ALBUM TITLE: Wagner: The Ring
WORKS: The Ring
PERFORMER: Alwyn Mellor, Stefan Vinke, Greer Grimsley, Stephanie Blythe, Margaret Jane Wray, Stuart Skelton; Seattle Opera Chorus and Symphony Orchestra/Asher Fisch
Seattle Opera’s Ring festivals have become a kind of American Bayreuth, attracting legions of loyal supporters – myself included. Their current production is the only one in the world to present the cycle in the kind of natural settings and effects Wagner specified, a ‘heightened realism’ achieved by laser-scanning actual stretches of Seattle’s surrounding forests and mountains. But behind apparent literalism Stephen Wadsworth’s staging features subtle symbolisms, ‘green’ and feminist themes, and intense Personenregie (character direction), enough to shame any modish German production. The singers are an established ensemble, many home-grown; and in 2013, when this was recorded, new conductor Asher Fisch brought a vast improvement.
But can it bear comparison with other recorded Rings? To a considerable extent it can. It recalls Reginald Goodall’s live recording, much less polished than studio versions but more than compensating with theatrical immediacy and committed ensemble. The Seattle Symphony, though, is better: Fisch (in his second Ring recording) is much pacier, vibrant and thrilling; and there are some equally fine singers. Stefan Vinke’s Siegfried is a tower of strength, powerful enough to sound almost at ease in the killer passages, yet capable of lyrical nuances and touches of humour. Greer Grimsley’s grainy baritone isn’t that ingratiating, but with long experience here he’s a commanding Wotan, noble, arrogant and tragic. Richard Paul Fink, another long-timer, is an equally powerful Alberich, one of the finest on record. Stuart Skelton’s dark-toned Siegmund and Margaret-Jane Wray’s Sieglinde are also memorable, Stephanie Blythe an exceptional Fricka and Waltraute, Mark Schowalter a complex Loge, and Dennis Peterson’s formidable Mime sings rather than screeches, almost too like Siegfried. Daniel Sumegi’s Fafner and Hagen, Rhinemaidens, Valkyries, Woodbird and Norns are variable but generally good, the chorus sturdy.
For the most part Alwyn Mellor’s Brünnhilde sings with burnished, vibrant tone and splendid fire and passion; but the illness which cost her some performances may explain some noticeable pitch problems – Siegfried’s final note obtrusively flat – and weak low notes. She manages Götterdämmerung well, but she and others suffer from the determinedly up-front recording, which practically lands the cast in your lap, and sometimes the tuba too, favouring brass over strings. It highlights every lapse of pitch or tune that you’d notice far less in the theatre, and every bang, stamp, yelp and sinister cackle – and there are plenty. Sometimes it enhances the thrill of live performance, often it overdoes it.
Still, this knocks spots off stodgy live Rings we’ve had from Germany lately – Bayreuth included. Seattle’s fame, though, derives from its ensemble, its acting and the superb staging, and a video recording would have conveyed them far better. Michael Scott Rohan