Opera Critic

Opera administrator Speight Jenkins has suggested that we think of Siegfried as the scherzo of the Ring. Most of us would agree that our teenage years were the scherzo of our own lives, and so we know the problem isn’t to keep Siegfried from seeming a hopeless jerk –  all teenagers are hopeless jerks — but to develop him to a point that makes his behavior in the last scene credible, where he learns what fear is by encountering a woman for the first time, even though Brünnhilde, having lost her divinity, doesn’t yet know what a real woman is.. Just as Wotan’s interventions and renunciations have produced a hero to capture the ring by a path Wotan could not foresee, his purposes have stumbled into providing the hero a wife by his demotion of Brünnhilde from divinity to humanity and consigning her to doze on a rock until a bold hero chances upon her and wakens her with a kiss. The model for Siegfried’s evolution is our own adolescence, but we need something more to understand Brünnhilde’s.

In Francesca Zambello’s production Siegfried makes it but Brünnhilde does not. He wants her; he is confused and hurt by her reluctance; but Brünnhilde still to be the scampering teenager we saw jumping onto Wotan for a piggyback ride in Die Walküre last year. As the great Carl Dahlhaus taught us, Siegfried must move up from the fairy tale world of the enchanted forest and friendly animals to the human world, but Brünnhilde must come down from the mythological realm and recognize and accept her mortality. In the last scene Wagner has produced a huge double helix of psychological development that must culminate in their own interlacing in the middle after they go through a dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. According to the libretto she doesn’t yet realize she has lost her divinity when she first wakes up and greets Siegfried (thesis); but then she recoils when he touches her and dotes on her horse and her armor (antithesis); as for the synthesis, Wagner’s music as usual performs a wordless sublimation and resolves the contradiction better than his libretto does, leaving room for Wagnerians to grope once again for a saving interpretation. My latest idea is that she is pushed beyond the completely justified narcissism of a god (the unstirred image in the water) by learning from Siegfried’s burning and stirring passion that an undisturbed image of oneself can for a mortal only can mean a desiccation of what little life she has.

A great production will not solve such problems but will lay them out with perspicacity and depth. Moreover, the depth in Wagner is distinctly psychological, not historical or philosophical. It is the archetypal meanings and subconscious forces that must be made visible on the stage, and the music will unerringly guide the director’s divining rod to them, if she cares to use one. The problems might even be insoluble: as with many great artists, Wagner’s reach exceeded his grasp. But to fill in the blanks he left with a supplement of interpretive ideas only takes us further from a more fruitful kind of engagement. Brünnhilde is not allowed to be beautiful or – so far — loving. And eeek! – She starts a game of tag at the end! The archetypes will endure, of course, and Brünnhilde will once again be seen saving mortal humanity from the empty pomp of the gods who cannot die, rather than to be saving nature from the abuse of man: again it is the depth that must be invoked, not the latest fashionable guilt-hope of the baby boomer generation.

I disagree with the ideas but the scenery was unobtrusive enough and the scrims disappeared soon enough that we were still given adequate access to the deeper conflicts. Touchingly, the Forest Bird was allowed not only to come onto the stage (like the mute boy in the new Paris Siegfried) but actually to interact with Siegfried; this is a little overdrawn since the Forest Bird speaks about Siegfried in the third person though Siegfried speaks to her in the second. The asymmetry has to do with Siegfried being led along his way by an access of intuition he does not completely understand, but this congenial and solicitous Forest Bird carries some of his things for him and by the end has become a go-between. I felt the sentimentality between Wotan and Erda at the beginning of Act Three was incorrect: she is angry at him for waking her up as if he could make her change her dreams which both of them are powerless to do – that’s why we need a new world order; on the other hand the production somehow got me to see for the first time that just as the last scene between Siegfried and Brünnhilde is the culmination of what was started in the first scene of Die Walküre between Siegmund and Sieglinde, this penultimate scene between Wotan and Erda rings with the encounter of Wotan with Fricka in the second act of that opera.

I enjoyed the orchestra’s playing, under Donald Runnicles, more than any other Siegfried I can remember. Somehow all the telling moments in this topsy-turvy score arrived nicely prepared and at just the right moment, and were then allowed full breathing room. The new Wagner style of the Third Act came through in technicolor. Mime’s laboring motifs were comically allowed to droop. At this performance there was a acoustical problem that left some of the singers inaudible, perhaps because the stage is so deep and empty. In the first act the singers were drowned out by the orchestra even if they were standing as little as four feet behind the plane of the proscenium. Of the voices Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde was the highlight of the evening, reaching through to divine authority, far beyond what the harsh, utilitarian and dissatisfied characterization should have allowed.

Götterdämmerung premieres June 5th, and then three full cycles will occupy the rest of June.

– Ken Quandt

Hungary’s principal operatic stage surged into summer with this revival of Puccini’s heart string-pulling third opera.  Manon Lescaut is a weaker retelling of the Abbé Prévost’s novel than Massenet’s Manon, but its emotive power, particularly in the final scene, which is improbably set in the “desert outside New Orleans,” has long thrilled audiences around the world.  Peter Vallo’s production updates the action from the original Old Regime setting to the mid-nineteenth century, but the bourgeois settings enhance rather than diminish the effect.

A last minute cancellation had the happy result of placing the talented soprano Eszter Sumegi in the title role.  Her skilled middle register suited the part ideally, accompanied as it was by fine technique and superb support for her ascents.  Only toward the end of the evening, in “Sola, perduta, abbandonnata,” did Sumegi suffered from a slight throatiness that impaired her high register singing.  Her leading man, Gaston Rivero, sang with authority, especially in the first act aria “Donna non vidi mai.”  He was less convincing dramatically than vocally and did not exactly embody the persuasive machismo of a man with whom a woman would run off.  Peter Kiss serviceably sang the role of Lescaut.  Tamas Szule’s Geronte was covetous rather than cynical, though his expressive singing made the lust come through.  Zsolt Hamar led a respectable performance from the podium.

David McVicar’s gray production of this iconic Verdi work – often called the last bel canto opera because of the eras and styles it bridges – has returned this season.  I was not a fan of the effort when it premiered two seasons ago or when it migrated to San Francisco the season after that.  But it has grown and become more effective.  Although I could not put my finger on one precise factor, it seemed that the energy levels were up in a way that reminded one of the addage that any party ultimately succeeds because of its guests.  The sets also seemed brighter, livelier, and more agile than in the past, when they recalled the battleship backdrop in the Marx Brothers’ film A Night at the Opera.

The current revival, which has been a surprise sell out despite the competition of the Met’s new production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, is populated by some of the best Verdian singers today, the proverbial party guests.  Marcelo Alvarez acquitted himself beautifully in the title role.  What a surprise it was that he withdrew due to illness after the first part, but in the person of his understudy Arnold Rawls what a revelation replaced him!  Called in at the last minute and hastily fitted into Manrico’s costume for the second part, Rawls delivered a stunningly phrased performance that drew heavier applause than one normally hears in such a situation.  Sondra Radvanovsky lent ler limpid lyrico-spinto soprano to the performance with great verve.  The voice at times approached a metalic quality that has not really colored it before, but on the whole she resonated through the Met’s enormous hall with appealing strength.  Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Simon Boccanegra delighted Met audiences earlier this year.  His di Luna was even more impressive.  The gorgeous line that this distinguished singer brings to his parts and his mastery of the Verdi baritone’s difficult tessitura were purely evident.  His dramatic talents lent the character a violent edge, which underscored the deep passions whirling in this plot of murder, revenge, and lust.  Stefan Kocan stood out among the supporting cast with his well crafted bass, an asset that has already taken him to leading roles.

“An opera,” says one of the characters in Richard Strauss’s last effort in the genre – his so-called “conversation piece in one act – “is an absurd thing.”  At the heart of Capriccio is an impassioned but exquisitely polite debate over what matters most in opera – the music or the words.  At stake is the favor of Countess Madeleine, a dilettante dwelling in a country villa outside Paris who balances the musician Flamand against the poet Olivier as they create an opera for her amusement.  The artist who makes the better case for his medium will triumph in love as well as in art.  After more than two hours of rumination, intrusion, and glorious singing and versification, Madeleine decides that there is no answer to the dilemma that could not be trivial.  That Strauss and his librettist – the famed conductor Clemens Krauss — could ask such a question as German armies ground their way to defeat at Stalingrad in the autumn of 1942 alone speaks to the power of art.

The Met’s Capriccio first appeared in the 1998-1999 season as a vehicle for the leading soprano Kiri TeKanawa, who was well known for her interpretation of Countess Madeleine’s dominant role.  This rival, the only one since the premiere, is also a vehicle – for the star soprano Renee Fleming.  Some critics charge that the voice has lost its luster, particularly in lighter and bel canto parts if the mixed reviews of her performances in this and last season’s Armida are any guide.  But the Strauss repertoire remains her ravishing own.  Indeed, as the years pass, I only find her more and more at home in Strauss heroine roles and similar parts, such as her triumphant Thais in Massenet’s opera of the same name.  The vocal line is articulated with great care and nuance, while the dramatic personae she delivers are truly aristocratic creations.  Countess Madeleine demands no less.  The finale, a monologue in which she ruminates on the question of which art form matters more, flowed with iconic charm.  Fleming maintained her hauteur throughout, only playfully letting her guard down during the famous Moonlight Music, when Madeleine basks in the romantic situation she masters, clad in a gorgeous silvery gown while twirling a long-stemmed rose.  The cloying artists can only pale before such a woman, but Joseph Kaiser’s Flamand and Russell Braun’s Olivier captured their spirit with excellent performances.  Peter Rose sang the impresario La Roche, whose monologue about theater reminds us, if in a parodic way, of how important management is to the magic.  In his debut season and role, Morten Frank Larsen played Madeleine’s brother, identified only as the Count, as what used to be called a sportsman, a philistine whose interest in art extends only as far as the talented mezzo-soprano Sarah Conolly’s Clairon, his actress love interest.  Olga Makarina and Barry Banks were well considered additions in the short roles of the Italian singers who serenade the Countess and her party of guests.  Sir Andrew Davis may well be the best conductor of the work performing today.  He led a drawn out performance that balanced the score’s harmonies with the dissonant elements that recall the twentienth century musical milieu Strauss did so much to shape.

With such a talented orchestral reading of this complex yet sublime score, it makes sense that the John Cox’s production is updated to the 1920s – nearly the time of the opera’s composition — from the original eighteenth-century setting.  The dialogue that revolves around Lully, Rameau, and other composers whose memories were more present in the earlier era seemed a bit anachronistic in an era when Wagner was the most popular composer in France, but Mauro Pagano’s inviting sets place us well at ease in a milieu where the arts are considered both so seriously and so lightly.  Having Madeleine served a martini added the perfect touch. – Paul du Quenoy