Siegfried Slashes Like A Samurai In Houston Spectacle

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Suspended above Mime's robotic helpers, Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris) makes much ado about Nothung in La Fura dels Baus production of 'Siegfried' at Houston Grand Opera. Photos: Lynn Lane
Suspended above Mime’s robotic helpers, Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris) makes much ado about Nothung in ‘Siegfried.’
La Fura dels Baus production, Houston Grand Opera. (Photos by Lynn Lane)
By William Albright

HOUSTON — Houston Grand Opera made a canny decision to enlist the participation of Barcelona’s imaginative La Fura dels Baus theater group in its first attempt at mounting Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle. And for its premiere staging of Siegfried, the 60-year-old HGO wisely turned to tenor Jay Hunter Morris, who seems to have become the go-to guy for that opera’s punishing title role. The result, as seen April 16 in Wortham Theater Center’s Brown Theater, was highly rewarding both musically and visually.

Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris), Brünnhilde (Christine Goerke).
Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris), Brünnhilde (Christine Goerke).

For the Texas-born Morris, Siegfried has been both a signature role and a good-luck charm. He first sang the part at the San Francisco Opera in June 2011. Several months later, he received international news coverage and job offers when he replaced the indisposed Gary Lehman eight days before opening night in the Metropolitan Opera’s controversial new Robert Lepage production of Siegfried. Morris also was Siegfried in the Met’s Götterdämmerung in January 2012, but Simon O’Neill, Siegmund in HGO’s Die Walküre last year, will take on the assignment when the company braves the Ring’s final opera next spring. (Additional performances of Siegfried are scheduled for April 20, 23, 28 and May 1.)

Morris’s strong, warm tenor lacks clarion ring, but its steadiness is a welcome attribute in this (or any) repertoire. In addition, he has the stamina the long and often high-decibel role requires, so one could forgive pitch shortfalls here and there. Also, he was a winning actor. Exuding youthful bravado in the first two acts, joyously striking heroic poses and flourishing the sword Nothung like a samurai warrior, he was charmingly bashful after awakening Brünnhilde, the first woman Siegfried has ever laid eyes on. (I always wonder: did the character’s startled “Das ist kein Mann!” prompt giggles in Wagner’s time the way it does now?)

Christine Goerke is anchoring HGO’s Ring Cycle, and her Siegfried Brünnhilde was effective if flawed. Like Morris, she had some pitch problems (the vaulting high notes in the rapturous final duet didn’t reach their target), and her soprano was often cloudy and gusty in music calling for purity and radiance. But she could summon up thrilling power, as well as touchingly portray the humanized goddess’s fear and vulnerability.

The power-mad Mime (Rodell Rosel) and two of his minions.
The power-mad Mime (Rodell Rosel) and two of his minions.

Iain Paterson is HGO’s resident Wotan, and his Siegfried Wanderer boasted a rich, firm bass-baritone that was weak down below but orotund higher up, and his conflicted chief god exuded stately authority. Rodell Rosel and Richard Paul Fink gave sterling performances as the treacherous Nibelung brothers Mime and Alberich, respectively. Rosel fielded a clear, pungent tenor, and Fink, sporting a spiky mohawk, produced the potent, rock-solid baritone that has made him an outstanding Alberich for years. Andrea Silvestrelli’s inky, craggy bass is ideal for the role of Fafner, the hungry dragon; Meredith Arwady delivered Erda the Earth goddess’ baleful utterances in a sepulchral contralto; and Mane Galoyan sang the Forest Bird’s chirpy lines with a plush if unsteady soprano.

HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers etched the jaunty rhythms associated with the high-spirited Siegfried with plenty of incisive buoyancy. After unleashing a torrent of surging orchestral sound in the Forging Scene that would inundate even the most leather-lunged, fledgling smithy, he smoothly sculpted the opera’s lyrical pages and captured the shimmering transparency of the Forest Murmurs scene, as well as the exaltation of the final duet.

The Forest Bird (Mane Galoyan) flew onstage and off like Peter Pan.
The Forest Bird (Mane Galoyan) flew onstage and off like Peter Pan.

The imaginative production by La Fura dels Baus — devised by director Carlus Padrissa, set designer Roland Olbeter, costume designer Chu Uroz, lighting designer Peter van Praet, and video designer Franc Aleu — was a mesmerizing if sometimes puzzling mash-up of dazzling computer-generated imagery and Cirque du Soleil-like physical theatricality. Both gods (Erda and Wotan) and the bass who lent his voice to Fafner’s part snake, part praying-mantis metal manifestation were airborne on stagehand-propelled cranes, and the Forest Bird flew onstage and off like Peter Pan.

There was enough ice in Siegfried’s primeval world for several episodes of Game of Thrones. Projections on towering upstage screens helicoptered us over a snow-covered mountain range to Mime’s cave, a hellish factory where he wore a futuristic lab coat, and a platoon of masked, robot-like helpers reminiscent of Woody Allen in Sleeper buffed the floor and formed a line to do some synchronized team hammering along with Siegfried. There was also a frigid fly-over to Brünnhilde’s rock, where a bunch of seated supernumeraries holding flaming torches surrounded the sleeping Valkyrie.

When birds were mentioned during the question-and-answer game that Mime and the Wanderer play, flocks of them swarmed onscreen. Supers in skin-tight yellow body suits writhed on the floor when gold was talked about, and a black-and-white film of Sieglinde unspooled when the subject of Siegfried’s mother came up. When Mime explained fear to Siegfried, a treadmill was brought onstage for a stress test, and Mime donned a chef’s hat to cook up the poison he hopes to feed to his adopted foundling.

Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris) succeeds in remaking the sword Nothing from its gold fragments.
Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris) succeeds in remaking the sword Nothung.

In Act Two, the forest clearing was represented by a giant projected mobile. Slithering gray-clad woodland creatures carpeted the stage and reacted in pain to Siegfried’s croaky reed-playing. A couple of their reptilian number were suspended from an actual metal mobile, and their brethren gave Siegfried and Mime brief rides on the contraption.

In Act Three, a huge shot of the Earth from space was shown to indicate where Erda lives. Groups of supers manipulated clusters of towering rods to indicate trees. And when water was spoken of, the screens erupted with Lava Lamp bubbles. But most of the exhilarating final duet was played projection-free.

In short, this production of Siegfried was an eye-catching expansion of the modernist, bare-stage approach created for Wagner’s Bayreuther Festspielhaus in the 1950s by his grandsons Wolfgang and Wieland. On to Götterdämmerung!

William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston who has contributed to The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, American Record Guide, Opera, The Opera  Quarterly, and other publications.

The Wanderer (Iain Paterson), with Erda (Meredith Arwady) high and mighty on her crane.
The Wanderer (Iain Paterson), with Erda (Meredith Arwady) high and mighty on her crane.