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).
There was a problem, though, with Brünhilde. When Siegfried discovers her on the mountain-top in her ring of magic fire she is described as wearing a helmet and full armor, with her long shield laid atop her; Siegfried thinks she is a man. (Well, he hasn't ever seen a woman before anyway, but . . . well . . .) Having lifted away the shield he removes her helmet and, as Wagner says, "long curly hair spills out." This is an ancient literary device--revelation of the maiden warrior. It goes back to Bradamante in the the tales of Charlemagne and Rowland, to Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, to Britomart in Spenser's Faerie Queen, on up to Shaw's Polish aviatrix in The Misalliance. All of the guys (who may have been beaten in battle by this "knight") swallow their gum at the flow of that long, glorious hair.
Siegfried is frightened. Then he removes the breast-plate and . . . ("Oh, God! What is this??!")
Dave Barry said it best: "Scientists now believe that the primary biological function of breasts is to make males stupid." Well, that certainly happens to Siegfried. And even in Wagner's day that moment must have been a comic one. But in this production there is no spilling hair, no metal cuirass. Everybody can tell from the git-go that she is a woman, and so this dramatic revelation is not quite so dramatic.
(N.B. This little failing has absolutely no impact on the glorious duet which follows.)
Stage director Karen Coe Miller makes optimum use of the various spaces and levels, and gets excellent performances from her actors. But there were a number of times when the stage was just empty for a little too long while the orchestra played--or when singers on stage seemed to be merely waiting for their musical cue. Whenever an actor is on stage he must be (even silently) acting. He needs something to do that will forward the plot or color the character.
Designer Patrick Huber gives us a clean, structural set of scaffolding and symmetric stairways--all steel. At center there is a large rectangular projection screen; this can be raised to allow entrances below. The stage itself is not spacious, so the various acting areas are small. On that central screen projection-designer Michael Perkins gives us an impressive--and rather busy--flow of images.
I'm a long fan of Mr. Huber's, but I have a problem with the basic premise of this set. The Romantic Movement, of which Wagner is perhaps the epitome, presents the heroic spirit in conflict with immense and turbulent natural forces. In art it often shows us nature in turmoil--great crags, swirling clouds, torrents, maelstroms. The elegant simplicity, the rectilinearity, the symmetry and rationality of this set run counter to the Romantic feeling for which Siegfried cries out.
The complex projection plot by Mr. Perkins is often successful, at times disappointing. As a background for Mime's forge we see a vague warehouse full of rusty old cars and trucks of '30's vintage--a conceit I quite liked. Act 2's forest shows us a brook flowing and sparkling through the trees. There are some scary fiery dragon's eyes--but a moment later the moving dragon appears--not unlike a primitive Godzilla. And once, when the dragon's fire should have surged out from the central screen onto the super-title screens beyond the proscenium (a great idea), what we saw instead was an embarrassing several seconds of PowerPoint control screens.
The blunt rectangularity of the central screen constantly hinted to me that I was watching a movie with actor/singers in front of it.
Overall I think this production relied too heavily on projections. What we need is suggestion, not specific detail. It is, in fact, a bit distracting to see the brook actually sparkle and flow. We don't need to actually see the singing bird--especially in its rather klunky animation; the bird can live in just that soprano voice as it flies out over the audience (which would let Siegfried face downstage when he sings to it). With all this whiz-bang technology we have to remember that just because we can do something doesn't mean that we should do it. All of the designers and technicians deserve an "E" for effort, but I think that some of their effort was a bit misdirected.
If I dwell on the non-musical aspects of the production it is because Wagner wanted to unite all the arts--musical, visual and histrionic--and give each equal importance.
As far as its musical aspects go the Union Avenue Opera's production of Siegfried is splendid. It plays through August 30.