The Little Prince by way of…Hagrid? In director Achim Freyer's new Ring production for Los Angeles' first-ever complete run of the cycle, Siegfried looked like a Warhol-silkscreened, stereoid-inflated version of Saint-Exupéry's hero, at least from the waist up; from the waist down, he could have been a refugee from Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.
The costuming invites this sort of snarky pop-culture free association, and I have read other sniffing takes on Siegfried's visual referents. The most pertinent intertext, however, is the one that most seem to have missed: namely, Paul Richter's Siegfried in Fritz Lang's 1924 film Die Nibelungen. Back then, Richter/Siegfried was the Golden Boy of Weimar Körperkultur, the savior whose very bodily vigor belied Germany's abject self-image following the First World War. Freyer's warped, day-glo take on this interwar-period icon of Teutonic fitness underscores the impossibility of such a hero in the post-Holocaust era.
It's the most overtly critical element so far in this otherwise reverent, rather ahistorical production of the cycle, and like Siegfried as a whole, it doesn't quite jell. In fact, Freyer's vision seems to have foundered somewhat on the rock that is this perpetually problematic third act of the tetralogy. The evidence, as in Die Walküre, is right there in the program, which pits two diametrically opposed interpretations side by side in the directors' notes. Conductor James Conlon sees Siegfried as "the scherzo of a four-movement symphony," "the most optimistic of the Ring operas." But there's Freyer on the facing page, remarking on the opera's "great penetration[s]," misunderstandings, and violations, and calling Siegfried "the destroyer of God, Nature, Life and Love." So which is it?
The lack of consensus manifested throughout the production, from timing misfires between John Treleaven (Siegfried) and the orchestra, to intonation problems in the upper brass during the Forging Song, to the cheap laughs in the scenes between Mime and Siegfried. There were some dazzling moments, too: the re-forging of Nothung from a host of neon rods of changing colors; the Forest Murmurs' graceful three-dimensional digital projection, looking like something out of a Hayao Miyazaki film; the brilliant English and French horn solos as Siegfried responds to the Forest Bird. But overall, Siegfried was off-kilter and sometimes outright boring—and I don't think it can just be put down to "Ring fatigue."
Perhaps we have been conditioned by the circles and spirals that have thus far dominated the set, so that Siegfried's track lines, wind blowing from the east, and other markers of insistent linearity seem jarringly banal. We have been equally conditioned to expect a highly stylized gestural vocabulary in the gods and Wälsungs, which made Siegfried's naturalistic acting style an unpleasant shock. After all, if he is the son of demi-gods who are also twins, shouldn't he resemble Siegmund and Sieglinde more closely, both visually and kinetically?
I also found myself put off by Treleaven's casual delivery and relatively small voice, especially in the upper reaches of his range. To be fair, it may have been a matter of physical pacing, or a dramaturgical choice. Every time Siegfried experienced a moment of growth—hearing Mime tell of Brünnhilde, tasting the blood of the slain Fafner, killing Mime—Treleaven's voice audibly dropped, as though Siegfried were vocally coming of age, shedding the whinging tone of his prepubescence. It was a striking effect. Elsewhere, Treleaven's Forging Song was thrillingly maniacal, and once he met Brünnhilde, he landed on a rich, golden Heldentenor.
Linda Watson's Brünnhilde continued to shimmer, though for the first time I noticed a moment or two of shaky pitch. It was Jill Grove's night, however, as her Erda was finally able to assume its full contralto. The frequent low Gs, and the staggering downward leap from the Ab above the staff to the D below it on "Meineid," were especially breathtaking. Stacey Tappan (Forest Bird) had a somewhat uncertain start in the first of her three pronouncements, but once she placed her voice higher, she captured perfectly the Bird's spontaneity and purity. Freyer's decision to make the Forest Bird an agent of Wotan's will, by enveloping it in his familiar furry coat, was a compelling one. However, his preference for swollen breasts in the female characters seemed a bit gratuitous in this instance, especially since—if I'm reading the librettos correctly—the Forest Bird is never explicitly gendered, rather referred to with the neutral "es," and the role was even originally conceived for a boy soprano.
Graham Clark and Richard Paul Fink continued to command the stage as Mime and Alberich, respectively, although Clark's nasal delivery was a bit one-dimensional. Eric Halfvarson (Fafner) boomed appropriately as the dragon and made the most of his brief onstage death. And Vitalij Kowaljow (The Wanderer) continued to utter his invocations and pontifications with impeccable technique and somewhat bland authority. In the Act I riddle contest with Mime, however, Kowaljow broke out of his shell while describing the realm of the gods with melancholy hindsight.
Orchestra seats can now apparently be had for a song, so those willing to make the trip to Los Angeles might want to check out the subsequent two cycles, if for no other reason than that this might prove to be LA Opera's first and last complete Ring.
Photo credits: Monika Rittershaus