Back in the 1970s, Seattle Opera's Ring melded visionary ambition and bootstrap eccentricity. Presented annually on a shoestring budget, the epic cycle of Richard Wagner's four operas joined a pantheon of civic emblems like the Space Needle, J. P. Patches, loutish Seafair pirates, Ivar's, and the Pike Place Market. Now a well-funded quadrennial world-class attraction, the current Ring—I caught the second of three cycles—looks and sounds somewhat tired, despite sumptuous sets and some fantastic singers.
The first opera, Das Rheingold, opens with the first of several dazzling sets in the cycle. Three Rhinemaidens, suspended amid a shimmering sea of azure light and green gradients, sing while capering, flapping, and otherwise swimming in the river. In 2005, the harness wires, though visible, blended with the swaying reeds and other watery vegetation. Here, they were too obvious, exposed by overly bright lighting.
Lighting also marred the third scene of Rheingold. The gloomy cavern of Nibelheim was much brighter than in 2005, revealing the darkness into which Alberich vanishes while demonstrating the Tarnhelm's power. I also wish that the veins of gold had pulsed like embers as they did in 2005. Yet Richard Paul Fink as Alberich, the dwarf who steals the Rhinemaidens' gold, saved the scene, preening, fumbling, leering, and yearning. Fink was masterly throughout the cycle, transforming his character from a greedy villain of Rheingold to a sulphurically vengeful father in Götterdämmerung.
Another Seattle Opera Ring-cycle perennial, Greer Grimsley, acquired a bit more of the gravitas expected of Wotan, ruler of the gods. Although he sometimes evaporated next to Stephanie Blythe's torrential Fricka in Rheingold, Grimsley picked up some guttural, almost subterranean heft in Siegfried. Wotan still needs some tighter instruction from returning director Steven Wadsworth: When he encounters Siegfried at the foot of Brünnhilde's mountain, the ruler of the gods doesn't know what to do with himself, sometimes kneeling, posing, or inexplicably flattening himself against the rocks.
Blythe was superb, not only in Walküre but as the Valkyrie Waltraute in Götterdämmerung. Standing next to Brünnhilde, played by Janice Baird, Blythe's elemental presence—I felt her voice before as well as behind me—underscored Baird's inability to convey the lower portion of her part. Some notes just disappeared. Baird was very good starring in Seattle Opera's Elektra last October; she just doesn't have the range or the power to sing, and more importantly project, Brünnhilde. Jane Eaglen, Seattle Opera's previous Brünnhilde, sometimes abraded her high notes, though despite such signs of vocal wear, she wailed and blustered, riding atop the music as if she were another section of the orchestra.
Stig Andersen's Siegfried was rightly jolly, hectoring a marvelously craven Mime (Dennis Petersen) and playing the impetuous man-child convincingly. Unfortunately, his voice still suffered from a mild illness that plagued him in the first cycle; his upper notes were hard to hear. His attenuated top end blunted one of the most moving moments of the cycle: During the closing love duet of Siegfried, Baird and Andersen were inaudible. Clutching each other with the fervor of newfound love, both were submerged in a sea of sound. By the final cycle, I suspect Andersen will return to full voice. He finally sounded healthy for his death scene in the middle of Götterdämmerung.
Conducted by Robert Spano, the orchestra was impressive as were much of the cast, including Daniel Sumegi (Fafner/Hagen), Andrea Silvestrelli (Fasolt/Hunding), Stuart Skelton (Siegmund), and Margaret Jane Wray (Sieglinde/Third Norn). Most of the sets, notably the rough-hewn rocks of Brünnhilde's mountain, the woodland vegetation by Fafner's lair, and the exquisite relief traceries gracing the hall of the Gibichungs, remain spectacular.
Before Seattle Opera retires this production in 2013, I hope for a few other improvements. Borrowed from Wagner's temple to the Ring, Bayreuth, the electronic hammering that opens and closes Rheingold's Nibelheim scene should be replaced. Heard in the classic Patrice Chéreau version that placed The Ring in an industrial setting, the synchronized mechanical clanging makes sense; yet in this traditional broadswords-and-breastplates production, the sound design fails its fundamental mission: to conjure the sense of entering and exiting a portal to another filthy, forbidden alien world. Even worse, its pianissimo entry and circular route around McCaw Hall mimics a ringing cell phone.
Some other directorial touch-ups are also in order: Erda's emergence and exit from the cliff in Siegfried should be slinky (like the slithering Ewa Podles in 2005) not perfunctory. Fafner the dragon moved quite clumsily this time, and some of the forest birds failed to appear on cue. Cursed with a descending scrim that telegraphs a forthcoming video projection, the final scene of Götterdämmerung remains a muddle of fire, hovering Rhinemaidens, fog, and vaporous figures. A lonely, titanic fire is sufficient to announce the apocalypse.