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Richard Wagner: Siegfried
09 Jun 2010

Valencia Ring: Siegfried.

Siegfried is a challenging opera to stage effectively, and the presentation by La Fura dels Baus in Zubin Mehta’s new Ring cycle merits attention on various counts.

Richard Wagner: Siegfried

Siegfried: Lance Ryan, Mime: Gerhard Siegel, Der Wanderer: Juha Uusitalo, Alberich: Franz-Josef Kapellmann, Fafner: Stephen Milling, Erda: Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Brünnhilde: Jennifer Wilson, Waldvogel: Marina Zyatkova, Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, Zubin Mehta, conductor.

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For one, the musical performance is solid, with a cast that involves some of the finest Wagner singers currently performing the repertoire. Recorded live in June 2008 and June 2009 at the Palau de les Arts “Reina Sofia”, Valencia, this recording makes available the innovative staging by La Fura dels Baus, Carlus Padrissa, stage director, in its stunning conception of the work. The machinery depicted during the prelude to the opera gives a sense of the details involved with the production, which are accentuated by the diegetic and non-diegetic sounds that accompany Mime’s opening lines. The science-fiction connotations of the opening scene fits well into the libretto, with the forge becoming a kind of factory that serves as a foil for the more nature-oriented personality of the young hero Siegfried. As Siegfried, Canadian tenor Lance Ryan makes his character vivid from the start, as he collides with the machinations of Mime. Here, Mehta’s tempos and subtlety shifting of dynamics contributes to the sense of the text, so that it is not only heard clearly, but conveys the tone of the libretto. Ryan’s tone is vibrant and continually fresh; he seems tireless in this role, which seems to suit his voice well. At the same time, his presence on stage involves movement appropriate to the text, especially in the more extended passages that serve to convey the details of his upbringing to the point where the opera begins. Ryan gives his character some welcome depth; raised innocent of his heritage, he knows the questions to ask as he draws information from Mime. His pacing of the forging of the broken sword Nothung brings further details into the sonic portrayal of the hero, which matches well the strong images on stage as the scene culminates.

As far as the production the projections reinforce the text, with the cartoon-like birds suggesting the character of Disney’s classic presentations of European fairy tales. With the floor-to-ceiling screens, the images are appropriately large, as should occur in a production like this. Equally effective is the projection of Sieglinde, which emerges discretely when Mime talks about Siegfried’s birth. This image brings the visual world of the production of Die Walküre into the opera without intruding on it unnecessarily - it offers a visual Leitmotif. The tiled views of Sieglinde presented later also work well and fit into the text. These scenes intersect nicely with the three-dimensional objects in this production, as occurs with the reference to Nibelheim and the reprise of images from Das Rheingold.

Yet it is the singing that makes this Siegfried memorable, not only the Ryan’s portrayal of the title character, but also through Gerhard Siegel’s thoughtful characterization of Mime. Siegel is certainly comfortable with this role and interacts with Ryan well. As the Wanderer, Juha Uusitalo brings his conception of Wotan into this opera. As much as his physical presence stands out in this staging, Uusitalo’s vocal characterization anchors his part in this production. The riddle scene is nicely staged, but more than that, performed with appropriate nuance to make it fit into the dramatic structure of the work.

As Alberich, Franz-Joseph Kapellmann is impressive at the beginning of the second act, not only in his solo passages, but also in his interaction with Uusitalo as the Wanderer. The recognition of the fateful consequences of his action is apparent in Kapellmann’s acting, an element that must come off with the conviction found here. Black Alberich, as the Wandered calls him, is not the same as the character was at the end of Das Rheingold, and here Wotan has also become transformed. Uusitalo is similarly changed, and Uusitalo demonstrates in reaction to Alberich’s resolve to rule the world. This, in turn, sets the stage for Siegfried’s entrance, an element cued in Wagner’s music and reinforced subtly by the images projected on the background of the stage.

Here the image of Fafner’s cave is a wonderful mixture of stagecraft and projected imagines. The use of blood-read hues with the steel-grays and black tones quite vivid, and the motion conveyed by the projections gives depth to the scene. Mime’s description of the dragon neither increases nor diminishes the embodiment of the creature, but appropriately helps to point up the character of Siegfried. In the scenes that follow the dragon finds shape gradually, with Stephen Milling giving it excellent voice as he offers a well-paced reading of Fafner’s role. Here the actual costume allotted Milling blends into larger scene, but his voice dominates with the fine support of the orchestra led by Mehta.

In a similar way the Waldvogel is larger than life, a Cirque-du-Soleil presence on the stage, with Marina Zyatkova supported nicely by her fantastic wings. The sometimes disembodied voice fits well into the depiction offered here, and Zyatkova sounds all the part of the supra-human creature who guides Siegfried through the conflicts he must face as the drama of the second act takes shape. Yet when Alberich is slain, the confirmation by Zyatkova offers a shift in tone, which stands in opposition to the more sinister opening of the act. This musical transformation in the second act has been reinforced by the staging, such that the elements involved with presenting the opera come together in a very Wagnerian sense. At the same time, the fanciful shapes and colors with which the second act ends also bring the colorful music to life.

Like the other recordings in this Ring cycle, the crisp images match the buoyant sound, and a telling point for the latter is the opening of the second act, where the “dragon” motif must sound subtly. The resulting sound in this recording is appropriate soft and always apparent. In fact it is nicely played here, and the presentation benefits from crosscuts between the orchestra and the stage as the first scene of the second act takes shape. In a similar way, the third act has its own challenges, and the sound at the beginning of that part of the drama benefits from the Blu-Ray technology. Without the strong sonic component, the images would not be as compelling. Here, too the snowy crags and mount shapes that frame the Wanderer are stunning. The scene alone shows how filmed images and live action combine effectively to culminate in the interaction between Wotan and Erda. In waking Erda, Wotan seems to descend to find her, and Uusitalo’s intensity is laudable. Catherine Wyn-Rogers gives Erda through her clear diction and well-phrased lines. While not as dark a voice as found with some Erdas cast in other Ring cycles, Wyn-Rogers is effective for the timbre she gives the character.

As appropriate, this production of Siegfried culminates in the final scenes in which the hero overcomes challenges to find Brünnhilde and then awakens her from magic sleep to similarly enchanted attraction. The dialogue between Siegfried and the Wanderer relies on traditional stagecraft, with supernumeraries suggesting the physical hindrances, and the simple movements of those extras allow the two principals to stand out in the scene, enhanced by closeups. Lance Ryan shows the confidence appropriate to Siegfried, and he uses hjis fresh, resilient voice well to suggest his fearlessness that culminates in his breaking Wotan’s spear. Ryan’s delivery of the lines after Wotan’s departure verge on shrill, the orchestral interlude that follows afford him time to rest before the extended scene with Brünnhilde.

In this scene, the close-ups suggest film more than filmed opera, while showing the full effective of the interactive staging between projects and live action. The filmed magic fire reaches over Siegfried to suggest the hero’s accomplishment, while the lighted torches of the men surrounding Brünnhilde dispel gradually to allow Siegfried to awaken his eventual partner. At the same time the close camera allows the Nibelung’s ring to stand out on Siegfried’s neck. That same intimate viewpoint reveals a joyfully awakening Brünnhilde, whom Jennifer Wilson depicts with exuberant voice and gestures. As Brünnhilde sheds the accoutrements of the valkyrie, Wilson sets the stage for the passage “Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich” giving a sense of the humanity her character now carries into the drama. The performance is full of vocal details that make it compelling, along with visual cues that are not always possible to view in a conventional staging. The final part of the scene is triumphant for the nuances that Wilson introduces in a dynamic performance that culminates in the duet with Ryan as Siegfried, as the motifs associated with Brünnhilde’s existence as a valkyrie transform into expressions of human passion.

This production of Siegfried builds on the previous two operas in this cycle, and delivers a convincing presentation of the opera. Zubin Mehta offers a fine reading of the score, with the technical details and musical expression fitting to the work. More than that, the response of the audience at end shows how the performance in this production was indeed moving. The extended bows are a nice touch, which reinforces the aspect of live performance in this recording. At the end the entire orchestra is on stage for a well-deserved ovation. Those interested in the details of the production can consult the bonus, short documentary on this production, which contains some extended comments by Zubin Mehta that add to the overall effect.

James L. Zychowicz

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