Road report: Siegfried; LA Ring

Wotan and Erda; LA Ring. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.

By Jonathan Caves

Siegfried is a problem child: the character can be one of the most annoying characters in all of opera and all too often this opera is the weak link in a Ring Cycle. This was definitely the case last night at The Chandler Pavilion. After the excellent production of Die Walküre (the more I reflect on this production the more I like it) I was ready for an equally impressive production of Siegfried. Unfortunately I didn’t get what I was expecting and I am still trying to work out exactly why.

Within the Achim Freyer vision of opera this was definitely a more minimalist production – less avatars, fewer and, mostly, less flashy projections (I say “mostly” because there were a couple of projections that looked like a “Pow!” or a “Wham!” from a Roy Lichtenstein print). I am in general a great fan of more minimalist opera productions but unfortunately in this case it just showed up the bareness of the stage and the distance between the characters. I didn’t feel Siegfried and Mime connect, nor Wotan and Siegfried and definitely not Siegfried and Brünnhilde.The only time I saw any real emotion was between Mime and Alberich – Graham Clark and Richard Paul Fink both tore up the scenery as the constantly bickering brothers. After the previous two operas I had expected that the question and answer session between Mime and Wotan would be a visual feast with all the referenced characters reappearing – and while they did re-appear (the giants, for example, re-enacting the murder of Fasolt) somehow it was all much more subdued and it all happened way up stage.

At first I thought that the dragon was some form of cruel joke and when I mentioned this at interval I was given a lecture, very politely I must say, about how what I actually saw was the dragon as seen through Siegfried’s eyes. Ok: I can buy that but I would argue that it is what his subconscious sees: his eyes surely still see a huge dragon? The second dragon (what I was told was the real dragon) is even worse – for a production that appears not to have cut any corners were costs are concerned it just looked cheap and out of place. I know the dragon is only a small part of the production and its appearance shouldn’t really matter (as long as there is something we, the audience, can point at and say “dragon”) but it is also one of the most well known aspects of Siegfried and the audience expects to shown something special.

One aspect of this production that I did really enjoy was the costume for Siegfried – one of the reasons I find Siegfried annoying is that as you have this supposed adolescent boy being played by a significantly older singer you have an instant disconnect – your mind just can’t reconcile the words with the vision. While I enjoyed Stig Andersen last summer in Seattle there was no way he looked like a teenager. The fanciful costume that Achim Freyer created definitely helped give the illusion that John Treleaven could be the right age for the part – his acting also had a playful, light hearted, youthful quality to it.

Time was once again a theme in this opera (at least in the first two Acts) though in a more linear sense. The was a constant progression of supernumeraries moving across the stage from left to right towards East/Ost.

It was made very clear that the Forest Bird is controlled by Wotan.

Through out this cycle Achim Freyer has added some touches which, while they are really simple, are very effective – last night it was having Graham Clark remove his mask as he sings Mime’s inner thoughts.

I now see what Linda Watson meant when see said that Achim Freyer should just buy a CD and play that – she hardly moved at all while she was on stage.

Graham Clack was a superb Mime he sang well and was prancing around the set (how come the two singers wearing the masks and the cumbersome footwear, Clark and Fink, seem to have the least trouble on this stage?). I did think that Clark’s voice started to sound tired towards the end of Act I but he recovered for Act II. Richard Paul Fink was again in fine form – you could really hear the hate and malice that his character still bears Wotan.

Vitalij Kowaljow as Wotan is growing on me – he sounded lovely last night: at turns defiant, playful but mostly just tired and resigned to his fate. His voice soars out over the orchestra and I didn’t notice any issues.

Stacey Tappan sounded sweet as the Forest Bird – even while enveloped in a huge costume.

Eric Halfvarson sang and died with dignity. Jill Grove did the best she could given the silliest looking costume and really big hair.

Linda Watson: unfortunately at this point my patience was wearing thin and my fatigue was building: my impression was that she sounded strong, clear, but a bit monotone – I didn’t hear much variation or color in her voice. The climax was thrilling.

John Treleaven sounded absolutely beautiful in the quieter lyrical passages – the Forest Murmurs scene was the best I have ever heard. Unfortunately it sounded to me that when he pushed his voice he seemed to have a few issues with control and he also developed a pronounced vibrato: though the cries of “Sei mein” were thrilling. I know this is one of the most difficult roles for any tenor (finishing with a duet with a fresh soprano) but I keep waiting to be blown away.

At the end of the performance the person to my left turned to me and said “That was the worst experience I have ever had at an opera” at the same time the women to my right turned to her partner and exclaimed “That was incredible!”. I am definitely somewhere between these two poles: I think that as I walked out of the theater my strongest emotion was a sense of disappointment – but this is not a uncommon for me after a performance of Siegfried. I have only ever seen one production of Siegfried that really impressed me and that was in Chicago in 2003 with Jane Eaglen and John Treleaven (and an incredible, but very simple, dragon) somehow I always feel let down as the productions never live up to my expectations. Maybe the fault lies with me and I need to lower my expectations – or maybe a perfect Siegfried is impossible.

I also feel that part of the reason for why I feel let down by this particular production is due to the long gap between Die Walküre and Siegfried. A lot of the energy built up by the first two productions had time to dissipate. In fact this almost felt like a standalone production of Siegfried. There just isn’t the same sense of single unified production as there is, say, at Seattle Opera.

There were a lot of empty seats and they stayed empty for all of the performance. The applause was more subdued than on the previous evenings – but there was no booing. Achim Freyer still did not make an appearance. I heard a lot of chatter during the performance and a cell-phone went off during the prelude to Act I and it sounded like it might have been in the pit – if it wasn’t then it was in the first few rows.

Quentin Tarantino was in attendance – now that would be a Ring I would go to see!

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