sang the role as well as any soprano has since the retirement of Birgit Nilsson. I do not know, and I refuse to speculate, as to why Janice Baird was engaged to sing the role instead of Ms. Eaglen. What I can note is that Ms. Baird, who is rather short and somewhat athletic, has a very much smaller voice than Ms. Eaglen, but at least in the second cycle this year (August 17-22) she sang and acted very well. There was a great deal of chatter to the effect that her performance in the second cycle was a massive improvement over her work in the first cycle, but such are the perils of live opera. If you want it perfect every time, there are any number of record companies that will sell you as many CDs as your wallet allows.

Stig Andersen is well into his fifties, but his Siegfried still manages to convey the impetuosity of youth. Although it is perhaps most accurate to deem his singing to be adequate with occasional flashes of very good, he lacks the sheer vocal heft necessary for a complete triumph in the role. But given the scarcity of really good Siegfrieds, and the total absence from the world's stages today of genuinely great ones, it is suspected that Jenkins played the cards he was dealt.

There were three other vocal standouts that merit mention. Although there is a lot to see of Stephanie Blythe, the moment she opens her mouth and sings her size does not make one damned bit of difference. There are some singers who, by the sheer power of their personality and the quality of their voice can walk on to a stage and simply command it. Ms. Blythe is one such. She was the most compelling, powerful Fricka I have ever seen or heard, full stop. Her Second Norn was a master class in Wagner singing, and her Gotterdammerung Waltraute nearly moved me to tears. What I wouldn't give to hear her sing Octavian...

Richard Paul Fink is the world's reigning Alberich these days, and for good reason: there is no one out there who sings or acts it better. And Dennis Petersen's Mime (brother of Alberich) was a delight to hear and to watch. It is a very difficult role, in that spending hours on the verge of a breakdown knowing full well that you are going to be dead by the end of Act Two is trying. Speaking of which, Mime's death was a wonderful bit of theater. The sheer suddenness of Notung (Siegfried's "magic sword") running Mime through was literally breath-taking. It was almost as though the sword did it on its own.

Conductor Robert Spano was the glue that kept it all together. When Spano first conducted the Ring in Seattle in 2005, it was clear that he was a man of exquisite taste, profound musicianship and possessed of some fascinating ideas of pace and the overall architecture of the music. All of those were borne out again this year. Intensity was never a problem; the only discernible flaw was permitting the orchestra to drown out the singers on rare occasion. I know, I know, "but it is such beautiful music..."

I can only hope that when the curtain comes down on the end of the world on the evening of August 30th, Speight Jenkins heads off to some secluded spot where he can spend ten days reading cheap novels and watching Adam Sandler movies. He sort of owes it to himself.