Carry On, Siegfried

5 November 2011

Hearts were inspired and buttocks were numbed through a marathon screening of Siegfried, Part 3 of the Robert Lepage-directed Ring cycle at the New York Met. 

This Guy Fawkes’ Night, I had a wonderful excuse for avoiding standing in a park in the freezing winter darkness celebrating the dismemberment of a Catholic revolutionary: the New York Met’s cinema screening of Siegfried, the third opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle, directed by Robert Lepage.

As warned by Patrick, my opera companion (and serious Ring Cycle addict), the damn things keep getting longer. This time around it’s Siegfried, who’s the hero of the epic and the only serious challenge to alpha-male Wotan. Das Rheingold, which I saw last year, was a mere 3-and-a-half hours, which now feels like a walk in the park. Die Walkure is a little longer at around 4 hours, but had the advantage of hot German tenor Jonas Kaufmann in a form-fitting short sleeved chain mail vest. Siegfried clocked in at over 5 hours, which, with two intervals and a so-freakish-it’s-funny behind the scenes doco presented by Renee Fleming (an American soprano and sometime star of the Met whose mid-Western beauty queen face is now looking a little too frozen for its own good), brought the event up to around 6 hours. As an experienced Ring-ite, Patrick wisely suggested ordering some Prosecco for the interval, which I initially poo-pooed, and then sucked back gratefully in about 10 seconds when it arrived. We decided it’d be better to take no chances, so we ordered some more for the second interval, which meant that the gargantuan Act 3 slipped by in a blurry but fairly painless state. Thanks, Patrick! (Burp).

Siegfried, as I learned through a quick scout through Wikipedia, is one of the longest operas in the canon, and the title role is possibly the most demanding role around for an operatic tenor. In addition to being on stage for most of the opera’s 5 hours, and singing incredibly difficult music while decked out in leather trousers and animal skins, Siegfried also has to forge a sword, slay a dragon, avoid a poison plot, run through walls of fire, rescue Brünnhilde, a sleeping Valkyrie who’s actually his aunty, from an enchanted sleep, and fall in love with her, all the time unaware that he himself is the product of brother-sister incest. That’s a lot of work to do before the fat lady sings. As the New York Times wrote in its review of the Lepage production and another recent production of Siegfried: “One of the toughest challenges for an opera company presenting Wagner’s four-part Ring cycle, even beyond the complexities and costs of mounting a production, is finding a tenor who can sing Siegfried”, which it describes as “almost impossible to sing….The sheer length of the role is just one of its challenges. The part involves a great deal of upper-range, impetuous, heroic singing”, which “many ambitious tenors have blown out their voices [in] taking on”.

Unsurprisingly, tenors playing Siegfried tend to drop like flies or burn themselves out faster than Britney and Li-Lo on a comeback. In this production, the Met had its own fair share of troubles with casting the lead. Their first choice, Ben Heppner, who’d been on the books since the new production was conceived in 2007, pulled out in February this year, shortly before Die Walküre was going into production. In a statement, Heppner’s agent said that he felt the repertoire was not right for him, and that the role was “difficult” and “not gratifying”. No problem: he was replaced by his standby, Gary Lehman, who was featured in most of the preliminary promotional material, and who spent 5 weeks rehearsing this production. But Lehman struggled with illness throughout rehearsals, and then finally withdrew, citing illness, a mere week before opening night. Then all eyes turned to HIS understudy, Jay Hunter Morris, a charming, ginger-blonde blue eyed Texan with a Colonel Sanders goatee and an adorable Southern drawl thicker than Mammy’s in Gone With the Wind, and a promising white trash twinkle in his eye. Morris had sung the role earlier in the year in San Francisco (interestingly enough, also stepping in at the last minute when the star act withdrew because of illness). Opening in the lead role in the Met was, officially, his big break, and possibly one of the best last minute “saves” in recent theatre history, propelling him to international stardom.

A hastily cobbled together (and unintentionally hilarious) behind-the-scenes documentary played during the first interval of Siegfried showed the quiet terror lurking backstage in the week leading up to the performance. As Morris cheerily recalled his former part time career selling rollerblades in Central Park and commented on his meteoric journey into the spotlight, producers and voice coaches smiled through clenched teeth and looked at Morris nervously as he assured them he was “feelin’ great!” What was clear, though, was just how much was at stake. With only three rehearsals under his belt, Morris, who was making his Met debut, was going to be playing one of the longest and most complex operatic roles ever written, having to master French-Canadian director Robert Le Page’s incredibly complex, technically cumbersome staging, and facing the disapproval of every bitchy middle-aged opera going gay man and Botoxed theatre matron in New York City, who’d sold out the entire run months in advance. The possibilities for failure, or just mediocrity and embarrassment, were huge.

But as it happened, the kid pulled it off, and all appeared to be alright on the night. It helped enormously that he looked like a Viking, with broad shoulders and beefy arms that looked good in short-sleeved tunics and chain mail, and he had a fresh-faced naivety and athleticism that made it almost possible to believe the character was 17 and not 50. His voice was bright and expressive, penetrating enough to boom out over Wagner’s huge n’ heavy orchestration, he had a lively and spontaneous stage presence, and he managed to act the role of a naive boy-warrior who slowly grows into manhood. Then again, what well behaved Texas boy wouldn’t have fun killing a giant dragon with a sword and letting a girl get a hold of his manhood – even if the “girl” in question is actually a centuries-old Valkyrie who happens to be his aunty. (Is Brünnhilde actually the Western world’s first cougar?)

The behind the scenes doco gave some priceless insights into just how exhausting the role was: after slaying the dragon and finding the Ring, Morris walked off stage, panting and out of breath, gripping his water bottle and sighing “I don’t have any oxygen left in my brain!”, and eventually collapsing onto a chaise lounge in his tiny dressing room before being given a last-minute pep talk by the visibly relieved looking Lepage. With an oversized head that’s reminiscent of a Nordic troll, Lepage said he was happy to give Morris the show – which he more or less had to, given that Siegfried is the show.

Watching these operas from a well-upholstered seat in a Mayfair cinema increasingly feels less like being a compensation prize for not being able to see live performances, and more like the best way to see them, full stop. The proportions of Lepage’s giant machine (and his tendencies to light the stage in a Stygian gloom for most of the 5 hours) meant that unless you had front row seats at the Met or a mighty strong pair of opera glasses, you’d miss a lot of the details of the performance or set design. The gloriousness of the cinema is that the cameras can zoom in for close-ups and reaction shots, as well as widescreen takes on the set as a whole, allowing us to see lovely moments – the dwarf Mime picking his nose and then putting the same finger in his mouth thoughtfully; the first stirrings on Brünnhilde’s face as she realises she’s awake and can have her first bath in 17 years; Siegfried’s look of glee as he can understand the Songbird’s language after tasting dragon’s blood; the dark shininess of Wotan’s black glass eye; or Erda’s slight look of horror when she realises after Wotan wakes her (Wagner seems to have a thing for sleeping women) that she looks like what Cher would have done had she been allowed to age naturally, and that she’s wearing a black mirror ball dress that’s very possibly one of Cher’s old numbers from her Las Vegas club act.

Other than that, I was intrigued by Siegfried‘s humorous first Act, which appeared, through my kinky perception anyway, to be really really gay. Not just gay in that everyone is wearing tights and singing notes usually only possible when one’s balls are in a clamping device. The teenage Siegfried is living with the elderly dwarf Mime (think, jailbait meets sugar daddy) who rather begrudgingly fixes Siegfried’s swords and wondering why Siegfried doesn’t love him anymore. They both have a fondness for leather clothing and keep jostling each other to get their turn in the kitchen, which makes them pretty much identical to most middle aged South London gay couples I know. Siegfried brings home a bear from the local forest, which makes Mime even crankier, and they have an argument. (Again, if I had a dollar for every time a gay man has complained to me that his boyfriend dragged a bear home without telling him, I’d be able to afford a box at the Met). In the manner of all great dysfunctional George and Martha couples, Siegfried and Mime can’t stand each other: Mime complains about Siegfried’s ungratefulness, whereas Siegfried complains that he loses his appetite every time Mime cooks, and that he can’t stand staying around the house, so he leaves. (Again, it all sounds terribly familiar…). Then Wotan turns up, dressed in a floor length Fleetwood Mac leather jacket and cowboy hat, wanting access to the dwarf’s hot young totty, and the two older characters have a squabble about who gets to help Siegfried wave his sword around. All this and I’m the one with the dirty mind?

For a pre-Freudian epic, the Ring has more than its fair share of broadly-sketched Freudian moments. Fast forward a couple of acts, and we come to Siegfried literally emasculating Wotan (his granddaddy) by snapping his spear in half, and then scaling the mountain to find his princess. Just as he’s about to have his first experience of physical lovemaking, and he alarmingly calls on the assistance of his dead mother. Fortunately, Brünnhilde, being a bit of a MILF, and having known Siegfried’s mother when she was pregnant, manages to be enough of a yummy mummy to win Siegfried over. They share a glorious (but very, very long) duet in which Brünnhilde agonises over not being able to wear metal breastplates and helmets any more, and having to give up being the man around the house to be with Siegfried. Even as played by the glorious, flame haired Deborah Voigt, you wonder whether she’s going to blow Siegfried or just burp him.

It was all rather wonderful, and a very heavily masculine production (and that’s including Brünnhilde, who looked as though she could drink most of the boys under the table). Eric Owen reprises his role from Das Rheingold as Alberich, the nihilistic dreadlocked dwarf with a gloriously deep bass; and a rather embarrassingly Muppet-like dragon morphs briefly into human form, as the giant Fafner, played again by an even deeper bass, Hans-Peter König.

The only let down in the production was, as the critics sneered, Lepage’s much-taunted $14m dollar “Machine” set, which as the operas go on becomes increasingly less interesting as a piece of set design, and has very little to contribute to any emotional or intellectual understanding of the drama. The opening night critics sneered that the noise of the Machine’s planks moving in and out of position drowned out some of the orchestral interludes between scenes. This wasn’t evident in the cinema broadcast (which was the third performance), meaning that either the creaking was fixed or the Met has a damn good sound engineer. Increasingly, the set and the singers seem to work in parallel rather than together. Most of the action takes place on a flat apron at the front of the stage, and this time around the panels of the Machine act only as a backdrop for some (admittedly beautiful) video imagery of forests, mountains and rivers. There’s the occasional nice flourish in Siegfried (a flowing water effect that includes refracted images of the singers, as if looking at their reflections in the water; a wall of fire which Siegfried runs through), but otherwise there was no great “money shot” as there was in Das Rheingold or Die Walküre. Lepage also seemed to have missed a massive opportunity to create an interesting dragon effect – a giant Muppet-like dragon popped up into view between two planks, looking as if it was about to burst into a duet with Big Bird rather than take Siegfried’s head off, and inspiring sniggers rather than fear. (One of the critics quipped that Fafner “was about as terrifying as a balloon from the Macy’s parade”).

But in the end, the boy gets the Ring, the girl and manages to finish the opera without losing his voice or falling off the set. And that, in this increasingly beleaguered production (which is being criticised for set malfunctions and a number of high-profile cast pull-outs), is really saying something.

With three in the bag, this leaves only Part 4, the gorgeously named Götterdämmerung (translation: Twilight of the Gods), which is the longest of them all, clocking in at around 4 and a half hours (excluding breaks) and involving someone setting themselves on fire. Can’t wait!

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