Wednesday night at the Seattle Opera’s first Siegfried of August, Stig Andersen achieved a feat worthy of Wagner’s mythic Siegfried.
Just before the curtain came up, Speight Jenkins edged his way onto the stage for an announcement. Stig Andersen, it seems, was plagued by a viral infection that had attacked his voice and sapped his constitution with a fever. There were gasps and a few worried looks around me, but then Jenkins reassured the concerned that Andersen would still sing the part. The show would go on as planned.
“He’s strong and is experienced. Stig Andersen wants to sing his role.” Jenkins said.
Andersen is strong and experienced, but is this enough for a role as demanding as Siegfried? From beginning to end, there are few moments when Siegfried isn’t on stage and when he is on stage he is singing some of the most demanding and stimulating music Wagner wrote for a tenor.
Knowing Andersen was sick, my focus was fixed on him from the moment he came on stage with his Muppet looking bear companion. I was curious to see how Andersen would handle singing and acting the role. Wadsworth’s stage directions tend to be more involved than most productions. Vocally, the role is demanding to sing and exciting to hear.
When I am sick, my faculties addled with a fever, and phlegmy throat, I can’t even walk in a straight line. Everyday obstacles like sidewalk curbs and doors frustrate my mobility. Coherent sentences in English are hard to come by – we aren’t even talking about singing in another language. Give me a hot shower, warm bed, and lots of Nyquil.
While I can barely function when I have a fever, here was Stig Andersen, just a few yards away, singing and acting at the limits of his abilities.
In Act I alone, Andersen’s abilities are pushed beyond reason. He must act like a petulant, frenetic teenager and push his voice to edge. Especially in scenes like the forging scene (Act I, Scene III) where Siegfried recasts Nothung – his magic sword. In the midst of all of Andersen’s jumping and darting around stage there were a few moments where I thought he was going to tumble over from fatigue or fever. There is one sequence where Andersen jumped on a stage log and he looked unsteady enough to fall into the pit.
It never happened.
When Andersen as Siegfried left the stage after instructing Mime to forge a sword capable of slaying Fafner, I expected a brand new, healthier Siegfried to come back.
Andersen came back and powered his way – imperfectly – through the forging scene.
When Act I came to a close I walked up the aisle to the lobby shaking my head in disbelief. It was obvious Andersen was struggling. He cleared his throat a few times, conserved his voice, and his voice drooped. I was unimpressed with his singing but mesmerized by his fortitude and his willingness to keep pushing ahead.
I wondered along with others in the lobby, if he would be back for Act II. How could he? The part of Siegfried only gets harder. He had to feel exhausted from the Act I heroics he just achieved. Surely, Andersen didn’t have anything to prove and didn’t have any more energy to continue.
Act II started and not too long after Richard Paul Fink dazzled again as Alberich, Andersen came on stage to slay Fafner. By this point, I stopped doubting Andersen’s fortitude and started rooting for him to complete the opera. Again, Andersen’s voice struggled, but it stopped mattering for me.
By the opera’s conclusion, I felt guilty for not caring that Andersen’s voice was problematic. I told myself all sorts of reasons why I should care. This is a once-every-four year event, it’s not like the Seattle Opera has many chances to put on Siegfried. Andersen’s illness and his decision to perform, impaired the quality overall of the opera. You get the idea.
The next day, as I had dinner with a friend we discussed Siegfried. He had seen the dress rehearsal a week before. We talked about how many companies don’t always do the cycle in one week. They spread it out over the course of weeks, a season, or even years. We supposed that longer gaps between the operas probably ensured better quality control, giving the singers who appear in multiple operas time to rest and recover. But we guessed most singers who perform in Ring’s done over the course of one week, find immense satisfaction in surviving the four operas.
One of the qualities I like about the Seattle Ring so far, is the raw stamina many of the performers are demonstrating. Not only are they singing at incredibly high level, but they continue to convince me with their acting. This was the case again in Siegfried. Greer Grimsley, Dennis Petersen and Richard Paul Fink I am talking about you. And in Stig Andersen’s case, I enjoyed watching him own Siegfried from a dramatic perspective even though his singing will undoubtedly be better in the next two cycles. I enjoyed watching him muscle his way through the role, going toe-to-toe with Janice Baird in the final scene of Act III, and through raw force, not letting Dennis Petersen steal the show.
Hearing Seattle Ring veterans talk, this isn’t the first time a performance or whole cycle has had problems. Back when the opera would do an English cycle and a German cycle, an English Siegfried had to fill in for a sick German Siegfried. Imagine hearing Siegfried sing in English while the rest of the cast was singing in German. I would blame the dragon’s blood. Other times, the anvil in Siegfried broke too soon or didn’t break at all.
In less ambitious operas more might be demanded, but this is the Ring. There is too much that can go wrong and will go wrong. I haven’t even mentioned the unruly horns in the orchestra this cycle. Most people on Wednesday gave the performers and Andersen plenty of latitude to do what was necessary to adequately complete the performance. Will that one performance be etched in stone as great? Not a chance. It was good and memorable. The exact qualities I want in a live performance. Wagnerites are asked to assume so much – dragons are real, Rhinemaidens can fly/swim, and Alberich can turn into a toad – that overlooking a subpar performance is easy to do.
I hope Stig Andersen feels better tonight and his voice returns to close to full strength. Twilight of the Gods is long, the longest, and for many their favorite. Even if he is still sick, I will enjoy watching Andersen act out his part. He is Siegfried even if his voice is not. As Jenkins said, “He’s strong and he’s experienced.” Sometimes that’s all you need to make a positive impression. Especially if you are Stig Andersen.