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Many highlights at fantastic Rheingold and Walküre
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Many highlights at fantastic Rheingold and Walküre

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Wagner's RING: Das Rheingold/Die Walküre
August 9-10
Seattle Opera, McCaw Hall


The good news is that the current Seattle Opera Wagner RING is even more glorious than in its previous two incarnations. The sets seem even more beautiful, and the opening scene of the Rheinmaidens swimming 20 feet above the stage is just magnificent. The stage direction is, for the most part, totally engaging in its focus on how the characters interact. The conducting by Robert Spano shows growth in structural sense and in the tight but sympathetic connection between pit and stage. And the cast, with one exception, could hardly be better.

The one exception, and the only bad news, is the Brünnhilde of Janice Baird. With Seattle's long string of superb Brünnhildes (Uta Vinsing, Rita Hunter, Linda Kelm, Jane Eaglen, etc.), Baird brought us to a new low. The middle voice was so weak and curdled with vibrato that she could sometimes hardly be heard. While the tops were generally good, they sometimes fell short of the pitch. (The voice did improve somewhat as the evening went on.) But even worse, her twitchy acting never struck this viewer as convincing. Too many gestures, strange facial expressions, and a general lack of magnetism and commanding stature wiped out any significance in her appearance. In fact, in the scene with her sisters (HALF-sisters?), she failed to stand out at all. A Brünnhilde without gravitas. (Test question: Did Erda give birth to Brünnhilde's sisters?)

Over 63 percent of the cast is new to this summer's production. Of 20-some singers, I'll limit this review to the highlights, of which fortunately there are many. You will not find on any current stage a better Alberich, Wotan, Fricka, Hunding, or Siegmund than these. Ever since his debut here in Andrea Chenier, Richard Paul Fink has continued to wow us with the intensity of his dark, powerful voice and the intelligence of both his singing and acting. As a fantastically athletic Alberich, Fink leaves nothing to be desired. His voice is so strong that one might think Seattle Opera was using microphones (which they never do except for off-stage moments, such as when Alberich magically disappears).

About Greer Grimsley's Wotan, one could go on and on in praise. A beautiful, super-powerful voice of many colors and expressive dynamics was at the service of a totally engaging artist who made even Wotan's long monologue gripping. Now in his mid-50s, Grimsley has lost none of his intensity and has only gained in effectiveness. At the end of Die Walküre, he showed not the slightest signs of fatigue, easily cutting through the full orchestra as he commanded Loge to set a fire around Brünnhilde's rock-mountain.

In a scene I used to dislike, Stephanie Blythe's Fricka nearly stole the show as she flooded us with gorgeous sounds, while popping Wotan's balloon of self-deception. I doubt seriously that any Fricka has topped hers in any way. Her voice was super-rich, unbelievably powerful, and perfectly even from top to bottom. And it was at the service of a passionately effective artist of the highest intelligence. Blythe's smarts made her argument with Wotan all the more compelling. I could bathe in her sound all night!

In his debut at Seattle Opera, Stuart Skelton's Siegmund could hardly have been more impressive. His tenor was almost powerful enough to recall Jon Vickers. A solid technique supported singing of beauty, power and a lyrical line. He was even physically attractive (a believable twin to Sieglinde), and acted convincingly. Also a Seattle debut was the towering bass of Andrea Silvestrelli. While his Fasolt was marred by physical fatigue from an emergency flight to Italy and back (the death of his father), his Hunding the next night was most impressive. A man of great height and considerable girth, Silvestrelli had a voice to match his fearful physical presence. As dark a bass as I have ever heard, he frightened us all with his perfectly pitched acting. Only the very top notes gave him difficulty.

In the tiny role of Froh, Jason Collins impressed with his fresh, strong tenor and engaged stage presence.

In an article next week, I will review other aspects of the RING, including the final two operas, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Two more complete cycles of these four operas continue this Wagner-Fest on August 17-22 and August 25-30. See www.seattleopera.org for possible returned tickets.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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