Siegfried: Have sword, will travel

Maybe the Wiener Staatsoper as a secret plan. Each installment of the Ring has been better than the last. At last night’s Siegfried, the orchestra was finally sounding good and there was some remarkable singing as well, namely in Energizer Bunny Heldentenor Stephen Gould’s assumption of the title role. On the other hand, the production continued to suck and there was some painfully bad singing as well, so it was probably just your usual Staatsoper mishmash.

Wagner, Siegfried. Wiener Staatsoper, 4/10/2011. Production by Sven-Eric Bechtolf, conducted by Adam Fischer with Stephen Gould (Siegfried), Eva Johansson (Brünnhilde), Juha Uusitalo (Der Wanderer), Tomasz Konieczny (Alberich), Wolfgang Schmidt (Mime), Ain Anger (Fafner), Anna Larsson (Erda), Ileana Tonca (Stimme des Waldvogels)

No corners escape uncut in Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production. The look for this installment is more explicitly modern than the earlier ones, but no more profound. The Ring contains many set pieces that have to make, in some way, an impression that lives up to the music. In Bechtolf’s production, every one of these is an empty anticlimax. I do not mean to imply that budget correlates with staging quality, resourceful directors can do a lot with little money and infinite sums only abet the bad ones. Here, it is irrelevant whether it was a paucity of Euros or of vision that led to such clumsy use of video, trapdoors, and simply vacant spaces, but the production feels dashed off and sketched in. It continues to be the Seinfeld of Rings–about nothing–only with fewer jokes.

We open in a very large forging room with many small tables in front of a looming brick wall (pictured below). In Act 2 this wall is crawling with stuffed deer and other animals (echoing the horse statues of Walküre to no clear symbolic effect), and in Act 3 is replaced with a giant glass wall. The final scene’s backdrop is the brick wall tilted backwards. Siegfried’s fight with the dragon is carried out entirely on video, involving a giant lizard eye (pictured above), and is very cheesy. Siegfried’s bear in the opening is also a giant projection silhouette. That’s about all I got because much of it has already drained from my head.

Blocking remains action-packed but devoid of interest, though there were some awkward moments in this one as well, including Mime recognizing Wotan as soon as he came in (which maybe could have been made to work but he then recognized him again in the usual spot), Alberich having some sort of seizure, and various other large physical actions that have to be carried off with aplomb to not look silly, and did not work here.

Musically speaking this Ring is not one for the history books, but it is becoming one worth hearing. The orchestra seemed to be trying to live up to their name last night, and much of the playing was characterful, expressive, and clear despite minor ensemble problems. Adam Fischer paced things well and the balance was for the most part good. I would appreciate a stronger interpretive hand but that is too much to ask from an Einspringer. It’s a funny thing about the Staatsoper: at first the orchestra’s sheer sound is so good that you just overlook the sloppiness. But once you get used to them you hear the untidiness and uneveness that often lurks beneath the golden tone and blending. How much this bothers you is a personal thing. When they try and when they rehearse, they can reach amazing heights, but they often don’t seem to put in much of an effort and, considering the Staatsoper’s schedule, are sight-reading. This was respectable.

Stephen Gould was the hero the evening as Siegfried. His baritonal Heldentenor does not have a great deal of tonal allure but he hit all the notes with a power that just wouldn’t quit. You may hear more thrilling renditions of the Forging Song but never before have I heard a Siegfried who I didn’t worry for at some point or another. Gould always seemed in control. This may not seem like high praise but in this role it actually is. To this he added an engaging, energetic performance with good attention to the text (despite some pronunciation errors) and humor. He will be singing this role at the Met next year; he is a fine choice. Perhaps the Met can find him a Nothung that doesn’t have a giant bend in it.

The other mostly good news: Ain Anger’s Fafner remained offstage until after the fight, present only in cheesy video, but he made up for his lack of physical presence and relatively lyric (though very beautiful) voice by having a consonant party with his music. He made you believe that offstage somewhere he was probably twirling his mustache. Anna Larsson brought resonance and power to Erda, this time with legs, wrapped in a giant white sheet. Juha Uusitalo’s Wanderer was underwhelming but not actively bad, and Tomasz Konieczny’s Alberich continues to have a metallic power, despite more weird dance moves.

Now for the bad news: Wolfgang Schmidt deputized for Herwig Peccararo as Mime, and I really have to wonder why the Staatsoper hired him. Surely there was time to find someone in Budapest or Prague or anywhere in Germany who could actually sing the role? My erudite companion accurately pinned his vocal stylings as those of DDR hero Ernst Busch while I thought of Kermit the Frog (yes, I’m cultured!). Either way, this was painfully nasal Sprechstimme and while he was occasionally kind of funny, having to listen to that for that long is agony. Though considering his dress in a white Bedazzled jumpsuit, leopardskin coat, knit cap, and aviator goggles, perhaps tackiness is appropriate. (I am very sorry there are no pictures, but, no, you should probably be grateful for that.)

Is this the first time Siegfried has outsung Brünnhilde in the final scene? Gould managed it amazingly well, and Eva Johansson’s Brünnhilde played a poor game of darts with her pitch and remained wobbly and shrill. After emerging from a sequined white cocoon dressed in yet more metallic taffeta, I kind of wished she would go to sleep again. She does not make me look forward to Götterdämmerung.

Speaking of Götterdämmerung, it is Wednesday and at least according to the Staatsoper’s website right now will be conducted by music director Welser-Möst as originally planned.

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper.

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