The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Met Siegfried - of truly heroic (lyric tenor) proportions

Siegfried is widely considered the metaphysical comedy of the Ring and on an epic scale also the nature symphony among Wagner's operas. It only has for 95 percent of it, a maximum of two people on stage for its four hours of playing time. On the compact discs of so many years back, it proved overall the most successful of installments of the Met Ring, though Levine's most successful conducting for the entire way through any of them proved to be on Goetterdammerung. Das Rheingold, at that time, proved, at somewhat leaden tempos, to move in blocks, yet several years later on, found the line and the poetry with Rheingold, same as he had already found with much of Siegfried.

We met Saturday a James Levine a little beyond the peak of his powers; the low voltage with Rheingold in this run and somewhat the choppiness - in at times having to make compromises for underpowered singers - with Die Walkure – said as much.. Siegfried Saturday, seemed to at times better re-ignite Levine's imagination, yet even then for good stretches, things still sounded a little held back.

Preludes to both of the first two acts conveyed a full sense of mystery, menace, lurking shadows, etc. A natural flow for what followed through the first scene of the opera was convincing. Should the riddle scene and episode that follows before Siegfried re-enters proved a little streamlined, Levine at least had the subtlety to still somewhat conceal the fact. The pace for much of Act One was quite broad, as it also was for the prelude to Act Two. The Wotan-Alberich scene that opens Act Two – with tricky places in the orchestral parts clearly articulated - sounded rushed, even slightly clipped. There perhaps needed to be some concern not just over helping James Morris as Wanderer maintain vocal stability, but Richard Paul Fink (Alberich) as well. As infused with irony as Wanderer's lines are, there is indeed somewhat of a power struggle going on here, but the entire weight of it, that is to the extent it should go, was not felt. More relaxation and a little more sense of wonder would have also been useful in Forest Murmurs - compromised too by what had just come right before.

Given Christian Franz's fine work, getting through the Fafner episode and afterwards, things began to take shape the rest of the way, not only through the rest of Act Two but for most of Act Three as well, barring a little choppiness on the prelude to Act Three. Even so, in Levine perhaps eschewing his taking the more expansive tempos for the last act, to which we have become accustomed, one felt there could have still been more.

Christian Franz and Robert Brubaker (taking place of Gerhard Siegel) made a fine, mostly effective team of Siegfried and Mime for the first two acts. It is probably the first time I have heard Brubaker in such a character role as this. He was less the snivelly, wheedling cackle of a Mime than to which we have sometimes become accustomed. It was only a little hard to tell two voices apart, those of Franz and Brubaker, especially at moments where Siegfried started showing complete disgruntlement with Mime, as he does in Act Two.

However good a Mime is at acting the part as Brubaker often was - and also a Mime as representing the Nibelung race to portray him as at least representative of a power to still be contended with - it is still hard for me to be convinced (near as much as Ira Siff) of those lines Mime sings to Siegfried (or to himself?) of what his true intentions are. Things only almost quickly enough get up to that point where the dwarf realizes too late that he has said too much. At the same time, one tires less of hearing such a Mime than for instance Gerhard Stolze – with voice equal in size to that of Brubaker - on the old Solti recording. Stolze is considerably more bearable for Karajan for not having a podium knee-jerking the most vulgar exaggerations possible out of him.

Christian Franz, for those of us in the U.S. who do not know him yet, proved just uniquely enough a real find as Siegfried. Though he could not avoid some moments of strain, he very wisely declined from unduly thrusting out the chest voice, and thus as a lyric Siegfried to eventually make a fool out of himself. He approached the part as in essence having nothing to prove, in terms of attempting this part in such a large house as the Met. In other words, he was not going to push his instrument to make his voice project anymore than it was just naturally going to do so (as opposed to the highly pressed, ultra-leathery Siegmund’s of both Forbis and Lehman on consecutive Met Walkure braodcasts); his voice proved clearly audible just about the entire way through. There was, of like Smith being new at the Met, a real freshness to his approach that a little more than reminded of Robert Dean Smith as Tristan last season in HD. Smith was the little more vocally even, but Franz proved even a little more imaginative and fully tuned into the specific meaning of all the words he was singing.

From playing the lout with Mime, to airing sincere heartfelt regret to the dying Fafner and then furtive annoyance to Mime for having had to slay Fafner, to expressing wonder with the beauty, stillness of the forest and with the voice of the Woodbird (lovely from Lisete Oropesa) to expressing both tenderness and a surplus of passion for Brunnhilde and some awe at having achieved sense of manhood, Franz made a fully exemplary Siegfried. Who could blame him, that he showed a little excess of fatigue right before the very end? At marginally slower tempos from Levine, Jon West sustained with larger voice a little better the onslaught of having to sing Siegfried.. Franz though very pleasantly reminded one of Rene Kollo on a good day in the part, with a never cloying sweetness he often brought Saturday to his tone as Siegfried.

James Morris was the truly worldly wise Wanderer, and seemed to identify in full with the disguised god's foreknowledge of coming very close to the end of his reign – and with correct sense of lightness in knowing how to best hold on to what is left. Though lacking in just about all the vocal richness that we had been accustomed to picking up from him nearly 20 years ago, he brought a long thread of numerous broadcasts as Wotan to a dignified and authoritative close. It was hard probably for many not to have to choke back a few tears upon arriving Saturday at the so highly poignant final line of this part.

Richard Paul Fink, also in less voice than fifteen years ago, revealed similarly long experience as Alberich, but a little more heft behind the crustiness of the gnome is necessary to do the part full justice - plus the fact that we had come across a little more vocal quality in the Mime of Robert Brubaker than is usually the case. John Tomlinson had to have drawn some laughter more than just from me when he made a couple of pitch indistinct sounds before starting to confront Siegfried to, it sounded like, the stomach of the dragon growling. He then proved perhaps a little more of a ham than for his own good, with an almost constant slithering roar throughout the battle with Siegfried. He then made up for going a little over the top this way with conveying his closing lines, final advice to Siegfried with very deep sadness and weight. His Hunding last week was so good, it sounded as though Hunding, for much of how Tomlinson sang him, was fully within his right to be so mortally offended (and as perhaps the character with whom we’d be amiss not to sympathize?)

Wendy White has almost enough voice to be a convincing Erda; one also had to have gathered the sense that a little seismology research on the area she inhabits may be advisable. Same would go for Jill Grove (the originally announced Erda, I believe) or Christa Mayer (2009 Bayreuth Erda and Waltraute) attempting the part. Irene Theorin is convincingly said to cut quite an attractive and dramatically confident figure; her fearless, quite well achieved though still slightly shrill high C's Saturday said as much.

Ira and Meg went on and on at such length about the beauty of her speaking voice and how it alternates with having to produce a singing voice, one had to have wanted to reach for a large sock full of Grane's manure and swing it in just about the first available direction. When will these two clowns ever tire of cranking out superlatives that even they do not fully believe, in the midst of which information about the history, philosophy, psychology of the Ring can only come to us in the form of sound-bites, tidbits? Does anyone still remember William Weaver, George Jellinek, Owen Lee? Try to remember. With so much time wasted on drivel during two forty-plus minute intermissions, the Pavlovian bell during the quiz has got to go.

Theorin, getting past that sidebar, has interesting color to her voice and some good notes, especially for just nearly an octave below the break, but low notes are inaudible, notes throughout the break and for pitch or maybe two pitches above are very spread, and high notes, though convincing once comfortably enough above the break, somewhat piercing to the ear. Legato was bumpy, patchwork, even for beginning with "Ewig licht, lacht su selig", where it is absolutely quintessential. In all fairness to Theorin, Behrens did not always have quite entirely sufficient legato for Brunnhilde either. With the high C Theorin trumpeted at the very end of the scene and of the opera, it was evident that no one out in the hall was going to express much grief. The money note at the end of Siegfried indeed was there.

In presenting much of Siegfried in long paragraphs, one got here a still mature approach to conducting Wagner – with the heaviness of Levine's approach that at times really made a moderate pace occasionally seem a little slower than it was. That, with understating the luminosity of such moments as Forest Murmurs, Siegfried attaining the mountaintop, could not help but make one think of Knappertsbusch. Levine's ensemble, though a little less in character than 1950's Bayreuth was Saturday however typically a little cleaner than was sometimes the case with Hans Kna. What sustained interest for so much of the way this afternoon were the (mostly) fully realized and convinced lyric heroics and poetry of Christian Franz in the title role. This was indeed a highly auspicious Met debut.

Katarina Dalayman, the Isolde of last December's broadcast joins Franz and Tomlinson for perhaps as fine a trio of leads the Met could from the world over have put together for the final installment of this final broadcast run of the Schenk production of the Ring.

Pardon me for closing with somewhat an Ira Siff moment of my own, but I was asked if what follows the 'false dawn' at the end of the Siegfried would be the soprano blowing everything up in the next opera. 'No, much worse,’ I replied. ‘Goetterdammerung,’


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