Music lovers who don’t have much to do with opera—and plenty that do—can be mystified by the continuing popularity of Richard Wagner’s epic Ring cycle. It’s very long, with the four dramas that comprise it—Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung—generally running for a total of 15 hours. The plot is convoluted and occasionally ridiculous. The vocal demands are such that singers that specialize in Wagner’s music are not infrequently visually unsuited for their roles—dauntless heroes that are short and squat; warrior maidens the size of NFL interior linemen. Still resounding unpleasantly is the political baggage of the mid-20th century, when Wagner’s music served as a soundtrack for the murderous Third Reich. Then there are the fans that, to outsiders, appear as an amalgam of Deadhead and Trekkie. These people just can’t get enough of the works in the opera house (I’ve been to six cycles) or at home (there are 21 complete Rings in my collection, plus numerous parts of others). To the uninitiated, it really can seem like a crackpot religion.
But the Ring also happens to be musically innovative, consciousness-expanding, and just plain entertaining. Because the subject is myth and legend rather than historical events, the interpretive possibilities are limitless, with directors exploring various philosophical, psychological, socioeconomic, and environmental angles, to name a few. The Seattle Opera has a long tradition with this music and, especially given the critical drubbing the Metropolitan Opera’s newest Ring cycle has received, this traditionally representational production that is attuned to “nature and the evil committed to destroying it” is the one to see in North America. Avie’s live recording from August of 2013 reveals an audience that is thoroughly involved and having a great time. I’ve never heard more laughter at Wagner performances.
The Israeli conductor Asher Fisch is an experienced Wagnerian—his previous cycle on SACD for Melba was the first high-resolution version of the tetralogy—and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra is fully up to the considerable demands of the composer’s extravagant score. The quality of the singers mostly ranges from very good—Greer Grimsley is a commanding Wotan, Richard Paul Fink a bitter but intelligent Alberich, Stuart Skelton an ardent Siegmund, and Stefan Vinke has impressive stamina as Siegfried—to best-in-the-business: Stephanie Blythe’s noble representation of Fricka in the first two dramas and her compelling Waltraute in Götterdämmerung. The only significant disappointment, vocally, is the Brünnhilde, undertaken by the English soprano Alwyn Mellor. Her piercing high notes seem disconnected from the rest of her vocal range and she manifests an unappealing upward swoop when she approaches sustained notes. But as theater, every minute of this Ring works, with singing actors convincingly engaged with one another. It’s captured in immediate, impactful sound and vocal/orchestral balances are excellent. A “specially calibrated M/S (Mid/Side) microphone and custom M/S decoder designed for recording sources in the far field” was provided by San Francisco’s Meyer Sound to “capture dramatic voices as the theater audience hears them.” You can’t argue with the results. Musically, and perhaps sonically as well, Georg Solti’s epochal recording may still be the audio-only Ring cycle of choice, with Christian Thielemann providing a more recent alternative. But the Seattle Ring may be the best-recorded evidence yet that Wagner can actually be fun.