Round Three: Siegfried and the Best Darn Iron Dragon Ever

Siegfried rests pondering next steps after dispatching the dragon (the form taken by the giant, Fafner, who along with Mime, lies expired in front of the dragon).  Photo courtesy of the Washington National Opera/Kennedy Center.

Siegfried rests pondering next steps after dispatching the dragon (the form taken by the giant, Fafner, who along with Mime, lies expired in front of the dragon).  Photo courtesy of the Washington National Opera/Kennedy Center.

Heads up: Me bad.  I have yet to point out to you that the Playbill for DC’s Ring is online and it has a synopsis of each opera, the listings of singers and their roles, and several really informative, background articles. Pages 52-53 have a complete chart of the characters and performers and their relationships in the entire Ring.  Washington National Opera put some extra time and money into this one.  The printed copy is souvenir quality. 

(You can skip the next paragraph if you are under 50.)

Let’s jump forward to the climax in Act III: “My, my ma’am, you sure are pretty,” the young John Wayne says to Brunnhilde, brought to you by Richard Wagner, as interpreted by Francesca Zambello, as totally altered by my imagination.  Admittedly, it is a little hard to imagine John Wayne kissing Brunnhilde, and even harder to imagine him singing.  At any rate, Brunnhilde says, “Howdy stranger.  Holy crap, I’m mortal, and I’m stuck with John Wayne!”.  But she is the only woman he has ever seen and she knows Wotan has willed it, and besides he did make it through the circle of fire, so eventually true love prevails.  Camera fades to black, but we know this happy ending will not last.  Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that Valhalla!

(Ok, those of you under 50, can come back.)

First of all, we have to think about this guy, Siegfried. I said in my last post I thought he could be an icon for America, at least the one of my younger years, a time of relative innocence, bravado, and naiveté; and yes, the gods of the industrial-government complex of the time set in motion the karma that would despoil those qualities.  And who was the American icon of that era? John Wayne (a later case might also be made for Jake in the movie, “Silverado”).  We can look back critically now at that time and that icon, but then there was a hopeful, optimistic spirit that was frankly kinda nice.  We were the good guys, at least we believed, and because we believed it for a while, some of us were.  And so it was with Siegfried; he thinks he is the good guy and because he believes it, he is for a while.

Do notice that, in honor of John Wayne, I used Darn in the title and not the other D word.  Kids could go to just about any movie in those days.

Ok guy, what about Wednesday night’s performance? Well, it was great and in a kind of hypnotic way.  The times are these for acts and intermissions:  70, 40, 95, 35, and 70 min; a total of 3 hrs and 55 min of opera.  It went by much faster.  In particular, I honestly felt surprised that Act 2 seemed to me about a half hour long.  This is highly unusual for Wagnerian opera.  It means I was totally absorbed in the action.  Kudos to singers, orchestra, stage managers, staff, and management!

Gone from the set were reminders of America.  The dystopian present-time set design for Acts one and two could be most places on earth.  Act two began a little annoyingly since those of us in the second tier were unable to see Wotan’s head on the ramp overhead that he was moving on.  I suppose the ramp had to be that high to give maximum effect to the dragon that was to enter below.  And oh, what a dragon!  Shaped like a large iron construction caterpillar, my boyhood fantasies were fulfilled.  Having heard what it was to be, I had expected to laugh at the contraption, but from where I sat it looked the part, formidable and scary.  Bruce Lee might have been intimidated; ok, not Bruce Lee.  I am thinking Iron Man III: Iron Man Meets Iron Dragon.  The more stark mountainous and rocky landscapes of the third Act were suitable.  Kudos to the set designers on this one for having the sets enhance and not distract from the story.  I will also mention here that the Giants were very imposing and Solomon Howard, who played Fafner, has an impressive deep, resonating voice.  If there is a Jack in the Beanstalk opera, he should play the giant.  I can hear him in my head singing, “Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum…”.

This was also debut night for Catherine Foster, our new Brunnhilde.  Christine Goerke filled in for her on Monday night in The Valkyrie to give Ms. Foster more time to recover from an injury.  She has a powerful voice and an imposing stage presence, well suited to the role of Brunnhilde, and when the music was more melodious, a beautiful timbre was revealed.  I would be happy to hear her sing in The Valkyrie and I hope she comes back to DC.  Daniel Brenna sang the role of Siegfried.  He was good and I enjoyed his singing, but for me he was the weakest link in the chain, almost, but not quite at the level of the main players around him.  His acting portrayed the youthful impetuousness and the secret longing of Siegfried very well.  The vocal fireworks carried their scene, but the choreography needs work.  To me, this Brunnhilde and Siegfried too often looked like two roosters in a cock brawl, circling each other.  Their actions did not portray that well the feelings that were welling up, though the final run to the kiss was effective.  David Cangelosi, who played Mime sang well and was fun, moving between camp comedy and evil intentions.  Jacqueline Echols had a very fine and distinctive voice for the Forest Bird, but having her appear as a human was a questionable choice; she also sang impressively as a Rhine maiden earlier in The Rhinegold.

Finally, major kudos to the orchestra with Philippe Auquin conducting.  I marveled at their play and how important they were to the story all night.  In one of the pre-opera talks, Kip Cranna had pointed out that in constructing the Bayreuth Festivalhaus, an innovation of Wagner was to put the orchestra in a recessed pit and also to place a screen to further block the orchestra from view, so the focus would be totally on the stage.  Having sat in the second tier, I can attest to his wisdom.  You get an excellent view of the orchestra in the second tier as well as great sound.  Too often I found myself trying to pick out the sounds of the different performers as we went along.  However, mainly I became much more involved with the music in the way that it was supporting the drama.  This has become one of my favorites arts experiences.

Click here for Anne Midgette's review in the Washington Post.

Friday night, Round Four: intrigue, betrayal, lust, remorse, death, apocalypse, redemption, and maybe rebirth: Twilight of the Gods.