Jay Hunter Morris as the title character in Wagner's "Siegfried."
(Photo : Photo: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera)
Robert Lepage's Ring production has been heavily criticized over the years for being a superficial technological feat. Few of the performances for the production have flowed seamlessly with the machine often undergoing technical glitches and creating noise. The performance of "Siegfried" showcased on Saturday April 20 is probably the closest that the production has come to fully reaching its potential; the presentation not only featured top notch performances for its cast, but also saw the "machine" at its finest.
For this writer, the "Siegfried" production has always been the best of the three; albeit the previous performance attended by him showcased a bizarre incident in which the titanic planks crashed right before the final scene on top of the mountain and the final love duet was played out in front of flame projections. No such occurrence took place on Saturday and the revolving planks were rarely audible throughout the night. Only at the starts of Act 1 and 2 did the piercing creaks resonate in the auditorium; ironically the unwelcome sounds came during some of Wagner's most chilling and frightening music in the entire cycle.
Act 1 showcases Mime's hut in identical fashion to "Die Walküre's" depiction of Hunding's abode. However, Mime's feels less claustrophobic despite the smaller area it covers; the staging still cuts off the actors at the knees, but the effect is not as distracting or detrimental as it was in the second Ring opera. The scene does have a few nice touches, including digital leaves that rustle when they "make contact" with the performers; there is also a realistic stream flowing from one of the planks.
Also worthy of note is the action that is staged during the opening prelude. Lepage portrays Mime stealing away Siegfried from the dying Sieglinde. Moments later the boy is seen running through the forest while the Niebelung chases after him. The first scene actually emphasizes Mime's scheming nature because as staged, Mime is lying to Siegfried when he tells him that the Niebelung gave Sieglinde a home and she in turn asked him to take care of her newborn baby. No one knows which version is true, but Lepage's stage direction showcases one of the few times in the entire cycle that the helmer has an insightful opinion about the characters in the work.
The only major issue with this scene is the awkward teddy bear that Siegfried arrives with in his first entrance; the creature looks like a man in a cartoonish bear costume. The effect is far worse in the upper seating, but still looks a bit goofy from the orchestra seating.
Act 2 is easily the most visually pleasing of the entire cycle. The planks rotate during the prelude and showcase displeasing images of snakes creeping through the forest; the same visuals are utilized in the first act and help create a stark mood for the work. Eventually the machine rotates into a realistic depiction of a forest with a gorgeous river as its centerpiece. This image dominates the remainder of the act and dynamism. The highlight of this act features the death of Fafner and the aforementioned river overflowing with blood; the illustration creates a strikingly somber moment in an otherwise light-hearted production. Not everything is perfect however and the big elephant happens to be the "dragon." Or should it be called a snake? The "monster" is actually quite hilarious to look at and one must ponder whether Lepage was intentionally making the creature represent Siegfried's perception; since the titular hero is ignorant of fear, everything that is supposedly frightening instead appears comic or silly to him. If this is the case, then Lepage has been successful. If this is not the intention, then it adds to the cartoony feel created by the bear in the first act.
Act three opens with a magic trick that features Wotan open the seas in order to meet Erda. The effect is not only realistic, but also artful in its execution. After spending an hour on a rather mundane mountainside, Siegfried is shown travailing the fire-depictions on the planks before the machine rotates into the top of the mountain and the sleeping Brunnhilde. The imagery, while not as unique or inspiring as anything in the previous two acts, is sufficient for the intents and purposes of the scene.
None of this even matters if not for the top-rate performances on display Saturday afternoon. Jay Hunter Morris was a revelation a year ago when he stepped into the title role at the last second. His tenor had a muscular quality, but was enriched by a sweet tone. The sweetness is not as present and has instead been replaced with a harder-edged sound. However, the finesse that Morris showcased a year ago was still in evidence. Despite singing non-stopped, he was still able to match the fresh Deborah Voigt in the orgasmic love duet that closes the work. His intensity was relentless throughout and the top notes, which are recurrent throughout the work, were always delivered with the same assuredness and brightness. His voice rang through the orchestra during monumental passages in Act one that include the two anvil songs and Siegfried's rage against Mime. During "Notung! Notung! Neidliches Schwert!," Morris sustained the lengthy vocal lines with ease and clarity; despite the difficult reaches of the passage, his voice retained its quality the whole way through. Morris also wove glorious legati in some of quieter sections of the work, including his intimate passage in which he wonders about his parents ("Dass der mein Vater nicht ist.")
Physically, Morris embodied Siegfried's arc wonderfully. Despite the burly beard, Morris' aloof movements portrayed a teenager in all facets. He threw Mime's objects around as he raged about his surrogate father's uselessness and even kicked him a few times. At one point, Mime tells Siegfried how much "he loves him." Morris took a blanket and hung it over his head to avoid listening to the Niebelung. When Mime took the blanket off Siegfried's head, he revealed the youngster plugging his ears with his fingers. As Mime tried to teach him fear, all Morris' Siegfried could do was smirk and laugh. During the confrontation with the dragon, Morris jumped around underneath the monster; it looked like a child enjoying a game of hide-and-seek instead of a brave hero locked in tense battle for his life. He also balked at his equally tense meeting with Wotan in the ensuing act. While he continued to show poise and maturity through these scenes, Morris tapped into Siegfried's sexual inexperience brilliantly in the final scene. As he discovered Brünnhilde's identity, he jerked himself away in fear and moved as far away as possible before uttering the laugh inducing "This is No Man ("Das ist kein Mann!")." As the heroine awoke, he hid himself behind one of the planks and looked on in wonder; his eyes widened as he looked on at the rebirth of Brunnhilde. As the scene transpired he seemed a bit tentative to move toward her, but the attraction was immediately apparent. By the end of the work, he looked determined to make love to her, but was nervous in the waning moment as she lay down and offered herself to him.
Gerhard Siegel was a revelation as Mime. Given the production's decision to make the Niebelung a grotesque monster (Wagner seems to have followed along with this idea of the character), it so no surprise that Siegel delivers a performance that borders on parody, but manages to fit beautifully into the world of the story. All the gestures and vocal accents were taken to the extreme and the level of immersion was so great that it is impossible to ignore Siegel when he is on stage. As he sang of the dragon for the first time in the opera ("Fafner, der wilde Wurm") his voice was hushed, emphasizing his fear. During his meeting with Wotan, "Heil dir, weiser Schmeid!," he smiled and laughed obscenely, but his constant fidgeting about the stage hinted at his fear. When he lost the riddle, he hung his hands over his head and fell to the floor, almost fainting dramatically. After that scene, Mime and the orchestra get a wondrous passage, "Verfluchtes Licht!" in which Mime's fear is unveiled. The voice and orchestra start quietly before rising in a histrionic crescendo until the sound explodes and transitions to Siegfried's second entrance. Siegel's voice pierced through the orchestra in a powerful display of fear that created empathy for the otherwise pathetic character. In act 2, the tenor portrayed Mime as equally dim-witted and over-emphatic. As he "secretly" explained his plan to Siegfried, he injected his voice with snarl-like attacks that expressed Mime's scornful plan. More importantly, these deliveries also created insight about Mime's repressed violent and his demonic nature; in these moments, Mime seemed more monstrous than his evil brother Alberich.
Mark Delavan was a dominant figure as the "Wanderer." In the two previous installments, Delavan portrayed a continuous portrait of a weakening God. From the moment the disguised Wotan appeared on stage for his aforementioned meeting with Mime in "Siegfried", he was an imposing figure; one might even add that he had an air of liberation. He mocked and jeered at the Niebelung throughout the confrontation and when he asked his questions, he followed the frightened Mime around like a predator ready to nail his prey. At the end of the sequence he grabbed him with the spear and started choking him. In the following confrontation with Alberich, he seemed equally aloof; there was no menacing stare or hesitation. He poked fun at his archrival, almost as if he knew that he had already won the war between them. In the final confrontation with Siegfried, Delavan seemed to be goading on the hero on purpose; when Siegfried threatened to break his spear, Delavan put it against a nearby rock as if facilitating the process for the hero. He even climbed up the steep planks defiantly at the start of Act 2 without any sign of caution. The only moment in which the confidence teetered was in the meeting with Erda. As she reprimanded him for locking away Brunnhilde, Delavan walked away and looked to the floor, shame all over his face. As that scene drew to a close he held the ailing Goddess close to him in a moment of profound tenderness. His commands of "Hinab!" were delivered with a tortured aggression; it seemed that he could no longer bear to see Erda in such a state of degeneration. As has been the case throughout this Ring cycle, Delavan sang with a smooth legato and seemed at ease with the role. His elegant phrasing during the conversation with Mime provided an excellent counterpoint to his nemesis' pointed and emphatic phrasing; it really felt like these two characters were from completely different worlds.
Eric Owens continued to treat audiences to his defining Alberich. In his brief appearance, Owens imbued the fallen Niebelung with a world of emotions. He was hesitant and hushed in his initial moments in the forest; the powerful tyrant from "Das Rheingold" was a distant memory. During his confrontation with Wotan, he continued to show some apprehension but eventually exploded with sound when he threatened Wotan to steal back the ring and "storm Valhalla's height's with Hella's host." His delivery of the ensuing "der Welt walte dann ich! (I will rule the world!)" saw the return of the power hoarding monster; Owen's voice roared through the theater with chilling intensity on the high F sharp at the apex of the passage.
Deborah Voigt reaped deserved thunderous applause after her appearance at the end of the work. As she sang her opening passage "Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir Licht!," her voice blossomed in increasingly potent crescendos. At the climactic "Heil dir, leuchtender Tag!," her voice unleashed its full potential in a glorious G. Her work in the upper reaches of her register was delivered fearlessly with heroic heft and brilliance throughout. Her initial reaction to Siegfried was of full-fledged enthusiasm; her voice pouring out effortlessly. However as she came to terms with her mortality and told Siegfried to forget her, she tapped into more subdued tones; the girlish excitement replaced by the maturity of a grown woman. However, she showed no resistance as he embraced her; it was pretty clear that this Brunnhilde wanted to give in. As the performance drew to a close, Voigt's voice unleashed its power once more and matched her ever-enthusiastic colleague phrase for phrase and note for note in cathartic exhilaration.
Meredith Arwady gave a heartbreaking performance as Erda. The moment she came on stage, she looked lost and her character seemed weak in her movements. She sang with murky tones, emphasizing the mystery, but also the weariness of the fading character. As the scene drew to a close, she moved toward Wotan and rested her head against his chest, almost asking for support. It seemed that she might breakdown and cry in that moment of despair and Wotan's endearing caressing of her only added to the tenderness of the moment.
Lisette Oropesa brought a sweet soprano as the forest bird and sang with ease throughout the role's difficult arching passages. Hans-Peter Konig showcased a booming voice as the dragon/giant Fafner.
A week ago, Luisi delivered a solid account of "Die Walküre" but the orchestra often seemed subdued and tentative even in the climactic moments. With "Siegfried," Luisi was at his finest with an insightful reading that brimmed with detail. As Mime explained his "love" for Siegfried, the ever-present sarcastic bassoon interjections reminded the listener of the farce. During the opening of the Mime-Wanderer scene, the orchestra's sweeping lines underscoring Wotan's phrases were delivered with such unbridled finesse and beauty that they provided beautiful contrast to Mime's more rhythmic phrases. The preludes of Act one and two started off as a mere whispers and slowly built up to terrifying climaxes. The prelude to Act 3 was delivered with otherworldly propulsion that emphasized the feeling of an epic journey underway. The only moment where Luisi didn't quite deliver was in the glorious phrases that underscore "Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!" The orchestra never seemed to arrive at the climax of the passage at the same time, resulting in a diminished catharsis and lack of clarity. That minimal gripe aside, Luisi had a fantastic outing that was met with resounding applause.
The Wagner bicentennial celebration has been a big success at the Met. A perfect "Parsifal" in February was followed by two solid and often breathtaking accounts of "Das Rheingold" and "Die Walküre." "Siegfried" takes the celebration up a notch with a dynamic union of singers, conducting and even a production that lives up to the hype.