By John von Rhein
CHICAGO – With a wink and a nudge, director David Pountney tipped his hand minutes before the curtain went up on his new production of Siegfried on Nov. 3 at Lyric Opera of Chicago, the third installment of his ongoing staging of Wagner’s monumental cycle of four music dramas, Der Ring des Nibelungen. A huge red, cartoonish claw of the dragon Fafner lifted the fore curtain a crack – a mock-menacing visual surprise designed to provoke chuckles from the audience before this grandest of operatic fairy tales got underway.
This touch of childlike whimsy is typical of the British director’s overall approach to the least popular work of the “Ring of the Nibelung” saga and is consistent with his inconsistent treatment of the two previous music dramas, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. Sleek production values, strong performances from the international cast, and sumptuous orchestral playing under Lyric’s trusty Wagnerian-in-chief, music director Andrew Davis, are undermined by storytelling too often given to sometimes visually arresting, sometimes silly, distractions.
Pountney, in his director’s note, makes clear his intention to conjure a naïve fantasy world as our cocky, obstreperous young hero, Siegfried, might imagine it. There are no flying-Valkyrie cranes this time around, but other Pountney-esque “visible theater” elements that informed the previous productions – crucially, a hyperactive team of 17 mute actor-extra-stagehands – are central to the storytelling.
Wagner’s libretto has the young Siegfried (sung by German tenor Burkhard Fritz, in his American operatic stage debut) evolve from a feisty young lout to a fearless dragon-slayer to a suddenly fearful lover who awakens the sleeping, now-mortal Brünnhilde (soprano Christine Goerke) in a lengthy love duet as glorious as anything in all of opera. Pountney keeps him pretty much a kid throughout (costumer Marie-Jeanne Lecca dresses Siegfried in paint-spattered knee pants and a polo shirt), even when making love to the ex-Valkyrie from an alcove done up as if for a children’s birthday party.
The dwarf (and Siegfried’s surrogate parent) Mime’s hut – set designs by the late Johan Engels and realized by Robert Innes Hopkins, with evocative lighting designs by Fabrice Kebour – is like a child’s playroom, with an over-sized crib, a high kid’s-chair and a rear wall decorated with multi-colored chalk drawings of birds, a polka-dotted dragon and other images drawn from nature.
A Forest Bird puppet twitches atop an easel bearing step-by-step visual instructions on how to reforge the sword Nothung that had been shattered by Siegfried’s grandfather Wotan (bass-baritone Eric Owens, in magnificent vocal and dramatic form disguised as the Wanderer).
When the pantomime extras aren’t delivering the anvil and other elements of Siegfried’s forge in large cardboard boxes he apparently ordered from Amazon (they bear the words “Rhein Logistik”), they inhabit stylized glowing green leaf shapes that come together and split apart to represent the forest primeval. These supernumeraries also provide over-sized green pillows on which Siegfried reclines to contemplate the beauties of nature and ponder his parentage.
The mime-actors, moreover, manipulate the moving parts of the dragon Fafner, here a giant horned devil’s-head with glowing red eyes, snapping jaws, pointy teeth and a coiling tail the hero chops off to provide him with a love-seat later on in the opera. This is the most delightful visual creation of the Pountney Ring thus far (the kids should love it, if you can keep them still in their seats for five hours). Brünnhilde’s rock, a large rising platform girdled by flickering flame projections and extras bearing curved red-fluorescent arcs that form a large circle, is a striking visual coup as well.
But what was the Valhalla set from Pountney’s Walküre doing, unbidden, in the unspoiled natural realm of Siegfried?
Like some bizarre alien spacecraft, Wotan’s ornate antechamber touched down several times in the final two acts. The first time around, it bore the Wanderer and his puppet, the Forest Bird (the bright-voiced soprano and Ryan Opera Center alumna Diana Newman), perched vertiginously on a railing high above the stage. (The mechanical doll Olympia from The Tales of Hoffmann kept coming to mind as a possible model.) The second time, it transported Wotan to his encounter with his grandson, Siegfried, who shatters the god’s spear, destroying his power and sealing the end of the gods in the final music drama, Götterdämmerung.
Why this jarring visual intrusion, so contradictory to Wagner’s explicit stage directions and what his music is telling us? My guess is that Pountney and his design accomplices were hell-bent on leaving no square foot of stage space devoid of some – any – visual distraction for any length of time, even if it meant not trusting the singers to establish the complex emotional and psychological connections essential to our understanding of this music drama and the Ring as a whole.
Davis’ sensitive pacing was a godsend in helping the audience make it through a long opera given to tedious rehashings of key plot points from the previous segments of the Ring. His flowing treatment of the lyrical elements (a tenderly shaped “Forest Murmurs”), of the conversational ebb and flow, bespoke a practiced understanding of what makes Wagner’s music tick. The orchestra played beautifully for its chief, a couple of passing blemishes aside. Kudos to the solo horn and tuba players.
The singing proved a disappointment in the leading roles of Siegfried and Brünnhilde, though thoroughly respectable otherwise, in keeping with the somewhat compromised contemporary state of Wagnerian vocalism.
Consider for a moment what Wagner asks for in Siegfried, the longest and most grueling dramatic tenor role in opera. (The late, great Anna Russell, in her famous Ring analysis, called the character “very young, very handsome, very strong, very brave, and very stupid.”) In any case, the poor tenor portraying the eponymous hero needs to look and act like a brawny youth. Yet only an experienced Heldentenor can muster sufficient vocal heft and stamina to survive this murderous vocal endurance test.
A very young Burkhard Fritz made his Chicago debut in 2006, singing the tenor solo in a Beethoven Ninth Symphony that marked Daniel Barenboim’s final concert as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. His smooth, bright, beautiful timbre and essentially lyrical approach to this voice-killing role paid dividends particularly in the intimate, contemplative pages of Siegfried’s woodland idyll. He also looked and acted the part convincingly: an insolent brat, indeed, as he tormented his foster father-and-mother Mime. (The finely focused German tenor Matthias Klink, in his Lyric debut, cowered, connived, cackled, and cavorted with malevolent glee, in the part). Fritz paced himself so well that he managed to make it through the punishing love duet at the end without having to strain.
But – and it is a very big but – this was an underpowered Siegfried; Fritz’s bantamweight instrument lacked the heft and carrying power needed to project the stentorian stretches of the hero’s music to the far reaches of the 3,500-seat opera house. Particularly disappointing was the Forging Song – the clarion cries of “Nothung! Nothung! Neidliches Schwert” just weren’t there to compete with the mighty floods of sound coming from Davis’ augmented orchestra.
Goerke may be today’s Brünnhilde of choice in all the leading theaters, but she did not sound at her best on opening night. The American dramatic soprano was able to scale down her vocal amplitude to suggest the ex-Valkyrie’s loving femininity; and she was at all times inside the expressive sense of the words and music. Her middle and bottom registers were firm, but at full volume the top turned rough and squally, a loosened vibrato driving the highest notes off pitch. (Was she suffering from a cold on opening night?)
The excellent American mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller delivered a splendid company debut as the all-seeing earth goddess Erda. The extended duet between Miller and Owens was compelling and set off a towering performance by Owens as a nobly sung and acted Wotan, reduced to a truly tragic figure as the king of the gods, finally stripped of all power, faces the terrible consequences of his duplicity.
Returning as the dwarf Alberich was the admirable South Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn, who had made his dual American and role debuts in Lyric’s Rheingold in 2016. He snarled with truly menacing force as a Nibelung reduced to a shambling, homeless person, pushing around a shopping cart full of junk, including a prosthetic arm to replace the real arm Wotan had lopped off in Rheingold when he stole the accursed ring.
Bass Patrick Guetti, another Ryan Center alum, made a suitably black-voiced Fafner, with and without offstage amplification.
Remaining performances of Siegfried are Nov. 7, 11, and 16; call 312-827-5600 or go here.
John von Rhein recently retired as classical music critic of The Chicago Tribune after holding the post for more than 40 years.