Kirov’s “Siegfried” Slays Dragon, Conquers Orange County – October 9, 2006

Wagner thought that if one opera of his four-opera “Ring of the Nibelungs” would be performed separately from the other three in the series, it would be “Siegfried”. He, of course, was wrong about this. “Die Walkuere”, perhaps because of the its popular third act “Ride of the Valkyrs”, and certainly for its lusciously written roles for Wotan, Bruennhilde, Siegmund, Sieglinde and Fricka, has for decades been performed more often than the other three.

But one can understand why Wagner pegged “Siegfried” as the most likely to overachieve of the four operas. There is a certain compactness to its plot-lines. It is almost like the Sleeping Beauty story, but told from Prince Charming’s perspective. Siegfried must figure out the riddle of broken sword pieces, forge a sword to kill a dragon (from whose blood he gains the ability to talk with a woodbird with information about a sleeping beauty only a hero can awaken), incapacitate a man of power (unbeknownst to him his own grandfather), and survive the journey through a ring of fire. Other characters – Mime, Alberich, Wotan (Wanderer) and Erda narrate stories that give one a larger picture of all the things that have happened and will happen in the Ring. But, for Siegfried in “Siegfried”, it’s just a busy day in the life of a hero.

“Siegfried” is, of course, the third opera in the “Kirov Ring”, whose production concepts are by Valery Gergiev and George Tsypin. This is not a lightweight pair. Gergiev’s duties at St Petersburg’s Kirov Opera Mariinsky Theatre include the positions of Artistic and General Director and Principal Conductor, and his co-conceptualizer George Tsypin, not only designed these elaborate and mysterious stage sets, but has himself emerged as one of the world’s foremost theoreticians and practitioners of theatrical stagecraft. And to demonstrate that artistic genius can attract further genius, the lighting for the Ring, by Lighting Designer Gleb Filshtinsky, is unlike anything ever seen before.

Often a company producing a Ring will try to keep the same singers in a role that appears in more than one opera, but, to give singers sufficient rest between performances, each Ring usually needs more than a week between “Rheingold” and “Goetterdaemmerung”.

This would be almost impossible to accomplish if an the entire “Ring” is to be performed in only six nights, as was the Kirov Orange County production. (The Kirov pattern was night one, “Rheingold”, night two “Walkuere”, night three dark, night four “Siegfried”, night five dark, night six “Goetterdaemmerung”.)

Therefore, for Siegfried there were cast changes for both the Alberich (Viktor Chernomortsev replacing the “Rheingold” Alberich, Edem Uberov) and Vadim Kravets (who was the “Rheingold” Fasolt) replacing Mikhail Kit, who was Wotan in each of the first two operas. After two consecutive performance nights and one night’s rest, it would have been too much to expect Kit to assume the Traveler role also, but he had proven to be a satisfactory Wotan. Kravets being a much lighter baritone, it seemed the wrong type of voice for the highly dramatic (and intensely melodic) Wanderer role.

Interestingly, the printed program for the Ring showed Olga Sergeyeva appearing as Bruennhilde only in “Die Walkuere”, but as it approached show time she and/or the management decided she could perform the role in “Siegfried” and “Goetterdaemmerung” also (as she has done in Kirov “Ring” presentations elsewhere) with only a day’s rest between each of the Orange County performances.

It is Filshtinsky’s work that draws our attention in Siegfried’s first scenes. One of the mysterious giant man-like figures lies on the stage, and he is lit with a glowing red from his insides, giving the appearance of molten lava. Human-like figures are on top of the giant, four are below in mummy costumes. Mime (Vasily Gorshkov, replacing Nikolai Gassiev who played the same role in “Das Rheingold” three nights earlier) works to try to figure out how to put the shattered pieces of Siegmund’s sword together.

Then Leonid Zakhozhaev, a tall and dashing Siegfried with sufficient vocal resources to prove a convincing heldentenor, arrived with the bear in a rolling wheel. As Siegfried and bear continued their antics offstage, the Wanderer (Vadim Kravets) shows up to torment Mime with his proposition that they pledge their respective heads on their abilities to answer each others’ riddles.

[Below: Leonid Zakhozhaev is Siegfried; edited image, based on Mariinsky Theatre photograph.]

During the head wagering the giant sculpture turns green and an internal yellow light glows. Mime lacks the riddle-solving skills of Calaf in Puccini’s “Turandot”, and the Wanderer gives him the truly frightening information that only a person without fear can forge the sword and that such a person will use the sword to cut off Mime’s head.

[Below: Mime tries to outwit the Wanderer, but fails; edited image, based on Mariinsky Theatre photograph.]

When Siegfried returns, he takes over the task of trying to forge the sword, while Mime tries to teach him fear. Then the mummy figures are activated, and the characters in red neon headdresses that represented fire in Rheingold’s Nibelheim and around Bruennhilde’s rock in “Die Walkuere” (to return in this opera’s Act III), become the fire that forges the pieces of the sword Nothung to its former complete and magical state. Siegfried’s sword-forging, Kirov style, is studendous. All 18 of the red neon flameheads, heads glowing, kneel before Siegfried, himself on top of the giant sculpture, lifting the sword Nothung above his head.

[Below: Siegfried (Leonid Zhakozhaev) forges the pieces of Nothung into a new sword; edited image, based on Mariinsky Theatre photograph.]

One of the pleasures of attending whole Rings is that we become “of the moment” in the small scenes in which fundamentally important information is communicated between characters. Since we have been witness to the very events that one character is imparting to another, we can appreciate (and react to) the nuances in which a character will give his perspective on what is going on, including their perceptions of to what extent their actions can bring about the future they desire. One such scene is the reasonably polite exchange between those bitter adversaries, Alberich and the Wanderer (Wotan).

With such heavyweights as the Light (i.e., the Wanderer) and Dark Alberichs keeping each other in check and the resourceful but outgunned Mime no longer having any influence on Siegfried’s activities, the focus of Act II is Siegfried’s bravado at annoying a being so powerful that none of the other three – all of whom lust for the treasure he guards – has ever dared to confront him. The Kirov Fafner, rather than appearing as a classic dragon, is more a tubular appurtenance glowing red with a green head. As the orchestra sounds the Alberich curse motive, memorializing Fafner’s fate at Siegfried’s hand, the large figures have a red internal glow.

The woodbird first appears as a flautist dressed in nets and feathers, but after the dragon’s death, in the Kirov version, she trades her flute for Nothung the sword, and gives Siegfried just enough information to ensure he will take over control of the two most important treasure items and that he will know how to find Bruennhilde.

[Below: Siegfried receives special tutoring from the Woodbird; edited image, based on Mariinsky Theatre photograph.]

(The woodbird might have been able to bring about a “happily ever after” ending to Siegfried and Sleeping Beauty if she had used this time of maximum influence on the hero to suggest he not only take the Ring but immediately give it back to the Rhinemaidens. However, that would have left nothing to do in “Goetterdaemmerung”, which, as I have mentioned elsewhere on this site, is my favorite opera.)

Wagnerians are aware that Wagner suspended work on the Ring for a dozen years between Acts II and III and that from Act III of “Siegfried” through the last notes of “Goetterdaemmerung” there is a marked increase in the richness and maturity of orchestration. Gergiev achieved from his full-sized Wagnerian orchestra the lush reading of the Act III’s rousing introduction that should always be one of the orchestral highpoints of a Ring.

Zlata Bulycheva’s Erda was dressed in purples and red-violets with the giant stylized Texas longhorn headdress, draped in tassels, in which she, as the “Rheingold” Erda, appeared three nights prior. Bulycheva (who sings the much lighter role of Fyodor in Gergiev’s recordings of the 1869 and 1872 versions of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godounov”) was overwhelmed by the vocal resources required for this tricky role. Filshtinsky provided the little figures that accompany Erda with blue lights as eyes.

The giant figures are now a fivesome, observing the confrontation between Siegfried and the Wanderer. As Wotan lifts his spear versus his grandson, the heads of the figures are internally lit with yellow, which changes to a red glow when the spear is broken. All of the small figures simultaneously glow red, while flames are projected.

Then the flameheads reappear as the guardians of Bruennhilde, who lies on a rock in front of the scene’s dominant giant figure (see my review of the Kirov “Walkuere” which associates this image with the Scythian sun-goddess Tabiti). Siegfried pushes the flameheads out of the way, in order to win the heart of Beauty. Sergeyeva, in fine voice with the affecting trill that we had a hint of in “Walkuere”, saluted successively the sun and Zakhorzhaev, her conquering hero, as the blue lights of the little creatures glistened.

Soon “Siegfried” is over, with a day and 17 hours before the next episode in the Kirov Ring is to begin.

In reflecting on past performances of “Siegfried” that I have seen, it is clear that, for the past half-century at least, Wagner was wrong – the opera has not had numbers of performances greater than the other Ring operas. I have only seen “Siegfried” as part of a Ring cycle (as opposed to “Walkuere” which is often presented out of the Ring context), even though a couple of these were cycles that spread the Ring over three or four years, including a four-year presentation of the “Ring” by the San Diego Opera in the mid-1970s.

In fact, I have seen “Siegfried” less often than the other two non-Walkuere Ring operas. I have an excuse for this. Since my elder son was born on a day I was to see “Siegfried” at San Francisco, I was in the Labor and Delivery Room and not in the opera house. (For the curious, the answer is no, we named him something else.)

I have been fortunate to see a number of great performances of the “Siegfried” roles – before the Kirov Orange County presentations – all taking place in San Francisco. Jess Thomas (1972) and Rene Kollo (1984, 1985 and 1990) were exciting, first rank Siegfrieds. Although I never saw Birgit Nilsson sing the “Siegfried” Bruennhilde, which she performed only once in 1972 in San Francisco, Eva Marton’s Bruennhilde (role debut in 1984, repeated in 1985) was memorable, as was those of Dame Gwyneth Jones in 1990 and Jane Eaglen (1999).

The part of the Wanderer in San Francisco was owned by Thomas Stewart (1972, 1984, 1985), until James Morris took over his mantle in the 1990s (1990, 1999). Also of more than routine note were the Alberichs of Marius Rintzler (1972), Walter Berry (1985) and Tom Fox (1999), the Erdas of Margarita Lilova (1972), Helga Dernesch (1984), Hanna Schwarz (1985) and Elena Zaremba (1999) and the Mime of Helmut Pampuch (1984, 1985, 1990).

The San Diego “Siegfried” (1976) presented Ashley Putnam as the Woodbird, the most internationally renown of any singer I have heard in that role in live performance (and only in the Kirov production was the Woodbird actually onstage). This year’s Kirov Bruennhilde (Sergeyeva), Siegfried (Zakhozhaev) and Alberich (Chernomortsev) will be pleasurably remembered as well.

But what of the idea of hiring the Kirov Opera Mariinsky Theatre to come to Orange County to perform the greatest masterpiece of German Opera with Placido Domingo the big name in an otherwise all Russian cast, and an all Russian orchestra led by the Valery Gergiev? It proved an artistic triumph, and demonstrated that this Coastal region of Southern California, one of the lesser known of the world’s great centers of wealth and power, has the resources and the audience to attract almost any of the world’s great artists.

Friday night’s “Rheingold” proved that Orange County has the interest in Wagner and Saturday night’s “Walkuere” demonstrated that even though Domingo plays the part of a man, his audience thinks of him more as a god. But it was Monday night’s “Siegfried” during which one got the sense that this community, Wagner, and the widest world of culture are at the beginning of a long and prosperous relationship.

For my review of the Kirov “Rheingold”, see: Going For the Gold: Kirov Ring’s “Das Rheingold”in Costa Mesa – October 6, 2006

For my review of the Kirov “Walkuere”, see: Domingo, Kirov “Walkuere”in Costa Mesa – October 7, 2006

For my review of the Kirov “Goetterdaemmerung, see: Mariinsky “Goetterdaemmerung”in Orange County – “Hehrstes Wunder” October 11, 2006