Stage Review: Seattle Opera’s Ring

New singers struggle to fit comfortably into a beloved production.

Unveiled to critical and audience acclaim in 2001, Seattle Opera's "green" (for lack of a better label) production of Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung is back for its third go-round, its impact as strong as ever. Everybody loves Thomas Lynch's view-from-Highway-2 sets, with trees and ponds and mossy banks and rock ledges that make Northwesterners feel right at home (and which still dazzled me each time the curtain rose during the cycle's four operas).Returning cast members include three of the most gripping and vivid singing actors in any SO production ever. Back as the dwarf Alberich is Richard Paul Fink, unafraid to set aside vocal prettiness and growl and snarl for dramatic oomph. As the god Wotan, whose battle with Alberich for the all-powerful Ring propels the plot, Greer Grimsley has deepened and darkened his portrayal over eight years. In fact, the two singers have penetrated far enough into their characters to bring out ambiguities beyond a simplistic villain/hero opposition: Alberich, from whom the Ring was stolen, is after all justly trying to right a wrong, and in his tenacity becomes actually a bit sympathetic; while Wotan—all about the ends, ethically blind to the means—lies and manipulates whenever convenient. Stephanie Blythe, as Wotan's consort Fricka, the real moral power behind the throne, brings a bold, stirring voice and emotional heat to a difficult, potentially off-putting role.The unknown quantities this time were the two leads, Janice Baird as Brünnhilde and Stig Andersen as Siegfried. Both took some time to ease into their parts last week, Andersen for medical reasons. SO general director Speight Jenkins sent an "uh-oh" through the crowd when he stepped before the curtain before last Wednesday's Siegfried. But he was there only to mention Andersen's slight throat ailment, not his cancellation (with that marvelously Victorian opera-announcement phrase, "begging the audience's indulgence"). Though Andersen did indeed often sound patchy, occasionally hoarse, through the grueling role (singing continually for all but perhaps 45 minutes of the four-hour opera), he seemed otherwise unimpaired and made a bumptious young hero. By Friday, in Götterdämmerung, we got a better idea of his voice, attractive if not distinctively colored; he sounded secure and undaunted.Wagner set Brünnhilde a cruel challenge on her entrance in the cycle's second opera, Die Walküre—the first sound out of her mouth is her iconic "Ho-jo-to-ho!" battle cry, not only damned hard to sing but her most recognizable musical moment. Baird sounded and looked every bit as nervous as she must have understandably felt, which made a worrisome first impression. She gradually became more comfortable, though a very wide vibrato in every loud high note continued to call attention to itself.Compared to Jane Eaglen's Brünnhilde in 2001 and 2005, Baird proved to be this Ring's most radical change. A large woman, fairly stolid and undemonstrative onstage, Eaglen was no one's idea of a warrior goddess—except vocally. The volume and carrying power of her soprano, as well as her ease and confidence—she seems to sing as naturally as she speaks or breathes—made her thrillingly sound the part. And there was one scene in which her imposing frame memorably worked to her benefit: Act 2 of Götterdämmerung, where her dignified stoicism in the face of Siegfried's betrayal—while her voice darkened with anger and burned with the desire for revenge—was unforgettably moving. It wasn't until the very end of this opera that the nimbler Baird was fully convincing as a Valkyrie; in Act 2 she struggled to command the stage as Eaglen had, though she did sound majestic and provide an effective climax in the suicide-by-fire scene that closes the entire cycle.So the search for a Brünnhilde who really covers all the bases continues, at least until Mariska Hargitay learns to sing. The only false note in Stephen Wadsworth's thoughtful stage direction is his habit of asking actors to move—to turn their head or take a step—exactly in time with musical gestures, a mannered stylization at odds with his emphasis on realistic emotional drama. Nevertheless, at the end of the four nights I still felt what I did in 2005: I can't imagine I'll ever see a better Ring—until SSO revives the production

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