Washington National Opera followed up Monday’s lavishly praised Die Walküre with a Siegfried that, if not quite rising to the summit of the previous installment, delivered a musically committed and eminently watchable version of this complicated work.
The environmental themes which have been lurking in the background of Francesca Zambello’s Ring come to the fore in her Siegfried. I think in the parallel chronology, we’re now in the 1970s or so, many decades of unfettered capitalism having precipitated an ecological cataclysm which only Brunnhilde can redeem, I assume by figuring out how to expand the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon emissions.
Meta-narrative aside, these images of industrial despoilment help set the tone for a pitiless vision of the opera’s damaged men and their bad behavior. Young Siegfried is a case study for environmental health impacts, his problematic upbringing with Mime exacerbated here by literally growing up under power lines and in a junkyard. The usual confusion about how much we should sympathize with a difficult hero is largely absent—this Siegfried registers as every impulse control-challenged, aggressive little jerk that tortured other kids in the fifth grade, right down to his blond spiky hair. After forging Nothung, he starts carelessly hacking away at Mime’s trailer just to see what his new light saber can do.
Act II presents Fafner’s lair as an enormous abandoned warehouse, the now-destitute Alberich a lonely squatter keeping his vigil over the hoard. His interaction with the Wanderer plays as two hobos grandstanding over whose delusions are less fanciful, a sly commentary on the bankruptcy of their ambitions.
The most bravura design feat of the whole cycle is reserved for the portrayal of Fafner: the warehouse door opens to reveal a huge clawed machine. Slain in a shower of sparks, the giant version of Fafner we remember from Rheingold tumbles out of the cockpit, a clever touch that underlines the tragedy of his death, though somewhat clumsily staged here, with the mortally wounded giant often obscured by a sea of stage smoke.
Once Fafner has been mourned and Mime dispatched, aggro-Siegfried douses the bodies with gasoline and threatens to burn them, heading towards the nadir of his destructive tendencies. The Woodbird’s return with news of Brunnhilde stays his hand, and as the idea of a companion triggers something more human in him, the green glow previously used for the forest murmurs suffuses the stage and the backdrop turns into a brilliant forest. Flicking the switch for a nature/woman/love scene change as soon as Brunnhilde’s name is mentioned may feel a little obvious, but the visual effect is stunning and it sends the Act and Siegfried off on an optimistic high.
While the details of physical production continue to impress through these acts, especially the fully operational Nothung forging station (sets are by Michael Yeargan), the transitional video projections continue to be overbearing and distracting. This time, Wagner’s glorious interludes are accompanied by what looks like stock footage from cautionary videos about the dangers of pollution and deforestation.
Act III does not break much new conceptual ground. While the decision to retire the American Indian imagery for Erda is still to be applauded, this leaves the Wanderer half of the act (played against neutral “craggy” flats) devoid of any new interpretive material. Siegfried’s breaking of the spear is accompanied by striking cataclysmic effects, though the fire video imagery and overly busy lighting throughout the approach to Brunnhilde starts to feel like overkill.
In comparison with the clarity and force of Walküre’s two-hander on Brunnhilde’s Rock, the staging of the Siegfried-Brunnhilde courtship is more predictable, though still brimming with playful and imaginative touches. After an awkward kiss (appropriately preceded by someone’s phone blasting the Maroon 5 hit “Moves like Jagger”), and the requisite guffaws at “Das ist kein Mann!” (quickly displacing Siegfried’s crappy flute skills as the audience’s favorite Ring punchline), Brunnhilde awakes to find the platinum crop she sported in Walküre has bloomed into a luxurious womanly mane.
Catherine Foster, taking the stage after her absence from Walküre, affectingly portrayed Brunnhilde’s wobbly return to the world as she attempts to overcome the almost physical trauma of her transformation and establish a new way of being in the world. The blocking in the rapturous finale veered dangerously close to “too cute” territory here and there, but the high-octane musical values kept things serious enough.
For Siegfried, WNO has turned to American tenor Daniel Brenna in his North American role debut. Brenna, who played Alwa in Lulu at the Met last year and will assume Laca in next year’s Jenufa (aka the Mattilnicka), clears an impressive number of the hurdles in this foreboding role, with an exciting baritonal sound that can hold its own against the orchestra’s most withering fire. Through some combination of careful pacing and sheer resilience, he arrived in Act III with little evidence of strain; indeed he seemed to deploy unlikely reserves of focused tone for the Brunnhilde duet. The least evolved piece of the package is being able to fully shift gears for the forest murmurs and other more lyrical passages, though he seemed to have a better handle on these transitions by end. Still very early in his career, he is, as they say, a Siegfried to watch.
Vocally, Daniel Cangelosi delivers just about everything you could want in Mime. His full clear tenor easily sails over the roiling orchestra and never grows tiresome to listen to, while still incorporating the usual nasal affect. Cangelosi gamely took on the extensive physical comedy assigned to him, though there is a hard limit on how funny these pratfalls can be, and the sheer length of the Mime scenes guarantees such hijinks are going to wear out their welcome, which they did.
Alan Held brought his masterful portrayal of Wotan to an end with a volatile vision of the Wanderer, one moment the old tramp cracking a beer and disarming the other characters with drop-out mellowness, the next bitterly lashing out. The Act I encounter with Mime and especially the Act II encounter with Alberich, both of which can drag in the wrong hands, benefited substantially from Held’s continued commitment to finding the dramatic through line in Wotan’s dialogue. The very different demands of his scene with Erda, with its long sustained lines, proved more of a challenge, the worn edges of his voice less palatable when driven at full volume. Mind you, the pit was not terribly sympathetic to his needs here, churning out merciless waves of sound throughout his long coda.
Now, one isn’t about to forget Christine Goerke’s surprise appearance from Monday any time soon, but Catherine Foster’s assured debut as Brunnhilde indicated DC has much to look forward to in the coming weeks. Though still a bit cautious on her ankle (thankfully the WWII pillbox thing has deteriorated substantially in the years since Walküre and is now easier to navigate) she offered a detailed characterization of Brunnhilde’s confusion and vulnerability slowly overtaken by joyful ecstasy. While her clear penetrating sound is not always the most attractive in softer passages, in the climaxes she unleashes blazingly pure top notes, fueling a terrifically exciting finale.
Solomon Howard seemed less well suited to Siegfried Fafner than Rheingold Fafner; though still offering an appealing and consistent sound, he seemed less comfortable reaching for the depths to which this role sinks. Contralto Lindsay Ammann thrilled again, adorning Erda’s music with specatular low notes.
Auguin and the WNO band continue to dazzle in this music. While big orchestral moments like the Act 1 finale and the transition music in Act III overwhelmed with heroic gusto, tender passages of discovery, like the forest murmurs and the arrival on Brunnhilde’s rock unfolded with patient sweetness. If there were more noticeable quibbles this time, it was in balancing with the singers and the always challenging Siegfried-Mime scenes, where static forte dynamics in the pit did little to add interest to these sometimes exhausting stretches.
P.S. Though I have been patiently waiting for the Götterdämmerung of this Ring since the beginning of the Obama administration, when WNO shut down production due to budgetary constraints and gave us “Götterdämmerung: In Concert!” instead, I will have to wait a bit longer as I was out of town Friday. Should be back later this month with a review of one of the later cycle’s finales…
Photos: Scott Suchman