Siegfried - Under the Boardwalk, Part 3

Richard Wagner - Siegfried
Metropolitan Opera
November 5, 2011

Robert Lepage's third installment of The Ring, Siegfried, debuted last week, and was only given a paltry three performances in the initial fall run (there will be full cycles in the spring). I caught the last of the three performances, in a performance that was also broadcast to HD.

By now it's become fashionable to complain about The Machine, and to deride the Lepage production as either: 1. unimaginative; and/or 2. all 3-D style and no substance. I had some of the same complaints in my reactions to Das Rheingold and Die Walkuere, but with Siegfried I didn't have many complaints. I thought the production was very clever, engaging, and aesthetically pleasing, and was true to Wagner's idea of Siegfried being the "scherzo" of the cycle -- a more light-hearted opera among all the themes of the World Coming to an End and The Evils of Greed that dominate the other operas of the cycle.

Siegfried resembles a comic book adventure, with a fearless man-child hero, a magic weapon, dragon-slaying adventures, talking animals, and a rather bombastic romantic ending. Even the villain of the piece is not a chilling uber-badass (unlike Hunding or Hagen), but a pathetic little dwarf appropriately named Mime, whose machinations are more funny than truly menacing. The Lepage production as usual relied heavily on 3-D projections, but they were effectively used to evoke the woodsy areas of Siegfried's life. One of the most charming features of the production was the projection of the fluttering Forest Bird, who resembled a Disney movie animal. Fafner the dragon was also straight out of a comic book -- he looked like a Pixar animation. On Tuesday night the Machine malfunctioned in Act 3, but this afternoon there were no glitches. Act 3 had some stunning projections of a fire and an overgrown grassland where Brunnhilde was at first almost invisible.

That being said, the Machine is not without its problems. The main problem is the big immobile set of planks that line the apron of the stage -- the boardwalk. They're just there, gray and industrial-looking, and Lepage has decided to set more and more of the action away from the apron, on either the steeply raked movable planks, or in some cases, behind the apron planks. The reason is probably because when the singers climb onto the boardwalk to sing, it looks like they are on a concert platform, and little to no blocking can be done on them. But if you put the singers behind the apron or upstage on the movable planks, they often look and (more importantly) sound distant, in some of the worst acoustic spots on the Met stage. I remember Jonas Kaufmann's interview where he said he insisted on singing the latter part of Act One in Die Walkuere on the platform to feel closer to the audience. So singers continue to find ways to climb onto the boardwalk to stand-and-sing, while Lepage continues to set more and more of the stage directions away from the apron.

A boy and his very amorous aunt
But enough about the production. What made the afternoon a success was the strength of the musical performance. Fabio Luisi led a light, taut, briskly paced Met orchestra, and really captured the lightness and even delicacy of many of the orchestral interludes of the opera. Luisi's Siegfried is much faster than Levine's would have been, but it was a very beautifully led performance and always sensitive to the needs of the singers.

Jay Hunter Morris was a last minute substitute for Gary Lehman (who replaced Ben Heppner). If I were to be objective about it, I'd say that his voice is somewhat light-sounding for Siegfried, and that when pushed, it can have a nasal edge that isn't the most pleasant to listen to. But what an energetic, charming portrayal! From his entrance to the last high C (lightly touched and then quickly ducked by both Morris and Voigt), this Siegfried carried the afternoon. He made the young superhero likable, which is rare in most of the performances I've seen of this opera. Too often, Siegfried is portrayed as all mass, no class. Testosterone overload. JHM made the character believable as not just a superhero, but a naive child. I do worry what a steady diet of Siegfrieds will do to a voice that's essentially too lyric for the part. But oh well.

The Das Rheingold jerks were back, and all in fine form. (Wotan, Alberich, Fafner, Mime -- Wagner sure knew how to make hateful gods, dwarves and dragons.) Bryn Terfel as the Wanderer (Wotan) was excellent. In this opera the Wanderer is a cynical, philosophical figure, and also sort of creepy if you think about the fact that he spends much of the opera angling for his grandson to get it on with his daughter. Terfel's voice always had a hard, snarly edge and this part suits him better than Die Walkuere Wotan. Eric Owens made a powerful impression as nasty Alberich. Some day I'd like to hear him sing Wotan, and I wonder if his looks are preventing him from getting more prominent parts because his bass-baritone has the amplitude, volume, and timbre for the nobler parts. Hans-Peter Konig was almost stunningly good as Fafner the dragon. For most of the opera he was amplified and singing behind the big rubber Dragon (see picture below). But once Siegfried gave him the moral blow he climbed onto the apron and with his deep, rich bass made me feel the dragon's pain, if that's even possible.

Poor dragon :(

The deepest impression was left by Gerhard Siegel as Mime. Mime is really a very funny character -- more laughable than menacing, and Siegel tore up the stage as the sniveling, whiny dwarf. In this production Lepage has Mime steal Siegfried from a dying Sieglinde's arms in a pantomime during the Prologue, maybe to underscore how Mime never had good intentions, but it was a touch I admit I didn't really enjoy, because to me, I like Mime purely for the comic relief. His cowardice, his greed, his self-pity, and those sing-songy melodies he sings to Siegfried are all very funny. Yes I know he's also evil, and murderous and greedy, but he's more of a comic-book villain. Mime only became chilling in his final scene, when he gleefully talked about murdering Siegfried.

The women of the afternoon were less strong. Mojca Erdmann chirped squeakily as the Forest Bird. Patricia Bardon's voice is really too light and mezzo-ish for Erda, and she exudes no authority towards Wotan. Her scene went for naught. Deborah Voigt sounded better than she has in a long time, but that's really not saying much. She really acted the part of Brunnhilde very well, making a clear transition between the sleeping Valkyrie of the previous opera and the shy mortal woman that Siegfried wakes up. Brunnhilde in this opera is a shorter part. Her voice remains like Swiss cheese -- holes everywhere. She can sometimes focus her tone and a big, beautiful sound can come out, but other times she sounds croaky and colorless, and top notes are are hit and miss. Her final high C was gingerly touched and then quickly dropped, but many Wagnerian sopranos have difficulties with a high C. It's the inconsistency of tone that's the most worrisome -- I dread hearing her Gotterdamerung. She seems to be getting through the Ring on sheer will.

But some sour notes from the Brunnhilde weren't enough to detract from a generally excellent afternoon at the opera. Siegfried isn't always an opera I actively seek out, but I'm always surprised by how much I enjoy it when I do see it -- Wagner that actually makes me laugh! I think of all Lepage installments, Siegfried is also his most successful production. Thumbs up for everyone.


  1. excellent review!!! I saw the Tuesday performance and agree with you just about entirely. esp: (1) the machine was less intrusive and more pleasant in Siegfried than in either of the previous operas; and (2) the Mime was spectacular. I also loved the rest of the male cast. Glad you enjoyed it so much. Can't wait for the Gotterdammerung.

  2. Yes, good review. I would add that even in the final scene where Mime is talking about murdering Siegfried, it's still comic, because we (the audience) are hearing what Siegfried understands Mime to be saying. Mime thinks he's being nice.

  3. Hi, Ivy. I take it you were in the house. I saw the broadcast and thought I caught a glimpse of you in the audience before Act I.

    Great review. In the broadcast, the hinged ends of the planks were much in evidence in many closeups. Very distracting. But, I agree with your assessment of the Machine. It worked for me. However, at times I thought the darkness of the production was at odds with Luisi's brilliant reading of the score. But then, it wasn't designed with his reading in mind. Then there were the costumes, wigs and the props. I say no more. Oh, except in the house you would not have heard Renee in intermission interview zing Terfel: "The black lens - they've never made me do that. Oh, and LOVE the rock-star wig, Bryn." Or words to that effect.

    I'm in complete agreement about the singing. The boys were all great. On Saturday I thought Voigt sounded MUCH better than she did on opening night via the Met stream - less lunging at the high notes, stronger in the middle. Gotta wonder about Gotterdam. O.

  4. Hey O, thanks for your comment! I didn't really even comment on the costumes and props because well ... what's there to say? But OTOH costumes for The Ring have like ... always been bad. I can't think of a single Ring production I've ever seen either in video or live where the costumes ever looked good.

  5. i definitely agree about Jay Hunter Morris, he was great, and especially I liked his acting very much. not that i didnt like his singing:).
    an enjoyable evening, who could say Wagner would move so quickly, we wont be bored a minute, with such length of the opera :)))))


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