Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Ring Revisited

In 1986, when the Seattle Opera (under the leadership of its General Director, Speight Jenkins) unveiled a new Ring cycle designed by Robert Israel and directed by Francois Rochaix, it became painfully evident that certain parts of their creative concept would have to be reworked. The giant crab-legs used in Act II of Siegfried to suggest a dragon twice the size of the Opera House had nearly been laughed off the stage. The affectations of traditional Japanese Noh drama which were used, quite literally, to wrap up Brunnehilde's Immolation scene had proven to be a major disappointment. Although the Seattle Symphony, under Manuel Rosenthal's baton, had given a superb reading of the score -- and the cast had done a spectacular job of singing Wagner's music -- the 1986 Ring, as exciting as it may have been, did not fully gel. Despite Jenkins' pledge to spend at least $100,000 revamping the production and the glad tidings that soprano Leonie Rysanek would perform the role of Sieglinde in 1987, an announcement earlier this year that there would be no Ring in Seattle in 1988 sent tremors of alarm coursing through the operatic grapevine.

Was the Rochaix/Israel concept doomed to a mercilessly short shelf life? Had the Seattle Opera's administration bitten off more than it could chew? Was the highly successful Pacific Northwest Wagner Festival -- first begun in the mid-1970s by Glynn Ross -- about to be buried under the triple threat of the Metropolitan Opera's new but noticeably conservative Ring, Artpark's daring multi-media Ring (scheduled for the summer of 1989 in upstate New York) and San Francisco's revival of its phenomenally successful Ring in 1990?

Such fears, legitimate as they may have seemed, were proven groundless this past summer when Jenkins (a) produced a Ring of such incredible musical strength, vocal beauty and dramatic clarity that it made hardened Wagnerians weep with a newfound sense of orgasmic ecstasy; (b) discovered the Seattle audience rallying around his revised Ring in a way that would guarantee the funding necessary for its future health and welfare, and (c) explained the complicated financial reasons which had forced him to cancel the 1988 Ring in order to meet the requirements of a major multi-disciplinary foundation grant which demanded to see a balanced budget before it would fund continued growth for several of Seattle's most vital nonprofit arts organizations.

Recently, I've been quite taken aback by the glut of mediocrity to be found on the operatic stage. However, I should confess that, when one attends as many as 150 performances a year, the statistical odds dictate that, if one is lucky, perhaps ten percent of those performances will truly be superb. It gives me great pleasure to report that the Seattle Opera's 1987 Ring was not only an immense artistic triumph lodged solidly in that top ten percent, but an entrepreneurial tour de force which could easily hold its own in the international festival marketplace.

Based on my experiences this summer in both Seattle and Scandinavia, I'd advise any impassioned opera queen -- even the most hardened skeptic in the crowd -- to plan on attending the 1989 Seattle Ring. At the very least, you'll get your money's worth. However, my guess is that you'll also get a magnificently musical mindfuck.


Due to the precarious economics of the opera profession, very few directors and impresarios receive the chance or, for that matter, create the opportunity to improve their staging of a given production. Seattle Opera deserves to be congratulated for not only taking the time to do so, but doing a spectacular job in the process. A newly-lit rainbow bridge at the end of Das Rheingold shone with as much magic as the music coming from the pit; the carousel horses used during the "Ride of the Valkyries" seemed better than ever before.

Although a different dragon marched to the same drummer in Act II of Siegfried, this time around the theatrical effect was solidly in tune with the dramatic moment at hand. For pyromaniacs, the 1987 Ring offered the ultimate operatic flame-throwing experience. Not only did the "Magic Fire Music" work to stunning effect, during the Immolation scene nearly half the stage was in flames (the heat in the audience quickly became a sinister presence).

Speight Jenkins still can't help chuckling when he describes what happened during the dress rehearsal of Gotterdammerung. One of Seattle's fire marshals, confident in the safety of Tassilo Baur's pyrotechnical designs, stood quietly through the Immolation scene before turning to the Seattle Opera's rather nervous General Director and muttering, "Wow! That's really beautiful music."

Even Leonie Rysanek (a veteran of more Ring productions than one would ever want to shake a stick at) told friends that although, when she had first signed a contract to appear in Seattle she felt she was making a terrible mistake, she discovered that the Seattle Ring was not just a Ring of ideas; it was, without question, the most exciting Ring she had ever seen in her life.


There were, as is to be expected, some morbidly traditional opera fans who -- misunderstanding the potent results that can take place when a combination of (a) solid dramatic and musicological homework, (b) the use of nontraditional sets and costumes and (c) some ingenious brainstorming in the face of tight economics reach a critical creative temperature -- naively labeled the Seattle Opera's venture as a "European-style" Ring.

The hard truth is that, with the exception of this year's conductor, Hermann Michael, and a handful of soloists, there was very little about the Seattle Ring that could be called European. The cast was mostly American, the spirit with which this Ring was produced was aggressively American and the site at which the Ring was staged (directly in the shadow of the Seattle Center's Space Needle) was unmistakably American.

I doubt that any Wagnerian worth his salt could have asked for a slimier Loge than Emile Belcourt or a better Wotan than Roger Roloff -- who sang with stunning resonance and a magnificent stage presence. Alexandra Hughes was an elegant Fricka in Das Rheingold; Diane Curry later served as a wonderfully haughty Walkure Fricka and an impassioned Waltraute.

Rumanian basso Gabor Andrasy made a spectacular American debut as both Hunding and Hagen; John del Carlo was exceptional as both Donner and Gunther. Barry Busse's Siegmund and Toni Kramer's Siegfried were solidly sung heros; Gregory Stapp's Fasolt, James Patterson's Fafner and Karen Hall's Forest Bird nicely-crafted cameos. Clarity James' hearty Erda and Diane Kesling's superb work as a womanly Freia and very vulnerable Gutrune were important contributions to this Ring.

The Seattle Symphony, which has played plenty of Ring cycles in the past two decades, responded warmly to Hermann Michael's conducting which was always crisp, clean and intensely dramatic. Without any doubt, the combined artistry of the indefatigable Linda Kelm (a rapidly maturing Brunnehilde) and Leonie Rysanek's definitive Sieglinde served to cement this Ring in musical history.

To my mind, the most magical moment occurred in Act III of Die Walkure, when Kelm's beautifully sung Brunnehilde handed the shattered pieces of Siegmund's sword to Rysanek's distraught Sieglinde. The Viennese soprano made one of her more histrionic stage exits -- violently lurching about while riding offstage atop a carousel horse -- and, in that one moment, I felt as if the keeper of the flame (Rysanek has been singing Sieglinde at Bayreuth since the early 1950s) had passed the torch of a great tradition of Wagnerian singing on to an American singer who was both worthy of the honor and destined to become one of the great Wagnerian sopranos of her generation.

While it's nice to know that Seattle's world-class Mime (Hubert Delamboye), Alberich (Julian Patrick) and Brunnehilde (Linda Kelm) will all be making their Metropolitan Opera debuts this season in the same roles that they sang in Seattle, their international fortunes in no way diminish the fine craftsmanship of the other soloists in the 1987 Ring or, for that matter, the massive amount of work which went into making the Seattle Ring such a superb ensemble effort. If you don't believe me, I'd strongly suggest that you wake up, smell the coffee, buy tickets to the Seattle Opera's Ring in 1989 and see for yourself what a truly great operatic experience entails.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 1, 1987.

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