From the safety of two free seats on the aisle, what music critic can resist lecturing impresarios on how to run an opera house? But how many ever step up to the job?
Meet Speight Jenkins, who in 1983 moved straight from a desk at the New York Post to the general directorship of Seattle Opera, where his reign lasted a historic 31 seasons. A recording of Richard Wagner's "Ring des Nibelungen," taped live in 2013 and released by Avie on 14 handsomely boxed CDs (also available on iTunes), stands as the uniquely fitting memorial to his tenure, which ended this year.
The intertwined history of the Seattle Opera, its guiding star, and the "Ring" cycle goes back to about 1980, when Mr. Jenkins first visited to lecture on that very work. No doubt he mentioned that the master had unveiled the four operas of his epic cycle ("Das Rheingold," "Die Walküre," "Siegfried," "Götterdämmerung") at the purpose-built Festspielhaus in the Bavarian market town of Bayreuth, Germany, in 1876, where the cult thus established endures to this day. But in 1976, the revolutionary Bayreuth centennial production by the newcomer Patrice Chéreau shook the opera world to its foundations, changing the course of history. Coincidentally, the summer before, Seattle had inaugurated a cult of its own with a summertime "Ring" to warm the heart of a dinosaur.
While the antique "Bayreuth West" aesthetic could hardly have excited Mr. Jenkins, his command of Wagneriana and winning personality excited the Seattle Opera board greatly. On the lookout for a new general director, it handed him the job, never mind his lack of any relevant experience.
Landmarks of the Jenkins era include Sergei Prokofiev's fiendishly complex "War and Peace" in 1990, directed by Francesca Zambello on the brink of a meteoric career; Renée Fleming's debut that same year as Antonin Dvorak's water sprite Rusalka, her passport to stardom; and Stephen Wadsworth's rare mounting of Christoph Willibald Gluck's fire-and-ice "Iphigénie en Tauride" (2007), instantly transferred to the Met as a vehicle for Susan Graham and Plácido Domingo. In 2010, there was the lovingly prepared, numbingly earnest world premiere of Daron Aric Hagen's "Amelia," a dream of doomed fliers from Icarus and Amelia Earhart to an expectant mother's father, shot down in Vietnam.
But it was with Wagner's operas more than any others that Mr. Jenkins burnished the company's reputation, and above all with the "Ring," which accounted for no fewer than nine of his Seattle seasons. In 1984, wasting no time and saving much treasure, he granted audiences one last look at the previous regime's white elephant of a show. After that, teams of his own worked up two new versions from scratch, each playing a total of four seasons.
The first, which I remember vividly, premiered in 1986. François Rochaix directed, laying out the tale in postmodern pictures of great originality, beauty and suggestive power. The second, which opened in 2001, I missed. The handiwork of Mr. Wadsworth, it survives in photographs of a hyperrealistic forest primeval that point to timely ecological preoccupations, even as the players' garb and poses evoke, perhaps unfairly, the worst of the bad old days. (Spears or no spears, those airborne Valkyrie warrior maidens are dead ringers for the eight maids a-milking of Yuletide fame.) But on CD, the virtues and defects of the soundtrack from the farewell revival of 2013 add up to one of the top dozen or so musical realizations of the "Ring" in our time.
On the credit side, Act 1 of "Die Walküre," which dramatizes the reunion of the long-lost twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, comes to blazing life in the performances of Stuart Skelton and Margaret Jane Wray, pitted against Andrea Silvestrelli as the brutal tribal chieftain Hunding, with his roar of an ogre.
As for debits, the two male leads—Greer Grimsley as the double-dealing god Wotan, and Stefan Vinke as Siegfried, Wotan's deliverer and destroyer—declaim their mammoth parts in hard, scowling, often wobbly tones that seldom hint at either character's charisma or complexity. Demerits, too, for hollering and snickering from oh-so-in-the-moment cast members (gratuitous) and excessive stage clatter (inevitable as it may be). I make no complaint about the thunder sheet, which rattles the heart like the voice from the whirlwind.
And there's other good news. Alwyn Mellor appears as the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, daughter to Wotan as well as his rebellious conscience and bride to Siegfried. Rare is the artist who brings to this marathon a sound of such roundness and luster, or a spirit so transparent, youthful and feminine. As the dwarf Alberich, who curses love and forges the ring on which the fate of the universe depends, Richard Paul Fink races through his rants to terrifying effect.
In pivotal cameos as Fricka, Wotan's superego wife, and Waltraute, the Valkyrie sister Brünnhilde must reject, Stephanie Blythe brandishes her instrument like a lightsaber, now stinging, now grazing, now flashing with temperament. In the great calls to arms of the foiled avenger Hagen, Daniel Sumegi thunders like Goliath, but in moments of private nightmare rivets the ear in his hushed dismay.
The all-important conductor, Asher Fisch, has Wagner's overarching architecture as surely in his grasp as the tiniest nuts and bolts. Seasoned veterans of the "Ring" under a succession of distinctive maestros, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra players rise to every challenge, from the heaven-storming Ride of the Valkyries to the diaphanous proto-Impressionism of the Forest Murmurs, from the first august vision of Valhalla to Siegfried's shattering Funeral March.
At times, Mr. Fisch's microscopic eye works against him. Sparking, as it were, pixel by pixel, the famous Magic Fire never coalesces into tongues of liquid flame. And at various junctures, a bid to ratchet up suspense by reining in the tempo winds up choking the life out of the drama instead. But then, without warning, the spell takes hold, and we're swept away, at one with Wagner's creation, like Siegfried cruising the river Rhine to new adventures.