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An Afternoon at the Opera: Siegfried, Los Angeles, 10/11/09

posted Aug 30, 2012, 12:31 AM by Douglas Sun

Originally posted: October 12, 2009

And so it goes if you’re a Wagner fan: You can find the time to take in an entire performance of one of his operas, or you can find the time to write about it; but it’s hard to do both in the same day. But yes, I did take in the LA Opera’s production of Siegfried yesterday, as the natural continuation from having seen their Das Rheingold and Die Walküre last season.

I already wrote about encountering the Los Angeles Ring here and here, and their Siegfried is not so different from what came before it; so I’ll only offer a couple of relatively brief observations. And no, I did not even try to take any pictures this time. The wide angle on my second-generation iPhone camera just didn’t cut it at Die Walküre. If you want a sense of what the production looked like, check out the photos at the LA Opera website.

With Siegfried, I felt for the first time that Achim Freyer’s heavily symbolist, mostly static production of The Ring Cycle had become a drawback. There were no fits of visual brilliance, like his staging of “The Ride of the Valkyries” (and no, I don’t consider depicting Siegfried as a cross between Johnny Test and The Blue Man Group to be visually brilliant). And the spare, abstract sets and ponderous movements seemed very much at odds with the character whose personality dominates the opera that bears his name.

Siegfried is absolutely unique in The Ring Cycle. He is reckless and cheerfully hyperactive — like any good Norse hero — and his consciousness is free of the tragic weight which bears down in some way on every other major character (and most of the minor ones, too). His character is light, and it shows in both the music and the words that Wagner gives him. He is also a very physical character, not only because of his actions, but because of his profound connection with animal nature. The gods are abstractions and the Nibelung are spirits of industry, but Siegfried wrestles with bears and takes advice from songbirds. 

And because of his role in the story, his light, yet vigorous personality dominates every moment of the opera, except perhaps for The Wanderer’s sober exchange with Erda at the beginning of Act III. But there is nothing really vigorous or even palpable about Freyer’s production; the sets are stark and featureless, and the characters move ponderously when they move at all. It’s serious and slow. As a result, it was impossible to avoid the sense that the director was working at odds with the composer/librettist.

As with Rheingold and Walküre, the cast performed ably at the very least and wonderfully at times. John Treleaven brought a clear and pleasing, though not terribly powerful, voice to Siegfried. Vitali Kowaljow, competent as Wotan, returned with a rendering of The Wanderer that did no more, but certainly no less, than the role required. And Linda Watson returned to light up the third act as a strong and thrilling Brünnhilde. The standouts of the cast were supporting players, however — Stacy Tappan as a vocally supple Woodbird, and Graham Clark, who acted Mime with consistently engaging vitality and sang with a voice strong enough to overpower Treleaven’s at times, at least to those of us sitting in the left side of the balcony.

A final note: Having commented on Fafner as an example of the general difficulty of staging The Ring Cycle in my other posts, it seems only proper to note how Freyer handled him in his only appearance in dragon form. I give Freyer points for aplomb, first having Fafner manifest as dry-ice clouds and tongues of red light originating from offstage, backed by Eric Halfvarson’s voice booming from loudspeakers at the back of the hall. It was a clever solution that conveyed the menace of the dragon without having to embody him. But when he fights Siegfried, he appears as a marionette that looked like an oversized version of the dragon plushies that Toy Vault used to make for Dungeons & Dragons fans. In short, I am still convinced that The Ring ultimately requires an animated solution.