Archive for Sunday, July 29, 2001

The return of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle

Seattle’s new production promises fresh approach to old characters

July 29, 2001


Stephen Wadsworth hasn't had a day off in weeks, and that may be good news for the first-place Seattle Mariners.

The American stage director is in the final throes of overseeing the Seattle Opera's new production of Richard Wagner's four-part, 17-hour "Ring" cycle, which opens Aug. 5.

Phillip Joll portrays Wotan and Stephanie Blythe is Fricka in
Seattle Opera&squot;s "Ring" cycle. Critics reviewing last summer&squot;s
work-in-progress generally admired the singers, but the one person
they singled out as crucial to the production&squot;s success was stage
director Stephen Wadsworth.

Phillip Joll portrays Wotan and Stephanie Blythe is Fricka in Seattle Opera's "Ring" cycle. Critics reviewing last summer's work-in-progress generally admired the singers, but the one person they singled out as crucial to the production's success was stage director Stephen Wadsworth.

Meanwhile, the Mariners got off to one of the best starts in major-league history, taking a 20-game lead in the American League West. Wadsworth, a baseball fan who made Seattle his permanent home three years ago, would love to be cheering them on from the stands.

"The problem is, it's become a known fact in Seattle that if I'm in Safeco Field, we're going to lose," Wadsworth said.

So maybe it's just as well that he's tied up virtually around the clock attending to the gods, giants, dwarfs, mermaids and assorted other characters who fight over a magical lump of gold stolen from the Rhine River.

"Today, for instance, we have two hours of rehearsal in the morning, then 2 1/2 hours with the lights, then a piano dress at 5, and a production meeting 'til 1 a.m. or so," Wadsworth said in a recent telephone interview.

He had just finished munching on his morning toast and was about to head off to the Seattle Center Opera House near the Space Needle a few blocks north of downtown.

The first two operas in the cycle "Das Rheingold" and "Die Walkuere" opened last summer to bravos. All 3,000 seats for each of three complete cycles this August sold out a year in advance, at prices from $176 to $800. Opera fans are coming from 47 states and 19 countries, and local demand is so strong that scalpers have been asking up to $1,500 for series tickets.

Indeed, it's not just Seattle that's finding audiences eager to spend a week under Wagner's spell. In North America alone, new productions or revivals are planned over the next several seasons in Toronto, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

Singers as actors

Any "Ring" is an ambitious undertaking, given the cost (about $10 million for this production) and the need for singers who can do justice to Wagner's treacherous vocal parts. Seattle seems to have accomplished this last requirement, with a cast led by Jane Eaglen, considered by many today's leading Wagnerian soprano, in the role of Bruennhilde.

Still to be tested is the tenor Alan Woodrow who debuts this summer as Siegfried (his character isn't even born yet during the first two operas). The conductor is Franz Vote, who has worked at New York's Metropolitan Opera for a decade.

Critics reviewing last summer's work-in-progress generally admired the singers, but the one person they invariably singled out as crucial to the production's success was Wadsworth himself.

"This production seems to speed along on wings," wrote Seattle Times music critic Melinda Bargreen, "largely because Wadsworth makes the singing actors behave so credibly and imaginatively."

Said Heidi Waleson in The Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Wadsworth has created an ensemble acting company out of his singers. No one merely stands and sings; every movement of this complex staging builds the story."

Treating singers as actors is the key to Wadsworth's approach. "I try to tell the stories of the people in the play, to tell the relationships," he said. "My goal is to have every actor be specific in every moment of every scene."

This may not sound radical, but it's very different from the way most grand opera is directed today. Many singers have little training as actors and many opera houses are more interested in powerful voices and lavish scenic effects than in the intimate details of character interaction.

"Lots of directors get to the point where they learn to direct defensively," to keep things running smoothly with a minimum of embarrassment. Or they rely on bizarre stunts to make an impact "they'll make this character wear a hypodermic needle sticking out of his arm, or put that one in sunglasses," Wadsworth said. "But that's not directing."

A new perspective

Typical of Wadsworth's approach is his concept for the third "Ring" opera, "Siegfried." In Act 1 the title character is living with the dwarf Mime, who took him in and raised him in the forest after his mother died in childbirth. Mime's motives are hardly altruistic he knows that only Siegfried is fearless enough to someday slay the dragon who guards the gold that Mime covets for himself.

"Often Siegfried is made to seem an aggressive bully, some guy with a huge voice who is banging about," Wadsworth said. "And Mime tends to be played as a nasty little Rumpelstiltskin. Who's interested in seeing that?

"I see their interaction as an acrimonious parent-child relationship. They both have problems with it, but they are the only people they've been living with for 19 years. When that happens, it's not just a child saying, 'I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.'

"I've suggested to both actors (Woodrow as Siegfried and tenor Thomas Harper as Mime) that there's a lot of affection there," Wadsworth said. "I suggested they might want to think about whether they always got along with their own parents."

Not that Wadsworth is slighting the spectacular stage effects that any "Ring" requires, from the opening scene at the bottom of the Rhine to the finale, in which the river overflows its banks and Valhalla, home of the gods, is destroyed by flames. The production team includes a "fire designer and flight technical director" (Charles T. Buck) besides the traditional lineup (scenery by Thomas Lynch, costumes by Martin Pakledinaz and lighting by Peter Kaczorowski)

This is the third new "Ring" by the Seattle Opera since the company was founded in the early 1960s. The first was performed every summer from 1975 to 1984. During those years, Seattle was the only place in North America you could see the "Ring," and the city won a reputation as a kind of Bayreuth West, a counterpart to the Wagner shrine that stages his operas every summer in Germany.

A second, postmodern, production appeared in 1986 (with Wotan looking a lot like Wagner himself). In 1995, company director Speight Jenkins announced plans for a third "Ring" to be premiered this year.

"Speight told us he wanted this to be a green 'Ring,"' Wadsworth said. "That doesn't necessarily mean eco-friendly. It means a 'Ring' that's traditional visually, in the sense that it represents nature as Wagner imagined it. But we wanted it to be radical and free in its approach to character."

Climbing the theatrical ladder

Wadsworth, 48, had worked for Jenkins before, staging two early Wagner works as well as Gluck's "Orfeo et Eurydice," the last in collaboration with choreographer Mark Morris. He has built a reputation elsewhere through early opera (Monteverdi) and such 18th-century classics as Handel's "Xerxes" and Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito."

Much of his recent work has been in the nonmusical theater, including a production of Aeschylus' "Oresteia" trilogy for a new repertory theater in Berkeley, Calif., earlier this year. He considers that last assignment to have been good preparation for his current project.

"The Oresteia was a direct inspiration and influence on how Wagner conceived the 'Ring' in form and content," Wadsworth said. "Both works get at the nexus of family and power and moral responsibility."

Wadsworth's entry into stage directing came by an unconventional path. He was working for Opera News magazine in New York in the early 1980s when he interviewed Leonard Bernstein, who was looking for a librettist for "A Quiet Place," his sequel to "Trouble in Tahiti."

Wadsworth got the job along with the critical drubbing that followed the work's premiere in Houston. He eventually landed in Milwaukee, where he learned his craft working at the Skylight Opera Theatre with another rising opera director, Francesca Zambello.

Beyond this summer, Wadsworth has no definite opera projects lined up.

"I'm a little gun-shy right now," he said. "This has taken so much out of me."

He will, however, be keeping his hand in the "Ring," since Jenkins plans to revive the production every four years.

"There's actually something in my contract about the year 2013," Wadsworth said.

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