Saturday, June 18, 2011

Part 3, Siegfried - Premiere of Wagner's Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera

The third installment of the new Francesca Zambello production of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle was staged as part of the cycle took place on 17 June 2011, Friday. This particular production was premiered in San Francisco Opera just several days ago on 29 May 2011, with the cast of:

Siegfried Jay Hunter Morris
The Wanderer (Wotan) Mark Delavan
Brünnhilde Nina Stemme
Mime David Cangelosi
Alberich Gordon Hawkins
Fafner Daniel Sumegi
Erda Ronnita Miller
Forest Bird Stacey Tappan

Siegfried, though conceived first and was the central part of Wagner's plan, has always been just like the title character, the orphan, of the cycle - it lacks the colorfulness of Das Rheingold, lacks the thrill and familiarity of Die Walküre and doesn't have the dramatic one of the bleakest showdowns of Götterdämmerung.  Only three females characters in a long evening, and all roles were relatively speaking, brief.  Even Brünnhilde had only about 45 minutes on stage.  The main character Siegfried can also be problematic, not only for singers who is valiant enough to take it on and for directors as well.  The waking up of Brünnhilde in the final scene was really a semi-rape.

However, from the first few bars of the orchestral playing, I suspected that my opinion on this opera might change.  I always found the forging music cheesy, when I listen to recordings, no matter how exalted the performances were.  But, last night, I found that music was threatening, urgent and mystic, without an iota of cheesiness.  Kudos to the heroic effort from conductor Donald Runnicles.

In Act one, we found Siegfried, a big overgrown blond boy, handsome, brave and brutal, constantly mistreated his foster father, the ghastly drawf Mime, who was supposed to be a miserable sight, much more miserable than the rather handsome Cangelosi.  Siegfried berated Mime constantly for his cooking, for his inability to forge a sturdy enough weapon, for his ugliness, and for their different looks.  This was rather uncomfortable stuff.  In this brutal, ingratiate brat, I saw the prototype of Nazism.  Nazism, or at least Hitler, was an aesthetics tyrant and many of his crime could be traced to his vision of a world of beauty of his version, in one singular form alone.

However, prototype or not, despite the discomfort, we soon accepted Siegfried due to his innocence.  He was innocent of many things - growing up with an unsteady foster father who nagged constantly and bore no love towards Siegfried but the desire to use his as his pawn to gain the Ring, without societal companion, therefore, much of his petulance could be explained away if not embraced.  Even his eagerness to bring destruction to outside world, seen through an adolescent's lens, if not accepted today, could be understood.

The most amusing characteristics of his was his lacking of fear.  It was not the dragon he slayed taught it that but a maiden.   Which took place later, much later.

Before that, Wotan, in the guise of a wanderer, perhaps, had many confrontations, with Mime, with Albrech, and with Erda, then finally with Siegfried.  This opera charted the course of his maddening self-destruction and the feeble resist at the very end.

Duly, Siegfried forged his father's sword, shattered by Wotan, slayed the dragon (giant and one-time owner of the ring) Fafner, learned to understand the birds, shattered his grandfather's long staff, manhood, power and meaning of existence, woke up his aunt Brünnhilde, and half-persuaded and half-forced Brünnhilde to accept him as her man.

Clearly the innocence and fearlessness of Siegfried were his most commendable features but they were also what would doom him in the future.  What guaranteed his unfitness to be the free agent to free the world from  the power or curse of the Ring was his lacking of wisdom.  A holy fool, however holy, is still a fool.  Adorable one or not.

The music was glorious throughout but the long expositions in Acts one and two cried out for a large pair of scissors for Wagner.  Only if he had learned some fear.  But it was this megalomaniac approach made his operas such fascination.  Perhaps, he was being rather crafty, or extremely confident that after have exhausted us with three hours music, the sight of Brünnhilde would be just as rapturous to us as to Siegfried.  And we did.  The scene two of Act three, the awakening of Brünnhilde and their love-rape duet was glorious.

The best singing came from Nina Stemme's Brünnhilde - after had waited for four hours, it must be a relief to be part of the action.  Jay Hunter Morris, took over from the originally announced Ian Storey, who was recovering from an illness and would only sing in Götterdämmerung, went through the punishing evening honorably.  At times if his tone was less than heroic and clarion, it should be forgiven.  He hit all the notes capably and rather beautifully, and most times was clearly audible, and even raised his singing several notches higher when sang along with Stemme, and that was a quite a wonderful achievement in itself, considering the pit was open one, not the covered one Wagner had in mind when the opera was composed, and the brighter, louder sound of modern orchestra therefore harder to compete.

Delavan's singing was at times patchy - one moment barely audible and next rafter shaking - perhaps one day's break was not enough for him to recover.  He did best during confrontation with Erd and Siegfried in the later scene.  Overall, it was still a memorable and commendable performance. 

Erda was sang potently again by Miller and the Tappan chirped prettily as the Forest Bird, of whom I always suspect was in league with Wotan.  Cangolesi's Mime was outstanding singer and performer as well.

The staging was wonderful, particularly during Act one, with a set of deserted industrial park or a wasteland.  The dragon was mechanical one with the real giant hidden inside.  Act Three had already-crumbled Brünnhilde's Rock and the drying-diapers like hanging square pictures of dead heroes her sisters left behind were gone.  When the singers sang rapturously in the love-rape duet, the staging was rather conventional and less than inspired.  Their love, though orgasmic, was not as touching as Wotan-Brünnhilde's farewell.  But I was deeply moved by the trajectory of Brünnhilde's emotion as a mortal and reaction to Siegfried, the person she loved and knew would be her man but was not ready to accept, and Siegfried's fear in seeing a woman for the first time and his hope of seeing his mother and consequent disappointment and dejection.

One more pleasant thing to report is the well-calibrated manner and bearing of Jay Hunter Morris and the innocent and brutal Siegfried.  Not for a single moment he embarrassed himself with any silly imitation of a teenage.  He even gained our sympathy and emerged as a likeable and loveable one.  He was still a brute, but he was our brute.  Quite a feat.

Zambello, by concentration on myriads emotions of humans, gods, giants and dwarfs, made this long evening a powerful experience.

During the second intermission, at 9:50 p.m. three hours twenty minutes after the show started at 6:30 p.m., I heard an elder gentleman asked his wife why she wouldn't get ready to go down and go home.  She answered: "Honey, there is another act to go."  The show ended around 11:30 p.m.

In the end, do I like the opera better?  Yes, I think so.  I understand the many mini-confrontations much better and many detailed verbal exchanges are more meaningful, withe the memory of visual aides.

Sunday's performance would be even longer.  It would be an Everest to scale, not only for performers, but audience as well.

San Francisco Opera Ring Cycle  2011 Siegried _ 3616
Before the Show

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Standees Waiting to Enter the Theater

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San Francisco Opera Ring Cycle  2011 Siegried _ 3623
Before Curtain

San Francisco Opera Ring Cycle  2011 Siegried _ 3636
Before Curtain

San Francisco Opera Ring Cycle  2011 Siegried _ 3634
Before Curtain

San Francisco Opera Ring Cycle  2011 Siegried _ 3643
First Intermission

San Francisco Opera Ring Cycle  2011 Siegried _ 3647
Second Intermission

San Francisco Opera Ring Cycle  2011 Siegried _ 3648
Second Intermission

San Francisco Opera Ring Cycle  2011 Siegried _ 3672
Second Intermission

San Francisco Opera Ring Cycle  2011 Siegried _ 3679
After the Performance

Related articles:
Part 4, Götterdämmerung - Premiere of Wagner's Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera
Part 2, Die Walküre - Premiere of Wagner's Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera
Part 1, Das Rheingold - Premiere of Wagner's Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera
My Experiences with Wagner's Operas

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