Opera Warhorses

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Review: Jay Hunter Morris, Christine Goerke Lead a Vocally Strong “Siegfried” Cast – Houston Grand Opera, April 20, 2016

April 22nd, 2016

The Houston Grand Opera (HGO) assembled a strong cast for “Siegfried”, its third entry in its mounting (over four seasons) of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” in an imaginative, often visually dizzying production from Spain’s Fura dels Baus.

Jay Hunter Morris’ Siegfried

Siegfried is a role that dominates all three acts of the opera, requiring power and vocal stamina for sustained singing over the large orchestra. Morris performed masterfully, playing the coming of age of the youth Siegfried with Morris’ good ol’ boy charm, while singing Siegfried’s many lyrical passages beautifully.

[Below: Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris) forges the fragments of his father’s sword Nothung into a new sword for himself; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO SIEGF (400) FORGE

Most of the characters in the Ring are engaged in personal strategems that last for decades or millenia, but young Siegfried is always in the moment, whether in boisterous play, or in the combative arguments with his guardian (the Nibelung Mime) whom he has come to loathe, or in exhibiting profound wonder about his existence and origins.

Morris convincingly projects Siegfried’s emotional yearning for information about his real mother.  (Siegfried has worked out logically that Mime’s claim that he is both Siegfried’s mother and father is an impossibility, so Siegfried argues with Mime as to whether Siegfried himself is subject to the ways of the natural world.)

Morris, playing the one character in the “Ring” who is allowed light-hearted, and even comic moments, is affecting. His fashioning of a reed-flute that plays sour notes elicited laughs, as Wagner intended. (This production’s use of animal forms that react negatively to the off-key sounds parodizes Tamino’s charming of the animals in Mozart’s “Magic Flute”.)

Morris’ triumphant scenes of Siegfried’s encounter with Wotan (unbeknownst to Siegfried, his grandfather), and his bride-to-be, Brünnhilde, were among the evening’s highlights.

Christine Goerke’s Brünnhilde

New York dramatic soprano Christine Goerke’s performance was rapturous, culminating in a finely sung duet with Morris’ Siegfried.

[Below: Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO SIEGF (400) BRUNNHILDE DISK

Unlike “Die Walküre” in which Brünnhilde is a dominant presence in two acts, and “Götterdämmerung” in which she appears in three acts, the “Siegfried” Brünnhilde appears only in the final act, when she is awakened from a decades long sleep by the hero Siegfried’s kiss.

Yet, the music that Brünnhilde sings in the opera’s final scene is among the most glorious in all of opera.

Rodell Rosel’s Mime

Rodell Rosel provided a vividly acted, nicely sung, characterization of the conniving Nibelung, Mime.

The role of Mime (who appears in both “Rheingold” and “Siegfried”) is arguably the epitome of the repertory that defines the character tenor’s craft. Only the part of Siegfried is longer than Mime’s in this opera.

[Below: Rodell Rosel as Mime; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO SIEGF (425) MIME

I have been reporting on Rosel’s evolving career as a character tenor over the past decade [see Australia Opera’s “Butterfly” Charms Pittsburgh – October 19, 2007] and recognize him as one of the handful of artists able to project memorable portraits in iconic comprimario roles.

Iain Paterson’s Wanderer

British singer Iain Paterson provided a sturdy, well-sung performance as the god Wotan, in disguise as the Wanderer. His convincing performance became, quite properly, larger than life as framed by the Fura dels Baus production.

[Below: Iain Paterson as the Wanderer; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO SIEGF (400) WANDERER

Paterson’s Wanderer is particularly powerful in the spectacular first scenes of the third act in which projections of icy landscapes and snowy mountains accompany Wagner’s surging orchestration. These are followed by dramatic images of the rotating earth.

These lead to his scene with the earth goddess Erda, in which he reveals his willingness to let fate take its course, knowing it will lead to the destruction of the gods.

Andrea Silvestrelli’s Fafner

The Italian-born American artist Andrea Silvestrelli made a strong impression as the giant Fafner, who has assumed the form of the ferocious dragon (albeit a bit less fearsome in this production). Silvestrelli’s deep voice, amplified, projects the menace the role requires.

[Below: Fafner (Andrea Silvestrelli) engages in a fight to the death; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO SIEGF(400) DRAGON

Silvestrelli’s height and dominating physical presence, sonorous basso, and sensitive acting have made him a first choice of many casting directors for either the roles of the two “Ring” giants, Fasolt and Fafner. (Silvestrelli is scheduled to play one or the other of the giants in “Rings” at several opera companies over the next few years.)

In addition to his encounter with Siegfried in the second act, Silvestrelli’s Fafner also appeared in the enactment of one of Mime’s question of the Wanderer in the first act.

Richard Paul Fink’s Alberich

I have referred to Richard Paul Fink’s characterization of Alberich as a “master-class portrayal”.

[Below: Richard Paul Fink as Alberich; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO SIEGF (400) ALBERICH

Although Fink’s appearances as Alberich in “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung” are of shorter duration that in “Rheingold”, his characterizations are always momentous and intense. Fink demonstrates his ability in a brief scene to project immediately and authoritatively the dark forces that motivate Alberich.

Meredith Arwady’s Erda

Meredith Arwady’s power and security in the lower register has garnered her important contralto assignments, including the role of Erda (who bore Wotan’s daughter, Brünnhilde).

[Below: Meredith Arwady as Erda; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO SIEGF (400) ARWADY

The production focuses attention on (almost to the point of overpowering) the importance of Erda in the fate of heaven and earth. Arwady, strapped to a mechanical conveyance, delivers a striking performance.

Mane Galoyan’s Forest Bird

Houston Grand Opera Studio Young Artist sang the engaging coloratura part of the magical Forest Bird, who provides Siegfried with the information that changes the hero’s life.

[Below: Mane Galoyan, above, as the Forest Bird; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO SIEGF (425) FOREST BIRD & MEN

Galoyan’s recent success in the lead female role in the world premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s opera “Prince of Players” was an important career boost.

The Fura dels Baus Production

The physical production from Barcelona’s has been the subject of wonder and controversy. Fura dels Baus melds state of the art projections with a basically bare stage onto which are groups of supernumerary actors, puppets and mechanical devices interact with the principal artists.

[Below: a wild animal (supernumeraries, bottom right center) has disturbed the high tech laboratory of Mime (Rodell Rosel, above, center); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO SIEGF (425) HIGH TECH LAB

The projections require an enormous investment in lighting technology, with dazzling, often dizzying results, sometimes overwhelming in the first act.

The Nibelung Mime emerges as an operator of out-of-control technology. He hammers in time with the constant motion of valves and pistons. He seeks unsuccessfully to forge the broken pieces of Nothung, the magical sword that had been created for Siegfried’s father, Siegmund.

The scene between the Wanderer (the god Wotan) and Mime is imaginatively staged. Each asks three questions of the other, holding a representation of their opponent’s head that will be forfeited in the event of an incorrect answer.

[Below: The Wanderer (Iain Paterson, right) hold an image of the head of Mime (Rodell Rosel, left, seated); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO SIEGF (425) WANDERER MIME

When the Wanderer reveals to the terrified Mime that the broken sword Nothung can be reforged by a person who has never known fear (a person to whom the Wanderer commits Mime’s forfeited head), Mime enlists biotechnology to try to seek a source of fear in Siegmund’s anatomy.

[Below: Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris, second from left) is on a treadmill as biomedical technicians seek a source of fear in him; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO SIEGF (425) TREADMILL SCIENTISTS

The forging of Siegfried’s sword properly should be a highlight of a performance of the first act of “Siegfried”. For the forging, the Fura dels Baus created another of its brilliant images, a spherical furnace for the sword, whose glowing metal Siegfried takes to an anvil to process.

[Below: Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris, right) takes hold of the glowing blade of what he will make into his sword; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO SIEGF (425) SWORD FURNACE

Spanish director Carlus Padrissa was the Director, assisted by Chilean Associate Director Esteban Munoz. German designer Roland Olbeter created the sets, and Spanish designer Chu Uroz the costumes. The extraordinary lighting effects were originally created by the Belgian designer Peter Van Praet and realized by Italian designer Gianni Paolo Mirenda. Spanish designer Franc Aleu created the video projections.

Morris and Goerke

I had previously reported on Morris’ Siegfried in San Francisco five years ago [see Down and Out in Zambello’s American Ring: Sly, Theatrically-Centered “Siegfried” Satisfies – San Francisco Opera, June 17, 2011]. Morris had covered the Siegfried role for the 2009 Seattle Opera “Ring” and had agreed to cover tenor Ian Storey for the role for the 2011 San Francisco “Ring”.

Lightning struck for Morris’ career when Storey withdrew from all of the “Siegfried” performances. Morris’ San Francisco success brought him to the attention of opera companies throughout the world.

In roughly the same time period, Christine Goerke began to assume major assignments in Wagner [see Brandon Jovanovich Triumphant in Historic “Don Carlos” Production – Houston Grand Opera, April 13, 2012.]

She is still early in her career in the three Brünnhilde roles [See Review: Houston “Walküre” Showcases Christine Goerke’s Astonishing Brünnhilde, Karita Mattila’s Stunning Sieglinde – Houston Grand Opera, April 25, 2015] but it has been these roles in which she has spent much of her time in the last several months and it will be these roles that dominate her schedule for the forseeable future.

Recommendation

One can applaud the Fura dels Baus production for a wealth of imaginative ideas and amazing technology without conceding that they have created the authoritative “Siegfried”.

The overriding reason to attend this performance is to see Jay Hunter Morris and Christine Goerke in the roles that their fame and reputation will rest upon, surrounded by excellent performances of each of their colleagues in the other principal roles and the conducting of Patrick Summers.

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