In the hands of the COC orchestra and its conductor Johannes Debus, the Siegfried score positively danced, and as luck would have it, the spare 2006 production by François Girard did not stand in the way. Acts I and II, “A cave in the rocks in the forest” and “Deep in the forest” respectively, never get as literal as to show any actual trees—in both acts, the view is dominated by the magnificent swirly construction containing buildings, human figures, objects, fragments of objects, light bulbs and wires. It’s an elaborate thing that I could never tire of looking at (the set and the costumes are by Michael Levine). Just about every key character is dressed in a simple all-white getup–a wise choice in an opera in which the division among the ‘races’ of the Nibelungs, the Giants and the Gods are inordinately being fussed about and reiterated. In other words, the Nibelung Mime, the Giant/Dragon Fafner and Wotan disguised as the Wanderer are all made of the same ‘stuff’ (visually). In the Siegfried libretto itself, the tripartite setup is already being frayed in so many ways, which of course will culminate in the final Ring opera. So Girard and Levine’s decision to remove any traces of racializing, even remotely associative, among the characters, is the right one.
But something interesting happens to the set from Act III on. Well: it disappears. There’s a whole lot of darkness when the Wanderer meets Erda and for the final encounter between him and Siegfried and Siegfried and the waking Brunnhilde the fire is enacted by a group of supernumeraries lighted red who are then extinguished, as it were, and slowly leave. Perhaps Gerard was aware that Wagner had composed Acts I and II first, then turned his attention to Tristan and Die Meistersinger, after which he went back to Act III of Siegfried? This difference is present in the musical material, and in Gerard’s staging visually too—but while the music ups the thickness, and the recitative is replaced by the composed-through arioso, the opposite is happening on stage, which becomes bare. The final exchange between Siegfried and Brunnhilde takes place on a brightly lit spot surrounded by darkness, which exhausted my eyes to the point of tears. Why this solution? No clue. It’s one thing to decide not to give Brunnhilde the breastplate, the helmet and Grane when she wakes up; it’s quite another not to have anything on stage but the two protagonists in a glaring white circle.
By that point, fortunately, you will have taken a lot of pleasure from the production anyway. There is some playfulness with the returning motives in Siegfried, and even the least attentive listener will be able to spot the materials they’ve heard before and connect them with earlier contexts in the Ring (the Giants’ drum-and-brass, for example, and the barely disguised Valkyries motive are impossible to miss). There is fun to be had with the solos from within the orchestra, and some of the smallest roles above the pit are so compelling they overshadow whatever else is happening around them (like the Woodbird, by the delightful Jacqueline Woodley, and Erda—Meredith Arwady–whose lower notes, I swear to you, came from somewhere deep underground and shook the FSC).
We usually feel obliged to praise the title role tenor for simply making it through the four hour singing ordeal, and I won’t be an exception to the rule. I felt there was some strain in that endless final dialogue with Brunnhilde, but I’m not sure there is a Siegfried who can be consistently 100 percent from the beginning till the end—not until the robots start singing halden rep at any rate. Stefan Vinke was an appropriately physical and forceful Siegfried, physique of a hockey player in fact, and often unsympathetic (the shaved head helped with that, but thank gott there was no blonde wig in sight). The colour of the voice, however, is on the light, youthful side, surprisingly reminiscent of Michael Schade’s.
The singer who impressed me the most in this stellar lineup was Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Mime. It’s perhaps easier for the shorter roles to impress with consistency and polish? WAS’s Mime was a delight from start to finish. The singer played him as a comic character just this side of caricature, and while Gerard could have easily reduced some of the twitching, shaking and limping, WAS’s considerable acting talent came through loud and clear all the same. Not to mention his flawless, beautifully coloured tenor voice, which also came through loud and clear. His exchanges with Siegfried and the Wanderer were so natural, and the pit-stage balance maintained so well by Johannes Debus, that I felt I was watching a piece of well-paced spoken theatre for a good part of Acts I and II.
Christine Goerke, of course, did not disappoint, neither vocally nor sartorially, but the final scene with Siegfried was rather anticlimactic. Part of the reason was the prolonged white glare, but the other part was that Gerard here expunged just about any trace of eroticism and went for a stand-and-deliver approach. If there was chemistry and urgency, it passed me by.
Fafner (Phillip Ens, off stage) and, in a special case of luxury casting, Christopher Purves’ Alberich, were excellent in their respective modest corners of the drama. Alan Held was given an anonymous and slow-moving Wotan as the Wanderer, in all-white too and a long grey wig. He boomed, he fretted, and there was no end to the depth of his resignation, but he also perfectly blended with the rest of the vivarium, a ghostly figure already meeting the twilight.