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May 4, 2009

Washington National Opera delivers compellng 'Siegfried' despite major obstacle

Super-powerful ring? Check.

Magic helmet? Check.

Unbreakable sword? Check.

Awesome dragon? Check.

Healthy tenor? Uh-oh.

Washington National Opera had everything going for it as it prepared to unveil its new production of Siegfried, Part 3 of Wagner's massive tetralogy of German mythology, The Ring of the Nibelung, Saturday night at the Kennedy Center. But the scheduled singer in the title role, one of the most punishing in the repertoire, came down with bronchitis. A strong Siegfried is always tough to find; to dig up one on short notice requires nearly miraculous luck. That's exactly what the company enjoyed, locating American tenor Scott Mac Allister in Germany and getting him here late in the game with Valkyrie-like speed.

That still wasn't fast enough, though, to allow MacAllister time to learn all the blocking, so, in the best show-must-go-on tradition, the replacement sang on the side of the stage while the original tenor, Par Lindskog, acted the part and mouthed the words. It turned out to be a lot more satisfying than anyone had a right to expect.

Vocally, MacAllister sailed through the assignment with only the occasional, relatively minor sign of strain. This was a remarkably sensitive performance, with lots of tonal shading and downright exquisite phrasing in places, rather than the relentless barking that so often takes the place of Wagnerian singing these days. And Lindskog revealed such a flair for ...

the physical demands of the role that the drama emerged remarkably well under the circumstances. Assuming he recovers from his throat ailment before the end of the run, it would be fascinating to hear what he does vocally to complement such an assured and involving characterization.

Siegfried, of course, is the physically imposing, if mentally dim, hero destined to redeem the world, in the wake of the havoc wrought by various folks who covet a mighty ring that promises unlimited power. In WNO's so-called American Ring Cycle, a re-imagining of the German mythology through a prism of our experience, Siegfried becomes an archetype of the fearless, muscled American who doesn't hesitate to challenge old ways and ideas, who will take on any obstacle in the search for what he believes to be his destiny.

The concept developed for this Ring by director Francesca Zambello has already produced an intriguing, mostly convincing Das Rheingold and a striking Die Walkure. Siegfried proved on Saturday to be as theatrically compelling as it was musically satisfying. Her approach to the fourth and final part, Gotterdammerung, which was to have been unveiled next season, along with a presentation of all four operas, has been postponed due to financial constraints; it's likely to pack quite a punch when it finally takes the stage. (It will be offered in concert form next season.)

Zambello can always be counted on to bring provocative ideas to a project. Even when you disagree with a choice, you can't help but admire the vision involved. For me, almost everything about her Siegfried clicked; the plot has been freshly, provocatively energized.

Michael Yeargan's sets complement Zambello's vision at every turn, right from the opening sight of a crumbling trailer in a kind of rural wasteland, where, instead of trees, ugly power lines reach up toward a stormy sky. Even more blighted is the spot where the giant Fafner guards his treasure, transformed into an urban nightmare version of a dragon -- a motorized earth-mover-type thing with huge claws (Siegfried "slays" the machine by severing what looks like it's oil line). Very cool.

There's a globally warmed, post-apocalyptic air about the sets, conjuring up the image of a world nearly done in by all of humankind's mistakes, a world dying for a heroic jolt of selflessness. If the final scene is a bit of a let down -- it looks like the pilot light went out on the magic fire that is supposed to surround the sleeping Brunnhilde -- the cumulative visual impact of the staging remains considerable. Catherine Zuber's character-revealing costumes and Mark McCullough's insightful lighting design complete the picture.

Obviously, all of this would mean little if the musical end of things fell short. On Saturday, MacAllister's noble effort was not the only vocal plus. Irene Theorin, as Brunnhilde, went awry on the most forceful high notes, but there was a good amount of glint in the soprano's voice. Andreas Conrad sang the role of the wicked ring-coveting Mime with a panache that matched his dead-on characterization. Alan Held did not produce the depth of sound ideal for Wotan (a.k.a. the Wanderer, after a round of cosmic lay-offs), but, as usual with this hard-working bass-baritone, he sang with an expressive impact. Gordon Hawkins poured out the tonal gold as Alberich. Although Gidon Saks was a few watts short on power as Fafner, his phrasing hit home forcefully. Nancy Maultsby's vibrato got a bit in the way, but she sang Erda's music urgently. Bright-voiced Micaela Oeste showed promise as the Woodbird.

Throughout the long evening (Siegfried packs in more than fours hours of music), the performance enjoyed superb guidance from conductor Michael Guttler, who managed to make the opera fly by, without ever seeming rushed. He emphasized the structural integrity of the score, built masterfully to emotional peaks, lavished subtlety on the most reflective passages. And he drew from the orchestra impressively committed, deeply sonorous playing that easily compensated for any frayed edges.

There are four performances left. Tickets are said to be scarce, but gaining admission would be well worth the effort.

PHOTOS BY KARIN COOPER FOR AND COURTESY OF WASHINGTON NATIONAL OPERA

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:15 PM | | Comments (1)
        

Comments

The MacAllister/Lindskog singing/acting duo reminds of the movie "Fitzcarraldo," wherein at the beginning, a performance of Verdi's "Ernani" features the character of the actress Sarah Bernhardt acting the role of Elvira on stage while a soprano sings the part. Odd but effective idea!

Personally, I'm really tired of the whole Wagner-as-post-apocalyptic-wasteland approach. I have a really good performance of "Parsifal" on DVD (conducted by Nagano) which I can't stand watching because it's just... I dunno... wrong! It looks like the story occurs on an asteroid. I much prefer the version with Jerusalem conducted by Horst Stein -- Wolfgang Wagner's vision just fits the story so much better. And I have such a love of Teutonic/Norse mythology that I just _hate_ to see the "Ring" cycle dressed up in all sorts of ill-fitting clothes. (Thus, the Boulez/Chéreau "Ring" often has me rolling my eyes, though I find it _very_ well-sung and perfectly paced.)

I will admit that the dragon in this "Siegfried" sounds _incredibly_ cool! ;^)

The great thing about the Ring, of course, is that it can withstand almost any approach. As long as there is a cohesive thought at work, I find myself buying into most contemporary concepts (including the now almost tame Chereau staging).TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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