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Seattle Opera outdoes itself with this year's production of 'Ring'

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Many superlatives have been poured on Seattle Opera's various productions of Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" over the past 30 years, but none has surpassed the current cycle, which just concluded Friday night at McCaw Hall.

Two more cycles are to come, continuing through Aug. 28, and all have been sold out for the past nine months. Audiences from around the world are crowding the corridors and promenades of the house, as usual.

The "Ring" is such a prolonged affair, four operas running about 20 hours including intermissions, that one seeks some kind of resolution in "Gotterdammerung," the final opera. Seattle Opera did just that, with a sense of transformation, of peace emerging from so much destruction.

All the operas in the "Ring" have their particular challenges, which Seattle Opera has overcome with astonishing imagination, but "Gotterdammerung" is especially arduous because of its length -- more than five hours -- and the extreme demands of its creator.

The design work is familiar, from 2001: Thomas Lynch's evocative sets (Gibichung Castle is magnificent in its modern simplicity and beauty); Peter Kaczorowski's subtle lighting design; Martin Pakledinaz's ingenious costumes.

Stephen Wadsworth's stage direction is an endless feat of invention and swift pacing. Most directors of his standing do not return to their original productions; that is a job for assistants. Wadsworth did, fine-tuning his own work. He tweaked here and there, such as Brunnhilde's cutting the palm of her hand in the Vengeance Trio -- a powerful gesture of a powerful woman. The Immolation Scene has been restaged for the better -- smoother and more meaningful.

Several conductors have been in the pit for Seattle Opera's "Ring," some more successful than others. I liked Hermann Michael's reading in the second "Ring" production, in the late 1980s and 1990s, and found Manuel Rosenthal's take, in 1986, fascinating, especially for its sense of color. However, none compares in depth and sweep with Robert Spano, doing his first "Ring" in Seattle. After he conducted an illuminating "Billy Budd" four years ago at Seattle Opera, general director Speight Jenkins conceived the notion of his doing the "Ring," in 2005. At the outset, Spano was not interested, but Jenkins persisted, and finally Spano agreed, putting his considerable intelligence and musical instincts to work.

For the past week, one has heard the clarity and brilliance of his vision. There were extraordinary moments throughout the cycle, finely judged pacing, splendid balance and a wealth of details. What had been heard in "Das Rheingold," "Die Walkure" and "Siegfried" was heard again in "Gotterdammerung." It would seem there was nothing Spano had not considered: The music flowed evenly and powerfully, and, on occasion, spontaneously.

At his disposal were 100 musicians, mostly drawn from the Seattle Symphony, including the usual strings but also four harps, an equal number of trumpets and trombones, six tubas and eight French horns. Wagner wanted the lightly colored textures of woodwinds, but the weight that only some 20 brass instruments can provide. There was fine playing throughout: The strings had resonance and sweetness; the woodwinds, distinctness; and brass, a mellifluous and dramatic sound. Bravo, one more time, to French horn principal Mark Robbins for his decisive horn calls in "Siegfried" and "Gotterdammerung."

The only choral singing in the cycle comes in "Gotterdammerung," and that is restricted to men. But what an impact it makes when it starts in Act 2. Kudos to the superb Seattle Opera Chorus, led by Beth Kirchoff.

The singers were of the highest caliber, a real ensemble, known from the previous operas, beginning with the luxury casting of the Norns, consisting of Ewa Podles, Stephanie Blythe and Margaret Jane Wray. Nancy Maultsby was an able Waltraute; Richard Paul Fink, a decisive Alberich; with Gordon Hawkins as Gunther and Marie Plette, Gutrune. Jane Eaglen sang a potent Immolation Scene, and Alan Woodrow delivered a well-conceived Siegfried. However, the most electrifying character was Gidon Saks' Hagan, who sang through a developing upper respiratory infection, as Jenkins announced from the stage at the start of the third act. His bass is black and menacing and big -- terrifying in word, portrayal likewise, every detail considered and executed. He commanded center stage.

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