WASHINGTON, May 5, 2016 – If Wednesday’s Cycle 1 debut of ‘Siegfried’ – the third of four episodes in the Washington National Opera’s first-ever complete Ring – wasn’t quite as flashy as Monday’s amazing “The Valkyrie” (“Die Walküre”), it’s mostly composer Richard Wagner’s fault.
Writing and composing the entire Ring Cycle over many years, Wagner inserted rather lengthy and somewhat prosaic plot summaries in the final three operas, fully expecting they’d more often be performed separately rather than all during a brief but intense period of time. But in a complete Ring Cycle, you already know this stuff. But Wagner’s a genius, as we all know, so few ever dare to cut some of this stuff.
One result: “Siegfried,” the third opera in the cycle, is burdened with its fair share of the Cycle’s summaries, mostly in its first act. These range from Mime’s (tenor David Cangelosi’s) reluctant and decidedly partial re-telling of young Siegfried’s secret origins to the pair of riddle contests between “The Wanderer” (who’s pretty much all that’s left of Wotan in this opera as portrayed by bass-baritone Alan Held) and Mime that fleshes out the rest of the tale while foreshadowing what’s yet to come.
That’s pretty much why “Siegfried” tends to lack some of the snap, crackle and pop of its predecessor. Fortunately, however, as in the first two installments of WNO’s American Ring, snappy banter, edgy alpha-male interactions and another dose of the deft, comic touches that leavened the first two operatic stanzas. Another plus: the strangely entrancing, almost bizarre love pas de deux that unfolds in the second half of the final act.
“Siegfried” takes us some eighteen years forward in the Ring saga where we learn that the opera’s title character (sung by tenor Daniel Brenna) – who we first encountered as more or less an embryo in “Valkyrie” – has grown into an energetic, swaggering, and, above all, a fearless young man impatiently searching for adventure. As well as some backstory.
It’s this story that his self-appointed guardian, Mime – the scheming brother of the evil Alberich (baritone Gordon Hawkins) who started the whole Ring Curse thing – finally relates. Unfortunately, as we also learn from Mime and later The Wanderer, Mime has his own plans to use Siegfried to steal the ring from the giant Fafner (bass Soloman Howard) and carry it to his would-be step-dad.
Things never seem to work out the way characters intend in the Ring, however. Siegfried does steal the ring from Fafner, who’s disguised as a clanking, smoke belching mechanical monster in this version of the tale. But he also offs the evil Mime, forcing Alberich to once again delay his own revenge on the universe.
Siegfried ultimately meets and instantly falls in love with the deep-sleeping and now-mortal Brünnhilde, whom he liberates from her fiery resting place. After quite a few false starts, both finally acknowledge their unusual love, and “Siegfried” draws happily to a close. Although things will go decisively downhill in “The Twilight of the Gods” (“Götterdämmerung”), the final stanza in this epic, which will be performed Friday, May 6, concluding Cycle 1.
Wednesday’s performance of “Siegfried” marked the return of British soprano Catherine Foster to the role of Brünnhilde, a star turn she’d been forced to forego due to a leg (or foot) injury she suffered in rehearsal on April 23.
Physically, Ms. Foster performed the role somewhat carefully on Wednesday, due either to some lingering discomfort or, perhaps, an excess of caution so as not to set back her recovery. In fact, it was almost alarming when, not long after Siegfried awoke her character with that patented hero-kiss, Ms. Foster’s Brünnhilde struggled to gain her footing. And yet, this sequence at least, was meant to be. After all, how sure-footed would any of us be after having been awakened from a near two-decade slumber and having lost all our super-powers to boot?
Even so, Ms. Foster’s earliest efforts in this final act seemed a bit tentative as well. But she quickly shook it off, blossoming into an unusually sweet-voiced Brünnhilde.
Ms. Foster’s characterization and vocals were, perhaps, somewhat less robust than those of Monday’s super-sub, Christine Goerke. But they also seemed an uncannily fine match for her character who must, after such a long slumber, deal not only with walking about once again, but also falling in love with an unknown man and also experiencing for the first time what it means to be a mortal woman.
But things change. In “Twilight of the Gods,” Brünnhilde, though much put-upon by evil forces, takes hold of chaos in that opera’s final scene, dominating the entire finale. We look forward to seeing how Ms. Foster interprets this central role this now that she’s back in action again.
As for the remainder of “Siegfried,” we were once again treated to fine performances by Alan Held, David Cangelosi, Soloman Howard and Gordon Hawkins plus a charming cameo by soprano Jacqueline Echols as a rather odd, scholarly Forest Bird. Ms. Echols’ bird seems to be making notes in a diary every time Siegfried responds to one of her messages. Perhaps this is another of this Ring Cycle’s sly little jokes. Perhaps our Forest Bird is carefully recording human sounds as her contribution to Bird Science.
Additional kudos as well to contralto Lindsay Ammann, who reprises in “Siegfried’s” final act her role as Earth Mother, Erda, a prophetic character we first encounter in “Rhinegold.” What a deep, profound voice this young singer has. Barely 30 and slight of build, Ms. Ammann possesses a dark, mysterious, hypnotic instrument whose power has only just begun to build, and it was gratifying to experience its appropriately primal depth in this production.
The undoubted star of this production, however, was tenor Daniel Brenna who sang the role of this opera’s eponymous hero.
Wagnerian singers generally traverse a long and difficult road to develop the kind of voices that can still retain some lyrical quality even as they must develop extraordinary volume and accuracy in order to soar above this composer’s massive symphonic accompaniments. Not infrequently, such voices don’t achieve that peak power until Wagnerian singers are in their 50s, which makes their portrayal of much-younger characters seem a bit odd in today’s musical theater scene where acting as well as physical appearance and believability hold great importance.
Mr. Brenna is a notable exception to this rule. Though now in his early-to-mid-40s, he possesses great physical vigor; and even better, still possesses the look and the attitude of a cocky late teen or early 20-something, which is absolutely perfect for the role of Siegfried. His brash, almost clueless hero’s swagger, his lack of tolerance for the boredom of normal life and his sudden gob-smacking by the awesome power of an intense first love are all made entirely believable by this still-youthful tenor. None of this would be enough, though, if Mr. Brenna didn’t also possess the enduring vocal power and finesse needed to sing Siegfried effectively and well. But he does.
In the opening scenes, we weren’t entirely sure. Siegfried’s vocal lines are short and clipped in the early part of Act I, so we weren’t quite able to ascertain how Mr. Brenna would develop his character later as Siegfried’s vocal lines and emotions lengthened and grew.
But, like many an athlete, it’s clear that Mr. Brenna was gathering his vocal forces so that his instrument would peak when it needed to peak, in that grand finale, during his extended dueling duet with Brünnhilde. It was the right answer, leading to a brilliant and fulfilling conclusion to this third installment of what is fast becoming one of the truly defining moments in the history of the Washington National Opera.
For its part, the WNO Orchestra seems to be getting better and gaining more confidence under the baton of Philippe Auguin whose reputation as a Wagnerian conductor will certainly be higher by an order of magnitude by the time the American Ring’s Cycle 3 comes to a conclusion.
Aside from Wagner’s instant replays, the only slight downside to this “Siegfried” were, alas, the gloomy black & white projected sequences of smoky steel mills and mass chemical pollution that greeted us during mid-act scene changes. Clearly gathered from films dating from an earlier era, these are the kind of random eco-preaching elements that bothered us the first time we saw these productions. This kind of negative virtue-signaling doesn’t really add to the otherwise superb storytelling we’re seeing in the operas themselves.
We’re finding we have more things to say about this Ring Cycle than we can reasonably set down in a single review, so we’ll be adding a special “postlude” article to these performances next week after we attend and review “Götterdämmerung” on May 6.
Rating: *** ½ (3 and one-half out of 4 stars)
Tickets and information: WNO’s American Ring is being presented in three complete four-opera cycles, Cycle 1 (the one we’re reviewing), Cycle 2 and Cycle 3.
Ring Cycles attract international audiences, and tickets are generally sold in advance as a four-opera package by cycle. Remaining single tickets are released for sale at some point and some are available now. That means you may be able to construct your own, personal “Ring Cycle” if you act soon. For tickets and further info, visit WNO’s Kennedy Center website.
Performances of The Ring operas run through May 22, concluding with the final Cycle 3 performance of “Götterdämmerung,” aka “The Twilight of the Gods.”
The Kennedy Center is located at 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC.