BWW Reviews: SIEGFRIED Triumphs at Union Avenue
It's a massive, mythic saga of gods and heroes and stolen gold and magic rings and dwarves and dragons and enchanted swords and warrior maidens and, essentially, the end and rebirth of the universe. No, I'm not talking about some sort of Tolkien festival; I'm talking Wagner--and the wonders he wrought from tales in the ancient Niebelungenlied and Norse eddas and sagas. The Union Avenue Opera continues its bold venture into Wagner's Ring Cycle with the opening of a fine production of Siegfried, the third in that titanic tetralogical juggernaut that has rolled through opera history since 1874.
Molière once said, "Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive." And of all the operas known to man, the Ring Cycle is probably the most expensive. Two seasons ago the Met spent $16,000,000 to produce it. St. Louis' Union Avenue Opera manages quite well (thank you very much) on a rather smaller budget. And their Siegfried is, for the most part, a resounding success.
The cast is led by Clay Hilley in the title role. Hilley is every bit a heldentenor--that heroic tenor that this role demands; his clear, true voice easily fills the hall--and he powerfully fills it for much of the three-hour performance. Mime, the grotesque dwarf (or Niebelung) who has raised the orphaned Siegfried is given a delicious performance by buffo tenor Marc Schapman. Hunched and leather-clad as he pounds steel at his smithy, he's quite thrilling. There are myriad rich emotional qualities in his voice, and he manages somehow to be both comic and a little frightening. Not only a fine singer, he's a fine actor--which is important in anything by Wagner, who called his works "dramas" rather than "operas".
Both Mime and Siegfried "play" the anvil almost like a snare drum--hammering out wonderfully rapid and musically precise rhythms as they pound on sword blades.
Mime's brother dwarf, Alberich, is the one who started all this mischief two operas ago by stealing the gold from the Rhine maidens. Alberich is played with wonderful wickedness by Jordan Shanahan. He's drenched in menace. With a strong, rich dramatic baritone he is perfect in the role.
The god Wotan (Odin), disguised as a Wanderer, is just in the neighborhood checking up on things. David Dillard has a beautiful, fluid dramatic baritone-with a tilt toward the lyric, but it's less powerful than some voices surrounding him. He's tall and graceful and is master of that grand dramatic Wagnerian gesture, but he's a physically slighter than one might wish for the mighty Wotan.
Fafner is the giant who killed his brother for the Rhine gold. Now, in the form of a dragon, he guards it under a mountain. Basso Nathan Whitson is himself a giant of a man. He sings this role with all the beautiful strength and depth one could desire.
I was first impressed with contralto Cecelia Stearman years ago when she played the evil sorceress in Union Avenue's Dido and Aeneas. Now she appears as the goddess Erda, whom Wotan summons from her long, long sleep in the earth. The voice is as gorgeous as I remembered, but Erda seemed a bit unconnected--drifting a bit aimlessly. Is she simply bleary eyed after being yanked up from that centuries-long sleep? Is she uncomfortable in that curious tulle headdress with all the twinkley lights?
While Siegfried is wandering in the woods he hears a bird singing to him. Soprano Katie Reimann (offstage) sings a lovely bird-light, bright, and absolutely avian.
And now . . . (drum-roll, please) . . . here's what you've been waiting for! She's been asleep in a magic ring of fire for ever-so-long. Yes, you've got it! It's none other than . . . BRÜNHILDE! That magic sleep has clearly filled her with energy, for this Brünhilde will blow you away! Alexandra LoBianco has a voice of immense sweet power. She is the true Wagnerian soprano. Some great voices can shatter wine-glasses; her wonderful voice could shatter walls. I have no doubt that Miss LoBianco could sing the roof right off the church. Brava!
The fine orchestra is conducted by Scott Schoonover. Great work.
Once again the production is costumed by the brilliant and prolific Teresa Doggett. And once again her costumes are spot on (though, as I mention above, I was a bit puzzled by Erda, the earth goddess with her head in the stars). I especially loved the dwarves--leathery, earthy, iron-buckled--simply perfect for that cave-dwelling race. And Miss Doggett covers the arms of Mime and Alberich with ornate dark Maori-esque tattoos (a conceit she used so successfully on the ancient Brits in a production of Lear some years ago).