Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Notes on the 2005 Ring

Das Rheingold Scene 1: Jennifer Hines (Flosshilde), Mary Phillips (Wellgunde), Wendy Hill (Woglinde), and Richard Paul Fink (Alberich) are thrilled when the sunlight strikes the gold in the bed of the Rhine River. Rozarii Lynch photo

By Melinda Bargreen

Seattle Opera’s Ring was the reason I became the classical music critic of The Seattle Times (for 31 years; I’m still freelancing).

In 1975, my husband and I saved up our pennies, and bought two second-balcony tickets to Götterdämmerung when Ring I was presenting the cast in furs and horned helmets, and there were no supertitles for the German-language production. Thrilled to the marrow by the performance, I eagerly awaited the review in the suburban newspaper where we live. The critic hated the show. It was too long, he said; it was boring … and it was all in German, “Gotterdammerit!”

Incensed, I got up my nerve and phoned the editor to complain about the review.

“Why don’t you send me what you would have written?” the editor asked.

I did, and I was assigned to review all the Seattle Opera productions. One review led to another; soon the classical music critic job opened up at The Seattle Times, when the critic/editor decided to focus on theater, and in 1977 I got the job of a lifetime. (Hint: They pay you for going to the opera and concerts, and writing what you think afterward. What could be better?)

Looking back on the whole jewelry store of Rings, the 2005 version ranks around the top of my personal favorites so far. The arch-traditional Ring I (whose Götterdämmerung I heard on that fateful career-defining evening) was followed by the more avant-garde Ring II, resulting in hot debates among Wagnerian fans. But in Ring III (first presented in 2001), general director Speight Jenkins and the company created something particularly special. Quickly dubbed the “Green Ring,” it was beautiful to look at (those forested, craggy Thomas Lynch sets!) and even more beautiful to hear, as several unforgettable singers made their mark.

Bargreen saved her 2005 Ring program and tickets. 

And now, we get to hear this Ring again—for free, thanks to KING FM and Seattle Opera. Of all the operas that adapt well to a radio broadcast, it’s this four-opera cycle, which consists mainly of long, in-depth conversations and soliloquies where not much happens on the stage. Not that you care, when the music is this glorious.

Among the standouts in the 2005 cast: Greer Grimsley, who was a noble and vital Wotan. As Fricka, his wife, Stephanie Blythe sang with both passion and depth; Alan Woodrow was a lyrical, stalwart Siegfried; Richard Paul Fink was a most menacing Alberich. Ewa Podlés gave Erda both resonant power and depth. (Podlés and Blythe also were double-cast as Norns, alongside the excellent Margaret Jane Wray. It was a highly impressive trio.)

Seattle had already heard the unforgettable mega-soprano Jane Eaglen as Brünnhilde. Now she was back, and excitement was high. In one interview, Eaglen told me, “This is the music I was born to sing. It fits me like a glove. She (Brünnhilde) is the character who is most like me and closest to my heart.”

That didn’t mean it was easy.

"No matter how well suited this music is to your voice, and no matter how well prepared you are," Eaglen said then, "this is still really hard. It's a big `sing,' a tremendous challenge. I want to come to every performance fresh and excited. I won't sing it any other way."

Eaglen was amazing: totally in command of every line, noble of voice and bearing, tireless and mighty in her power and passion. I’ll always count myself lucky that I heard her in her absolute prime, in a role she was born to sing.

And now, radio audiences will get to hear Eaglen at the height of her powers, once again.

Die Walküre Act 2: Jane Eaglen (Brünnhilde) announces his imminent death to Siegmund (Richard Berkeley-Steele), who refuses to abandon Sieglinde (Margaret Jane Wray). Bill Mohn photo

Of course, Eaglen was not the only standout. Jenkins assembled a cast that had strength throughout the spectrum of roles, from Stephen Milling’s menacing Hunding to Thomas Harper’s wily Mime and Richard Berkeley-Steele’s noble Siegmund. Gordon Hawkins was a tragically conflicted Gunther; Nancy Maultsby had some fine moments as Waltraute. Stephen Wadsworth’s imaginative staging created a scene with the three Rhinemaidens and Siegfried that worked better than in any production I’ve seen. None of the magic of the Ring would have been possible without Robert Schaub’s work as technical director. Robert Spano conducted with energy and urgency, letting “America’s Wagner Orchestra” rip, but also ably supporting his singers. And behind every moment of this Ring was the presiding genius of Speight Jenkins.

Just writing about this production fills me with nostalgia, and also with worry. At this point in the pandemic, the thought of performing full-scale opera—much less a Ring—seems frighteningly distant.

But we have the radio airwaves, to revisit past triumphs and lift our hearts toward better futures. Great opera has survived cataclysms and world wars and epidemics and the fall of dictators. The Ring will rise again.

Das Rheingold Scene 2: Marie Plette (Freia), Gidon Saks (Fafner), and (far right) Stephanie Blythe (Fricka) look on as Greer Grimsley (Wotan) stops Donner (Gordon Hawkins) from attacking the giants. Rozarii Lynch photo

To learn more about the upcoming Ring cycle broadcasts, go

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