Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Far from the madding crowd

Siegfried - Metropolitan Opera, 11/1/2011
Morris, Voigt, Terfel, Siegel, Bardon, König, Owens, Erdmann / Inouye

Despite the substitutions, despite the almost comically literal visions for which Robert Lepage deployed his huge mechanical-technical apparatus, despite the heavyhanded video crew that ruined far too many seat views and nearly ground the show to a halt with a series of loud camera orders during the performance, and despite the production mishap midway through Act III that, among other things, caused Brünnhilde to have to walk across the stage, sans armor, to her resting spot -- well, despite all of that, this Siegfried was the success of the season, the first real touch of opera's divine spark.

The substitutes, first of all, did well. American tenor Jay Hunter Morris doesn't have the prettiest natural sound, but it's decent enough, hardly ugly, and sounded well over the orchestra. The performance itself was better than that: Morris sang through the entire daunting part of Siegfried without deterioration or faking, flagging neither for the declamatory forging song in Act I, nor the lyrical reflections and duet with the bird in Act II (though this was the hardest), nor the final duet with the vocally fresh Brünnhilde. His character's enacted boyishness is a bit one-note -- missing the subtle variations and responses of Christian Franz -- but it does fit. Conductor Derrick Inouye, meanwhile, shaped each line -- and the piece as a whole -- both beautifully and urgently. It didn't have the layers of texture and overall sound that Levine's Wagner has brought, but the orchestra played very well for him, and I'd be surprised if Luisi's performances were much better.

It's surprising how well this second iteration of Brünnhilde fits Deborah Voigt's new voice. The unhappy tones at the top still crop up, but the weight of the voice is still solid through the part's range, and she does pretty well with the shifts in mood. Bryn Terfel is somewhere between his Rheingold and Valkyrie selves: vocally strong, as in Valkyrie, but not quite engaged with what's going on, as in Rheingold. He's still finding his way through the Ring, so the next rounds may be better. The supporting men are again excellent -- Eric Owens still good in a smaller Alberich appearance, Gerhard Siegel an interestingly Beckmesserian Mime, and Hans-Peter König with a proper Fafner voice.

The decision to have König appear transformed back into giant form and give his dying words on stage and unamplified was about the only notable good decision in this new production. At this point one it's all what one expects, and though there aren't any big insights (obviously) or any visual marvels (unless a scheduled one failed to appear when the apparatus went wrong in the last act), it's all pretty enough and doesn't get in the way of the tale.

And what a tale! Seeing Siegfried solo, not sandwiched between its more famous relatives, this time brought the series' quirks better into focus. For Wagner's uneasy relationship with civilization -- so unbearable to see in Götterdämmerung -- is as evident here as in that sequel, if more benignly. Siegfried grows up -- wins greatness, fortune, and a bride -- without ever actually meeting anyone or even being seen by anyone not directly tied to his story. This makes some mythical sense (though the Boy Who Went Out To Learn Fear did so in a much more recognizable and populated world), but is not at all in accord with man's traditional story, in which civilization appears, if nowhere else, as the great testing ground and obstacle to love. Wagner knew this well --- he wrote that story himself as well, in Meistersinger (positive, as Sachs navigates Walther through the tight-knit city world) and Tristan (negative, as duty and Melot's searching eye twice halt the course of love at first sight), the two operas he wrote between the acts of Siegfried. But he simplified the course of things here nonetheless.

Why? The answer, I think, goes both forwards and backwards. Looking ahead, we see in the sequel that Siegfried, for all his one-on-one/face-to-face prowess, is fatally undone in his very first contact with civilization, quickly becoming a pawn of Gibichung intrigue. Wagner, having started from this conclusion (writing his libretti backwards, from the only actual source material, before writing the music forwards), needed to round out Siegfried's original path for a fully rounded story, and did so quite well. That seems sensible. But going backwards, one wonders -- why did Wagner begin from this conclusion? For the most strange thing about the Ring, which one immediately notices even without being able to put one's finger on it, is that although it often touches on and discusses clans and civilizations, and though it contains a lineup of characters recognizable therefrom (Fricka, as I've noted, isn't all that distant from papa Germont), the cycle itself doesn't, until the all-too-Meyerbeerian final installment, actually present any such thing on stage. Nearly all significant action is through intimate dialogues, Wagner's strength from the beginning... In fact, if we look at his output, we see that Wagner was really bad at public scenes: blustering too much, never quite conveying the shifting moods, the quick full joy and rage and sorrow of a crowd as Verdi and his Italian predecessors so naturally did, and never really showing anything except a contest. (The great and awful success of Meistersinger is in expanding that entry point -- the contest -- so much that it can encompass everything else that's human.)

The interesting thing, then, is that Wagner ended up -- for whatever reason -- attached to a scene and a topic contrary to the natural course of his talents. So perhaps that's how we should take his statement about "the characters owe[ing] their immense, striking significance to the wider context": that he could literally not stand writing this Germanic-civilizational nonsense without elaborating beforehand in a way more in accord with his inclinations. Only after taking the story back before the dawn of time, writing prehistory after prehistory without the burden of recognizably organized human relations, could Wagner get around to confronting the civilizational question, providing both his yes and no, and writing amazing music to the dramatic mess he'd created for himself in the more confused state shown by Götterdämmerung's (again, all-too-Meyerbeerian) libretto.

And so: Siegfried, who here stands happy, as great as he can be, without and before any entanglement in the vaster/smaller, more complicated world his creator afterwards felt obligated to address. In here, instead: birds, dragons, wicked stepparents, and the love of one who waited just for him.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.