Siegfried at Oper Frankfurt

By Susan Brodie

The final Sunday performance (Nov. 27) of Siegfried at Oper Frankfurt was delayed by about 10 minutes because of “technical difficulties”. Amid the politely agitated buzz that greeted the announcement I wondered whether the Met’s machine ills (see previous post) were contagious. No worries–the show actually did begin within a few minutes and ran without noticeable mishap. The updated production plays with contemporary references while avoiding the gratuitously outrageous conceits.

Siegfried and Brünnhilde, together at last (curtain call). (c) Susan Brodie

Jens Killian’s unit set for Vera Nemirova’s ongoing Ring production features a large disc articulated into 5 concentric rings, like a shrunken Saturn. The clever contraption serves as stage surface, projection screen, and, in its various configurations, definer of interior spaces. As the rings rotate together or at variable angles to the stage and to one another they suggest mountain peaks, caves, and dragons’ lairs. And in the final scene, the core ring becomes Brünnhilde’s rock, surrounded by a circlet of real fire which magically floated into the flies after Siegfried breached the barrier to approach the slumbering figure.

But this production focused on characters rather than the machine: direction was specific and any modernization served to help modern audiences connect with Wagner’s mythic archetypes. The younger-than-usual Mime sported hoodie and oversized glasses, hair flopping into his eyes, evoking the nerdy loner you avoided in high school. Alberich and the Wanderer, in matching black do-rags–the hoods you avoided for other reasons–were dressed as members of the same tribe. The fierce and voluptuous Erda was an astonishing big-breasted furball, somehow evoking an eternal femininity, wisdom, and, on this occasion, elemental rage at her blustering and uncomprehending consort. The opera’s theme of teaching and learning was made concrete by a chalkboard: Siegfried’s queries about his origins became a Q&A blackboard lesson, and the same device was used in the scene between Mime and the Wanderer. No chalkboard was needed when Siegfried, having finally learned fear, turned the tables to become Brünnhilde’s teacher about love.

The dragon was understated but effective: at the first rumbles of the Fafner motif in the second act a minute rotation of the middle ring revealed a cleft between rings glowing fiery red, from which emerged the creature’s sleepy voice. When Siegfried woke the slumbering dragon, the fiery cavern opened to discharge Fafner from its infernal depths, a human anatomical illustration made flesh, burly and skinless, all blood vessels and sinew. Wearing a loincloth and draped with gold chains, this was man stripped to raw greed, the monster that lurks within. It made sense that the strapping youth could overcome this man-sized Fafner without fear.

One original and delightful touch was the Forest Bird, mimed by a male dancer (Alan Barnes) in a brown body stocking with long feathers extending his fingers. He darted, quivered, wordlessly cajoled, and reacted to both Siegfried’s actions and to details of the music–you couldn’t watch anything else.

The singers all sounded at least decent, but it’s hard to comment meaningfully because all wore body mikes.  [EDITED TO ADD: I have since learned that the mikes were in use only for commercial recording: Oehm Classics has already issued Das Rheingold and Die Walküre on CD. Sound samples of Die Walküre reveal a pleasing balance between singers and orchestra and minimal enhancement of ambient sound.] The singers on that stage have all proven themselves in Frankfurt’s middling-sized auditorium, and I’ve heard many of them in larger theaters without acoustic enhancement. Was this a compromise allowing greater dynamic latitude to music director Sebastien Weigle, whose tempi were often on the slow side? That said, Lance Ryan’s Siegfried sounded quite good, even at the end of his long sing. Terje Stensvold’s Wanderer sounded resonant and perfectly portrayed a Master of the Universe losing his power. When Meredith Arwady as Erda launched her powerful contralto against the increasingly hapless Wanderer, everyone quaked. Why isn’t this woman singing everywhere? 

The takeaway: the Ring doesn’t require excessive gimmickry to be powerful and evocative. The tradition calls for a few good bits of stagecraft–an imaginatively scary dragon, magic fire–and Frankfurt provided enough enchantment to please, ideas to provoke thought, and enough familiar elements to satisfy the most diehard traditionalist without being stuffy–all held together with glorious music making.

[Götterdämmerung premieres on January 29, 2012, with six sold-out performances before the two full Ring cycles in June-July.]