Saturday, May 14, 2016

Dragons and Compacters

You don't usually hear even passionate Wagnerites carry on about the third opera in The Ring of the Nibelung: Siegfried. This is a long opera without much of the excitement of Die Walkure and the amazing music in the final opera, Goetterdaemmerung. But Francesca Zambello's amazing production for Washington National Opera injected some energy into this often-lagging interlude--if you can call a 5 1/2 hour opera an interlude.

We first meet Siegfried, the hero of heroes but also a classic Wagner innocent, in what looks to be a beat-up trailer he is inhabiting with Mime, the dwarf who for reasons unclear was the one who raised him after his parents were gone: Siegmund in the great battle with Hunding that was the start of the downfall of the gods, and Sieglinde, after giving birth to Siegfried. He is rightly suspicious of Mime, who is only caring for him so that when he fights Fafner, now a dragon, and recovers the ring and its accoutrements, Mime will be on hand to relieve the not-so-smart Siegfried of the spoils.

But the only characters whose plotting is more unsuccessful than Wotan's or the gods' generally are the Nibelungs, the dwarves. Alberich stole the Rheingold, forged the ring, lost it through trickery to Wotan and Loge, and still turns up in this opera aiming to get it back. Mime, too, is short-sighted. These characters, as it happens, also are perhaps one of the most serious pieces of evidence that looms, albeit unclearly, of Wagner's anti-Semitism at work. His descriptions of them as ugly, misshapen, greedy, less than human--even in the somewhat cleaned-up surtitles, does for a moment make you think you are hearing Der Sturmer brought to life. And add to that their role as the thief of the sacred Rheingold and using it to forge a ring that will enable them to rule the world.

But no one has ever said that Wagner is an unmitigated blessing. I do think too of Deems Taylor's short chronicle--The Monster--of all the miserable aspects of his personality and his behavior and then the inspired conclusion that the glory of his music means that everything in the indictment doesn't really matter.

Zambello's envisioning of the dragon as a huge trash compacter is superb, and when Siegfried kills the dragon and Fafner, now returned to his original status as a giant, falls out and has a death scene, you start to sympathize for the not-so-smart giant, who craved the gold when Wotan refused to yield the beauteous Freia to him, and is now dying as the last of his race.

The forest bird whose chattering Siegfried understands after tasting the dragon's blood is played in a charming manner by Jacqueline Echols. In my vinyl recording of the Ring, no less than Joan Sutherland played the role. Wotan's encounters in the last act with Erda and Siegfried were also better than I had recalled from previous productions--the old Met traditional production of the late 20th century by Otto Schenck and the recent cumbersome mechanical one by Robert LePage.

The singing quality has been high throughout but the biggest disappointment to me after what had been an amazingly enjoyable Siegfried was the famed last scene where the title character finally reaches Brunnhilde after charging through the ring of fire (not seen). Usually the tenor is exhausted from his hours of singing while the soprano is fresh as she has been waiting all this time. After the famous laugh line by Siegfried: "This is not a man!", the scene really dragged. Brunnhilde obviously needs some time to awaken after 18 years asleep but coming after all this anticipation, the scene fails to live up to expectations.

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