Beginning with its production of Die Walküre in 1975, Seattle Opera has since put the city on the map as the Wagner capital of North America. This season, the 60-year-old company celebrated its anniversary with a presentation of Das Rheingold, directed by Brian Staufenbiel, and with former Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot directing the musical forces.
Vocally it was truly an impregnable performance – the voices were uniformly outstanding, from the commanding vocal and dramatic presence of Greer Grimsley, to the smaller role like Froh (Viktor Antipenko) and Donner (Michael Chioldi), singing actors all carried off their role with vocal beauty and dramatic conviction. Peixin Chen and Kenneth Kellogg were memorable and suitably menacing in their portrayal and singing of Fasolt and Fafner. Melody Wilson as Fricka and Katie Van Kooten as Freia, both sang with palpable musicality and a convincing degree of humanity - as well as all-too-human frailties as the all-too-human gods.
Most memorable were Martin Bakari’s masterful portrayal of a crafty and slippery Loge, and Michael Mayes as a menacing and power-hungry – though not really all that lustful - Alberich. The vocal prowess of these singers was well-matched by a dramatic presence they brought to their roles. They truly became the characters they were singing.
Production designer David Murakami and Lighting Designer Mextly Couzin made effective use of projections and lasers to create visual effects that would otherwise have been near impossible – the rainbow bridge to Valhalla in Scene Four, for instance. For me, the drawback of the production design lay in the use of the stage as well as the orchestral pit. The production team placed the entire Seattle Symphony on the stage, with the singers singing either in front of the orchestra or above it on a metal bridge that supposedly signifies the “open space on a mountain, a castle glimmering in the distance”.
To be sure, such placement of voices and orchestra gave the vocal lines much more prominence than we are used to. Unfortunately, from my vantage point, the all-important orchestral sounds did not match the presence of the voices. Rather than having the sound of the orchestra envelope the vocal lines, the sounds of the instruments seemed receded in the background.
The musicians of the Seattle Symphony played with great sensitivity and beauty of sound for Ludovic Morlot. Perhaps it was because of the placement of the orchestra, I did find myself wishing for a greater richness as well as weightiness in the sound, especially in the strings.
The orchestra pit was put to use dramatically, doubling as the Rhine River in Scene One as well as the subterranean Nibelheim in Scene Three. Although the use of projected “water” on a scrim made the image of the Rhine quite effective, it was much less visually convincing as Alberich’s labour camp for Mime and the Nibelungs.
The presence of the orchestra on stage somehow diminished the “magic” of the drama, giving it the feel of a semi-staged production. The absolute mystery of the beginning of the opera was missing, as we clearly saw the conductor giving the downbeat for the music. The low E-flat that begins the opera did not “come from nothing”, as I believe Wagner intended it to.
Of course, Wagner’s dramatic demands of these operas would challenge the most intrepid and ingenious director, and no one production could really claim to overcome all the problems posed by what the composer had in mind. It is when the director strayed too far afield from Wagner’s direction that lessened the impact of the drama.
That said, yesterday’s performance of Das Rheingold did make an indelible impression on me, at least musically. Let’s hope that the new general director of Seattle Opera would see to it that the other three operas of the Ring would soon be presented in the Emerald City.