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Monday, April 22, 2013

Opera Review: We Don't Need Another Hero

Siegfried at the Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Stick them with the pointy end: Jay Hunter Morris stars in Siegfried.
Photo by Corey Weaver © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
Richard Wagner's Siegfried is the least popular chapter in the Ring cycle. Wagner thought audiences would eat up this fairy-tale story of a blond muscleman who grows up in the forest and embarks on a career as a dragon-slayer before wooing the Valkyrie maiden Brunnhilde. But he didn't put any women in the first three hours of the opera. The 11am start time at the Metropolitan Opera House might also account for the number of empty red velvet seats at Saturday's matinee performance, the first of three this season.


Robert Lepage has more success with Siegfried than with earlier chapters in the cycle. Here the "Machine" set is content to serve as a projection screen, for forest floors, natural springs (including a digitally generated pool on the stage apron) and a rocky, Icelandic landscape for the third act. The technical bits in this show (the appearance of the dragon Fafner, the Machine's transformation to Brunnhilde's rock) went off without a hitch, with the twenty-four rotating planks on their very best behavior.

Texan tenor Jay Hunter Morris (who took over at short notice in this production's 2011 premiere) has matured in the title role. As the sword-swinging leading man, Mr. Morris has learned to use his smallish, bright tenor conservatively over the course of a long opera. He sang the "Ho-hei's" in the Forging Song in Act I with gusto, but the big climax of "So schmeite Siegfrieds schwert!" didn't ring out as expected over the thundering orchestra. He sang with lyric bloom in the Act II Forest Murmurs and his physical prowess made the fight with the snake-like Fafner an enjoyable bit of theater.

Act III of Siegfried is longer and more complex than the first two, where the singer must plunge forward without fear and wake up the (rested) soprano in the opera's climax. Mr. Morris responded to its considerable challenges. He was in fine voice in the confrontation with the Wanderer. In the final duet with Deborah Voigt's Brunnhilde, Mr. Morris held long, ringing notes over the orchestra. The notes were there because of his earlier Act I conservatism--this is a singer who has learned to make good use of his resources.

Character tenor Gerhard Siegel continues to amaze as Mime, the put-upon dwarf who serves as nursemaid to Siegfried. Mr. Siegel paints an unflinching portrait of malice and avarice, peppering the snaky vocal lines with little chuckles and sneers. He is vocally a match for Mr. Morris, and the two tenors had expert timing in their intertwined lines as Siegfried forges the song. The two played Mime's death scene with vivid acting and comic energy, making the game of cat-and-mouse one of the most vividly entertaining scenes in this long opera.

Mark Delavan's voice seems best suited to the dark, lower notes of the Wanderer, (Wotan's incognito alter ego) who appears in all three acts. He was especially engaging in the riddle scene with Mr. Siegel and in dialogue with Alberich, his opposite number sung by the burly bass instrument of Eric Owens. Hans-Peter König remains a compelling Fafner, amplified in the dragon fight with Siegfried and then appearing in his "giant" costume after the hero slays the puppet würm. Meredith Arwady was an impressive Erda, with resonant low notes and a dazzling obsidian dressing gown.

And then there's Ms. Voigt, who continues to wrestle with the highest-lying (and shortest) of Brunnhilde's three appearances in the Ring. The Awakening ("Heil dir Sonne!") was sung with a glow and lifted high notes for the first two phrases. On the third, her voice compressed and tightened, seeming to cut short. The serious problems continued in the last part of the long duet. Although Siegfried and Brunnhilde are supposed to match each other in vocal stamina, she sang the unison notes short and tight, leaving Mr. Morris to ring out by his lonesome.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.