Wagner's Ring Cycle Begins Anew In Seattle

Seattle Opera General Director Speight Jenkins talks of a return to a 'nature-based' cycle.

Halfway around the world from the Wagnerian epicenter of Bayreuth, Germany, throngs of subscribers are flocking to see the first two installments of the composer's great opera Ring des Nibelungen in Seattle.

This excitement has translated directly into a flood of ticket sales for the current production by Seattle Opera, which runs through Aug. 25 at the Seattle Center Opera House. The company's complete cycle in 2001 is already sold out, with ticket orders pouring in from almost all 50 states and 18 foreign countries.

What draws this deluge of admirers to the opera cycle?

"The Ring has always been popular with audiences that have understood it," the company's general director Speight Jenkins said on Friday. "Supertitles have now opened it up to the world to understand just how crucial these dramas are and how much they mean to people.

"Just take Walküre alone — there is every love relationship known that exists. There is no one that sees Walküre who doesn't relate to it, because everyone has been either a parent or a child, and many of us have been both."

This month, the company is presenting the first two installments of the cycle, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. In the latter, Jane Eaglen takes the pivotal role of Brünnhilde, alongside Phillip Joll as Wotan, Thomas Harper as Mime, and Richard Paul Fink as Alberich.

The Ring is a collection of four operas, with the entire cycle running more than 17 hours. The plot is a mythical tale of gods, goddesses, demigods, dwarves, giants and, most important, a magic ring forged from the gold of the Rhine Maidens.

Staged in 1876 in Bayreuth, the first complete Ring production was considered the musical event of the decade. The mad King Ludwig of Bavaria looted his own treasury to finance the construction of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and the production of the first complete Ring cycle.

Jenkins is emphatic about what he sees as the dramatic center of Seattle Opera's cycle. "It is a focus on nature," he said. "I wanted to focus on nature because I felt that what had not been worked on, what had not been emphasized since the war, was the nature side of the Ring."

To set designer Thomas Lynch, this meant a movement away from the more abstract productions of the 1950s and a continued emphasis on examining the role of nature and man's place in it. Seattle's Ring is filled with sets of knobbed forests, detailed rock crevices and a "greenery" that reflects the depth of the natural world, not an over-romanticized view.

Because of advancements in the set construction, Jenkins said, "technologically we can do things now that 10 or 15 years ago we just could not do. We can create forests on stage that really look like forests. Nobody could really do that before. Wagner certainly couldn't do that, and nobody else could. "

This led The Seattle Post-Intelligencer critic R.M. Campell to state "the result is thoroughly engrossing — visually and musically and dramatically — with an excitement both visceral and intellectual."

Jenkins said that "the Ring is the greatest story of human beings, and even though they are called giants and dwarves, gods and goddesses, it is one of the great family stories. It's like a Greek tragedy in many respects. The power of the Ring is such that people relate to it, and the music expands the story."