Siegfried: To Be Young, Gifted, and Blue
October 19, 2009
As with Harry Potter books, so with the Ring cycle of Richard Wagner: as the story unfolds, each part goes on far longer than the part that preceded it.
The Nibelung's Ring Episode III: A New Hope -- better known as Siegfried -- clocks in at roughly five hours, and the endurance required of the tenor in the title role is the stuff of legend, especially given that the most challenging singing is required of him in the final thirty minutes. On Saturday evening, in the closing performance of Los Angeles Opera's new production of Siegfried, John Treleaven frayed noticeably in those final pushes to the vocal heights. Treleaven's unfortunate, if understandable, exhaustion was one of the few drawbacks to this installment of Achim Freyer's staging of the saga.
The Freyer Ring continues to astonish and impress, with its constantly shifting perspectives, its multiple points of view, and its deployment of theatrical tricks and trumpery old and new. Siegfried was not so immediately "wow"-filled nor so readily embraced as Rheingold and Walküre, but the fault lies as much with Wagner as with Freyer. Siegfried as a character has less inner life than most any other hero in literature. He performs some remarkable deeds -- slays a fearsome [sic] dragon, smashes the staff and ends the power of the reigning god, walks through and extinguishes a sea of magic fire, wins the hand of the most desirable maiden in the world -- without the slightest idea that those deeds are remarkable and without the slightest reflection on the consequences of his actions, which come freighted with all manner of personal and cosmic significance. In Freyer's conception, Siegfried is a sort of Incredible Blue Hulk, musclebound, clownish, with a head of hair seemingly borrowed from Harpo Marx. He is a lunk and a dolt, a lumbering Wagnerian McGuffin whose real purpose is, unwittingly of course, to place Brünnhilde in position to purge and renew the world at the still-distant end of Götterdämmerung.
Even more so than in previous installments, the principal characters in this Siegfried are surrounded by a tireless silent ensemble, sometimes "invisible" in black, sometimes doubling or tripling the characters on stage or events referred to in Wagner's recurrent recaps of what has gone before. There seems always to be one or more silent figures stepping slowly, slowly from stage right to left, usually bearing one or more significant objects, so that the story takes place as if awash in a stream of shifting, drifting symbols. (Achim Freyer is at least as fond of slow, meticulous crosswise movements as is Robert Wilson.)
Sadly, Siegfried marks the last appearance in the Ring of Wotan, here in his guise as the slouch-hatted Wanderer. Vitalij Kowaljow has sung the part in all three productions thus far, and has only gotten better as he has gone along. He brings all the necessary gravitas and sadness to the god who, having sought to preserve his power and the reign of the gods by possessing the ring, has only triggered the gods' inevitable downfall. He is last seen trudging slowly, slowly away, the symbol of his power shattered by his own heedless grandchild.
Siegfried has been raised for the task of slaying Fafnir, the giant who possesses the Rhine gold, the powerful ring, and the Tarnhelm, the magic helmet -- here a magic golden top hat -- that grants its wearer the power of invisibility and transformation. The better to guard his hoard, Fafnir has long ago transformed himself into a dragon, and every production of Siegfried must answer the question: how do we bring this dragon on stage to be slain? Freyer does it with strings attached. Dragon-Fafnir is, until he transforms back into a giant after receiving the mortal blow, a marionette about four feet tall and wearing that golden top hat. Siegfried's core character trait is that he is literally without fear, and I am inclined to accept the going theory that this most unfearsome critter is meant to evoke just how trivial the task of dragon-slaying must seem to such an oblivious hero. You can see and not be scared by Mr. Dragon at 2:29 in the official promotional video below:
Each of the two prior productions in the cycle worked well as a stand-alone piece. Siegfried counts as a success in terms of moving the drama forward using the stylistic grammar that Freyer has established in those previous installments, although I suspect that a viewer thrown into Freyer's Ring-world for the first time with Siegfried could easily get lost trying to "learn the language" and to figure out how that world works. Los Angeles goes without the Ring until April, when the cycle concludes with Götterdämmerung, a tawdry domestic melodrama that incidentally brings about the end of the world. Despite knowing how it all comes out, I wouldn't miss it.
Disclaimer: The Star Wars reference in my second paragraph above is not an endorsement of the lazy "sci-fi Ring" description adopted by Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times. That mistaken view, with other offenses, recently earned Tommasini the scorn of Out West Arts as "the most ridiculously out of touch writer working for a major media outlet today".
All photos by Monika Rittershaus, via Los Angeles Opera.