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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Wagner Project: Siegfried

A boy's own adventure tale...interrupted.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Stefan Vinke as Siegfried in Act II of the opera that bears his name.
Photo by Elise Bakketun © 2015 Seattle Opera 
Like its title character, the opera Siegfried is quite literally the problem child of the Ring. The story of the early adventures of Wagner's mythic Nietszchean superhero was meant to be a light work, an optimistic opera that would help draw listeners to the Ring as a whole. And yet, it remains the least heard and least popular chapter of the enormous operatic cycle.

Part of the reason is the punishing title part, which requires superhuman effort from the principal tenor. Siegfried is onstage for almost all of the opera. He must kidnap a bear, forge a sword, battle a dragon, kill his wicked stepfather Mime and then fight Wotan (now disguised as "the Wanderer.")  Then he has to cross the Magic Fire and wake up Brunnhide, the principal female character of the Ring who has been sleeping peacefully through these exciting events, and sing a long, loud love duet with her ending in a cry of "leuchtende liebe, lachtender TOD!" over an orchestra going full blast.

The stage requirements are formidable. For one thing, there's a singing dragon in Act II. Directors have tried to solve with mechanical props, inflatable snakes and even a papier-mache octopus. Siegfried is never mounted unless part of a complete Ring. Even then, it's the easiest of the four operas to get tickets for, so not a bad place to start if you're thinking of trying a Wagner opera but aren't sure where to start. It is about four hours long, and about five in performance with two intermissions. Each of its three acts carves an upward thrust, from a dark, minor-key opening to a blazing, optimistic finish, with the ultimate climax saved for the final scene with Brunnhilde and the opera's end.

Musically speaking, Siegfried is essentially two different operas. Wagner sketched the opera by 1851 and finished the second act in 1857. Hehen took an extended break from the Ring. When he returned to the story of Siegfried in 1869, his musical style had evolved considerably. It can be said that Act III marks the start of his "late" style. Before, the leitmotifs had paraded for the listener in orderly, horizontal sequence. The "new" Wagner now stacked them together like Jenga tiles, creating new themes vertically and new relationships between the musical ideas.. This change in style was similar to the "stacked" orchestration that Brahms developed in his career, a way to say a lot musically in a very short period of time.

Two other big changes in Wagner's life were his financial and domestic situation. He now had Ludwig II of Bavaria as his patron, and plans were underway to build his fantasy opera house and finally stage the Ring. He had married again: to Cosima von Bulöw, the daughter of Franz Liszt. The happy couple celebrated  the birth of their third (and first legitimate) child, who they named Siegfried. This newfound bliss resulted in a small side project, a piece for chamber orchestra now known as the Siegfried Idyll. It was premiered by 18 musicians (members of the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich)  on the staircase of the Wagners' house, in Triebschen, Switzerland, on Christmas Day, (Cosima's birthday) in 1870. Themes heard in the Idyll are also heard in the long love duet between Siegfried and Brunnhilde that concludes the opera.

With all the tech stuff required for Siegfried this opera has been better served in a studio environment, where the tenor can rest and not run out of voice in the third act. I've seen it happen to even the finest singers where they just become hoarse or inaudible in the final scene of this opera.

Vienna Philharmonic cond Georg Solti (Decca, 1960)
Record executives thought John Culshaw mad to record Siegfried as his second installment of the Decca Ring. They may have been right, but the producer pulled it off thanks to the last-second decision to cast Wolfgang Windgassen in the title role. Hans Hotter's Wanderer is in its glory here. Birgit Nilsson is perfect as Brunnhilde (she usually was) and a young hopeful named Joan Sutherland is luxury casting in the small role of the Forest Bird. The Vienna Philharmonic play magnificently.

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra cond. Karl Böhm (Philips-Decca, 1967) 
Less magnificent and less luxurious, this down-and-dirty Bayreuth recording (made live with an audience) is one of the most exciting Wagner sets ever cut to disc. Windgassen and Nilsson are paired once more, and the results are electric. Theo Adam excels as the Wanderer. Erika Koth brings her high, unique and ultimately annoying soprano to the Forest Bird. If you want to hear how exciting this opera can be in the theater, this is the set you go for. Karl Böhm's brisk tempos ensure that everyone gets to go home early.

Berlin Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (DG, 1970)
Karajan's Ring changes Brunnhildes here, with Helga Dernesch taking over the role in this opera. Her Siegfried is Jess Thomas, singing for all he's worth in the title role. The DG tonmeister has fun trying to top the Decca effects in the Act II scene with Fafner, played by the imposing Karl Ridderbusch. The details written into this complex score come to the fore here, with Karajan emphasizing liquid clarity and the textures of this, the most "naturalistic" of the four Ring operas.

Dresden Staatskapelle cond. Marek Janowski (EuroDisc/RCA/Sony 1982)
There were no less than three digital Rings in the booming CD era and this set, part of the first complete Ring from Marek Janowski is underrated. In fact, when it comes to this opera it's excellent, with Janowski's scurrying tempos reminding the listener that this is after all, a fairy tale and supposed to be fun. Like Jess Thomas (above) Rene Kollo was no Siegfried but can pull the role off in the studio. He is surrounded by a strong cast with Jeanine Altmeyer as Brunnhilde, Theo Adam (15 years after the Böhm cycle!) still singing the Wanderer and Matti Salminen's sonorous Fafner.

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra cond. Daniel Barenboim (Teldec/WBC 1993)
Siegfried Jerusalem comes into his own in the title role that bears his name. In this live-without-an-audience performance from Bayreuth, one can hear the youthful exuberance and energy that made the German-born ex-bassoon player an operatic star. His Act I scenes with Mime (Graham Clarke) burst from the speakers. The Wanderer (Wotan in a cool hat) is John Tomlinson, whose deep bass is better suited to the lower writing that Wagner gave the character here. Anne Evans is sublime as Brunnhilde. The only let-down is Philip Kang, whose pallid bass makes him an unmemorable Fafner.

Made it through huh? Well here's your reward: Siegfried Jerusalem as Siegfried 
and Graham Clarke as Mime in the forging scene from Act I of Siegfried. It's hammer time!
Footage from the Bayreuth Festival © 1992 Unitel/Teldec/WBC

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