We need to talk about Wotan. Yes, again. Hey, it might be years until I have another chance to see the mighty Greer Grimsley in action (as usual, the scheduling gremlins are against me) so I'm going to go ahead right now and take every chance I get to rave about him. Not that anybody in Wagnerland – and particularly in Wagnerland's Seattle Division – needs me to tell them how extraordinary Greer's Wotan is. The beauty and heart-shredding nuance of his performance are not news but they're still revelatory. Even with everybody telling me for the last, oh, three years or so that his was the Wotan of a lifetime, experiencing it in person has been as thrilling a discovery as if it had come out of nowhere.
It's true that my funny limbo life, with one foot in the audience and one backstage, colours my perception of any singer. Still, I'm prepared to state for the record that even if I'd had no vested interest in this Walküre – or if Greer had turned out to be evil in real life, which I can assure you he's not! – his gutwrenching and gorgeous Abschied would still linger just as determinedly in my brain. You could analyse his performance strand by strand but it's the organic whole which matters: the gentle authority and flawed humanity of his Wotan, which would give even Dumbledore a run for his money, and which Greer's apparently inexhaustible vocal resources never fail to underpin.
This Walküre was pretty intense in rehearsals but opening night still had, as it ought to, an extra spark. Stephen Wadsworth's production is incredibly detailed, sometimes right down to a single glance or twitch of a hand, but he stifles nothing; it's all designed to draw you into the intimate conversations which make up so much of this opera. Mythic it may be, but whispered secrets, tender declarations and tense confrontations – whether they happen in Valhalla, in Hunding's hut or on the forest floor – are the driving force of Walküre, and this production really gets to their gnarly heart.
Thanks to Thomas Lynch's sets and the costumes of the late Martin Pakledinaz, to whom this year's Ring is dedicated, it does all of that while looking like a fairytale come to life: but a fairytale where the characters behave like real people and happily ever after isn't nearly so simple. Turns out you don't need a confusing staging to convey moral confusion, or an abstract one to trumpet universality; you can make the trees look like real trees, set real fires, give everybody a proper sword, and still tell the story in an illuminating and thoughtful way.
A large part of that illumination comes, of course, from all the people on stage, each of them shining their own distinctive light. Andrea Silvestrelli's Hunding, part man and part bear, looms so impossibly large, both physically and vocally, that in Act I, you could almost be tempted to dismiss him as a purveyor of empty threats: a pugnacious brute but not necessarily a long-term planner. But when he returns in Act II, look out. Now in his element as a hunter, he's 6 foot 6 of undiluted malevolence. Margaret Jane Wray is a true twin to her sword-toting brother: compassionate by nature, but in her own way, a fighter too, and I love that her final gesture upon leaving Hunding's hut is to knock the crockery off the table. She must have been dying to do that for ages. Her voice fills the hall quite wonderfully – "O hehrstes Wunder" pins me to my seat a little more forcefully every time she sings it – but her softer singing is just as gripping, and her "Der Männer Sippe" really is a finely etched bit of storytelling.
If you didn't already know that Brünnhilde was Wotan's daughter but not Fricka's, the contrast between the two women here would leave you in no doubt. Alwyn Mellor's Brünnhilde is all youthful vigour, and when Wotan sits her down for that long, long chat, it's no wonder she takes her time to absorb the gravity of his words, and that she can't help but follow her own headstrong trajectory. Stephanie Blythe's Fricka, meanwhile, has the sort of stately presence which makes you want to polish your shoes and stand up straight. But her love for her husband is equally forceful, and the ripples of warmth which pass between them make it difficult (even for me, Siegmund's #1 cheerleader) entirely to deplore her pleas. It doesn't hurt that Stephanie's voice seems to rise from the core of the earth, marrying storm-summoning power to plush, velvety sound.
Is there anyone I haven't mentioned yet? Oh, of course, the Valkyries! It should come as no surprise in a production as detailed as this that each of them has a distinct personality – and a sense of humour. Comic relief is a sparse commodity in the Ring, but where it even faintly exists, Stephen Wadsworth has a knack for making it work, and the Valkyries get up to all kinds of hijinks before Brünnhilde and Sieglinde show up and everything goes dark. Wendy Bryn Harmer, Suzanne Hendrix, Cecelia Hall, Luretta Bybee, Tamara Mancini, Renée Tatum, Sarah Heltzel and Jessica Klein are a fabulous Amazonian octet.
Now, about that vested interest. I'm telling you, Stuart is genetically hardwired to sing Siegmund. The acting, the singing, even the sword handling skills: it all just flows so naturally. If I may be so bold, I suspect this production, so deeply personalised, matches up with and enhances those innate qualities better than any other. His Siegmund is properly heroic: he's steadfast, steely and ready to fight at the drop of a hat. But he's a hero who bears the scars of years of ill treatment, and it's touching to watch him grapple with his first taste of happiness. Then there's the singing, which for once I don't even have to try and describe. Voilà.
In a perfect world there would be clips of his Winterstürme too, and the Todesverkündigung and, well, everything, but I'm not complaining. It's rare to have a document like this, especially at so early in the run, and I'm thankful to Seattle Opera for recording as much as they have. Do check out their whole set of 2013 Ring excerpts, it's an absolute treasure trove.
I should finish with another thank you, to Asher Fisch and the Seattle Opera orchestra for making my first full Ring such a monumentally moving musical experience. In Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, which I already knew well, and in my new friends Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, it has been consistently enthralling to hear an orchestra of such skill and brilliance, and a conductor who palpably lives and breathes every moment of the score. The audience greets them at the beginning of every act with rock star level applause – and who could blame them?