Of the myriad challenges present in staging a Ring cycle, none is probably more difficult than coming up with a Siegfried
that engages the audience for its duration. From my perspective the problem lies in a title character who is not only unsympathetic, but is the most uninteresting character of any significance in the entire cycle. LA Opera's
production, seen on Sunday October 11th, lays the problem bare and can't overcome the challenge despite the continued genius of director Achim Freyer's monumental, visionary staging and some impressive efforts from many quarters. In fact, Freyer's conception magnifies the problematic elements of the Siegfried character.
Among the Ring's main characters Siegfried is the only one without any inner conflict. He is all id, all the time- an adolescent with corresponding appetites whose only problem is that he didn't know mommy and daddy. There is an opportunity to make him real, to make him interesting to us, as Chereau's centenary production proved, but Freyer's intensely psychological staging renders him a two-dimensional comic strip, who looks like Thor or Aquaman drawn by Matt Groening. Notwithstanding John Treleaven's ability to project some personality through the blue muscle suit and Bart Simpson dreadlocks, it would take a heldontenor of superhuman abilities to make this Siegfried compelling for almost five hours and alas, Treleavan is a mere human like the rest of us. His voice was serviceable without ever sounding remarkable, but he did have the stamina to make it through the final act's duet with Linda Watson's Brunnhilde, though she overpowered him significantly.
Siegfried takes place on a running track, with the characters poised waiting on their starting blocks. As Freyer notes in the program, the staging conveys the condition of waiting. Siegfried awaits the sword Notung, an object, while everyone else is awaiting a person or an event to transpire. Setting up the drama this way, having the hero wait for a thing while everyone else awaits something or someone, is where the staging goes awry. For once Siegfried has his sword, he's merely walking the track toward a destination he has no hand in creating. In other words, Siegfried, the center of the action, is a dullard. Given that everything else surrounding him is fascinatingly and vividly alive, this makes Freyer's depiction of the hero an especially frustrating one. How this will impact Gotterdammerung should prove interesting, but I suspect my sympathies may be on the side of the Gibichungs by the time the it's all over.
So let's move on to the good news, because there are still plenty of things in this production to make it worth seeing. First of all, Graham Clark's Mime is superb in voice, diction and acting. Vitalij Kowaljow's Wanderer, after a shaky start that proved brief, turned in a magnetic performance both vocally and visually, growing better and more formidable with every scene. During the potentially static Q&A scene between Mime and the Wanderer, characters from the previous operas come out onstage as they are mentioned. This is brilliantly done and wholly mesmerizing, in effect creating visual leitmotivs for the audience to match those in the score. The elaborate visual world Freyer constructs plays out beautifully across the stage, creating the first of what will be quite a few gorgeous tableaus- Siegfried is the best-looking part of this Ring so far. During Wotan's final scene, Kowaljow invested an anger into his performance that was palpable. He's really grown into the role and I hope to see him as Wotan in future productions.
Jill Grove's Erda was again brilliantly sung, though her costume unfortunately reminded me of the defaced statue of the Virgin Mary in The Exorcist
. I was sitting much closer to the stage for this performance than I was during Das Rheingold
, so if it's the same costume it's more disturbing up close. Eric Halfvarson's Fafner and Oleg Bryjak's Alberich were well-sung. Stacey Tappan's Woodbird, in another freaky costume (the red nipples were a bit distracting) was adequate for this performance.
Finally, though Linda Watson's Brunnhilde was arresting visually, I can't say I'm a fan of her voice, which has a tendency to shriek at the top. The staging during the third act however, is brilliant, with Brunnhilde's emergence from her protective armor very evocative of the power and strength of her character. As she awakens from her sleep, at the rear of the stage her horse Grane comes back to life as well, creating another memorable tableau.
James Conlon's conducting chose clarity over vibrancy, with the forging scene particularly lacking the vehemence that anyone raised on the Solti recordings would long for. On the other hand, every nuance in the score was rendered with a clarity and dedication that distinctly brought every leitmotif out in the open, providing musical subtitles that almost rendered the surtitles unnecessary for those of us who don't speak German.
still remains the high point of the cycle for me thus far, though I'll admit that may be due to it being my favorite among all operas. Siegfried doesn't quite live up the expectations Freyer has created in the two earlier chapters, but his vision remains fascinating and I wish I didn't have to wait until April to see Gotterdammerung
. There is one performance left this coming weekend.
All photos by Monika Rittershaus, taken from LAOpera.com