IT'S RISKY to anticipate the grand design of Seattle Opera's new production of The Ring of the Nibelung on less than half the evidence, but

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Nature's fury

Seattle Opera unveils half its millennium remount of Wagner's 'Ring' cycle.

IT'S RISKY to anticipate the grand design of Seattle Opera's new production of The Ring of the Nibelung on less than half the evidence, but some of the major choices are already pretty clear. Director Stephen Wadsworth has talked a good deal about returning to the dramatic and scenic traditions that shaped stagings of Richard Wagner's four-evening opera cycle before successive waves of post-Nazi, post-capitalist, and post-modern interpretations became the interpretive mode beginning 50 years ago.

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Not that Wadsworth and his design team don't have their own take on Richard Wagner's highly idiosyncratic exploration of Norse myth. The director has also said that his Ring was conceived from the ground up to emphasize the role of Nature in the story line, the musical atmosphere, the symbolic cross-references of the work.

Nature, very much with a capital N, certainly dominates the "look" of the cycle thus far. Trees, gnarled and hoary, crowd the scene, towering out of sight everywhere they are not defeated in their drive to take root by immemorial slabs of stone. The colors of foliage and bark, moss and lichen, earth and bare rock provide the palette for Tom Lynch's settings. The passions and conflicts of gods, let alone human beings, seem almost irrelevant to this world of muffled shadows and sparse shafts of light.

This effect is no doubt just what the show's creators intended, but it also serves a more subtle though highly practical function. With the entire proscenium and floor choked with vegetation, only a narrow strip of stage on the lip of the orchestra pit—for much of the second opera in the sequence, The Valkyrie, only a tiny patch at the extreme downstage left edge—is available for action. Now, singers are notorious for gravitating downstage to the apron, wherever the director may have asked them to perform. Wadsworth & Co. have made it not only implausible but well nigh impossible for them to perform anywhere else.

OTHER THINGS being equal, downstage center is just where an audience wants its singers, down where we can not only hear the full glory of the voices unmuffled by scenery and empty air, but also clearly see the play of emotion on their faces, in their eyes. And since much of the Ring is made up of long and intensely emotive monologues, the approach suits not only the tastes of singers and listeners, but the author's dramatic focus as well.

But Wadsworth's resolute frontality has a dramatic downside. Every college course in directing teaches that all three spatial dimensions have a role to play in bringing drama to life. In the competition for an audience's attention, center stage dominates left and right; upstage trumps downstage; above controls what is below. For a director to sacrifice two dimensions is rather like a pianist resolving to perform an entire recital without varying the volume or employing the sustaining pedal: It can be done, but it's difficult to see an artistic reason why it should be.

The sheer overweening of the performers by Nature has a similar compressive effect. There's little to distinguish gods, demigods, humans, and personifications of natural forces in this Ring so far, and part of the reason is that all are dwarfed, boxed in by their setting. This downsizing of the dramatis personae is clearly deliberate. There is no other conceivable reason to violate Wagner's explicit stage directions by having the king of the gods sit comfortably down for an extended rumination on the fate of the universe at a kitchen table in some paltry human's cottage in the woods; a cottage, moreover, that bears an unfortunate resemblance to a Club Med tiki hut.

IF THE Ring is to succeed as theater, it's terribly important to bring out the human dimension of Wagner's solipsistic psychodrama, in which every character is a mouthpiece for another dark aspect of his conflicted genius. But they must have an adequately scaled arena to perform in. It may be unfair, but it's also inevitable that anyone familiar with Seattle Opera's previous Ring production will compare the two. Fran篩s Rochaix and Robert Israel's highly conceptual staging of the drama as taking place in a kind of gargantuan 19th-century theatrical storage warehouse had its oddities and loose ends, but it captured the human, even domestic scale of Wagner's drama without losing for a moment the epic scale and philosophical urgency that frame them. By comparison, so far at least, the new Ring doesn't look so much traditional as timid, less realistic than reactionary.

Probably no Ring has ever had a cast uniformly up to Wagner's harrowing vocal and acting demands. The 2000 Ring is fortunate in many of its performers. Thomas Harper (Mime the dwarf) and Nancy Maultsby (the earth goddess Erda) are Seattle Ring veterans, and terrific in their roles as ever. The role of the trickster fire-god Loge suits Peter Kazaras to a saturnine T. Jane Eaglen makes Brnnhilde's more declamatory music seem child's play, but as in her Isolde here, it is in her singing of the gentler, more lyrical passages where her astonishing instrument shines brightest.

Among newcomers to their roles, Stephanie Blythe (Fricka) and Richard Paul Fink (Alberich) scored particularly well. Neither the Siegmund (Mark Baker) nor the Sieglinde (Margaret Jane Wray) has the kind of pure, ringing voice one craves for these ultimate among doomed operatic lovers, but they carried off their dramatic chores—apart from some finicky business with a piece of scarlet ribbon that one devoutly hopes will be rethought before next year—with panache.

The big disappointment was the Wotan of Philip Joll, who looked every inch the king of the gods but whose singing of the role was stolid, unvarying, and, on the low end of the role, rather muffled and weak. The big surprise—big in every sense—was bass Stephen Milling, a young Dane whose rendering of the sharply contrasted roles of the love-smitten giant Fasolt and the vicious warrior Hunding brought the house down. With power to spare both in his acting and vocalism, Milling may himself be a candidate to play king of the gods one day.

Conductor Armin Jordan, the most self-effacing of musicians, made the vast musical flood of both operas flow with the majesty and energy of Father Rhine himself. On the occasions when the action on stage grew becalmed or footling (rarely enough, true), one could close one's eyes and immediately be reoriented to the drama.

 
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