When last we left our Wagnerian hero, he was pondering what step to take, and the fates of gods and men hung in the balance! Then I saw on-line the perfect center-section front-row aisle seat available for yesterday’s Siegfried, and, armed with a mighty discount from the Wagner Society of Northern California, I took the step of buying the ticket (“here’s your beee-yutiful orchestra seat!” said the friendly woman at the box office) and spending five hours in the dark on the one sunny day of this Memorial Day weekend.
It turned out to be time and money well spent. After the relative disappointment of Francesca Zambello’s productions of Rheingold and Walkure, who would have thought she’d do so well with the most problematic opera of the cycle. It’s still very much in line with the traditional Shavian/Chereauvian view of the Ring as an analysis of capitalism, but often striking and even beautiful even as it portrays destruction and greed.
Siegfried and Mime live in a half-trashed trailer amid an industrial wasteland, surrounded by the detritus of consumer capitalism, in sort of a survivalist’s no-man’s-land. Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris) strides in with his lumbering bear, to the terror of Mime (David Cangelosi). The bear is uncredited in the program, but he got his own solo bow at the end, which was charming. He reappears at the very end of the first scene, rooting around the trailer and finally running off when he finds a bag of potato chips. This is funny and even adorable, but also nicely illustrates the pervasive theme of nature corrupted.
I’ll admit that one thing that led me to buy a ticket was curiosity to see how they handled the dragon: he’s a large, oil-spewing, chugging machine, with giant sharp tractor-claws; and if he looks a bit silly and old-fashioned as well as threatening and dangerous, that also is suitable. Once Siegfried kills him, Fafner (Daniel Sumegi) emerges in his old giant form. As he lies dying he cradles Siegfried in his arms as he warns him of the treacherous Mime, a nice and ironic touch for a hero who has been looking for the loving guidance of a parent and a giant/dragon who has cut himself off from all living contact until his hour of death.
After killing Mime and tossing him on the pile with Fafner, Siegfried pours gasoline on them and is about to burn them when the Forest Bird (Stacey Tappan) dissuades him. Before he leaves at the end he’s made enough moral progress under her guidance to make sorrowing gestures over their corpses. I thought the gasoline was a bit much until I saw that it was there for the sorrowing, conciliatory moment: the Forest Bird is the first feminine, not to say Eternal Feminine, voice we’ve heard, and Siegfried reacts to his first exposure to this quality, which he's been yearning for without knowing it.
One of the problems with Siegfried is that in the original conception of the Ring he was the star, and then was gradually pushed aside by the more complex and interesting characters of Wotan and Brunnhilde. It's too easy for him to come across as a bully and a lout, so I think the physical violence needs to be kept to a minimum; there was way too much manhandling and shoving and threatening of Mime by Siegfried. He’s an active adolescent but anyone able to sing the role is going to be, and of course look like, a fairly beefy middle-aged man, which gives a different effect. (There was also some odd manhandling of Erda (Ronnita Miller) by Wotan; sometimes it really is better just to have characters stand there and sing – does the rule of the gods really need to put a drowsy woman in a wrestling hold?)
Siegfried's false fathers had appeared earlier in the act: Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) brooding destruction, obsessing over his wrongs and his hoped-for revenge, muttering and pushing a shopping cart like the other victims of capitalist society we see daily on the streets around us – his shopping cart filled with Molotov cocktails and other incendiary devices, a shopping cart full of the simmering and dangerous resentments of those who have lost the world. And Wotan (Mark Delavan) strides in and out, proclaiming that he has willed the end and welcomes it yet not able to resist opposing Siegfried. Wotan is just profoundly (an adverb I choose advisedly) confused. (The surtitles should have retained the moment when Wotan refers to himself as "light-Alberich" as opposed to the dark Alberich who rules the Nibelungs.)
The colors of Act 2 were particularly beautiful; after all the flat grays and occasional browns we had the glowing green windows of the shed behind which lurked Fafner, and then the burnt-orange and rust-red of the sauntering Forest Bird, in frock coat and boots like an eighteenth-century forester (though it was potentially confusing I think for first-timers who didn’t come in knowing that this young woman was actually meant to be a bird). And then the whole stage is flooded with green light and forest visions and Siegfried rushes off to find his promised companion.
Another thing that led me to buy a ticket was this: every other time I’ve seen Siegfried, it’s been part of a cycle, and every time, I find the final duet with Brunnhilde (Nina Stemme) to be (I know, let the wrath of the Wagnerites descend!) just too damn long. So I’ve always wondered if that reaction is merely part of the natural cycle of sitting through something like the Ring Cycle (as if there’s anything else like the Ring Cycle!) or if I would have the same reaction seeing the opera on its own.
I had the same reaction. Though intellectually I can understand why Brunnhilde has to struggle to accept her new human nature, I always get exasperated when she first throws herself at Siegfried and then backs away from him (though no doubt we also need to see that he is winning her as much as she is winning him). But physically, I’ve pretty much had it by then, and keep shifting my numb lower half in my seat. I can also see that, beautiful and necessary as the duet may be, and as refreshing as it is after all the gloom and brooding to hear two lovers’ voices, it is also a descent into the conventionally operatic, however sublimely done.
Musically as well as visually and dramatically the afternoon had a lot going for it. Donald Runnicles paced the orchestra brilliantly, and when they hit the richer sounds of Act 3 they still had a lot to give. Jay Hunter Morris, with blonde goatee and spiked-up, punk-looking hair, probably looked as much like Siegfried as anyone who can sing the role can look. His voice had a nice youthful timbre, which meant that occasionally he, like Delavan, sounded a bit underpowered, but then I was sitting in the front row right in front of the brass and percussion; perhaps they sounded different from the higher seats (as the man sitting next to me, also a front-row aficionado, said: “If you want perfect sound, buy a CD!”). I also noticed that Siegfried and Wotan sing over the brass I think more than the others.
Delavan is physically imposing (though not, I think, very tall), and he continues to be an interestingly tetchy Wotan. There is a lot to irritate the moody father of the Gods! He sounded strongest in his Act 3 scene with Erda, so perhaps he was pacing himself. Erda was given a magnificent presence by Ronnita Miller, who had a majestic air and a deep, rich voice. She actually sent chills down my spine, not once but several times! Stacey Tappan was a pretty-voiced Forest Bird, cocking her head birdlike; and Stemme, though not the subtlest actress, sang (not shouted) beautifully with the exhausted Siegfried. David Cangelosi had a clear and almost bell-like voice as Mime; his cartwheels and general jumping-around were about as endearing as the whiny Mime is going to get. Hawkins and Sumegi were solid and striking in their appearances. The audience was extremely and understandably enthusiastic by the time Siegfried and Brunnhilde joined in their final clinch.