First staged in 2001, Seattle Opera's current production of "Der Ring des Nibelungen" is not just a sublime, passionate tale of the gods and a magic ring that gives its possessor the power to rule the world. It's also a story of dysfunctional family and familiar emotions.
What makes Seattle Opera's production work, as much as its imaginative staging and adherence to Wagner's precepts, is director Stephen Wadsworth and his cast, who bring a human scale to Wagner's imposing music. Wadsworth has returned ever since directing the 2001 premiere to ensure that every move and every word of the performers are driven by character and relationship.
Greer Grimsley, who sang his first Wotan in a remarkable debut at Seattle Opera in 2005, has a vigorous voice capable of infinite shadings. He is also a skilled actor whose entire body reflects his character's feelings. Which makes it all the odder that he sometimes lacked nuance during the first of this production's three cycles. Still, he had the audience hanging on almost every gesture and note, and the farewell scene between Grimsley and his beloved daughter Brünnhilde was heartbreaking.
At the top of her game, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe completely dominated the stage in each of her three roles - Fricka, Waltraute (in "Götterdämmerung") and the Second Norn - even during her brief appearance in "Die Walküre." Blythe displayed a huge, silky voice of incandescent beauty and sensuality. Her Fricka is no virago. Instead, a touch here and a kiss there show she and Wotan are a loving couple with intense chemistry despite some serious differences of opinion.
Although Janice Baird has sung the role elsewhere, her first Seattle Opera outing as Brünnhilde was mixed. Initially, her high register lacked the authority befitting the role. That problem gradually improved, except for Baird's weak delivery in the critical immolation scene at the end of "Götterdämmerung." Her low notes also consistently disappeared beneath the orchestra. In spite of her distracting habit of shaking or nodding her head while another performer was singing, Baird depicted a credible character arc from carefree youth to maturity.
A veteran as Alberich, Richard Paul Fink played the character with gusto, nimble acrobatics, terrifying malevolence and powerful vocal intrigue. In his Seattle Opera debut, tenor Dennis Petersen portrayed Alberich's brother, Mime, as so infuriatingly obnoxious I could see why Siegfried would want to do him in. Although not for his lovely, clear-cut tenor or his athletic antics.
Other singers making their first Seattle Opera appearances included Stuart Skelton, Stig Andersen, Andrea Silvestrelli, Kobie van Rensburg, Maria Streijffert and Miriam Murphy.
With his clarion heldentenor and undaunted assurance, Stuart Skelton made a valorous Siegmund. His cries of "Walse" were one of the production's most deeply moving moments. While the sexual tension was taut between Skelton and Wray, it wasn't nearly as steamy as that between Wray and Richard Berkeley-Steele in 2005.
Recovering from a viral infection and high fever, Stig Andersen was awkwardly unsteady for the youthful title role of "Siegfried." By "Götterdämmerung," he seemed to regain his physical agility. Andersen has a hoard of Siegfrieds under his belt, lending telling details to his dramatically lyric voice, despite some strain. Surprisingly, rather than fading toward the end of "Götterdämmerung," his singing was at its best and most poignant in Siegfried's riveting death scene.
Andrea Silvestrelli's Fassolt was appropriately pitiable in his desperate enchantment with Freia, but his bass-baritone seemed strained. As Hunding in "Siegfried," however, his voice powered through the house with a chilling darkness. I liked Kobie van Rensburg portraying the demigod Loge as a pragmatist and lawyer, although at times his voice was underpowered.
Contralto Maria Streijffert was a warm-voiced but uncommanding Erda. Streijffert, Miriam Murphy and their sister Valkyries moved and sang with bright bravado.
In her third "Ring" at Seattle Opera, Margaret Jane Wray was a touching Sieglinde with her warmly strong soprano. Other Ring returnees included Marie Plette-sympathetic and attractive as Freia, Ortlinde and Gutrune - and Gordon Hawkins. His Gunther is complicated, tortured and essential to the action. Hawkins was also fine as Donner.
New to Seattle Opera's "Ring" but not to the company, Daniel Sumegi was a sonorous Fafner and a broodingly resentful Hagen. In the small role of Froh, Jason Collins' bright voice resonated.
Swimming with fluid fishlike movements in specially designed harnesses high above the stage, Julianne Gearhart, Michèle Losier and Jennifer Hines were a pleasure to watch as the Rhine Daughters. Gearhart also sang a lovely Forest Bird. Luretta Bybee, Margaret Jane Wray and Stephanie Blythe as the Norns energized the notoriously static top of "Götterdämmerung."
Conductor Robert Spano led his orchestra in a well-choreographed dance of refined Wagnerian artistry with the singers. However, he could have varied the volume more to accommodate weaker voices and enhance dramatic urgency. The horns and occasionally the brass also hit a few rough spots early in the first cycle. The Seattle Opera Chorus, only singing in "Götterdämmerung," did its usual fine job.
Thomas Lynch's sets, supported by Peter Kaczorowski's lighting and Martin Pakledinaz' costumes, skillfully set a mood of magical realism that included woodland scenes evocative of the Pacific Northwest. Occasionally elements seemed out of place, particularly the cartoon-like stuffed toad and giant snake into which Alberich supposedly transforms with the aid of a magic helmet and the clearly fake body parts of dead warriors the Valkyries carry onstage. There were also several lighting miscues in "Die Walküre," plus some computer malfunctions during scene changes in "Götterdämmerung" that left the orchestra hanging in silence until they were worked out.
But these were brief glitches in a remarkable production that conquered both overwhelming technical requirements such as a convincing movable dragon and superhuman demands on cast and crew.
Seattle Opera's "Ring" cycle plays at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., through Sunday, Aug. 30. Limited tickets available. Full cycle tickets: $80-$397. Individual "Ring" opera tickets: $302-$1,508. Information: 389-7676.
Freelance writer Maggie Larrick lives in the Seattle area and is a former editor of the News.