Projections follow music and carry us from clouds to forest canopy. But how quickly the woods change to a panorama of deforestation. Magnificent trunks become denuded logs and are carried by rail as poles to hold up electric wires. Next come belching industrial smokestacks. Director Francesca Zambello will not let us off from bearing witness to what is a main theme of her Wagner’s Cycle production: man’s careless destruction of nature through greed.
Some opera lovers hold Richard Wagner’s Siegfried, the third opera in The Ring of the Nibelung, to be his best. I am not one of them. On the other hand, this is the one that many people skip, and that may have something to do with the length. I find the first act in particular tedious.
Then there’s the problem of Siegfried’s character. Like Brünnhilde, who has been left asleep on a mountain to be awakened by her “prince,” and Wotan, the chief god who has fathered the boy in order to save the world of the gods, we have been waiting for our hero for a long time. When Siegfried finally enters in this opera, he comes across as a rebellious teenager. Siegfried’s bullying cruelty to Mime, the man who has raised him, seems inexcusable.
Zambello’s choice to set the scene in a junkyard, complete with a broken down house-trailer, cleverly suggests that the boy is a product of environmental deprivation, and made me think of rapper Eminem’s trailer-trash childhood. Daniel Brenna gets the teenage slouch and the sullen rage as he throws himself on the red-dinette bench seat or roams restlessly around kicking at clutter. But by the time he starts “waterboarding” Mime, this has gone way beyond high-jinx. This was just not a good directorial choice. We can’t see this image today without making connections to our shameful recent history.
It was Brenna’s first night performing Siegfried, a punishing role for any tenor, so his voice seemed a little tentative in the opening scene. Particularly disappointing was his rendition of “The Forge Song,” an atypical musical setting by Wagner, but a ho-heave-ho working song that can be thrilling. It demands a tenor’s lungs to match the bellows he’s using to forge anew his father’s famous sword. It also requires the guy hammer out a special rhythm while singing forcefully. Brenna’s tentative “tapping” didn’t make it. Neither did his “bellows.”
The act comes alive in the Wager Scene where a “Wanderer,” (Alan Held as a disguised Wotan,) enters and challenges Mime. These two singers build the momentum nicely where each gets to ask the other three questions but, if unanswered, risk forfeiting his head.
Catch up with the Ring cycle:
Susan Galbraith’s review of Ring, Part 1, The Rhinegold
Susan Galbraith’s review of Ring, Part 2 The Valkyrie
David Cangelosi as Mime was in great voice Wednesday night and, working with Held, together they created some moments that crackled delightfully. The fussy stage business these two were given moved the acting style into questionable naturalism, but mostly they succeeded with effecting and comic ease.
Held’s Wanderer, with long stringy hair, a head bandana, and an assemblage of rags, reminded me of a homeless Vietnam Vet. (Sadly, an all too familiar picture in our nation’s capital.) Held makes himself at home in Mime’s junkyard, throwing himself into a folding plastic lawn-chair, popping a tab, and swilling down a PBR. (He later goes into the trailer and finds Siegfried’s stash of better beer and trades up.) Little details like this remind me again what consummate acting we are watching in this production. Also, what time has been given to creating “texture” by Zambello’s directing!
Cangelosi meanwhile scuttles around the stage as Mime, a little guy who has to live by his wits. His eyes dart around and his fingers articulate beautifully both his nervousness and his calculating finesse as he tries to survive against his opponent. He also manages to endear himself to the audience by doing a series of dance moves, including a rendition of “the swim” in twitchy character. Let’s face it, Mime is always played to irritate the audience one way or another. But by the time Cangelosi is rolling around and doing cartwheels, I’m watching choreography not character. (It’s this kind of thing that makes Wagner aficionados start muttering, “Just let them stand still and sing.”)
However, when Act II came around, things fell into dramatic focus, and once again I fell under Zambello’s spell. From the prelude, conductor Philippe Auguin lured me in, so clearly did he lay out the music of bassoons and other horns indicating that there’s a monster out there slumbering and waiting.
The sets by Michael Yeargan for this opera, as for the others in the tetralogy, are magnificent, but the realization of the dragon’s lair, updated to an industrial warehouse as in some sci-fi end-of-the-world’s last bastion, is the most thrilling thus far. Grimy windows eclipse all but the grayest of light, by lighting director Mark McCullough, who has created a world such as Samuel Beckett’s bleak landscapes, where we all are waiting, waiting for the end.
Here Alberich, the original thief of the ring, has staked out his watch over giant Fafner-now-Dragon. Gordon Hawkins is a magnificent bass, one whose power drives right through one’s body on hearing it. He totally embodies this character, here, as he pulls out night vision binoculars and carries on his bomb building business.
When the Wanderer enters via the catwalk to descend into the bowels of this godless place, we suspect we are in for some high-voltage drama, and Held and Hawkins do not disappoint. One moment they have us believe they are schoolboy pranksters, trying to scare each other, as Held cracks open the huge warehouse doors at the back of the stage and calls out for Fafner, and they both run and stick their heads in the opening. In another moment, their power struggle explodes, and Alberich holds a Molotov cocktail to the Wanderer and lights a match. I believe these two are dangerous performers.
Hawkins grows ever more lethal and, after Wotan leaves, sings that he will defy the gods and triumph over the Wälsung, (“I’ll keep watch.”) He makes a slow exit, crossing the entire stage rolling a shopping cart and filling it with homemade weapons. Never for a second does he lose his power.
When our hero Siegfried returns, singer Brenna has his voice anchored securely and from here on demonstrates why the Wagner Society and others who have showered prizes upon him have staked their hopes in the “best young Siegfried out there.” Brenna has the Wagnerian vocal chops for sure and is developing the release of his instrument and the dramatic passion to drive even this toughest of roles. He may be a young “freak of nature” now but he is tipping into being darn near sensational.
In the scene where he sings about wanting to know what his mother looked like, he plays with her scarf, which Mime had given him in the act before. This was a brilliant directorial stroke, for suddenly the blue piece of silk becomes both metaphor and prop of great usefulness. Like one of the many musical leitmotifs in Wagner’s scoring, it keeps reappearing, changing, and deepening in meaning.
But first, the hero must slay the dragon. Pulling off the depiction of the creature makes for one of the great expectations in this opera and it’s often a disappointment. Not here. First of all, the “shell” is a great metal-crushing machine. It fits the update of an industrial society’s gone power-mad with pseudo-military might. It seems indestructible with its eerie red lights blinking from deep inside. But our fearless hero hacks away at it, sending sparks and nearly getting crushed. He escapes the giant claws, and, opening the trap door, cuts through the wires of this killer-robot. But that’s just the beginning.
The Ring of the Nibelung: Siegfried
closes May 20, 2016
Details and tickets
The dramatic magic comes when Fafner, the giant, falls out of his armored vehicle. (It always seems a waste not seeing a singer, but very much so when the singer is Soloman Howard.) His deep bass notes were used to such scary purpose as Fafner offstage. But this hometown singer has become a terrific actor, who has shown comic abilities in this role in The Rhinegold, and now engages us to feel much empathy for him. In the final moments of the scene, where enemies finally meet, Zambello has Siegfried sitting on the floor cradled by the dying giant, and their physical interaction intensifies the emotional power. (It suggests another good score-tracking by director and cast, preparing for Siegfried’s line about not having felt fear but only sadness in killing Fafner.) It is a reminder to us how senseless war is.
Siegfried meets a Forest Bird he’s only heard before the Dragon scene. The “bird” in this production is a beautiful young woman with an Afro, dressed in an orange mini-trenchcoat, who moves across the catwalk above him, shyly waving, then darting away. Jacqueline Echols’ beautiful coloratura is well suited to the bright melodic lines Wagner has written.
When Echols descends into the playing space, we get more than a pretty warbler interlude. Zambello has directed a credible relationship between these two young people. They hadn’t spoken each other’s language, except through mime and playful flirting. But after accidentally licking the Dragon’s blood, Siegfried can now understand her. The “Bird” becomes his first human playmate and teacher, who guides him to his destined love. Echols and Brenna touchingly pull off first innocent love.
The scarf now becomes a feminine talisman that guides Siegfried to reunite the parts of himself, healing the wound made by the loss of his mother. As he follows “the bird,” the stage world around them turns greeny-gold. There is hope that somehow these two can get “back to the garden.”
Auguin conducts us all into Act III, guiding us through the piling on of musical leitmotifs that Wagner has written, with beautiful clarity. I am reminded of another challenge that this work possesses: written twelve years after the other operas in the cycle, Wagner had used this composition to gallop down from his own private Valhalla and show off the mastery of his dazzling motif-weaving.
Zambello doesn’t back off from grounding the work in what is one of the most beautiful and emotional scenes we’ve been treated to thus far in three operas, the meeting between Wotan and Erda. Zambello insists dramatically that theirs is a serious relationship and central to our understanding the great arc of the tetralogy.
Lindsay Amman was a stunningly beautiful Erda as Earth Goddess in Part I. She returns a crone, with voice and body even more beautiful because Erda is carrying so much grace and wisdom. Summoned by Wotan, she walks through a cloud shot through with gold from the back of the stage where she had exited in the first opera. Wotan and Erda rarely touch in most productions, but Amman and Held hold each other tenderly, weep together for the mistakes that have been made, and ache for the nearing finale. At the end, their bodies are sensually entwined like two great branches of a mighty tree. Wotan finally releases her, and Erda sinks back into the earth.
Then, to wring out our hearts further, Wotan and Siegfried finally meet on the hero’s way to the mountaintop where he will learn fear and claim his love. Zambello has not left any relationship unexcavated, and in this meeting father and son interact with such truth about human emotions it leaves the audience breathless. Held pushes beyond the usual omniscience of Wotan’s character to struggle moment to moment with his expectations, his anger, and his hopes. He clasps the arrogant, disrespectful boy, and the sudden love he feels for the child he’s never before touched knocks him off balance. How to turn back and change everything that has ever happened? When Siegfried finally breaks the old man’s spear, we watch the elemental archetypal battle between father and son played out. Wotan leaves, heartbroken and bowing to the inevitable.
We still have left the awakening of Brünnhilde, who has been asleep for twenty years in a ring of fire. The “fire” in this production is the apocalyptic vision of a scorched Valhalla. The set features crumbling arches, burned tree skeletons, and the still smoldering earth with flames licking in the background, calling up images of an oil spill on fire.
Meanwhile, while Brenna has been singing his heart out for nearly four hours, the singer-actress has been resting her voice. (Not to mention that this Brünnhilde has been resting an injured leg for several days.) Catherine Foster is a renowned Brünnhilde, but would these two be able to sync up and make a “go of it?”
First, there’s more music as Siegfried hikes up and finds her. Then there’s the kiss. Brenna plays the scene more like a boy than a Sleeping Beauty prince. It’s awkward, human, even funny as is his innocent discovery, “This isn’t a man!” when he undoes her armor (here just an ammo belt.) But wake up, finally, she does. Foster even plays with the audience, knowing we were holding her up mentally not wanting her to risk another injury. She stretches and tips as if her leg has gone to sleep. Audible gasps come from the audience. Then, planting herself, out of her mouth comes the glorious “Hail Sun. Hail Light.” She’s back!
Foster is indeed a “goddess,” a statuesque beauty with a powerful and clear soprano sound. Foster makes work the difficult challenge of being instant lover, maid, goddess, and aunt to the young hero. She teases and taunts him, then pushes him away, all the while singing that Brünnhilde has always loved Siegfried. Siegfried is clearly blown away by this ravishing powerhouse of a woman. In their final clinch, their passion is unmistakable.
Where can we possibly go from here? Can Brünnhilde redeem the world? Can Brenna, the young “boy” Siegfried, also play the mature hero? Stay tuned.
The Valkyrie. Music and Libretto by Richard Wagner. Directed by Francesca Zambello. Conducted by Philippe Auguin. Featuring Lindsay Ammann, Daniel Brenna, David Cangelosi, Jacqueline Echols, Catherine Foster, Gordon Hawkins, Alan Held, and Soloman Howard.
Set Designer: Michael Yeargan. Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber. Lighting Designer: Mark McCullough. Original Projections: Jan Hartley. New Projections: S. Katy Tucker. Movement Director: Denni Sayers. Fight Master: Joe Isenberg. Produced by Washington National Opera. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith