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Siegfried at L’Opéra national de Paris

The Bear chases Mime (Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke) as Siegfried (Torsten Kerl) laughs.

The Bear chases Mime (Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke) as Siegfried (Torsten Kerl) laughs.

Siegfried
Libretto and music by Richard Wagner

Günter Krämer – Stage Director
Jürgen Bäckmann – Set design
Falk Bauer – Costume design
Diego Leetz – Lighting
Otto Pichler – Choreography

Torsten Kerl – Siegfried
Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke – Mime
Egils Silins – Der Wanderer
Peter Sidhom – Alberich
Peter Lobert – Fafner
Qiu Lin Zhang – Erda
Alwyn Mellor – Brünnhilde
Elena Tsallagova – Waldvogel

Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris
Philippe Jordan, Conductor

L’Opéra national de Paris, like most of the major opera houses around the world, with the notable exception of Bayreuth, have been building their new production of the Ring work by work over several years. I attended their Rheingold in 2010 and reviewed it in the Berkshire Review. Although I found the proleptic reference to Albert Speer’s Germania questionable, I rather liked Günther Krämer’s production at the time (The current French approach to Wagner favors native Germans both on the stage and behind it.); I was pleased with the cast; and I was deeply impressed with Philippe Jordan’s conducting. The son of the renowned Swiss Wagner conductor Armin Jordan, he has an individual and thoroughly grounded vision of Wagner, which he can only have developed on his father’s knee. Now three years later, on the eve of the Opéra’s complete performances of the Ring in June, I saw and heard the same intelligences and imaginations take on Siegfried, often considered the most difficult of the music dramas as far as audience involvement is concerned, for reasons that are both obvious and bemusing.

Wagner put a great deal of surpassingly beautiful writing for voice and orchestra into Siegfried, and many of these have become staples in the programs of excerpts traditionally presented by symphony orchestras, going back to Wagner’s own practice, as well as in the recordings of the same excerpts, still popular with casual listeners and collectors. In this there is undeniably an element of audiences being more familiar with the purple passages than with their dramatic context within Wagner’s narrative of the young hero. (ALL of his works listed as “most popular” by Arkivmusic are excerpts.) Conductors, outside of the greatest masters of Wagner, also tend to find a strong attraction in the “culinary” delicacies of this score, especially the latter part, written in Wagner’s mature style, after the long hiatus in his work on the Ring. Sir Colin Davis, recently deceased, was without a doubt one of the great conductors of his generation, but mature Wagner was not among the music with which he had the strongest affinity. His Ring at Covent Garden years ago was a mixed bag, but his delight for Wagner’s orchestral writing made this kind of treatment as convincing as it will ever be in Siegfried. Its sheer aural splendor carried the performance.

The great Wagnerians, on the other hand, seem natural storytellers in the pit, above all Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose great La Scala Ring is currently being issued in miraculously restored sound, by Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio. One has mainly to consult the roster of those who have conducted at Bayreuth to know the others who have excelled in telling Wagner’s story through the orchestra—Krauss, Keilberth, and Kempe, for example. As Speight Jenkins has pointed out in his perceptive and wise discussions of the Ring, there are times when Wagner is writing theater more than opera—almost pure theater. Certain scenes of Das Rheingold are typical, and none of his mature works are lacking such passages—generally the least popular among audiences. Apart from the aforementioned purple passages, Siegfried is almost entirely composed of theatrical situations, in which character and dialogue predominate over melody and timbre, which are there to support these dramatic values.

With the sumptuous string sound and brilliant wind playing Philippe Jordan elicited from his superb orchestra (with especially beguiling contributions from the horns), he is second to none in his appreciation of the sensuous beauty of Wagner’s writing, both for voice and orchestra, but he never allowed it to distract him or us from the narrative flow and dramatic—above all comic—pith of the music drama. Acting is consistently in the foreground—and this is what is crucial to a successful performance of Siegfried. On the other hand, when the orchestra took on a descriptive role of its own, it was truly allowed to stand on its own. Herr Krämer even showed mercy towards the Prelude to Act I, which was most gratifyingly free of gratuitous stage business. It makes a significant difference when the audience is allowed to concentrate on this opening music without distraction.

Herr Krämer put acting in the foreground in a literal sense. He kept the singers almost entirely at stage front, so that every word was intelligible and our attention was focused on their characters and their interplay. This simple, time-honored solution proved to be the key, allowing for a fairly free range of liberties in the background and in characterization, mostly expressed through costuming and the business that goes with it—none of which failed to cut to the essence of Wagner’s characters. This approach showed due respect to a superb cast—for the most part the best I’ve heard on stage in Siegfried—who were thoroughly prepared in their finely detailed, fully rounded performances.

It is hard not to begin with Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Mime, whom he played in 2010 in Das Rheingold, although one is tempted to build up to it, since he almost stole the show with his splendid voice and comic flair. (He was most decidedly a favorite with the audience.) The recent fashion has been to characterize Mime as an obsessive pedant, a natural scientist of a fanatically positivistic bent. This production presents him as more of a muddle-headed Rube Goldberg, amply conveyed by the forest of Findhorn-sized cannabis plants which dominate stage right. In fact he is smoking a joint when we first meet him, as he ineffectually fusses over his dilemma in reforging the shattered Nothung. Picking up on Mime’s maternal pretensions, Krämer and Ablinger-Sperrhacke make him a sexually ambivalent cross-dresser—to be exact, a middle-aged queen who wears polyester house-dresses as an outer layer and a blond female wig, a grotesque sign of his attempt to fool Siegfried into believing that they look alike. In his effort to manipulate Siegfried by creating the reality around the youth, Mime is always in disguise, a theme constantly emphasized in this production. Ablinger-Sperrhacke inhabited his disguises with such enthusiasm that, in spite of his grotesqueness, he seemed real—something we don’t even expect in a Mime—and the funniest Mime ever, consistently through the evening, culminating in his deliciously malevolent altercation with Alberich and his final, fatal exchange with Siegfried. Far from hinting at the generally outmoded custom of making a vocal caricature of Mime, Ablinger-Sperrhacke sang with his natural voice, and a very handsome one it is! It was hard to believe that he is in fact most in demand for his character roles, but if he has sung Loge, there is a Siegfried lurking under the surface in his golden voice. In any case, he puts it to dramatic use in giving Mime a certain real seductiveness—a trait which makes him all the more repulsive to Siegfried, who must find his true gender, along with his identity, in the course of the opera.

However, there is no drag for Siegfried in this production. He appears in a black (or dark grey) business suit, but with short pants, as befits his boyhood, with perhaps a sly nod to Parsifal’s sailor suit in Stefan Herheim’s Bayreuth show. He wears this undignified costume throughout the work. The tonal beauty, expressive range, and strength of Torsten Kerl’s voice were nothing short of astonishing. He was able sustain his line, with reserves for expressive phrasing and coloration—and pianissimi!—to the end of each act right through to the end. Even some of the better Siegfrieds since the glory days often begin to struggle early on. This made it possible to appreciate the more tender moments of his exchange with the Waldvogel at the end of Act II, and of course the Forging Scene at the end of Act I resounded with unflagging youthful energy from start to finish. Most Siegfrieds get by through intelligent interpretations their voices can’t fully support. In this case Kerl was able to project his very intelligent and sensitive idea of the music and his character as intended. His diction—a factor treated with proper respect by Mssrs. Krämer and Jordan—was as clear as Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s.

One of the more unconventional aspects of this production was the multiplicity of disguises donned and doffed by Wotan. He first appears in Mime’s smithy in something close to the traditional Wanderer’s garb—not without a hint of the Wandering Jew—but he later exchanges it for a flashy business suit and the shining breastplate of his divine armor. Egils Silins made full use of this in his unstinting portrayal of Wotan’s arrogance. In his manipulation of Mime through their mutual quiz game, he showed that he had learned a thing or two from Loge, and that some of Alberich’s less attractive traits had worn off on him as well. Silins’ Wotan is a schemer and a heel. If he attempts to enlighten Mime, it is for his own purposes, not only to express his contempt for the short-sighted dwarf. Sharp diction and phrasing and a rich voice, which could embrace both the darker tones and the baritonal qualities of his music. Unfortunately Eglins seemed to suffer from severe fatigue on that evening, but he struggled bravely to keep going to the end and maintained his character compellingly, even if he had to husband his faltering voice from phrase to phrase. He received an enthusiastic ovation after each curtain, and I see no reason to qualify my praise of a magnificent performance by this fine singer.

Peter Sidhom built on his menacing Alberich in Das Rheingold, enunciating and phrasing with impressive control and nuance, conveying all the rage, bitterness, and sarcasm in Alberich’s heart, following his cosmic defeat by Wotan and Loge. Instead of brutalizing his brother Mime, he now must approach him as an equal in misfortune. Sidhom was also eloquent, reverting often to a middle ground, which was, in essence, tonal beauty. His fierce patter-song encounter with Mime was executed to perfection by both, with exacting precision and overboiling gall.

Peter Lobert proved a resonant and characterful Fafner, appearing here not as a dragon, but as a petty tyrant cut from the same cloth as Idi Amin and King Ubu. He gave special care to his rapprochement to Siegfried after receiving his fatal wound. He and Torsten Kerl made the scene touching in a way. Krämer’s meticulous attention to the dramatic interaction of the singers contributed importantly to the success of scenes like that one and Alberich’s and Mime’s tea party mentioned above.

Elena Tsallagova was an elegant, affecting Forest Bird, appearing on stage as Siegfried as a little boy, wearing the same costume as the hero at his present age. The only weak member of the cast was Qiu Lin Zhang, whose heavy vibrato sounded insecure. Her diction was also severely muddy. Her voice, rather lighter than the classic Erdas of the past, was however not unappealing and her conception of the part was unexceptionable. She she looked most august as the Earth goddess. She responded most piteously to Wotan’s sadistic brutalization of her with his spear, as he extracted Erda’s wisdom through torture.

Like Kerl, Alwyn Mellor was in a class of her own as Brünnhilde, as vocally secure as Nina Stemme, if not more so. Her voice was fresh and brilliant, as well as full-blooded and rich at the core. She conveyed above all the youthful energy and wonder of the goddess, as she discovers what it’s like to be human. Her expression of her alternating flows of fear and reluctance was flexible and humanly convincing. Even her pitch problems on her high notes—her only serious technical flaw—furthered the expressive qualities of her portrayal. Krämer’s dramatic handiwork helped her and Torsten Kerl to make this climactic scene as deeply moving as any I have seen on stage. Jordan’s control of the structure and dramatic progression of the scene also gave them a firm foundation for their most ecstatic moments, and he produced magnificent playing from the orchestra, both in sonority and expression.

Some of Jürgen Bäckmann’s sets—with the exception of Mime’s loft—seemed to fall short of perfection in conception and realization, as if budgetary constraints had tied his hands at some point in the development of the production, but that and Qiu Lin Zhang’s Erda seemed the only shortcomings in this magnificent realization of an infamously difficult music drama. The striking liberties that were taken with Mime and his smithy might tempt some to characterize the production as Regieoper, but that would be neither fair nor accurate, since the vast majority of of these are based on Wagner’s libretto and music, and they are intended to elucidate what he wrote in them. In Regieoper, the arbitrary thoughts of the director come first, not the composer. The basic approach of all concerned cut to the essence of Wagner’s dramaturgy, and in this world of Freyers and Lepages, it should be held up as an example of how to float a sound Siegfried.

L’Opéra national de Paris will repeat Siegfried on Sunday June 23d 2013 as part of their Ring 2013 Festival taking place from June 18th to the 26th. See L’Opéra national de Paris website for more detail. See also their Au fil du Ring website to listen to watch and listen to excerpts.

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L'Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides' Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.
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