Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Gods and Nibelungs on the Pacific Coast: the Three Ring “Siegfrieds”

June 26th, 2011

The following summarizes the story line of the third opera of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”, with my impressions of three very different approaches to performing the opera, from respectively the Seattle Opera, Los Angeles Opera and San Francisco Opera. For the two previous features in this series, see: Gods and Nibelungs on the Pacific Coast: the Three Ring “Rheingolds” and Gods and Nibelungs on the Pacific Coast: the Three Ring “Walkueres”.

Wagner himself had thought that “Siegfried” would be the most popular of the four “Ring” operas, but that honor has always gone to “Die Walkuere”. However, the story of the young Siegfried has great appeal, and the opera is filled with spectacular events and both the rousing music of the forging scenes and extremely lyrical, melodious passages, especially in the third act.

The opera follows up on a series of events that took place in one or the other of the two previous operas. “Siegfried” continues the stories of three of the “Rheingold” characters, who do not appear in “Walkuere” at all. The giant Fafner, who now possesses the Nibelung Ring, the horde of gold and the magical Tarnhelm has moved to the East where he is fearsome presence (turning himself into a dragon in the Seattle and Los Angeles versions and into a machine in the San Francisco version).

The two dwarves, who are both brothers and enemies, take up long term residence near where Fafner guards his horde. Alberich, who has cursed the Ring, of course, wants it back, but so does his brother Mime, who fashioned the Tarnhelm, but could not take advantage of it since he was unaware of its powers.

It is Mime who is provided an unexpected opportunity by events that took place at and just after the end of “Walkuere”. The god Wotan, angry with Bruennhilde, then overcome with compassion for her, deprives her of her immortality and places her to sleep on a rock surronded by magic flames to be awakened in the future by a hero. This activity distracts him from  the fact that another daughter, Sieglinde (in this particular case, human rather than immortal), but pregnant with Wotan’s grandson, Siegfried, is seeking refuge in the land in which Fafner has based himself.

She came upon the place where Mime’s lives, and, dying after childbirth, persuaded Mime to raise her child, Siegfried. She gives Mime a pieces of the sword Nothung, that her husband and brother Siegmund had received from Wotan, but which shattered in Siegmund’s battle with her husband.

Mime, who had no idea how to kill Fafner to obtain the Ring, the horde and the Tarnhelm, decides that if he raises Siegfried as his own son, that Siegfried should have the strength to kill Fafner, thus permitting Mime to gain control of the treasure.

[Mime (David Cangelosi) devises a long-term plan to raise a hero capable of killing the dragon, Fafner; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Raising Siegfried is no easy matter, particularly as he grows to adulthood, and develops a disdain for the person who claims to be his “parents”. Raised in natural surroundings, Siegfried figures out that it is most improbable that a being like Mime could be his father. Intergenerational tensions mark their relationship.

[Below: Siegfried (Alan Woodrow, center) scares Mime (Thomas Harper, laying on ground) when he brings a wild bear home with him; edited image, based on a copyrighted Gary Smith photograph for the Seattle Opera.]

To try to regain the upper hand, Mime finally tells Siegfried about the boy’s origins and about the pieces of broken sword that Sieglinde had entrusted to him. This causes Siegfried to demand that Mime re-forge the sword from its sherds. With the boy away, Mime is struggling to figure out how to reforge Nothung.

Meanwhile, Wotan, whom we later learn, after his permanent separation from his daughter, Bruennhilde, has given up his plan to build a warrior army in Valhalla, has been wandering the Earth.

[Below: Wotan (Mark Delavan) disguises himself as the Wanderer and roams the Earth; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

He comes upon Mime’s abode, and  Mime is induced to accede to the Wanderer’s suggestion that they bet each other’s heads on their ability to answer the other’s riddles. The Wanderer stumps Mime with the question, who is it that can forge the sword Nothung?, to which the Wanderer reveals the answer “he who is without fear”. The Wanderer prophecies that a person without fear will behead Mime, which causes Mime to want to introduce Siegfried to the most fearsome Fafner.

Siegfried, though unskilled at metalcraft, decides he will try to reforge Nothung himself, and does so.

[Below: Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris) forges the sherds of Nothung into a new sword; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Events have caused Mime to accelerate his plans. The battle with Fafner now must take place immediately, so, on the excuse of trying to teach Siegfried the emotion of fear, he brings him to the lair of the dragon, into which Fafner has transformed himself.

Mime’s plots may not be understood by Siegfried, but Mime does not fool Alberich and Wotan, nor Wotan’s agent, the Woodbird. Alberich and Wotan have a convesation where the later reveals that the giant Fafner is soon to die, and the Woodbird begins to attract Siegfried’s attention, although Siegfried is yet unable to understand birdsong.

[Below: Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) in his long-term stakeout of the place where he knows the Nibelung treasure exists; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Although he expresses his preference that Siegfried and the dragon Fafner kill each other, Mime has prepared a poisioned draft for Siegfried, assuming he will be the victor of the upcoming battle.

[Below: Mime (Dennis Petersen, right) is determined that Siegfried (Stig Anderson, left) will learn fear from at the dragon’s lair; edited image, based on a Chris Bennion photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Siegfried kills the dragon, whose blood scalds his fingers and causes him to put them in his mouth. Tasting dragon’s blood gives Siegfried the power to understand the Woodbird, who warns him that Mime will poison him, but Siegfried kills him first. The Woodbird tells him about the sleeping Bruennhilde and he follows the Woodbird to the pathway to Bruennhilde’s Rock.

Wotan, in his guise as the Wanderer, has long since come to understand that he must submit to his fate, and conveys this to the earth god, Erda.

[Below: Wotan, the Wanderer (Vitalij Kowaljow) expresses his resignation to his fate to Erda (Jill Grove); edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Wotan awaits the Woodbird and Siegfried and attempts to bar Siegfried’s way, but Siegfried, unaware who the Wanderer (or for that matter Wotan) is, breaks the sacred spear and continues on the path to where Bruennhilde sleeps.

[Below: Siegfried (John Treleaven, front center) confronts the Wanderer (Vitalij Kowaljow); edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

[Below: Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris) comes upon the sleeping Bruennhilde (Nina Stemme); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Siegfried finds Bruennhilde and awakens her with a kiss. They make love and, and share a brief interlude of bliss.

[Below: Bruennhilde (Linda Watson, above center) has been awakened by her hero and lover, Siegfried (John Treleaven, below center); edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The pictures from the Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco “Siegfrieds” show dramatically three very different approaches to the work, yet each bringing a significant interpretation. The Seattle “Ring” I have described as cinematic in that the total stage always provides an eye-catching and basically beautiful setting for the music dramas, as if it were inspired by the technicolor, cinemascope features of the 1960s Hollywood films.

The Los Angeles Opera production by Achim Freyer concentrates on the musical leitmotivs that provide a separate textual layer to the words of Wagner’s libretto. Each of the leitmotivs is visualized by representations of characters, concepts and things. It proved to be a highly sophisticated, but for many persons inaccesible, approach to Wagner’s story.

The San Francisco production, conceived by Francesca Zambello, I regarded as theatrical in the sense that it concentrated on each individual character and their interactions with the others. Not only the words, but the expression of the character’s motivations at each point in the drama are always present.

Note: one other complete “Ring”, seen on the Pacific Coast in the past half-decade, is reviewed on this website – the Gergiev importation of the Kirov/Mariinsky production from Saint Petersburg, Russia, seen in Orange County in 2006. For the “Siegfried” review from that “Ring”, see: Kirov’s “Siegfried” Slays Dragon, Conquers Orange County – October 9, 2006.


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