Saturday, July 2, 2011

Leaving the fairy tale behind...

By Guest Blogger Jeff Nytch
Folks will often ask me which of the four Ring operas is my favorite. It’s a more or less impossible choice, for each opera has its own unique flavor and characteristics, and I love each one in its own way. But if I were pressed to choose, I’d have to say my favorite is Siegfried. Articulating why this is true is not easy: yes, there is an inordinate amount of particularly beautiful music in this opera, and yes, there is exciting action and tender intimacy in equal measure. But that doesn’t really get at it. I think, in the end, the reason why this opera stands out to me is that it’s the perfect balance of form and function (the acts are structured as a kind of overlapping web of sonata form fused with variations), and gets right at the heart of that aim we discussed earlier, the drawing together of myth and psychology.

It’s also the shape of the thing itself. One commentator (whose name escapes me) termed it, “Wagner’s sunny Scherzo” within his dark symphony. And that’s right: each act positively soars, taking off in an upward trajectory in a way that none of the other operas does. It is a sunny ray of innocence and hope in the midst of a dark and downward journey.

It’s also, of the four, the most like a fairy tale: the hero, raised in the dark forest, becomes a man by slaying a dragon, overcomes all barriers with an innocent lack of fear, and wins a sleeping maiden by awakening her with a kiss. Doesn’t get more “fairy tale” than that. Wagner then deepens this tale, of course, by making it a critical link in the larger tale, and then by exploring the psychological issues inherent in this archetypal story. It’s an opera that is both pure and innocent while possessing all the complexity that is required for this point in our story. And lastly, it embodies a duality, a contradiction that is at the heart of the cycle as a whole: the fate of the gods is sealed, and the tragic events that will lead to their downfall and the death of our hero are beginning to fall like dominoes – and yet, these events are nonetheless couched in terms that are innocent, beautiful, and redeeming.

And if you want to really get inside me, give me that kind of duality and I’m yours forever.

So. What of this production? After taking something of a break in Walküre, the production theme of the western American paradise despoiled by industrialization returns with a vengeance. For instance, rather than the first act taking place deep in a primeval forest, it takes place in an industrial wasteland – a dumpy old trailer next to a garbage dump, with the only forest visible forest being a forest of electrical wires. Fafner’s lair of Act II is the inside of an old factory, and the dragon itself is an industrial “monster” driven by the giant. When we return to Brünnhilde’s rock in Act III, the place has crumbled and fallen into disrepair since we last saw it at the end of Walküre.

I had some problems with all of this – and not because of the theme driving such a staging, but simply in the fact that the setting is now seriously out of sync with the music (and the libretto). For instance, in the first scene Siegfried brings home a bear he has found in the woods; Mime is terrified, and after some good-natured tormenting of his caretaker Siegfried lets the bear go. In this setting, what on earth is a bear doing in the middle of an industrial wasteland? (And only in San Francisco could this line inspire a huge laugh from the audience: “I like bears fine, but why do you have to bring them home?”)

In Act II, the Forest Bird is a woman in a stylish red trench coat who suddenly and inexplicably appears on some scaffolding up in the factory, and my first thought was “somebody from Downtown is seriously lost if she’s walking around this place….” The dragon has become this industrial machine driven by Fafner the giant, but when Siegfried slices the machine’s hoses to “slay” it, Fafner falls out of the cockpit, bleeding and dying; what the connection is between this machine and the giant is pretty loose, and it definitely seemed like one of those moments when the production concept was maintained at the expense of sense. This continued with the sudden opening up of the back of the factory to reveal….a pristine forest scene. Are we being led to believe that this forest was hidden inside this huge factory? Or…. Huh? Lastly, as Siegfried is surveying the death and mayhem around him (with both Fafner and Mime lying dead in a heap), he finds a gasoline can, soaks the bodies, and prepares to set the corpses on fire. The Forest Bird gives him a gesture of “No,” and he relents, but the whole time I’m wondering what on earth this has to do with any aspect of either the story or our hero’s development: despite these deaths, and the knowledge of the world he is slowly attaining, he is still an Innocent. That he would have any malice toward these characters is completely inconceivable; the significance of their passing is totally lost on him, except for the fact that he is now alone in the world and wonders what is next for him.

And all of this unfolds against some of the most serene and beautiful music ever written. The forest music of Act II is the literal sonic embodiment of sunlight and the way it filters down through the leaves to reach the forest floor. It is as far away from what we’re seeing onstage in this production as could be imagined. And so one has to wonder what’s driving what here: does the production concept trump what’s in the score or the development of our characters in the libretto? When that happens to this extreme I have to conclude that it’s a production concept that has gone off the rails.

On the up-side we have more terrific singing and acting. David Cangelosi fulfilled the promise we saw in Das Rheingold by giving us an outstanding Mime: portrayed as sly and duplicitous but with a sort of comic cluelessness, and sung with a compelling range of color and expression. Mark Delavan as Wotan/The Wanderer, clearly rested from his day off, struck just the right balance of a god who has resigned himself to his fate but is still clinging to his power and pride. I wish Stacey Tappan’s Forest Bird has a little less Warbler in it, but she played it well. And Ronnita Miller’s stately Erda once again moved me with the richness and depth of her lowest register: a true contralto, which is a rare bird indeed.

But you want to know about our hero and heroine. Jay Hunter Morris certainly looks the part of Siegfried: young, blonde, handsome and strapping, he is the epitome of the Germanic hero. I have to say that I disagreed with the way he was playing the character, particularly in Act I: the young man has the roughness and hubris that come from innocence and an upbringing isolated from the rest of the world, but he’s not a bully, and he doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body. He’s an oaf, a bull in a china shop, but he’s not mean. The other problem I have with this characterization is that it makes his Act III transformation to adoring boy who learns fear through love less plausible – and since that transformation is essential to the rest of the story, that’s a rather big problem to have created.

Still, vocally I was impressed. I had a hard time discerning what goods he brought to the table in the earlier acts – in Act I he was simply drowned out by the orchestra (more on this below) and in Act II he has much gentler music; I ended Act II wondering if he was going to have the strength to hold his own with Nina Stemme. But as soon as Act III opened I realized that he’d just been holding out on us, saving himself for the big finale: his voice was rich, golden, and bright – and more than powerful enough to pair with Ms. Stemme.

And of course there’s Ms. Stemme herself. What a wonderful Brünnhilde she is turning out to be! I loved the way she played her awakening (one of my favorite moments in the entire cycle): at first she was blinded by the first sunlight she’s seen in something like 20 years; but then, as her eyes adjust, an enormous smile erupts on her face and she opens up her body to hail the sun, and life (accompanied, of course, by that glorious climax in the orchestra). Later, as she confronts her new identity (“I have no more weapons. I am no longer Brünnhilde!”), she expresses her conflict superbly, her body and facial expressions reflecting each subtle wrinkle in the music. And when she resolves her dilemma and embraces her love of Siegfried, she does so with abandon. Here is a singer who has the full set of gifts necessary to play this role: consummate acting, with vocal expression ranging from tender to powerful.

I found myself frustrated with the orchestra, however. The entire first act it played without nuance at all: it was simply loud, louder, loudest. Yes, the scoring is incredibly heavy throughout, but there was much that was simply not at an appropriate dynamic. We saw a little bit of this problem in Walküre, but last night it was totally out of control. Maestro: put a lid on your orchestra.

The final scene was nothing short of spectacular: exquisitely acted and sung, with the exuberance of new love and hope seeping out in every direction. I have often likened the end of Siegfried to the taking off of a jet: loud and powerful, but inexorably up. I just wish I could get past some of the problems with production and orchestra. But then again, I suppose we’re always hardest on the one we love the most.

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