THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Sam Shirakawa attended the opening performance of this season's run of Siegfried at the Met, on Saturday afternoon/ Here's his squib:
18 APRIL 2009 Season Premiere
Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs has, in my view, two major inciting incidents. The first takes place in Rheingold, when Alberich curses love and steals the ring. The second incitement happens in the third act of Siegfried, which the Metropolitan Opera mounted for the first time this season at Saturday’s broadcast matinee -- the penultimate installment in the first of three Ring Cycles this season. Wotan’s mortal grandson challenges him at the proverbial crossroad and breaks his spear, thereby ending the god’s control of the world he created.
None of the nine Ring productions I’ve witnessed makes much of the spear-breaking. Except for a lightning flash in some stagings, it’s over in a blink. Wagner doesn't make much of it either: no anguished soliloquies, no Mozartean ensemble numbers, not even a da-da-da-dum from the orchestra to denote Destiny Descending. And yet, it marks the Beginning of The End, for which Wotan longs during his tortured narrative in Day One of the saga. Siegfried is now at liberty to go his merry way and do whatever he wants.
So what’s a liberated, horny teen love-child of an incestuous union to do? Commit incest, of course. And who better to guide him through the ins and outs of banging, than the archetypal Older Woman, namely his equally virginal but knowing great-aunt, Brünnhilde. (We’re not privy to the party that proceeds after the curtain falls on Act Three, but presumably, they know instinctively what goes where, when it comes to doin’ what comes unnaturally.)
Siegfried has occasionally been dubbed the “happy opera” of the Ring Cycle, given it’s flame-throwing dragon, chatty bird, nasty ogres and Sleeping Beauty. But while it has its sanguine moments, it’s really a somber setup for the six-hour tragedy to come in Day Three of the saga.
I’ve often complained that Siegfried has too many men barking at each other for far too long, before we get some feminine ear candy. But thanks to James Levine’s priorities, which places cantilena always at the top, we heard some wonderful singing from the guys bickering and bellowing during the first two acts on Saturday afternoon.
For me, the big pleasure of the afternoon was Christian Franz, making his Met debut as the eponymous hero. I’ve heard him several times over the past couple of years -- mostly in Berlin -- and was little impressed with his tendency to bark out phrases for emphasis, in much the way you expect from the Drum Major in Wozzeck. While he still yelps out some notes, this is essentially an all but reborn Christian. A Heldentenor in the Melchior vein Franz is not, but who is? Nearly always tone-perfect, he managed to maintain the requisite energy for this killer role all the way from the Forging Scene to the exhausting Awakening Duet at the finish.
The second major pleasure of being in the house on Saturday afternoon was hearing and seeing Irene Theorin as Brünnhilde. The role is comparatively small, but its pitfalls are huge, and Theorin avoided them all. Appearing even more radiant than she had looked in Walküre, she soared confidently from strength to strength, making the fitful transition from goddess to woman seemingly effortless. Hers is not a mega-voice, nor is it an emotional button-pusher like, say, Susan Boyle’s. But it shows a telltale sign of emerging major Wagner sopranos: a predisposition for grandly invigorating the dynamics Wagner prescribes. Its grace under pressure and the two bang-on high Cs reminds me of how Gwyneth Jones sounded all too rarely.
The sound of James Morris as Wotan/Wanderer was focused, on pitch and by turns effectively condescending in the Quiz Scene with Mime, cunningly brutish in dealing with Alberich, and just plain desperate in Wotan’s big scene with Erda in the third act.
Robert Brubaker is a bit tall to qualify as a dwarf, but his unctuous way with a whine makes him a memorable Mime. Richard Paul Fink turns Alberich into a fascinating portrait in slime.
It struck me as unfortunate that the role of the Fafner in dragon form (sung off-stage) prevents John Tomlinson from singing on stage. If his days as a top-notch Wotan and Sachs are behind him, he still has plenty of mileage left to portray backbench Wagner heavies.
The much-missed Lili Chookasian spoiled me for anybody else singing Erda, but Wendy White brings a dark, slender imperiousness to her brief appearance scolding Wotan for making a mess of Everything. Lisette Oropesa as the Woodbird sounded as if she had been placed too far off-stage, but the young native of the Big Easy has the right stuff for bigger things to come.
The legendary Wagner conductor Reginald Goodall often said the big challenge in taking on the Ring is finding the right basic tempo. After years of imposing phlegmatic pacing on his readings of late Wagner, James Levine at last has found the right basic tempo that works for him and his listeners. And the relatively brisk pacing he’s taking currently enlivens the tetralogy immeasurably. You can feel the pulse arching over the entire work. There is finally a sense of inevitability in his Ring that makes it Levine’s Ring once and for all.
© Sam H. Shirakawa