Gods and Monsters
In Siegfried, the third opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle, we return to the realm of gods and monsters; of heroes and villains, myths and legends, dragons and dwarfs, mighty deeds and damsels in distress (well, one damsel, at any rate).
For listeners, Siegfried represents a respite from the runaway emotions that ran rampant throughout Die Walküre. And conductors, as well as laypeople, have regarded Siegfried as the saga’s scherzo movement, much as one would experience with a Haydn or Beethoven symphony.
Indeed, there is much to savor, not only in the lustrous Forest Murmurs of Act II (with the titular hero’s ruminations about his dead mother), but in the lengthy tenor-soprano interlude that concludes the work. There’s also Siegfried’s battle with the dragon Fafner, and, of course, that marvelous Forging Scene in Act I. With the pounding of the anvil and the firing up of the blast furnace, Siegfried forges the shattered remnants of Notung (along with his manhood) in order to slay the savage beast.
As well, the dusky forest settings of Acts I and II and their darkly brooding scoring will evoke memories of George Lucas’ Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, in which Luke Skywalker seeks out Jedi Master Yoda so as to learn the ways of the Force. In Siegfried, the title character is taught the ways of the world (or not) by the malicious dwarf Mime. Siegfried learns about his mother, Sieglinde, who died while giving him birth. He’s also shown the fragments of Notung, which his mother had entrusted to Mime. Up to this point, Mime has played for time.
Behind the dwarf’s feigned concern for his ward’s education, though, is the ever-present influence of the all-powerful Ring of the Nibelung. To wit, the Nibelung himself, Alberich, returns to the cycle by means of an Act II argument with his no-account brother, Mime. While there is no Darth Vader as such, Siegfried’s grandfather, the god Wotan (in the guise of the Wanderer), does cross swords (or his spear) with the emboldened youth.
Certainly, the last scene of the opera is where fairy tales can come true by way of Brünnhilde’s awakening. To be precise, the entire third act is a masterly reconfiguration of the Sleeping Beauty story — albeit with a smattering of pre-Freudian psychoanalysis thrown in. As you may recall, Wotan’s disobedient child acted out his fondest wishes by protecting Siegmund (Siegfried’s father) from harm in the fight with Hunding. As punishment, Brünnhilde was deprived of her godhead and placed under a powerful sleeping spell. Surrounded by a ring of impenetrable fire, the former Valkyrie dozes away until such time as a fearless warrior can awaken her.
There’s even a hint of classical Greek mythology, i.e., the Oedipus and Sphynx-like colloquy in Mime’s vituperative questioning of the mysterious Wanderer. He, likewise, poses three questions of his own — with the scheming dwarf failing to answer the third and most vital question of all: Who will forge Notung anew? The answer: Only he who is without fear (and we know who THAT is, don’t we?) can make Notung whole.
It’s not all brain teasers by any means. Personally, I find Siegfried to be a most refreshing interval, and a totally involving one where the nature of the hero’s journey is concerned. Siegfried is honest to a fault, a bit dense in the head and slow to catch on, but he’s diligent and brave, trustworthy and strong. He’s also a lot swifter than he lets on.
On the other hand, the crafty Mime thinks himself superior in every way to the motherless brat. But the main point is this: Siegfried figures prominently in Mime’s plans to secure the Ring for himself, and the bountiful treasure that goes with it. All he needs is for the valiant lad to slay the dragon Fafner, who guards the hoard and magical Ring from deep inside its cave. After which, Mime will quench Siegfried’s thirst with a poisonous drink and chop his head off. With that, the Ring and the gold will be his! How simple is that?
Plot Points to Ponder
Not so fast! There’s more to the plot than meets the eye (or rather, Wotan’s missing eyeball). Remember Alberich’s curse? He placed it on whoever holds the Ring. And all those who long to possess it will be cursed as well, including those innocent folks who know nothing of its power. In essence, there are more expository sequences in this work than in the two prior ones. It’s those long, protracted stretches of dialogue that audiences find grueling and a chore to slog through. With the arrival of supertitles (aka surtitles) and such, the intricacies of the plot can be explained and that once-impenetrable Wagnerian veneer can be cracked.
For me, the real interest in this piece lies with the sonic, orchestral and philosophical contrasts between the second and third acts. At his literal wits’ end — emotionally, creatively and financially — Wagner abandoned work on the Ring before concluding Act II of Siegfried. Dismayed at ever being able to finish and produce his piece, the composer went off to write Tristan und Isolde, about as complicated a project as any that came before. After Tristan, Wagner took up the composition of Die Meistersinger, another exercise in vocal and literary extremes. What was Wagner thinking?
It would be twelve years before he would return to completing Siegfried. Well, to be honest, before he put down his pen twelve years earlier, Wagner managed to place some final touches to Act II. This may help to explain why that act is so jumbled story wise. One would think that the slaying of Fafner would put an end to that portion of the tale. Not so! We’re only at the midway point. There was still that nasty little back-and-forth between Alberich and Mime, and others matters to attend to.
To top it off, Siegfried returns to the scene of his “crime,” after having tasted the dead dragon’s blood and learned to decipher bird song. Too, his newly acquired ability to comprehend the meaning behind the dwarf’s words (in a comedic episode where Mime mindlessly betrays his intentions to murder Siegfried and make off with the Ring and its booty) leads our hero to strike the villain down with one blow. Next, the Forest Bird tells him of a wondrous maid named Brünnhilde just waiting for him beyond the ridge. Siegfried is elated at the news. Finally, a new friend is within his reach, someone to talk to, someone to trust!
At the start of Act III, the change of mood is palpable. The orchestral tone has modified somewhat and is immediately felt with the massively impressive introduction. Lightning and thunder abound. The world order is about to collapse. The theme of Wotan’s spear is heard above the orchestral storm as the music rages on. But the god’s authority will be tested. And with it, the old must give way to the new.
Still disguised as the Wanderer, Wotan urgently calls upon Erda one last time. He uses her alternate name, Wala (“Wache, Wala! Wala! Erwach! – “Awake, Wala! Wala! Wake up!”), to summon the Earth Mother from her eternal slumber. He seeks knowledge of the future and what to expect from coming events. Erda, her speech as impenetrable as ever, can no longer help him or offer any advice. Left to his own devices, Wotan is resigned to his fate. He tells her that he welcomes the end and will wait for whatever is in store.
When Siegfried approaches, the Wanderer purposely bars his way. Egging him on and plying him with query after query, the exasperated Siegfried has had enough. If the bothersome stranger won’t budge and let him through, then Notung will clear the path. Wotan challenges the youth, but the god’s spear is splintered in two with one blow. Calmly picking up what’s left of his authority (the act of which will remind audiences of Wotan’s shattering of Notung in Die Walküre), our weary warrior tells Siegfried to press on: he can no longer stop him from achieving his goal. Wotan has removed himself from interfering in life.
The next sequence in the saga is pregnant with psychological insight and replete with magnificent music, including Siegfried’s passage through Loge’s flames and his discovery that the sleeping figure before him is no man. Now he knows what fear is! Our hero bends down and cautiously places a prolonged kiss on Brünnhilde’s lips to music of aching mystery and longing.
The sleeping maiden awakens to a brilliant theme, that of the rising sun: “Heil, dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!” (“Hail, rising sun! Hail, glorious light!”). Both are delirious with joy to discover one another, but in the midst of their happiness Brünnhilde remembers that she is now a mere mortal, helpless and defenseless against this presumed lover.
Unfazed by her appeals to leave her be, Siegfried the bold convinces the former war-maiden to give herself over completely to his love; to be his bride in what must be the most challenging and uplifting soprano-tenor twosome Wagner ever wrote. And it comes after almost five hours of music-making! Let them enjoy their rapture for now, for it shall be short-lived.
I’m sure you will agree that this particular Ring-cycle broadcast held ample delights for yours truly. As in most of Wagner’s works, its length can be trying to us mortals. Not here. In the first place, we were thrilled to hear an honest to goodness Siegfried voice in that of the debuting Stefan Vinke. Where has this fellow been hiding, for goodness sake? The German-born tenor bounced around the stage with the abandon of youth. Not only that, but he brought a cutting yet cultivated edge, gobs of personality and charm, superb diction, lyrical restraint where called for, and boyish enthusiasm to spare, capped off with ringing top notes.
Indeed, not since the time of Wolfgang Windgassen at Bayreuth (and on records) has there been a tenor so attuned to the vocal and physical demands of this nearly impossible part. How well I remember the labored quality of Jess Thomas, gorgeous to look at but barely up to the task. When this Robert Lepage production was new, Jay Hunter Morris made headlines as a last-minute substitute for the indisposed Gary Lehman (who was himself a replacement for the retiring Ben Heppner). Morris has since abandoned the role (a wise decision) for more, shall we say, mature offerings. Vinke, on the other hand, looked, acted, and sang as an impetuous youth should, a marriage made in Met Opera heaven and in spite of this production’s stage limitations.
The Met was indeed lucky to have not only Vinke but another fine tenor, the Austrian Andreas Schager, waiting in the bullpen so to speak. We heard Schager on the April 27, 2019 broadcast of Götterdämmerung. Both singers turned in stellar contributions, with Vinke taking a victory lap for the most outstanding appearance by a new artist. Schager, lighter in timbre, clearly luxuriated in the language. Yet Vinke captured the doltish, pigheaded behavior of a post-pubescent teenager better than any singer in recent memory. In contrast to which, Schafer’s more moderate scale proved winning in itself, especially when he let loose with a ringing high B in Act III of Götterdämmerung, just before being joined by Hunding and the Vassals.
Either singer’s approach can work within the context of this production’s demands. The character’s volatile nature and hair-trigger temperament came naturally to both artists. Vinke’s mood swings and verbal sparring matches with Gerhard Siegel’s feisty Mime were a highlight of Acts I and II. Many small details and pointed repartee were noted in both their performances — some subtle, others more overt. On the radio, Siegel’s voice was easily discernable from that of the younger Vinke; this made differentiating between tenors less arduous than usual.
What of the production’s Brünnhilde? She must have the longest wait time of anybody in opera: three full acts, and gobs of plot exposition to plow through before she sings a note of music. When she finally did awake, the glorious sound of soprano Christine Goerke filled the Met hall with vibrant, full-toned abandon. Yet, I noticed some unsteadiness in the higher reaches, and, unusual for her, a certain lack of focus. Perhaps the lengthy wait took some of the “oomph” out of Ms. Goerke’s approach. Not so with her acting, which stressed the Valkyrie’s warm and womanly side.
Do I sound like I was disappointed in her performance? Yes, I hate to admit it. I strained to experience that moment of elation where many Brünnhilde’s are wont to display at this point in the drama. I’m thinking, of course, of the likes of Birgit Nilsson, Gwyneth Jones, Hildegard Behrens, and others. Not every singer can emit the raw power of a Nilsson, or the depth of feeling a Kirsten Flagstad or a Helen Traubel can bring, to name but a few of the classic interpreters from the past.
Yes, it was an undeniable pleasure to finally hear Goerke in this part, one she has taken to other select venues besides the Met. Still, I’m at a loss to explain my lack of exhilaration. Where was that sense of discovery, the realization that Siegmund’s son and heir is the hero that Brünnhilde has waited so long for? With all that said, Goerke did bring susceptibility to the Valkyrie maiden, lovingly expressed toward the end as she accepted Siegfried as her conqueror. The pair went out in a blaze of glory, with each jointly taking a high C that ends their ebullient musings. As Siegfried all-but pounced on the prostrate prima donna, the Met audience let out a roar of approval at the final curtain.
As the white-haired Wanderer, baritone Michael Volle, previously heard as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger and as the mythical Flying Dutchman, took over for Greer Grimsley in this radio broadcast. Volle brought equal reserves of intelligence and endurance to the part, along with steadiness and a balmy timbre that were lacking in Grimsley’s Walküre Wotan. I missed the sense of self-deprecating humor in Volle’s portrayal, and the voice was a tad drier than his predecessor’s. Overall, he engaged the listener’s interest in the question and answer session with the wheedling Mime, courtesy of Herr Siegel. Volle’s two confrontations in Act III — his call to the Earth Mother and his verbal clash with his belligerent grandson — were vocal and histrionic highlights. Well done, sir!
Equally prominent was returning bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny’s vitriolic Alberich, as clear-voiced and vocally galvanic as the positive impression he had made in Das Rheingold. Stratospheric coloratura Erin Morley as the chirpy Forest Bird and basso Dmitry Belosselskiy, while both were heavily amplified, conveyed their respective character’s pluses and minuses convincingly. Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill repeated her resonantly sung Erda, who also goes by the nickname Wala. Too bad the part is so short, a handicap that also afflicted Wotan’s mate, Fricka.
This production made the best use of the digital technology for which it was designed, especially in the scenically enchanting forest sequences. Holding it all together was maestro Philippe Jordan, who demonstrated deep affection for this longish score. Numerous details in the orchestral writing were brought out, to loving effect. Indeed, all the performers were happily greeted with cheers and bravos at each act’s end, a not-so-standard practice at the modern Met Opera. There was a time when artists were treated to prolonged cheers between acts (it was considered routine). Nowadays, the practice has become as rare as passenger pigeons (or talking Forest Birds).
End of Part Four
(To be continued….)
Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes