Some Ring cycles are based on ideological concepts; Seattle Opera’s current Ring cycle is based on a place. That place is the Pacific Northwest of the United States, home to such extraordinary natural beauty that stage director Stephen Wadsworth has deemed it fit for the gods. The second and fourth scenes of this Rheingold are set in a realistic forest, with trees, rocks, and a generally rained-on feel that will seem familiar to Oregon and Washington natives. Both the technical execution and the place created are stunning; I could understand Alberich’s desperate need to possess the gods’ world, especially because it contrasted starkly with Alberich’s own realm – a pitch-black mine with the occasional glimmer of gold in the walls. The transition back to the gods’ forest made the audience blink and along with the actors, as both the characters and spectators took in their surroundings and relished their escape from the darkness.

Jennifer Zetlan, Cecelia Hall, Renée Tatum and Richard Paul Fink © Elise Bakketun
Jennifer Zetlan, Cecelia Hall, Renée Tatum and Richard Paul Fink
© Elise Bakketun

However, beautiful as the forest was, returning to it was not quite sufficient compensation for being forced to move on from Scene 3, in which Richard Paul Fink stole the show as Alberich in the mines. With his commanding stage presence and gestures accentuated by cracks of a whip, he coughed, grunted, lip-trilled, writhed, and did whatever it took to sell his text. His sound and movement were entirely devoted to his character rather than to “sounding good”, but he proved he could do that, too, in the more lyrical lines of his curse in the following scene. Even his transformations into animals were believable, as he physically and vocally embodied the characteristics of his target animal while taking a small step back from the light (which, given the darkness of the scene, rendered him entirely invisible). However, the transformations were also one of the few instances of strange directorial choices: In an otherwise-realistic production, toad-Alberich was a stuffed animal with comically long legs that looked out of place when tossed around by Loge and Wotan.

The other star of this Rheingold was (as usual) Loge. Mark Schowalter played a surprisingly sympathetic trickster. Far from being uncaring and flighty, this Loge wanted to put his cunning to good use. Although he was fed up with others’ stupidity and ingratitude, he still tried to help them avert the tragedies he foresaw. Mr Schowalter conveyed this both vocally and physically: his musical lines found a perfect balance between lyricism and expressively elevated speech, and his frequent but focused movements showed restless resolve. His character’s aims at the close of the opera were ambiguous, though. The staging ended with a frustrated Loge pleading with Fricka to convince her husband of something important. But was it to help Loge keep his promise to the Rhinemaidens? To include him in the festivities and give him credit for his assistance? To find some way to prevent the destruction he anticipated?

Unclear motives and feelings were common in this production, sometimes to good effect. Wendy Bryn Harmer’s Freia often seemed conflicted. She was upset with Loge for getting her into her situation, but also had a flirtatious moment when she handed him an apple. She dreaded the thought of staying with the giants, but grieved when Fasolt was killed. The effect of this ambiguity was a sense of realism not often seen in opera. Also contributing to the realism were Harmer’s physical beauty and clear, ringing vocal tone, both perfectly suited to the character of the gorgeous, innocent goddess-gardener.

Greer Grimsley’s Wotan was expressive and clear-voiced. His interactions with Fricka displayed a moving tenderness that made this "wanderer" more likable than usual. Fricka’s (Stephanie Blythe’s) voice was appropriately distinct from her sister Freia’s. Her steely sound was effortlessly resonant and soared above the loudest orchestral accompaniment without any sign of strain. An unusually wide vibrato was sometimes noticeable, but it was even and not unpleasant. Another vocal stand-out was Andrea Silvestrelli as Fasolt. His voice was boomingly giant-like, and it was refreshing to hear a low voice carry so easily and purely through the theater.

While not all of the voices were as resonant as Fasolt’s and Fricka’s, all of the performers were usually audible thanks to maestro Asher Fisch’s skillful conducting. He got impressive dynamic range out of his orchestra, using variations in volume to build intensity while carefully refraining from overpowering the singers (or the audience’s ears). His choices of tempi were good; the opera never seemed rushed or drawn out, and the speed of the music consistently matched the pace demanded by the onstage action. The Seattle Opera Orchestra also deserves credit: they have played wonderfully at every Seattle Opera production I have attended, and this was no exception. Even with as talented a conductor as maestro Fisch, the Ring cycle is a grueling undertaking, but these experienced Wagnerian musicians seem to relish the challenge.

It is hard to imagine a more satisfying Rheingold: many productions have equally impressive sets, casts, or instrumental music, but few combine them all as Seattle Opera has done here. To invoke the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest incurs the responsibility of living up to it; Seattle Opera succeeds.