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Poor Boy Marries Rich Girl: Siegfried's American Dream

Andreas Conrad (Mime) and Alan Held (Wanderer, seated) in Siegfried, Washington National Opera, directed by Francesca Zambello (photo by Karin Cooper)
Washington National Opera continued its epic American Ring Cycle on Saturday night, with a production of Wagner's Siegfried that was plagued by vocal and technical troubles but was still an evening of revelations. Director Francesca Zambello continued the work begun in her 2006 Das Rheingold and 2007 Die Walküre, which transferred Wagner's epic cycle of four operas from its German mythology to the founding legends of the United States. Essentially the conflicting forces were cast in terms of the wealthy and poor in American life, with the gods shown as the loafing rich, walking up a rainbow bridge that looked like a cruise ship's gang plank while sipping champagne. Wotan plotted his plans for control of the world from a Valhalla that looked like an executive board room at the top of a Manhattan skyscraper, while Alberich's enslaved Nibelungs were cowering African-American slaves and the giants, who built that skyscraper for the gods, were rough-necked Teamsters. Siegmund managed to rescue Sieglinde from a life of spousal abuse on the American prairie, and now their son, Siegfried, is raised by an impoverished tinkerer, Mime, squatting in a beat-up trailer in a filthy junkyard (set design by Michael Yeargan). No Siegfried has probably come from so far on the wrong side of the tracks to win the daughter of the richest man in town.

The same criticism of the first two operas continues to hold true, in that taken as a whole the individual scenes, set in wildly different times and locales, do not add up to something coherent. The production is left-leaning in a fairly heavy-handed way (the Washington Times critic labels it "socialist"), but somehow casting the struggle of the gods against the races of the earth on the battleground of American capitalism makes sense dramatically. In Siegfried Zambello leans even closer to the infamous environmental message of the Patrice Chéreau Centennial Ring at Bayreuth: the opening projected images of clouds slowly become instead the choking fumes of smokestacks, the poisonous blood and spittle of the dragon become the polluting by-products of the industrial revolution. The dragon is conceived as an enormous mechanized digger, with the Teamster Fafner inside the cabin.

Gidon Saks (Fafner) and Pär Lindskog (Siegfried, front) in Siegfried, Washington National Opera, directed by Francesca Zambello (photo by Karin Cooper)
Just about everything that could have gone wrong with the production as planned did go wrong. The company's music director, Heinz Fricke, whose experienced hand over the orchestra served the cycle so well, had to withdraw while recovering from bypass surgery. He was replaced quite effectively by Michael Güttler, a young German conductor who famously and successfully stepped in for Valery Gergiev during a Ring cycle in St. Petersburg a few years ago. Very much in the mold of Gergiev, Güttler left an incisive mark on the score, driving the music forward, not always with the full cooperation of the orchestra, especially the strings. The sound from the pit was at times forceful (excellent playing in general from the winds and from the low brass, especially the Wagner tubas and big tuba) but often clarified and pointedly active in a style reminiscent of Boulez.

The cast was as a whole good but with several weak links. Pär Lindskog, who debuted as Siegfried in the Royal Swedish Opera's Ring Cycle, came down with bronchitis. The solution worked out for opening night was to have American tenor Scott MacAllister, who just performed his first Siegfried this spring, sing from a score at the edge of the stage, while Lindskog acted the role on stage. A few missed entrances and a rough start aside, MacAllister sounded quite good, and we hope to have the chance in the run to see him act the role as well as sing it. At the same time, Lindskog owned the role as an actor and was entirely believable as this headstrong, white trash Siegfried, who might appear on Jerry Springer to have a DNA test proving that Mime is not his dad. Alan Held reprised his powerhouse Wotan and was the shining jewel of the cast, embracing his character's transformation into a sort of wandering hobo, with a bandana pulled down over one eye and silver duct tape covering the holes in his tattered coat.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Two-Tenor 'Siegfried' Triumphs (Washington Post, May 4)

T. L. Ponick, D.C. 'Siegfried' tricks an illness (Washington Times, May 4)

Tim Smith, Washington National Opera delivers compellng 'Siegfried' despite major obstacle (Clef Notes, May 5)
Gordon Hawkins returned as Alberich, too, and was also good, if not quite as stellar as Held, as a crazy homeless person hanging around the factory that serves as the dragon's lair (garage) with a shopping cart full of his stuff. German tenor Andreas Conrad was a conniving, slightly goofy Mime, along the lines of the ingenious Heinz Zednik in the Chéreau production, although he rushed ahead of the conductor's beat more often than he was with it. Gidon Saks was a stentorian Fafner, if not quite of the necessary booming vocal proportion, and the same goes for Nancy Maultsby's Erda, an improvement over a strangely underpowered Elena Zaremba in Das Rheingold but still hardly an Erda of molten lava. The Brünnhilde of Iréne Theorin was likewise more good than great, perhaps thrown slightly by having to interact vocally with MacAllister so far away. [UPDATE: Theorin was ill on opening night but reportedly sounded spectacular a week later in the run.--Ed.] Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Micaëla Oeste was entrusted with the small part of the Woodbird and sounded light, flighty, and a little bit out of her element. She appeared in a brightly colored costume on the catwalk above the dragon's factory and then led Siegfried from the gloom of the industrial wasteland into a green forest. It was the only part of Zambello's production that left me wondering a bit. Was she a tree-hugging hippie? If so, groovy, dude.

Wagner's Siegfried continues at Washington National Opera with four more performances on May 5, 9, 14, and 17, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.


jwiecking said...

For what it's worth, on Saturday night Iréne Theorin produced a performance that I could imagine only in my dreams, and sang a an extraordinary Brünnhilde. "Heil Dir, Sonne" woke up the entire house. I have less good to say about Mr Lindskog, who perhaps was not yet fully over his bronchitis.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for that, John. The circumstances of opening night were obviously not ideal. I'm glad that Theorin lived up to expectation later in the run. "Could only imagine in your dreams," huh? How would her performance stack up against, say, Birgit Nilsson? Or Gwynneth Jones?

JWiecking said...

I never heard Gwyneth Jones live, and only on record fairly late (Bernstein Rosenkavalier). Theorin made me think at times of hearing Nilsson as Elektra (never heard her do Wagner live) in the Wiener Staatsoper in 1978.
Anne Midgette was impressed, we read in this morning's Post, though she shies away from imprudent comparisons like the above!