Siegfried, LA Opera

Written by:
Karen Weinstein
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John Treleaven (left) as Siegfried and Linda Watson as Brünnhilde in LA Opera’s production of “Siegfried”
Photo by Monika Rittershaus

By Richard Wagner
Conducted by James Conlon
Design and direction by Achim Freyer
LA Opera
“The Ring of the Nibelungen” through June 26, 2010
(see video clip below)

One of the unusual things about Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungen” cycle is that he wrote the last opera first. He then decided it needed some back story, so he wrote another; but after that he felt there were more loose ends, so he wrote yet another, until he arrived at the beginning (or at least as far back in the story as he wanted to go), “Das Rheingold,” the preface to the four-opera suite.

So what does that mean to those of us in the audience?  For one thing it means that in each opera he gives a summary–through one character or another–of what has happened before. It is an epic, convoluted story, so this repetition is very helpful to newcomers, but perhaps a bit tiresome to devoted “Ring” fans who, year after year, flock to attend one “Ring” after another.  

The “Ring” cycle has been compared to a symphony. Though each opera is related to the other, each can stand alone. In this analogy, “Siegfried” is the scherzo. Scherzo means joke (or jest) in Italian. While not a comedy, it contains banter and humor that typically is played up in a production. Achim Freyer’s staging exploits this well.  

Siegfried is the issue of the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde’s misbegotten union in “Die Walküre.”  Both of his parents are dead–our loss, as Plácido Domingo and Michelle DeYoung were a wonderful pair in “Die Walküre,” and they will not be back. Siegfried is raised by Mime, the oppressed dwarf and master goldsmith we met in “Rheingold.”  Along with the broken sword (called Nothung) of his father, the infant was handed to the dwarf by his mother as she lay dying in childbirth. Mime has raised him to cocky adolescence (pun apt, though not intended) apparently motivated by Mime’s belief that Siegfried will be able to win back the gold.

Fafner from “Rheingold,” one of the giants who built the castle Valhalla for the god Wotan, wrangled the gold for himself, and to protect it, has transformed himself into a dragon using Tarnhelm (a gold hat, fashioned by Mime, possessing the powers of transformation for its owner). The broken sword Nothung, if fixed (a tall order even for master goldsmith Mime), should enable Siegfried to kill the dragon. Mime, not quite the adoring father figure, intends to then kill the annoying young Siegfried and become imbued with all the power that ownership of the gold can confer.

The scene where Mime and Siegfried complain about each other and lay out their plans for mutual destruction, mostly in parallel, is inherently very funny. Graham Clark defines the role of Mime. His rich tenor combined with his physical antics explain why he has so frequently played the role in Europe and the U.S. The role of Siegfried is equally well written; however John Treleaven is a disappointment. His credentials as a heldentenor, and his many international appearances as Siegfried notwithstanding, he did not hold a candle to Clark. Often singing from far back in the cavernous stage, and behind the omnipresent scrim (more on the scrim further on), Treleaven lacked the necessary force. Physically it is a stretch to see him as an adolescent, despite his cartoonish muscleman bodysuit. His arms flap around, I guess to indicate youthful flightiness. It is as though he has not been around a teenage boy in a long time and has forgotten his own adolescence. This may be the fault of the direction more than his own deficiency.  Whereas Mime is free to cavort around the stage, Siegfried is often stuck in one place … flapping.

About that scrim:  the entire four-opera cycle is performed behind it, creating a sense of remove.  True, it allows images to be projected that would be near impossible to produce on stage, but voices often seem to be coming from someplace a little in the distance. This is more of a problem for some singers than for others.

But back to the story.  In “Die Walküre,” Brünnhilde, the banished daughter of the god Wotan and the goddess Erda for her defiance of her father by protecting the twins from Wotan’s wrath, is exiled to sleep on a rock. She must remain so until she is awakened by a kiss from a man who knows no fear.  Siegfried is just the man for the job.  Walk through fire? No problem. Adolescents are not known for their judgment, almost by definition. Treleaven is considerably more believable tromping around with bravado than he was earlier flapping on a box that looks like a starting block.

Siegfried has used his considerable strength and nerve to refashion the all-powerful sword.  He uses it to penetrate the heart of the dragon, then to do the same to his loathed foster-father, Mime.  There being no end to the joys of penetration, he throws the sword aside and penetrates the circle of flame surrounding Brünnhilde.  You get to do the Freudian analysis yourself. It is the fulfillment of youthful fantasy made more delicious by having earlier broken the sword of Wotan, now known as the Wanderer (whom Siegfried does not know is his grandfather … not that I think that would have stopped him).  Wotan orders Siegfried to marry his daughter Brünnhilde (who is in fact Siegfried’s aunt, as they share the same father). Oy, does life become complicated!

The fire surrounding Brünnhilde is one of the best effects in both operas.  It is portrayed by pieces of red cellophane (or the equivalent) fluttering atop the Valkyries’ wire horse forms, which are carried by the black leotard-clad dancers/stagehands.  And then there is the wonderful line by Siegfried, who has only known a world of men.  Upon crossing the fire and beholding the buxom Brünnhilde, he says, “This is not a man.”  Animal instinct guides him from there.

Ah, the ecstasy when she is awakened by his kiss. It is hard to imagine a more perfect voice than Linda Watson’s as Brünnhilde.  Treleaven’s own performance rose to meet hers; could it be that he was saving his voice for this glorious love finale? He clearly has it in him to project past the scrim. Freyer assigns them the all-too-usual static stage positions, at odds with the glorious music, and it is not until their fiery duet is almost over that they are physically drawn together.

The LA Opera “Ring” stage is fraught with images that do not always illuminate.  Freyer’s own words tell us what he wants us to perceive: “The stage is a running track for all of the ring-lusting figures, a spatial model of human time made of horizontal lines with time-measuring, flowing verticals portraying mortality.”

They tell us, but they do not necessarily help a lot.  For much of “Siegfried” a dozen dancers, clad head-to-toe in black leotards, walk horizontally across the stage like Butoh dancers: excruciatingly slowly and unremittingly deliberately. Enough already. It is either a case of understatement or overstatement. Time does not seem to be the most important factor. The starting blocks that singers stand on may indicate the race to get the ring, but they also inhibit expressive movement on the part of the singers. They function more like anchors.

The costumes of the young female characters have exaggerated breasts and nipples and virtual bulls-eyes to help a guy along. When Siegfried finally penetrates the ring of fire and begins to connect with Brünnhilde, he strips away Velcroed patches on her costume, leaving huge black handprints and revealing even more intimate images.  Erda, the goddess who bore Wotan the nine Valkyries, is awakened from her perpetual sleep state. She has striped pendulous breasts that must be about two feet long. These images are more  successful, if uncomfortable to look at.  

I doubt that Freyer’s staging would bother Wagner much, as he himself strained to break convention wherever he could.  Freyer has achieved the Brechtian alienation effect. The question still remains: Does that effect enlighten? Or does it merely serve to muddy the already murky tale?

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