The screen rises on Hagrid’s hut, but it has more Northwest cedar than old-England hardwood. Faint on the walls are the black squiggles and scratches of the same secret rune language we saw on the curtain before the lights went down last night. Everything that happens in the “present” of the story of the Ring is infected by, informed by, some long-ago story that, even if you can’t remember it, will not end. The names of some of these old stories are: A Stranger Comes to Town; Boy Meets Girl; Falling in Love With Trouble. It isn’t Hagrid in the hut but a female, Sieglinde, unhappily married to Hunding and about to fall for Siegmund, the stranger who shows up suddenly, exhausted, handsome, and ready to fall in love.
If the love lesson of Rhinegold was Don’t Trust Pretty Girls or Powerful Men, the love lesson of Valkyrie is Families Are Creepy. Sieglinde and Siegmund, who fall in love, are twins (and Wotan's kids—they have sex and get pregnant with the Siegfried-to-be of the third opera). I mean, I like my brother and I like my sister too, but ick.
Still, the idea of finding one’s soul twin/other half has been seducing philosophers and artists since Plato’s Symposium. (See Dylan's “I still believe she was my twinnnnn!” from “Tangled Up in Blue” or the legendary Star Trek episode where Kirk makes out with himself.) Of course, Wagner was fascinated with illicit love. He was married more than once and had more than a few affairs. He took up with the wives of patrons and colleagues. He shacked up with girls much younger than himself and teased and flirted with and led on the poor, weird Mad King Ludwig II for his money.
Doomed as the Seigmund/Sieglinde liaison is, however, it’s not the most fraught family relationship in the opera.
That would be the one between Wotan (the ever-amazing Greer Grimsley) and his daughter Brunhilde (Alwyn Mellor, making her Seattle Opera debut and whose fan I very happily now am). I have often thought of Wagner as funny, though I confess I'm not always laughing with him. But under Stephen Wadsworth’s crisp, intelligent, and alive direction, Alwyn makes me realize that the material of Wagner operas can be funny. When Brunhilde/Mellor first takes the stage she belts out the famous Valkyrie song that resembles, it must be said, yodeling. Yes, the vocal lines are technically demanding but instead of pretending this art is only sublime, Mellor camps it up physically to let us know she knows it’s also ridiculous. While not losing a scintilla of control, Mellor tomboy-vamps her way through the Valkyrie theme song with a wink at herself, her father, and us. We’ve all heard this before, and now we’re finally getting to laugh at it.
This Brunhilde is nothing like the dour, righteous caricature you might expect. It’s clear why Dad always liked her best—she’s smart but scrappy, brave but not full of herself. You can count on her in a pinch and she plays well with others. The others she plays well with are her sister Valkyries. These Valkyries are a girl gang, the smart girls who don’t study hard but ace the tests anyway. Who roll their eyes at their dad when he’s being kind of a jerk. Who, when one of them gets a bit full of herself, will walk along behind her imitating her every step like the annoying little sister that she is. They are also, at least most of them in this cast, babes! Big, strapping (but not too strapping), red-headed girls who stride rather than walk but also know how to wear a long dress to show off the line of a leg. These Valkyrie girls are a gang you’d actually like to run around with.
They’re almost adults, but still young enough to huddle together when father is angry, which he does when Brunhilde goes against his wishes by trying to protect pregnant Sieglunde from his wrath. There’s something a little too fraught about the relationship between Brunhilde and Wotan. Not that he would ever mess with her, but that he would probably be truly horrible if some guy wanted to date her. Of course she’s the one who rebels against him. Of course her mom doesn’t know what to do with her or with her daughters' father.
I am really, really glad Seattle Opera commissioned this design team—directed by Wadsworth, Thomas Lynch (set design), the late Martin Pakledinaz (costumes), and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting design)—to create an elegant out-of-time but old world for the Ring. I would have hated it if the company had tried to “update” the context of the story by, say, foregrounding the girl-gangness of the Valkyries or portraying the Rhine Maidens as some kind of Sex in the City-type mean, manipulative glam-girls. This production allows us the dignity of seeing our own troubles and stories as both timeless and our own.
One final standout vocal: Bass-baritone Andrea Silvestrelli as Hunding. He has a buttery, chocolate-smooth texture with just the right suggestion of menace. Menace is always most menacing when it's kept just a little below the surface. You get afraid of what may spring.
We'll see what that might be tonight in Ring number three: Siegfried.