The Rhine maidens' plunge and other memories of Seattle 'Ring's

After four years of planning, fund-raising, hard work, much excitement and anticipation, the Seattle Opera once again will present Richard Wagner's momentous musical epic, "The Ring of the Nibelungen." The full cycle of all four operas - "Das Rheingold," "Die Walküre," "Siegfried" and Götterdämmerung" - opens with "Das Rheingold" on Sunday, Aug. 7, at McCaw Hall. Audiences will cheer as Valhalla materializes in Puget Sound and the faithful make pilgrimages from all over the known world to pay homage to Wagner.

The tradition was started in 1975 by Seattle Opera's founding director, the late Glynn Ross; there would be annual "Ring" performances through 1984. In that first decade, the whole thing was treated very much like a religious experience; with requests to remove charm bracelets lest they rattle, and to hold applause until curtain time. Apart from Bayreuth in Germany, English National Opera was the only other company to present the complete "Ring" cycle.

Seattle presented the only double-"Ring" ceremony in the world. The first week the entire "Ring" was presented in the original German. The second week it was presented in the English translation by Andrew Porter originally commissioned by English National Opera, with many E.N.O. stars singing the title roles. We have been treated to a bevy of beautiful British Brunnhildes, commencing with Anna Green and including Rita Hunter, Margaret Kingsley, right up to the present, fabulous Jane Eaglen.

Then there was Anna Russell (ter-ribly, terribly British, you know), described as one of the truly great comediennes of the 20th century. A brilliant musicologist with a great voice, she was famous for her hilari-ous musical satire of Wagner's "Ring" (from which, I must admit, I first got a handle on the intricate story of the "Ring"). Anna Russell's parody itself became an every-August tradition on our radio program "The British Hour."

Also featured were live interviews with many stellar "Ring" performers from E.N.O. - and thereby hangs a tale. At a performance of "Siegfried," we changed our seats in order to be nearer the aisle. That put me alongside a very young man who was attentively following every word. During the intermission I asked him if his parents were with him. Oh no, he said, he had heard the story on his favorite radio program, told by a very funny lady. He had saved his money and asked his parents if he could see "Siegfried" for his birthday. You guessed it, the program was "The British Hour" and the funny lady was Anna Russell.

We took him backstage afterward to meet the dragon and Siegfried. This particular Siegfried hailed not from the forest but from Liverpool - an expert on the Beatles with the Italian-sounding name of Alberto Remedios. In the wee hours of the morning, after the Gods had made their epic demise, we found ourselves in a Queen Anne kitchen eating sausage rolls that had been brought all the way from the British Pantry in Redmond, as Alberto gave his rendition of Penny Lane.

Of the many Brunnhildes, Mar-garet Kingsley especially comes to mind. Margaret hailed from Corn-wall. During a live radio interview she gave us a recipe for Cornish pasties, accompanied by a silly song about sausages. On another occasion, she came for tea.

Alberich the nasty little dwarf - Malcom Rivers - got his start at the Royal Shakespearean Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. Needless to say, his diction was perfect. A great proponent of the English "Ring" cycle, Rivers was heard to say on more than one occasion, "If Shakespeare had written Macbeth in Swahili, you'd still want to see it in English."

We eagerly anticipated each August the "Ring" and its great round of parties in Seattle. It reunited us with friends from as far away as England, South Africa, New Zealand and Mexico. The "Ring" also brought many VIPs to town, including Bernard Levin, the well-known British music critic; Lord Harwood, the Queen's cousin and a patron of the arts; and Colin Howe, whose brother Jeremy was the British Chancellor of the Exchequer (1982).

In 1983, when we were presented to the Queen during her visit to Seattle, we also met the then-British Ambassador, Sir Oliver Wright, very much a Wagner enthusiast. While he was singing the praises of the Bayreuth production of the "Ring," my husband was quick to inform him that Seattle's production was second to none and invite him to the upcoming performance.

Sir Oliver was more than happy to accept, thereby causing quite a diplomatic shuffle with the powers-that-be at the Opera House, who wondered whether they should play the British National Anthem before the performance! All was resolved, and the ambassador went away suitably impressed with both Seattle and its "Ring."

With the introduction of supra-titles, the English productions were discontinued.

The year 1986 brought a completely new, highly theatrical modern production, with a set representing Wotan's theater. The costumes were in Wagner's own period (Victorian), and at least in "Das Rheingold" and "Die Walküre" Wotan strongly resembled the composer. François Rochaix and Robert Israel created a "Ring" in which the audience was never allowed to forget that they were watching theater; the characters were not real but symbols, interpreted and fascinating.

In 1995, there was a new dragon and the Valkyries ascended to Valhalla on flying horses. These productions had many surprises and at first created quite a controversy. There were the usual mishaps over the years, which lent unexpected comic relief to the otherwise serious business. We had our crab legs, Bambis, dead parrots (for all you Monty Python fans), anvils that refused to shatter and yards of red Kabuki fabric (representing fire) that misbehaved. But the magic was still there. The musical spectacle and drama still transported people to another dimension.

Which brings us to the third and current "Ring" cycle of the past two decades, staged by Steven Wordsworth, presented in part in 2000 and completed in 2001. The production embodies the cycle visually as Wagner described it. Modern stage techniques allow for the cre-ation of forests and vistas unknown 19th-century theater but very much of Wagner's imagination. The costumes were of no specific period but were clearly primeval in conception.

What distinguishes this "Ring" from others that attempt to follow Wagner's vision is Wadsworth's application of 21st-century acting and directorial techniques. The characters relate in very real and intense ways. This production featured a new presentation of the Rhine maidens in the opening scene of "Das Rheingold." There were three very athletic mermaid-type creatures who actually plunged 32 feet to create the illusion of swimming and diving in the river Rhine, while actually singing impeccably the whole time. A far cry from the 1975 Rhine maidens, who gave the illusion of swimming in the Rhine while seated on a wheeled skateboard covered in seaweed. But they sang beautifully.

The 2001 production was particularly wonderful and met all expec-tations. Jane Eaglen, known as one of the greatest Wagnerian singers of her time, earned standing ovations from enthusiastic audiences. That particular "Ring" cycle was the best ever, and now in 2005 it is going to be repeated - with a few new artists making their Seattle Opera debuts.


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