MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Diebenkorn in Berkeley

(Richard Diebenkorn, “Seawall,” 1957. Oil on canvas. 20 x 26 inches. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Phyllis G. Diebenkorn, 1995.96. © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. All rights reserved.)

Currently on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco is a must-see retrospective: Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years (1953-1966) (through September 29). This exhibit of more than 130 paintings and drawings curated by Timothy Burgard is a revelation on many levels.

There are insights to be gained here not just into the narrative of this major artist’s evolution but about the seductions of abstract and figurative painting relative to each other, about the influence of a particular landscape, its aura and light, on those aesthetic choices, and — most intriguingly for me — about an artist’s capacity for self-critique and unexpected leaps.

As you work your way through the context of Diebenkorn’s experiments with light and texture, the sudden reemergence of the human form is haunting, even astounding, upending comfortable notions of the historically inevitable “progress” of 20th-century painting in a way that has relevance for the similar tug-of-war between serialism and tonality among composers of this period.

Diebenkorn-figure on porch

(Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), Figure on a Porch, 1959 Oil on canvas 57 x 62 in. (144.8 x 157.5 cm) Oakland Museum of California, gift of the Anonymous Donor Program of the American Federation of the Arts, A60.35.5 © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. All rights reserved.)

Even the abstract paintings from the early years in Berkeley reveal an ambiguous attitude toward the “real world.” They are, as the excellent catalogue by Timothy Anglin Burgard, Steven A. Nash, and Emma Acker aptly describes it, “not completely nonobjective, or lacking in references to imagery, real or imagined.”

In Richard Diebenkorn’s own words:

All paintings start out of a mood, out of a relationship with things or people, out of a complete visual impression. To call this expression abstract seems to me often to confuse the issue. Abstract means literally to draw from or separate. In this sense, every artist is abstract … a realistic or nonobjective approach makes no difference. The result is what counts.”

Filed under: art exhibition, art history, visual art

Are American Orchestras Undermining Their Mission?

In a substantial and thought-provoking article in The New Republic, Philip Kennicott grapples with the issue of American distrust of “cultural authority” and how it affects the identity crisis suffered by today’s orchestras.

“The problems are financial and cultural, and the two are intertwined,” he observes. This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Kennicott compares the self-questioning undergone by American orchestras to a “protracted and painful Vatican II,” while the failure of the traditional subscription model has put orchestras in the same sinking boat as newspapers in the Internet era. As a last-ditch survival effort, orchestras have been forced to create a new paradigm based on audience segmentation, performing not just classical concerts but presenting a smorgasbord of watered-down “special events.”

But the most paradoxical and distressing result is the utterly generic quality of what most American orchestras now offer. By parsing audience taste to smaller fractions, the concert schedule in Oklahoma looks more and more like the concert schedule in Maine. At the League conference, the mantra was all “local, local, local”—that orchestras will survive only by catering in nuanced ways to their local constituents (not to audiences or listeners or music lovers, who are all passé). But a tendency toward groupthink across the field has led to the repetition of the same solutions, few of them successful or in any way particularly local.

Read the whole thing here.

(Above: American premiere of Mahler’s Eighth in 1916, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra)

Filed under: American music, orchestras,

Remembering Lenny

Lenny in 1971, when he was rehearsing his new work Mass to open the Kennedy Center

So today Leonard Bernstein would have turned 95 [97]. If he were Elliott Carter, he’d still have about nine [seven] years left to share his genius with us — and Lord knows the world could desperately use it. I can still feel a pang when I pass by the Dakota on Central Park West; strangely, that Sunday afternoon in October when he died there doesn’t seem so far off.

I got to meet him just once, near the end of his life, when he was touring with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducting a program of Mahler Five paired with the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. I waited patiently afterward to get him to sign the book I happened to have on me — the first volume of Ernst Bloch’s Das Prinzip Hoffnung, which immediately prompted him to set aside his bottomless glass of Ballantine’s scotch and exclaim incredulously, “That’s my favorite book! Do you realize Bloch is the perfect book to go with Mahler?! Unbelievable!” And then he took another deep drag on his endless chain of L&M cigarettes.

Whenever I used to hear about folks who first fell in love with music thanks to the inspiration they found in Leonard Bernstein’s famous Young People’s Concerts, their accounts simultaneously intrigued me and left me feeling a touch jealous. The heyday of the series was before my time, so I never ended up seeing any of them until years later, when they became available on DVD. I can’t help but imagine how much these would have changed my life, too, if I’d had the opportunity to discover them when I was growing up.

Actually, I do have another gift from Lenny for which I remain eternally grateful. I can vividly recall chancing upon some PBS re-broadcast of his legendary Norton Lectures, first delivered at Harvard in the early 1970s and drawing on Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theory of transformational grammar, just around the time music was starting to become a force in my life.

Instantly I was hooked. To judge by what I can still remember from that first viewing — even taking into account the “creative reconstruction” that’s inherent to the process of memory — this encounter was remarkably formative. It didn’t just serve as my first crash course in music history and theory, in how to listen beyond the surface and look for structures and connections, but it even imparted a whole philosophy about music and its capacity to mean, to be at least as significant as everything else I cherished — maybe even more.

“I also believe, along with Keats, that the poetry of earth is never dead,” I remember Lenny declaring in his credo, “as long as spring succeeds winter, and man is there to perceive it.” The way he imparted these observations, as if they were a confidence shared with his prized students, was a perfect example of yet another gift of this impossibly gifted, complicated, multi-layered man — Bernstein as the great teacher and rabbi. He ended with this summing-up:

I believe that our deepest affective responses to these languages are innate ones that do not preclude additional responses that are conditioned or learned. And that all particular languages bear on one another, and combine into always new idioms perceptible to human beings, and that ultimately these idioms can all merge into a speech universal enough to be accessible to all mankind. And that the expressive distinctions among these idioms depend ultimately on the dignity and passion of the individual creative voice.

And finally, I believe that all these things are true, and that Ives’ “Unanswered Question” has an answer. I’m no longer quite sure what the question is, but I do know the answer, and the answer is, “Yes.”

Lenny the polymath: here he conducts and plays solo in one of the most exquisite scores I know, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G.

Filed under: American music, Bernstein, composers

The Color Revolution

Color Revolution

Increasingly in this centenary year of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, we’re coming to see how much of modernism has involved an unpredictable marriage of the avant-garde and commercialism. Serge Diaghilev was a daring impresario but also a canny businessman. As for Schoenberg’s “air from another planet,” people who tend to write off atonality nowadays forget its far-reaching presence in film scores.

The management of color, too, turns out to have played a significant role in retuning tastes to the modern era. Regina Lee Blaszczyk’s The Color Revolution gives a fascinating account of color as a potent psychological and social tool manipulated by “color engineers.”

Blaszczyk’s lively history of the modern era’s preoccupation with color and her discussion of color’s influence on innovation in industry and design make me wonder how this shift affected perceptions of music as well — contemporary and canonical. Her focus is on American industry, which took important cues from the Paris scene. But Blaszczyk mentions other developments and influences from Europe, such as Alexander Scriabin’s experiments with color projections synchronized to his scores.

“Ever since Isaac Newton, people had been fascinated by the apparent analogy of the seven steps in the musical scale and the seven spectral colors in the rainbow,” writes Blaszczyk. This line of thinking even led to attempts at social engineering:

During the Enlightenment, a mathematician named Louis-Bertrand Castel dazzled Paris society with the first color-music instrument, an ocular harpsichord that diffused pigment light through windowpanes at the strike of a key. In 1893, a British inventor named Alexander Wallace Rimington had patented a Colour Organ that used gas jets and arc lamps to generate colored light as an accompaniment to musical instruments; the idea was to translate musical tones into visual hues. Rimington’s taste-making objectives presaged those of Albert Munsell: he hoped to sharpen the senses of the British working class and to teach them to prefer the palette of the Chartres rose windows over the crass aniline shades of Manchester calicos.”

In the mood for a little Klangfarbenmelodie?

Filed under: art history, book recs, style

Happy Loch Ness Monster Day

St. Columba & Nessie
According to the Vita Columbae, a hagiography attributed to Adomnán (Abbot of Iona), it was on this day in 565 that Saint Columba set about saving the pagan Picts from the ravages of a “water beast” (aquatilis bestiae):

Now the monster, which before was not so much satiated as made eager for prey, was lying hid in the bottom of the river; but perceiving that the water above was disturbed by him who was crossing, suddenly emerged, and, swimming to the man as he was crossing in the middle of the stream, rushed up with a great roar and open mouth. Then the blessed man looked on, while all who were there, as well the heathen as even the brethren, were stricken with very great terror; and, with his holy hand raised on high, he formed the saving sign of the cross in the empty air, invoked the Name of God, and commanded the fierce monster, saying, ‘Think not to go further, nor touch thou the man. Quick! go back!’ Then the beast, on hearing this voice of the Saint, was terrified and ‘fled backward more rapidly than he came…

Over at the Loch Ness Monster blog there’s plenty of fascinating material for anyone with a Nessie obsession. For example, on the earliest extant manuscript with Adomnán’s account:

In times past, only the privileged and academic few would have been able to gaze upon this most rare of Loch Ness Monster documents but thanks to scanning technology and the Internet, it is now available to view to all. The document is hosted by the Virtual Carolignian Libraries of St. Gall and Reichenau (the former monasteries which held such documents). The actual physical manuscript is held by the Stadtbibliothek in Schaffhausen, Switzerland.

(Hat Tip: James Thorne

Filed under: Uncategorized

Legacy of a Ringmaster: Speight Jenkins and Seattle Opera

This week brings the final Ring cycle in Speight Jenkins’s 30-year reign as general director of Seattle Opera. Here’s my new feature reflecting on how the Ring became the company’s signature production and the twilight of the Jenkins era:

Speight Jenkins remembers a lot of violent, hostile booing. What made it all the more shocking is that Seattle audiences and booing don’t exactly a typical match make – as everyone knows in this city of the polite Obligatory Standing Ovation immediately followed by the Hasty Exit.

But whenever he refers to that night in hindsight, Jenkins explains why it ranks among the most treasured memories of his career as head honcho at Seattle Opera: “That night – July 28, 1985 – made this company. The controversy it excited was absolutely vital to Seattle Opera

read on

Filed under: Seattle Opera, Wagner

Hearing the Light: The Music of Tristan

(Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld in original production as Tristan and Isolde)

A new piece on Tristan und Isolde I just wrote for Washington National Opera’s upcoming production:

Even setting a myth of the beginning and end of the cosmos to music (aka the Ring) wasn’t enough for Richard Wagner. The legend of Tristan and Isolde began to crowd Wagner’s creative imagination thanks to a potent combination of factors in his private and artistic life.

After deconstructing the conventions of the commercially popular musical styles that reigned in opera houses of the time, Wagner had built a Valhalla-like fortress of theory to work out the ideas he was struggling to replace these conventions with, and these he began to apply in practice by composing the Ring. Yet Wagner’s subsequent discovery of the pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) profoundly altered his attitude toward the purpose of art itself.

The Ring and its musical world originally sprang forth from a basically optimistic world view that placed its faith in the possibility of revolutionary utopia. Viewing the world through the lens of Schopenhauer caused Wagner to regard this as a naïve illusion. On one level, Tristan and Isolde turns the archetypal scenario of the love triangle into a symbol for the unquenchable force of desire in all its forms, which is the root of suffering for Schopenhauer. Apart from Wagner’s fascination with the philosopher’s metaphysical ideas, however, he was naturally attracted to the position of supreme value Schopenhauer reserved for music. It was Schopenhauer’s conviction that music alone can give us immediate access to this stark truth underlying the deceptive “real world” of appearances.


In the Ring (up to this point), music had more or less been ascribed a role subordinate to the unified amalgam of score, script, myth, and staging. But  Wagner found a matchless vehicle with which to explore his changed perspective in Tristan’s story of extreme desire and its frustration—the love potion is merely another symbol for the release of what’s inherent in Tristan’s and Isolde’s natures. Setting it to music provided Wagner with the opportunity to create an unprecedented sound world evoking the human condition of restless desire, the mirage of blissful satisfaction, and, ultimately, a kind of transcendent awareness. The music isn’t there merely to “accompany” the moods of the drama: it provides the very foundation for what we see happening onstage. As Wagner later put it, the actual drama is “a visible image of the music”—a “deed of music made visible.”

Wagner had made one enormous leap in his musical language when, after a silence of about five years, he figured out how to set the Ring in motion with the remarkable Prelude to Das Rheingold, where the music swims about for minutes in the same key: Minimalism more than a century ahead of its time. But if the Ring proclaimed revolution, the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde seemed like all-out anarchy, immersing listeners into a disorienting soundscape where the familiar compass points no longer had any bearing.

Ironically, still another reason Wagner had determined to delay the Ring and write Tristan was purely practical: he hoped to make money with what he believed would be an easy-to-produce opera (compared, at least, to the Ring). But the originality and complexity of Tristan’s score, and the cruel demands on its two lead singers, doomed attempts to get it performed for several years, until the composer’s powerful new patron King Ludwig entered the scene and provided the financial backing for adequate rehearsals.


Even professional musicians of the era found themselves perplexed by the daring harmonic language Wagner develops here. Its essential character is crystallized in the very first bars of the Prelude: the cellos pose a series of “questions,” their line of descending half-steps “answered” by enigmatic harmony and a similarly ascending phrase in the woodwinds. Yet even these responses are left unresolved—and are in turn followed by tense silences. The music coils forward, full of vibrant, insatiable yearning, but even the climax it reaches seems frustrated—and, to cite the composer’s own description, “the heart sinks back unconscious, back into languishing desire…”

The paradigm of Western tonal music familiar in Wagner’s era (and in pop music today) relied on reassuringly recognizable patterns of tension and release, with a beginning, middle, and end. These patterns play out both in the short term (a phrase of music) and in larger structures (a movement). Tristan’s music supplants this with states of tension that generate more tension. The whole process suggests a condition of tormented, unappeasable longing, with the horizon maddeningly just out of reach.

Instead of a collection of tunes we can look forward to once the curtain rises, the Prelude embodies a microcosm of Tristan’s musical vocabulary and grammar.  Its opening gestures proliferate in countless ways across the span of the opera—until that initially ambiguous “response” is finally allowed to fully resolve on what Richard Strauss once described as “the most beautifully orchestrated B major chord in the whole history of music.”

From the 1998 Seattle Opera production directed by Francesca Zambello

The score of Tristan adapts the advanced musical principles Wagner had been honing in the Ring to its new context. Rather than independent, self-enclosed musical units (arias, quartets, choruses, and the like), each act unfolds as one continuous progression of musical thought. In general, conventional opera relied on tried-and-true forms and familiar, one-size-fits-all harmonic progressions which could apply to any of a number of interchangeable dramatic situations. In Tristan and Isolde Wagner spins out an organic form corresponding uniquely to the particular set-up, crisis, and resolution that make up the dramatic content of each act. Even more, that dramatic content is radically simplified and internalized (in contrast to the epic Ring). This opens up a space for Wagner’s music to trace the states of desire, suffering, and, ultimately, compassion which both Isolde and Tristan experience.

The opera’s large-scale musical and dramatic structure demonstrates a beautifully symmetrical balance, despite the impression of unleashed, formless “dissonance” (in the sense of unresolved musical tension) that the Prelude can still make even on experienced contemporary ears. The first act centers around a portrayal of Isolde in her anger and confusion: she draws Tristan into her fateful sphere before they cross an unexpected threshold together by drinking the love potion. The second act prepares for and leads away from an enormously extended love duet, with its proto-Impressionist, exquisite blends of orchestral color, in which the lovers merge their identities and yield to the intoxication of desire (notice the erotic frenzy conveyed by Wagner’s overlapping vocal parts). With the third act, Wagner shifts the focus to Tristan and his pain. After he dies—to the same strain he sang when overtaken by the potion in act one—Isolde completes the journey Tristan had undertaken in solitude.

Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin in the Frari in Venice, which Wagner is said to have associated with Isolde’s ecstasy.

But Isolde complements her lover’s desolate vision of the emptiness of desire with a rapturous embrace of oblivion in the scene which concludes the opera (widely known as her Liebestod, or “Love-Death,” though Wagner used that term for the Prelude and referred to this scene as “Isolde’s Transfiguration”). This seals the opera with what musicologist Susan McClary calls “a feminine ending.” McClary quotes a personal exchange with the composer Virgil Thomson where the latter described the Liebestod as Isolde “hang[ing] around to demand one last orgasm of her own.”

Radical harmonic innovation is the most-celebrated dimension of Tristan and Isolde’s score, but Wagner employs all his resources to evoke the extreme states his characters undergo. In the third act, for example, Tristan’s delirious visions are underscored by changes in meter and powerfully syncopated rhythms. Another important device that recurs in some form in each act is the intrusion of the everyday world—for the lovers, the “false world” of day and illusion. From the strains of the sailor’s song opening the first act, Wagner abruptly shifts to Isolde’s point of view. The act late ends with the jubilant sounds of brass and chorus in solid C major to signal the ship’s arrival at its destination, ironically juxtaposed against the music of dangerous ecstasy for the lovers. In the second act Wagner vividly paints the external world of King Marke’s hunting party dissolving—the overlapping horns replaced by burbling clarinets—as Isolde becomes lost in her impatient vigil. And the shepherd’s merry piping in act three acquires a surreal quality as the backdrop for Tristan’s fevered hallucinations.

Tristan and Isolde, the early-20th-century music critic Paul Bekker went so far as to declare, is an opera on whose stage “walk sounds, not people.” Part of Wagner’s genius in this epochal work was to dissolve the boundaries between music and drama, orchestra and singers, tones and words, to an extent even he couldn’t have imagined when starting on the Ring—or when he first mentioned the idea he had for a new opera based on the legendary lovers: “the simplest but most full-blooded musical conception.”

Filed under: opera, Wagner

In a Bright Garden of Glass

Taking a walk just before dusk, I was lured by a beautiful oversize
flower stalk outside the Volunteer Park Conservatory.

Turns out I had chanced upon the Botanica Exotica show series –
an exhibit of the glass art of Jason Gamrath.
He’s from Mercer Island and an alumnus of Dale Chihuly’s
Pilchuck Glass School.

2013-08-08 19.59.08

Displayed amid the Conservatory’s remarkable collection
of exotic orchids and other flowers,
Gamrath’s giant flowers posed a mesmerizing enigma:
hybrids of realistic imitation and over-the-top fantasy,
fragile yet unbending.

2013-08-08 20.01.16

It feels like a piece of theater needs to be staged here.


Filed under: sculpture

Burning Down the House: Seattle’s Götterdämmerung

Richard Paul Fink (Alberich) and Daniel Sumegi (Hagen); photo ©Alan Alabastro

Talk about a buildup: I can’t think of any other work of art, let alone opera, that stokes our sense of anticipation with such prolonged intensity as the Ring’s grand finale. The whole shebang came about, after all, because Wagner wanted to fortify the emotional payoff of what became Götterdämmerung.

Providing the back stories leading up to his depiction of Siegfried’s downfall and Brünnhilde’s final enlightenment isn’t the only thing the first three Ring operas are supposed to do. They’re meant to give these events a dramatic and musical weight that’s only possible if the audience is persuaded to commit itself over the Ring’s vast scale. And that’s what ultimately can make the cycle feel so “cosmic” – not its mythic congeries of mermaids, gods, giants, dwarves, et al.

On Friday night Seattle Opera arrived at the conclusion of its signature Ring – the first of three cycles being given in this Wagner bicentennial year, as well as in the final season of general director Speight Jenkins’ long tenure.

Which is to say, there’s an additional layer of significance to this Ring for Seattle audiences and for the impressive percentage of non-local fans who’ve made the pilgrimage from afar for what may be their last chance to see this production.

I’ve found this round of the Seattle Ring immensely satisfying as a whole. For those who have had the fortune to see earlier iterations since it was unveiled in 2001, this latest encounter delivers a special cumulative effect of its own by way of comparison with the previous versions. An important factor here is the readjustment of the chemistry of the performing forces, with both a conductor and key members of the cast new to the production.

Die Walkure
Die Walküre: Alwyn Mellor (Brünnhilde), Greer Grimsley (Wotan); photo ©Elise Bakketun

One of these is the British soprano Alwyn Mellor, whose portrayal of Brünnhilde in Die Walküre had the dramatic range to match her enthralling vocal presence. It’s been said that the Ring contains three Brünnhildes, but already in this opera Mellor homed in on different layers of her character beyond the exuberant war cry that first introduces her – above all in the Death Annunciation scene, where she learns compassion from the doomed Wälsung twins, but also in the bewilderment displayed in her last confrontation with Wotan. More than ever before, I was riveted by the “gulf of misunderstanding” that tragically separates her from the “warfather” god – but that will set her on the path to her own liberation.

Unfortunately Mellor fell prey to an ailment and had to bow out of the rest of the cycle. If Lori Phillips, the cover for Brünnhilde, saved the night with her passionate and well-acted performance in Siegfried’s final scene, her ability to step in the spotlight at the last-minute for the brutal demands of Götterdämmerung was little short of miraculous. Both the “continuation” of her love duet on the rock with Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s scene with Waltraute were highlights of the evening. Given the circumstances, it’s hard to fault Phillips for being less convincing in her character’s volatile transformation in the second act. There was a further loss of emotional complexity in the Immolation Scene, where the toll on her upper range became most apparent.

Götterdämmerung 2013
Götterdämmerung: Stefan Vinke (Siegfried), Daniel Sumegi (Hagen), and Markus Brück (Gunther); photo ©Alan Alabastro

I suspect this sudden change in the partner he had rehearsed with most closely may account, in part at least, for a less satisfying rendition of the mature Siegfried by the German tenor Stefan Winke (also new to the production) than the young hero he had managed to make so compelling two nights before.

But another part of the “Siegfried problem” is beyond any individual performer’s control. Let’s face it: Wagner’s actual presentation of Siegfried in Götterdämmerung is deeply flawed. No sooner does Brünnhilde send him off to perform great “new deeds” than he is duped by Hagen and the scheming Gibichungs. He’s not only passive but (rather like Wotan) perfectly willing to compromise himself morally – and this on his own accord – to get what he wants (Gutrune); and like Mime, he fails to learn what he needs to know when he has the chance to from the Rhinedaughters.

Stefan Vinke in Siegfried’s “Forging Song”

At any rate, Vinke’s singing still produced thrills (including a daringly sustained high C in his response to the hunting party soon before his death). But apart from his eerily shaded voice as he sang from within a cave to Gunther’s onstage lip-syncing for the abduction of Brünnhilde, there was far less variety of phrasing than Wednesday night; Vinke tended toward a more one-size-fits-all projection and, most problematically for me, failed to convey the sense of Siegfried’s sudden, harrowing realization of what has been lost in his final, “undrugged” recall of Brünnhilde before he dies.

Still, the massive prelude-plus-first act (nearly comparable in length to the whole of Rheingold) was among the most memorable segments of the cycle. It almost seemed to play out in one sustained arc of thoroughly riveting theater.

Götterdämmerung 2013
Götterdämmerung: Alwyn Mellor (Brünnhilde) and Stephanie Blythe (Waltraute); photo ©Alan Alabastro

Stephanie Blythe’s contributions to the Seattle Ring are pretty much exaggeration-proof. As Fricka in the first two operas, her complex but loving relationship with the excellent Greer Grimsley’s Wotan have been a defining feature of director Stephen Wadsworth’s interpretation since it premiered. As if that weren’t enough, her sculptural phrasing and vocal phrasing also added texture and atmosphere to the Norns (joined by Luretta Bybee and Margaret Jane Wray, who delivered such a moving Sieglinde). And Blythe’s Waltraute, with its “preview” of the Immolation Scene summing-up, actually eclipsed the latter on this occasion. Particularly in this staging, it is this scene that represents the point of no return (rather than the Rhinedaughters’ last-ditch plea later in act three).

I was also extremely pleased with newcomer Wendy Bryn Harmer. She’d also appeared as one of the Valkyries and as a distraught Freia (a great addition to the roster of gods, as was the demigod partially responsible for her plight, Loge, given a mesmerizing performance by Mark Schowalter). Her Gutrune for once had some depth rather than being a mere pawn – uncannily reminiscent of Sieglinde as the victim of a hostile men’s world, but also pathetically desperate at her chance for love, even if it’s cheating, with Siegfried. But to my taste, fellow Seattle Ring newbie Markus Brück remained too constrained by the passivity of his character as the ineffectual Gibichung ruler Gunther.

Die Walkure
Götterdämmerung: Daniel Sumegi (Hagen) and the Vassals; photo ©Elise Bakketun

Making up for this – and grounding a sense of the “real world” power struggle into which Siegfried blithely blunders – was Daniel Sumegi’s Hagen, in a portrayal of spine-chilling menace and cold-blooded calculation. So weighty is the evil this Hagen incubates (manifested with peals of darkly rolling vocal thunder) that even he appears troubled by its implications, as we see in another highly successful scene: the dream-encounter with Alberich. As one of the leading exponents of the latter singing today, Richard Paul Fink has been intensifying his spiteful phrasing and physical acting to such a point that you worry a little he won’t be able to snap out of character.

Yet after this scene and the superb first act, I did feel a kind of dwindling, anti-climactic effect, above all in the conclusion of the cycle. The visual staging of the post-Immolation cataclysm – is there a more impossible design challenge in the theater? – has at least arrived at a reasonably effective compromise (which, for the sake of those still intending to see it, I won’t give away here).

I’ve decided this sense of anti-climax results from a mix of the Ring’s inherent weaknesses which Wagner was never able to sort out and specific choices of this production, compounded with things being thrown off balance owing to the last-minute unavailability of Mellor’s Brünnhilde.

Die Walkure
Das Rheingold Markus Brück (Donner), Andrea Silvestrelli (Fasolt), Wendy Bryn Harmer (Freia), Greer Grimsley (Wotan), Stephanie Blythe (Fricka), Ric Furman (Froh), and Mark Schowalter (Loge); photo (c)Elise Bakketun

While the scenically realistic, Pacific Northwest-inspired look of the fabulous sets designed by Thomas Lynch is largely responsible for the moniker “green” Ring, Seattle Opera’s production isn’t really about imposing some sort of environmental concept. But those who refer to it as a “traditional” Ring are sorely mistaken. This notion has been kicking around because of the tastefully archaic aura of the late Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes or perhaps because of the plausibly mythical zone in which everything plays out (as opposed to, say, the rundown motel on Route 66 for Rheingold in the much-scorned new Bayreuth Ring directed by Frank Castorf).

Die Walkure
Das Rheingold: Jennifer Zetlan (Woglinde), Cecelia Hall (Wellgunde),Renée Tatum (Flosshilde), Richard Paul Fink (Alberich); photo (c)Elise Bakketun

Yet Seattle Opera’s Ring, too, is strongly rooted in a vivid directorial concept. The brilliance of director Stephen Wadsworth’s vision, which centers around an almost Chekhovian psychological realism, is that he has evolved this both from a deep knowledge of Wagner’s text (the combine of words and music, that is) and from obsessively detailed, prolonged rehearsals with the cast to ensure an organically coherent portrayal of the characters and their interactions.

Thus, as mentioned, there’s genuine love between Wotan and Fricka, which underscores the sense of personal tragedy in the god’s dilemma in Die Walküre and its fallout. This does of course mean giving precedence to some elements in the Wagnerian text and overlooking others (such as Wotan’s harsher persona as “war father”). It also means inserting things into the text that aren’t there in the first place so as to draw out an implication: we see Fricka suddenly appear for the hyperintense conclusion to act two of Die Walküre to greet Hunding, only to be dumbstruck when Wotan slays him (an effective and justifiable choice, I thought, to make us think of the future she, too, has to face; otherwise she simply disappears from the cycle after her earlier confrontation).

Die Walkure
Die Walküre: Stephanie Blythe (Fricka), Greer Grimsley (Wotan); photo (c)Elise Bakketun

Wadsworth’s essential approach is to humanize Wagner’s mythical characters and their behavior. This perspective pays its richest dividends in Die Walküre and Siegfried, which, for me, are the two most impressive successes of the Seattle Ring. In fact, often though we’re told that the Ring is a vast epic containing the history of the world, a significant proportion of the cycle (the middle two operas, more or less) actually centers around scenes of intimate dramatic communication between two characters. Wadsworth’s style and concept are ideally suited to these. His humanizing also touch goes a long way toward animating the expository stretches of Das Rheingold, with its much larger ensemble.

Stephen Wadsworth in rehearsal

The Achilles heel seems to be in the crowd scenes of Götterdämmerung and in the old-fashioned, grand opera style “Lohengrinizing” (as G.B Shaw called it) that makes these parts of the last Ring opera sometimes seem such a throwback. There’s a lot of rustling about from the chorus of Vassals in the second act in response to Hagen’s summoning (where, musically, Wagner seems to nod), but it doesn’t convey the accumulation of menacing tension, the sense of a whole society on the verge of collapse despite the distractions of wedding celebration.

A similar situation lessens the impact of the third act. A comic turn in the Rhinedaughters’ reappearance at the top of the act which has them horsing around is presumably meant for relief, but that choice has always struck the wrong note for me. Wadsworth’s forte is evoking the intimate and personal, but the atmosphere of apocalypse remains absent in the scene of Siegfried’s murder and in the final scene. And it’s a problem that goes beyond this particular production, affecting many others. Wagner himself acknowledged the challenge when he suggested that all the knots are really worked out in what the final music tells us.

Maestro Asher Fisch

As the production’s new conductor, Asher Fisch (for whom Daniel Barenboim was an important mentor), proved to be a key asset in making this latest edition – neatly fine-tuned by Wadsworth in increasingly subtle ways – the most successful run since the premiere of Seattle’s Ring production in 2001. Fisch coaxed the most ear-catching collections of sounds and color from this orchestra that I’ve ever heard in their Ring playing.

There was some unevenness, to be sure: Siegfried’s Funeral March sounded inexplicably hollow, and moment after glorious moment of the final scene was thrown away, like an actor so afraid he’ll forget the words of a great Shakespeare monologue he rattles them off without trying to create an interpretation.

Overall, what Fisch sacrificed in sheer dramatic tension (not to mention Soltiesque playing to the gallery) through his often measured tempo choices was compensated by the continual unfolding of layers of the score that often lie buried. The woodwind writing in the last scene of Die Walküre, for instance, bloomed with breathtaking beauty, while Siegfried’s second act was shot through with almost psychedelic streaks of color – growling low brass and electrifying string figurations.

And for the most part Fisch succeeded in integrating the singers into the total fabric of sound and in contouring the ensemble to the dramatic dimension. (One strange quirk of Wadsworth’s stage direction, which posits the characters often “hearing” the music from the orchestra, has them react in stylized, silent-film-type gestures to musical accents.) The result made an incalculable contribution to the gathering theatrical effectiveness of the cycle as each evening progressed.

At the conclusion of this first of three cycles to be performed in August, Speight Jenkins briefly addressed the audience, calling attention to the incredible efforts of everyone involved in what he termed “the biggest collaboration there is in all art.” And he pointed out that this is the valedictory Ring under his long tenure with the company, which has been defined by its Ring productions. It’s hard to imagine a more moving or memorable way to leave the stage.

–Thomas May

Filed under: opera, review, Ring cycle, Seattle Opera, Wagner

Du sollst mich nicht lieben! Siegfried in Seattle

Die Walkure

One of the most-anticipated new elements in the current revival of Seattle Opera’s Ring cycle is the appearance of German tenor Stefan Vinke as Siegfried: the character who initially attracted Wagner to the potential of this material. (The Ring, incidentally, is in the end a myth Wagner made up – not, as sometimes asserted, merely a narrative simplification of actual Nordic myths: several of the key pieces he used to construct it have no relation to each other in their original context.)

Apart from the role’s notoriously wicked vocal demands, the brave soul who takes on Siegfried has to try to gain the audience’s sympathy despite playing an annoying, intensely dislikeable character. Productions can only get so far by retreating into fairy-tale escapism or, at the other extreme, by amping up Siggy’s repulsively thuggish side and hence the ironic distance between the character we see onstage and Wagner’s outsize vision of the hero. (To sing an antihero, do you need an anti- or a counter-heldentenor?)

I admit that, like many, I tend to find Siegfried‘s first two acts contain the weakest links in the entire Ring. But Wednesday night’s performance of Cycle I at Seattle Opera awakened me to the real brilliance of the Ring‘s “second” evening (counting trilogy-wise).

I don’t recall ever being so drawn in by the young Siegfried or being made to feel his mix of curiosity and profound loneliness beyond all the ADHD and nasty treatment of Mime. I don’t just mean that Stefan Vinke somehow “looked” the part (at least more than is usually the case). For me Vinke plausibly depicted a youth in conflict and capable of emotional depth, especially in the anguish he shows when thinking of his mother’s death from childbirth during the “Forest Murmurs” scene. The production’s emphasis on nature is so in sync with its psychological realism here that this scene is one of the highpoints of the Seattle Opera Ring.

Vocally, Vinke veers ever so slightly flatward from time to time (I can’t stop Stab-reiming!), and his enormous voice in general makes an impression with size, not with beauty of tone. His stamina alone is reminiscent of Jane Eaglen in Rings past. The cliche about Siegfried having to face a Brünnhilde who is “fresh as a daisy” just as he’s worn out from hours of singing didn’t even come to mind this time.

But Siegfrieds who have nothing but stamina to offer bore me precisely because it ends there, with stamina – and just reinforce the stereotypes of the role. I thought Vinke was able to give dimension to this phase in the hero’s life, which is otherwise so cartoonish. He really seems to get inside the music, to make it work dramatically and to act convincingly with his voice.

Seattle’s new Brünnhilde, Alwyn Mellor, had to cancel appearing in her one scene in Siegfried because of an allergy attack that morning – and to (we fervently hope) preserve her voice for the massive finale. Speight Jenkins was fortunate to be able to count on soprano Lori Phillips as Mellor’s cover. As with her Turandot, which I heard here last year, I found Phillips has a problematic top but a beautiful voice and genuine stage presence. (Puccini, as it happens, set up a dramatic situation at the climax uncannily reminiscent of the Siegfried-Brünnhilde meeting but died before he could complete the score.) And she had the acting style Wadsworth has been cultivating down completely: the psychodynamics between her and Siegfried, where she can’t quite say goodbye to the old way of life, were riveting.

Crucial to this production and its reimagining of Siegfried are the “kindler, gentler” Mime in a richly crafted performance by Dennis Peterson and Greer Grimsley‘s subtlest portrayal among his three Wotans (as The Wanderer).

Of course a lot of the credit for such a persuasive Siegfried goes to the incredibly detailed staging by Stephen Wadsworth and to the ear-opening, sumptuous attention to color from conductor Asher Fisch. His work in the second act reminded me Mahler’s particular fascination with this score – Mahler conducted Siegfried four times during his stay in London – especially its trippy contrasts. More reflections on Wadsworth and Fisch to come. Now that Vinke has given us a clearer sense of the young Siegfried’s identity, I’m eager to see how he’ll carry it through in Götterdämmerung.

(Image: Seattle Opera’s Siegfried: Dennis Peterson (Mime), Stefan Vinke (Siegfried). Photo © Elise Bakketun.)

Filed under: review, Ring cycle, Seattle Opera, Wagner

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.