Houston — Siegfried, the third installment of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is different from the other three in the cycle. It is the comic relief, or as comic as Wagner’s saga about the destruction of the Gods ever gets. It is frequently refered to as the scherzo, comparing to the usually lighter third movement of a molto serioso symphony by Beethoven or Mahler.
The opera tells the story of, as the title suggests, a young Siegfried, son of the twin brother and sister mating that ended that second opera, Die Walküre. Indeed, it is his show, onstage singing some of the most strenuous tenor music ever written, for all three acts—or four hours of music. The big love duet is at the very end and, almost cruelly, Wagner makes him match high notes with a fresh voiced soprano making her first appearance all evening.
Houston Grand Opera’s production, seen on Wednesday, April 20, features probably the best Siegfried singing the role these days, Jay Hunter Morris, and he is simply magnificent: vocally, dramatically and physically.
We all knew a Siegfried when we were in high school. He was the blond and blue-eyed hunk with a winning smile, the captain of all of the sports teams, fearless, affable, and able to accomplish every physical trial with ease. He bristles with the confidence born of constant triumph and reeks of testosterone. On the brains front, things thin out. To him, the multiplication tables are something that keeps a record of his ever-increasing reps. In fact, he is so dimwitted that he thinks that he is smart.
From the moment Morris bounds on the stage, like a teenager wearing the haphazard pile of animal skins that serves as a costume and with a professional wrestler’s dreadlocks, he personifies the stereotype so perfectly that you have to smile. By the end of the opera however, you wear another look, one of astonishment as a boyish Morris overcomes Wagner’s nearly impossible vocal demands as easily as a nerdy kid’s challenge to arm wrestle him. His soft lyrical singing, so rarely heard in Wagner, was almost more impressive than his stentorian high notes.
The rest of the cast is equally strong. As Brünnhilde, Christine Goerke, has an easy evening—compared with her assignments in the other operas in the cycle. She only comes in for the last act. Thus, her voice was wonderfully fresh and supple. She lacks Morris’ range of expression and dynamic shadings, but she can send a mezzo-ish soprano note sailing over anything the orchestra can hand out.
Dramatically, she turned in a believable portrait of a disoriented woman awakening after decades of enchanted slumber. She and Morris played out their approach/avoidance conflict perfectly right up to a passionate what-the-hell lip clench on the final note of the score.
One of opera’s guaranteed, supposedly unintended laugh lines occurs when Siegfried first gets a close look at the sleeping figure that he assumes to be a heroic male: “This is not a man,” he exclaims. (Ya think?) Her costume adds to the hilarity because she is saddled with a hammered brass bra that looks like a pair of upside down soup tureens. (More, much more about the production later.)
The entire cast is also strong, both as singers and actors. Iain Paterson is a quietly terrifying Wotan and his rich bass voice is god-worthy. Rodell Rosel is a less slimy Mime than we usually get. He is more like a second-rate scheming conman with unrealistic plans. Richard Paul Fink is one of the best Alberich’s on the modern stage. Pure evil.
Meredith Arwady’s Erda, the great earth mother, looks ridiculous reclining on a construction crane with a gigantic egg on her head reminiscent of Saturday Night Live’s silly Coneheads. However, her voice is a contralto that sounds like it is coming up from the stygian bowels of the earth. It is one of the most remarkable vocal sounds of my knowledge. Andrea Silvestrelli has also has a contrabass voice which certainly sounds like the giant Fafner now turned into a dragon. We hear him amplified at first but the voice is just as thundering when his is live on stage. However, his bizarre deconstructed mobile of a dragon looks like it is missing some parts.
Before I start, let me say that I have greatly enjoyed this avant-garde version of the Ring Cycle production so far (here is my review of Die Walkure in 2015 and the review of Das Rheingold in 2014). This Ring is designed by a Spanish avant-garde street theater group, called La Fura Dels Baus, which is directed by Carlus Padrissa. Of course, I know the cycle quite well and can follow all, well most, the abstract representations.
More about this later.
The set is mostly projections cast on six massive screens that are moved hither and yon by visible stage hands, like in a Japanese Noh drama (where we are supposed to ignore them). Many of the projections are dizzying and they flash quickly.
In one act they show a hellish Fritz Lang German Expressionist style mechanized factory hatching beings out of artificially produced eggs. In another we get an Imax-style helicopter ride swooping up snow-capped mountain summits. An exploding sun devours planets and fountains of blood become living horrors.
Some of the projections are well-suited while some are over-the-top. One example: at the mere mention of a flock of birds, one promptly swoops in front of our very eyes.
A very busy army of mimes portray robotic janitors compulsively mopping the floor, hang from meat hooks like sides of beef, become an undulating pile of gold, and hold bouquets of long sticks to portray a forest. Siegfried’s ferocious bear turned docile is, most conveniently, already a rug.
Patrick Summers is simply the best opera conductor alive today. With never a wasted motion, he conveys how every note should fit in and then lets the players make it their own. He never looks down at the vestigial score on the stand, but it is there to reinforce the confidence of the singers and orchestra that he can move quickly to repair any damage in case an emergency should arise (which never does). Tempi are perfect and balance is superb. Expressive nuances never take on a life of their own. And, his joy is apparent to everyone.
To be fair, Wagner’s Ring cycle is a set designer’s nightmare, what with mountain palaces, flying horses, dragons, mass conflagrations, subterranean mines and one act played partially underwater in a river. Realistic productions are few and far between, mostly because of costs, but also because of egos.
Once a new generation of Wagners took over the master’s own opera house, Bayreuth, these productions, world-wide, have gotten sillier and sillier in a game of bizarrerie and one-upmanship. One memorable one in Chicago only used some streaks of neon lights. All this is well and good, I suppose, if the audience knows what is going on and what is supposed to be represented. That is an “if” of humongous size.
All this was brought to my attention by a gentleman seated next to me. He bought the ticket at the last minute so he could see his first opera and Wagner’s mystique beckoned. I belatedly learned this at the start of the last intermission when, because of his intense reading of the program notes, I asked him what he was thinking “Is this what you expected?” I inquired.
His answer was a resounding “No.”
It was then that the nature of the Ring itself became clear.
He didn’t have the slightest idea who these people were running around on the stage or what they were yacking about. What was with the egg factory? Why were they running around with a handful of long sticks? Who is the weird dude with the Gandalf cape and spear?
I quickly filled him on who is who and why, no easy task, so that at least the last act would be more enjoyable. Later, he said I helped a lot. I regret that I didn’t realize his situation earlier. One cannot imagine what he thought was going on during the first two acts.
So, here is the scary thought:
Perhaps the audience is filled with Ringaholics and cognoscenti. But, consider for a moment that some in any audience are like my bewildered seatmate. They have (a) never seen the ring before and (b) didn’t have time to read the program, and (c) that some may have not even been to an opera at all before. Granting this is a possibility, the following should be given some serious thought.
1) Siegfried most probably should not be produced by itself. It is like coming in on the last third of a complicated movie. You really need to see Die Walküre to understand exactly who Siegfried is, why the big lummox matters to anyone, and exactly who is the definitely-not-a-man he awakens. This opera also leaves you with an irritating “to be continued” ending. It is not even a cliffhanger.
2) Abstract productions need to help the audience “get it.” This can be easily done with the addition of some basic information given in the supertitles. What is wrong with a supertitle that says something like “Wotan, King of the Gods” when he first appears? Or give a stage description like “A cave in rocks” or “deep in the forest.”
Even lengthy remarks would help in some scenes: “We now fly to the mountaintop where Brunhilde’s father, Siegfried’s grandfather, has imprisoned her in a ring of fire waiting for the heroic Siegfried’s first kiss.”
While this opera may require more than the theatrical “later the day,” some rudimentary help would seem to only make sense if we really want to grow the audience. Especially when even the well-informed wonder “what the hell was that supposed to mean?”