The latest installment in the Paris Opera’s first complete Ring since 1957 follows Günter Krämer’s fancifully modern staging of the the tetralogy’s first two operas, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, which premiered last season. Siegfried, in its first Opera production since that last Ring (Rheingold and Walküre were staged in a failed attempt to produce the whole Cycle in the late 1970s), takes another stab at an edgy, dysfunctional modernity.
The effort is mostly successful. The first act, this staging’s most interesting, imagines Mime’s cave as a campy 1950s apartment over a workshop where he carries out his blacksmith’s work. Stage elevators allow him and Siegfried to descend into it for the famous reforging of the sword. The apartment is dominated by an impressive hydroponics lab where Mime, clad in a yellow sweater, grows the marajuana he smokes through the act. This is an unusual yet evocative exploration of the character, who, perhaps rightly, seems to deserve Siegfried and Alberich’s put downs for laziness. Having him played as a self-loathing homosexual – suggested in the omnipresent flowers, gnome (Nibelung?) statuettes, dainty housewares, and stereotypical mannerisms — convincingly answers Siegfried’s curiosity about why he, unlike all the creatures of the forest, has no wife. An old fashioned television enclosed in a wooden cabinet presents the action as a 1950s show called “Die Niebelungen” and permits Mime to probe the depths of Siegfried’s sense of fear by showing him scenes from Fritz Lang’s 1924 silent film adaptation of the Nibelung saga. Less necessary is the dropping of a dark curtain that functions as an old fashioned blackboard on which Mime and the disguised Wotan conduct their trivia contest as a kind of schoolroom lesson. Writing “Fürchten” on it to introduce the concept of fear comes across as excessively pedantic. It is also rather predicatable, since the word was not fully erased from earlier performances.
Fafner’s lair in Act II is an autumnal field crossed by railroad tracks. The giant is no monster, but rather Rheingold’s gruff construction worker attended by a troupe of barely clothed, automatic weapons-toting dancers who resemble Kurtz’s devoted legions of native warriors in both Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s updated film adaptation of the novel, Apocalypse Now. Wotan and Alberich, in their first confrontation since Alberich cursed the ring, looked like beatniks in ill fitting suits and overcoats. Usually dripping with sarcastic enmity, their interaction here strikingly reveals a certain amount of mutual sympathy. Since the renunciatory Wotan has acknowledged his nature as part and parcel of Alberich’s shadow, the moment works philosophically. Fafner’s killing, which includes the death of his minions, occurs almost casually, after a cordially hostile chat with Siegfried amid boxes packing the useless Nibelung treasure. The forest bird is acted by an urchin boy who leads Siegfried to his murder of the treacherous Mime, whose head he severs in retribution for Mime’s accidentally revealed intention, and then off to Brünnhilde.
Act III opens in what is presumably Valhalla, with Wotan suiting up in black tie for his revelatory taunting of Erda and self-consciously doomed confrontation with Siegfried. Inert heroes sit at green felt-covered accounting desks awaiting the end. Erda, who confesses to her lost powers of wisdom and perception in the scene, is convincingly blind. Wotan proceeds to encounter Siegfried before the same blackboard from Act I, which shifts during the subsequent magic fire music to Valhalla’s gigantic steps, where the outcast Brünnhilde lies in slumber. The awakening scene unfolds there, rather awkwardly given the incline, and in a puzzling way since a prostrate Wotan (now played by an actor whose knees must have killed him by the end) is present, along with a troop of motionless Valkyries who look on. Götterdämmerung opens in June, and I was left wondering whether the prologue love scene will open in the same place. If it does, it will certainly belie the hope that Siegfried is a free hero acting independently of the gods, though such may be Krämer’s point.
Whatever one thinks of the production, and there were boos, the musical performance was stellar. The young conductor Philippe Jordan led a crisp, energetic reading of the score. There were a few moments when he failed to draw out the subtlety of the music, and he occasionally rushed through meaningful passages that he could have treated with greater deliberation. No one could argue, however, that his command of the work is unimpressive. The singers performed ably, though the first act passed with a measure of restraint that not everyone appreciated. The ovation that greeted the second act was followed by a disappointed spectator who cried out, unjustly in my opinion, “Il faut pour l’orchestre, pas pour les chanteurs!” He was angrily shouted down and the show went on. Torsten Kerl’s Siegfried blossomed in the final two acts into a gorgeously held Heldentenor sound. He resisted the temptation to take the role as a callow youth and yet did not ignore the naivety it requires. Juha Uusitalo’s Wanderer (as Wotan is known in this incarnation of the role) missed some of the role’s implicit humanity, but still drew on a well practiced legato to impart the challenging music with true meaning. As Mime, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s part may have been the best thought out characterization. His fine tenor produced the necessary pinched sound without becoming annoying. Peter Sidhom’s Alberich suffered from a patchy bout of singing, but the opera is not really about him. Stephen Milling’s Fafner reached impressive depths. Qiu Lin Zhang’s Erda showcased a burnished contralto sound from which the role does not often benefit. Elena Tsallagova sang pleasantly from off stage as the forest bird. A real treat was Katarina Dalayman’s soaring Brünnhilde. The third act staging did not allow her to ascend to her radiant best, but the voice’s appealing tonality and seemingly effortless highs were very much in evidence. With some tweaking in the staging, this Siegfried may yet prove a worthy addition to Paris’s new Ring. — Paul du Quenoy