Friday, May 6, 2016

Siegfried - A Hero of Our Time

If Siegfried is your favorite Ring opera, as it is mine, getting to see a new production can be a mixed blessing.  Depending on the tenor portraying the title hero, the performance can offer four hours of pure bliss or just an average musical evening. WNO's rendition of the third part of Wagner's Nibelung Ring on Wednesday not only had charismatic Siegfried - it was outstanding in every way.

When we first meet Sigfried, he is a teenage orphan, adopted by Nibelung dwarf Mime who is grooming him for a fight with Fafner (giant-cum-dragon) over the Rhine treasure.  Like his brother Alberich and like ruling god Wotan, Mime covets the gold ring and headcover Tarnhelm, for their special powers. The evil dwarf hopes that Siegfried will get the gold for him just like Wotan hoped Siegfried's father would get it for him. Neither the dwarf nor the god can fight for the treasure themselves, one because he is too weak, the other because he is bound by a contract, which forbids him to fight the giant.

Mime trying to forge a sword, Act I, Siegfried
Wotan therefore needs a hero who would get the ring for him without implicating the gods. The hero must be a human and an enemy of gods. Siegmund may have been all of that, but Wotan's plan to use his estranged son, fell through when his wife Fricka convinced him (for her own reasons) that providing Siegmund with the god's invincible sword, no matter how indirectly, would still make him an accomplice.

There are countless interpretations of Wagner's story and intent, but this much is clear from the narrative. People who doze off during The Ring's lengthy recitatives may miss important details and subsequently watch the highlights without enough context. Among the multitude of questions that one hears these days is why is Wotan looking for a strong male hero when a female one ( his daughter Brünhilde) is standing right before him. Wotan explains it extensively in Act II, Scene 2 of Die Walküre and knowing the gist of that narrative helps understand the whole cycle. In Siegfried, I would suggest paying careful attention to Wotan's dialogue with Erda because it contains important clues to understanding The Ring's last opera, Götterdämmerung.

This is not to say that you can't simply sit back and enjoy the music. Daniel Brenna's Siegfried on Wednesday was captivating. He looked and sounded the age he is supposed to be - presumably late teens - so much so that I could almost hear him saying "whatever," or "you are hovering," and many other things my son used to say to me when he was a teenager.  He also made me think of many young U.S. servicemen shipped off to Iraq and Afghanistan, not quite knowing what awaits there. Brenna sang with a clear bell-like voice that sounded fresh till the very end, including the grueling Act III, after he had already been singing more than two hours and Brünhilde only began.

Daniel Brenna is a youthful and charismatic Siegfried
Catherine Foster's Brünhilde was a pleasure to hear and if you did not know she had hurt her ankle, you would not know it. She made it look like she was somewhat insecure on her legs because she was still waking up from her 18-year-long nap.

Alan Held showed us yet another side of Wotan - an aging god still holding on to power, but aware it won't be for long. Lindsay Ammann as Erda, was convincing as a wise Earth goddess who has gotten tired of the World and wants to retire for good. Her resignation is a last blow to Wotan, one that convinces him to accept the demise of the gods. Again, pay attention to what is said between them!

David Cangelosi as Mime provided the most entertainment for the evening, pausing with his shenanigans long enough and in right places to remind us of his evil intentions. Gordon Hawkins as his brother Alberich was straightforward in expressing anger and frustration at being duped. They made a good pair.

I was looking forward to Soloman Howard's Fafner and he was worth the wait. Howard has a deep, alluring bass and as a dying giant, he elicited compassion. Singing from inside a huge armored machine, which sensibly replaces the dragon in this production, gave his voice a sinister tint.

Jacqueline Echols was a chirpy Forest Bird, presented as a bookish young girl, intent on mentoring Siegfried, who is illiterate at least in some ways.  She connected well with Brenna.

The greatest hero of Wednesday night's performance was conductor Philippe Auguin. He spun some of the most beguiling sounds to be had from Wagner's score, and I'd never heard the WNO orchestra play so well.