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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

DVD Review: The Wild One

The Guy Cassiers production of Siegfried storms La Scala.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"D'you want to know how I got these scars?" Peter Bronder's Mime (right) prepares to tell
Lance Ryan's Siegfried (left) in Act I of Siegfried.> Photo © 2013 Brescia/Amisano/Teatro alla Scala.
Siegfried is the third and most problematic opera in Wagner's epic Ring Cycle. It's a three-act fairy tale about a lunk-headed hero who slays the monster, gets the treasure and (fumblingly) wins his woman over a five-hour stretch. But in the hands of conductor Daniel Barenboim in this 2014 Blu-Ray from La Scala (filmed in 2012 and released last year on the ArtHaus Musik label) , the languors of this opera seem to just fly by. It's not that Mr. Barenboim is fast, it's that he keeps the action moving forward producing the most exciting Siegfried on DVD since the one he made at Bayreuth in the 1990s.

Mr. Barenboim has logged over 20 years experience with Wagner's operas, and his comfort level with the Siegfried score is evident from the first two notes. This sad little minor third depicts the plotting of Mime, Siegfried's stepfather and brother of the evil dwarf Alberich. Mime, who seeks the Ring for himself, is grotesque, his cheeks, (like Alberich's) slashed in a Glasgow smile. He is played by Peter Bronder, a tenor of exceptional agility and sweetness of tone, and is a little easier to listen to amid the screaming, cackling and gibbering that Wagner wrote into the role.

His young charge is played by Lance Ryan (who also sang the role in the Valencia production) an imposing, exuberant figure in black biker leathers who faces the tall order of playing an übermensch. He does pretty well, moving about the stage and very vertical Act I set with a boyish energy and singing the Forging song with a bright and (appropriate) steely tone. Mr. Ryan does even better with the soft tones of the Forest Murmurs, making this lunk-head almost likable in his Act II monologue before killing Fafner the dragon and poor old Mime in quick succession. He then complains about not having any friends, so it's off to climb the Valkyrie rock and win Brünnhilde. You can almost picture Mr. Ryan asking the Forest Bird "Brünnhilde? What's a Brünnhilde?"

Although most Siegfrieds run out of steam after Act II, Mr. Ryan saves his best singing for last. Thing is, they now have to sing with Brünnhilde, who's been sleeping since Die Walküre and only appears in the last 40 minutes of this five-hour opera. The tenor does a good job here, reaching for the punishing notes and hitting them at the end of a long night. Happily, his partner here is Nina Stemme. Her powerful stage presence, muscular dramatic soprano and acting chops do not eclipse the opera's title character. Indeed, her performance is a welcome relief after all this testosterone, and her "Ewig war ich" is carefully accompanied with each note perfectly molded and formed.

The third player in this drama is the Wanderer, Wotan's earthly incarnation as a one-eyed, spear-carrying busybody (in other words, not much different from the first two operas.) What is different though is the casting. Here, the King of the Gods is played by Torje Stensvold, the third singer in this cycle to take on the part. Mr. Stensvold has a big bass, growling and low and more suited to Hunding or Hagen than the Wanderer's music. However, he is an imposing presence in the Riddle Scene (accompanied by flocking digital ravens) and is downright jocular in his Act II confrontation with Alberich (Johann Martin Kränzle). That scene is presented as mirror images between the two characters, both power-mad and increasingly irrelevant as the events of the opera unfold.

Like the first two operas, this Siegfried is produced and directed by Guy Cassiers and his team, who continue with the mix of projections and practical sets. The opera requires Mime's cave, Fafner's forest and in the third act, the Valkyrie rock. The cave is a unit set, that gimbals 90 degrees, reconfigured by the Wanderer to enable Siegfried to forge his sword without having to stoop to Mime's height. The fire, lightning effects and "forge monitor" screens are all effective, providing visual distraction against the thundering, clattering orchestra.

Fafner's forest and the dragon himself (sung by the sonorous Aleksandr Tsymbaluk) are achieved with still more projections, blackened trees and a corps of dancers. They portray the Forest Bird (sung sweetly offstage by Rinnit Moriah) Fafner himself and (uniquely to my recollection) Siegfried's subconscious in the scene where he kills Mime. In the third act, the landscape becomes rocky and treacherous, with a cave rising out of the stage for the Wanderer's scene with Erda (the always reliable contralto Anna Larsson) and an imposing wall of digital fire. The final duet takes place on the Valkyrie Rock, as the orchestra engulfs the singers in a blaze of major keys and for the moment, ignores the disaster that looms in the next opera.

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