Music Review: 'Siegfried' at Washington National Opera

Pär Lindskog, indisposed by bronchitis, pantomimes the role of Siegfried, with Andreas Conrad as Mime. Stage-side vocals were provided by American tenor Scott MacAllister in the Washington National Opera production.
Pär Lindskog, indisposed by bronchitis, pantomimes the role of Siegfried, with Andreas Conrad as Mime. Stage-side vocals were provided by American tenor Scott MacAllister in the Washington National Opera production. (By Karin Cooper For Washington National Opera)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 4, 2009

First, the music director canceled: Heinz Fricke's bypass surgery thwarted his plans to lead Wagner's "Siegfried" this month at the Washington National Opera, and a young German conductor named Michael Güttler was hired instead.

Then, the Brünnhilde was co-opted. Iréne Theorin, scheduled to make her American debut in the same "Siegfried," was called in by the Metropolitan Opera to replace their own Brünnhilde and missed some rehearsals in Washington to sing the role in New York last month -- moving her de facto American debut earlier than anticipated.

And finally, the Siegfried got sick. Pär Lindskog, the Swedish tenor also scheduled to make his WNO debut, came down with bronchitis. There are very few tenors in the world who are able to sing the role. WNO located Scott MacAllister, an American who has had a long career in Germany and sang Siegfried for the first time in Zurich in March. He flew in last week, and sang Saturday night's premiere standing at the side of the stage, while Lindskog pantomimed the role. (This is not an uncommon way to deal with a lead singer's indisposition -- the Virginia Opera resorted to it in its "Tosca" in February when a tenor lost his voice -- but it certainly disturbs the dramatic experience for the audience.)

It all sounds like a recipe for disaster. Instead, it was one of the best "Siegfrieds" I've ever experienced.

Güttler turns out to be wonderful: a real find (as his flourishing career around Europe gives evidence) who got the orchestra to play with focus and verve for most of the evening. The singers were almost uniformly strong. MacAllister, if not the most nuanced or beautiful Siegfried, acquitted himself honorably, pacing himself so he had voice to give all the way through the evening, and deliver, usually, at the climaxes.

And Francesca Zambello's production, the third installment of her "American Ring," incorporated modern elements seamlessly into a sensitive interpretation that, far from imposing an artificial concept on Wagner's work, delivered new insight into the characters.

The idea of setting "Siegfried" in 20th-century America as the struggle of the have-nots against the system sounds like a rather violent transposition of Wagner's vision. That it wasn't speaks to the thoughtfulness of the production. Zambello established the mood and space of the piece with video projections of blasted industrial landscapes, desolate yet oddly poetic, before each act.

Mime, in Act 1, was raising Siegfried in a beat-up trailer in the shadow of a power plant, his yard littered with junk (including his forge). The point about the have-nots quickly became clear: Mime, Alberich and even Wotan (known in this opera as the Wanderer) were all hard-luck guys with big dreams, plotting and planning over years. They were the spiritual cousins of conspiracy-theorist militiamen in rural America, or homeless city dwellers buying instant-win lottery tickets.

But the characters' actual behavior was completely in line with Wagner's vision, and Zambello kept the action moving with vivid storytelling. Act 1, often long and discursive, flew by: Mime and the Wanderer's riddle scene, which can seem like a simple rehashing of plot points the audience knows well by this point in the cycle, was dramatically engaging. It helped that Andreas Conrad, as Mime, and Alan Held, as the Wanderer, were both outstanding; Held's powerful voice was at its most mellifluous in this first act. Equally fine was Gordon Hawkins as an angry, powerful Alberich in the industrial bunker-like space that represented the antechamber of the dragon Fafner's cave in Act 2.

And the character of Siegfried, the hostile, bratty kid, emerged with notable depth, even poignancy, as the teenager struggled with his own frustration at not knowing who he is. The dragon Fafner, a forklift-like machine with menacing lights and metal armor, opened up, after Siegfried's death blow, to reveal the human form of the giant Fafner (Gidon Saks) who had built this contraption (more conspiracy-theorist behavior). And Siegfried, sensing the dying man might know something about his own origins, handled him with a certain crude empathy.

At the end of the act, after Siegfried has killed the scheming Mime and is about to be led off by the Forest Bird (Micaëla Oeste, vocally not quite up to the part), he knelt briefly in front of the two bodies whose deaths he had caused: a powerfully humanizing moment. I doubt the character would have come across the same way if MacAllister, optically less credible than Lindskog as an angry teenager, had tried to act the part without rehearsal.

The third act shows Wotan emancipating himself from a woman (Erda, sung with a wobble by Nancy Maultsby) and Siegfried binding himself to one. "Siegfried" is a long evening (Saturday's show lasted more than 4 1/2 hours), and the final scene is not its strongest part: On paper, the idea of a rapturous duet between Siegfried and Brünnhilde sounds fine, but in practice Wagner didn't quite know what to have them say to each other.

Theorin was fine, a little thick-voiced at the start but capable of some rich sounds as she confronted poor Siegfried with yet more details about his past. While MacAllister's Siegfried gave it his all, Lindskog's Siegfried, confronted with a whole lot of woman, finally let hormones trump his puzzlement and ended up rolling around with her on the stage so energetically that his body kept the final curtain from coming fully down until Theorin prompted him to roll out of the way.

It could have been another Keystone Kops moment. But because the music and drama had been so strong all night, it emerged instead -- like the awkward two-tenor performance -- as just another human weakness over which the power of opera ultimately triumphed. What a shame that Washington will have to wait for years to finish the story with "Götterdämmerung."

Siegfried has four more performances through May 17. WNO expects that Lindskog will take over the role, possibly by the next performance.

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