HOUSTON: Siegfried
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In Review > North America


Houston Grand Opera

In Review HGO Siegfried hdl 716
Goerke and Morris in HGO’s Siegfried staging
© Lynn Lane

IN THE THIRD INSTALLMENT of its year-by-year presentation of Wagner’s Ring cycle, Houston Grand Opera (in a coproduction with Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia and Maggio Musicale) presented Siegfried (seen Apr. 23) in the ongoing Fura dels Baus Ring production, whose combination of computer-graphics backdrops and projected images, still wondrously innovative and fascinating to behold—and still featuring some must-be-witnessed performances—is beginning to show a few signs of eccentricity and clumsiness. A few computer glitches resulted in rectangular error messages within the computerized backdrop images and awkward or halting zoom effects during the cosmic perspectives of Earth and its forecast destruction.

The eccentricities of this production arise from the seeming conflicts between Wagner’s text (musical and literary) and the visual spectacle. This is an old source of conflict between Werktreue aesthetics and artistic license that must allow for some give and take. But this production took too many liberties by imposing video images of vast, dehumanizing assembly-line production—first introduced, brilliantly, to complement the Rheingold scenes of Alberich’s cruel underworld factory—to accompany Mime and Siegfried’s forest dwelling. While this reinforces Mime’s greed and sinister plans, it eclipsed the nature setting of Siegfried’s youth so essential to his character. Worse, if only momentary, was Brünnhilde’s brief interaction with her horse, Grane, which was represented here by one of the metal-stretcher-on-a-boom constructions by which the gods of Rheingold had floated about in their heavenly abode. All was well with those booms, which were moved about by unobtrusive supernumeraries, until our attention was drawn exclusively to them, as when Brünnhilde and then Siegfried turn to the stretcher-on-a-boom Grane with tender words and caresses.

The handling of Siegfried, too, seems bungled in this production. If the hero begins the story as immature, awkward and unknowing, he is not meant to stay that way until the end; but under Carlus Padrissa’s direction, tenor Jay Hunter Morris’s Siegfried—though well-sung and energetically acted—is a jolly, ungainly man-child whose series of conquests seems more like beginner’s luck than the result of fierce, youthful determination. In the final scene, this too-goofy Siegfried thus draws a bigger than usual (unwanted) laugh at the otherwise poignant moment of his first beholding the sleeping Brünnhilde and proclaiming “Das ist kein Mann!” (This is not a man); and, after her awakening, their pairing comes off as the meeting of a diva and an eighth-grader.

Such quirks stand out only because of the high bar set by the overall artistic vision of La Fura, whose triumphs in Siegfried are numerous—a forging scene with a fiery and symbolically globe-shaped furnace maintained by the minion-like denizens of the dwarf underworld; the cheery, darkly comic chef’s getup for Mime as he whisks up his poisonous potion, which makes an amusing counterpoint to Siegfried’s manful sword-forging; a looming, mechanical dragon in a De Chirico-like abstract design whose eerie menace is multiplied by the echo-enhancement of Andrea Silvestrelli’s granitic bass voice as Fafner; the creepy-crawlies at the mouth of the Cave of Envy (athletically worming supernumeraries); and a risqué but evocative backdrop vision of human-breast clouds as Siegfried, on the cusp of discovering love and erotic desire, approaches Brünnhilde’s resting place. This last detail is part of the by-now familiar technique of La Fura’s creation of a visual leitmotif design in computer-generated and light-projected images to complement the web of musical leitmotifs in Wagner’s opera. The overall effect—sometimes perplexing, often wondrous, always captivating—achieves that fusion of artistic media that Wagner had in mind for the Gesamtkunstwerk.

Among the other strengths of the performance was an enlarged HGO Orchestra, led by Patrick Summers, which featured scores of expertly played woodwind and brass solos within a satisfyingly warm, cushiony orchestral sound. Tenor Rodell Rosel deftly blended the essential elements of comic sprightliness, insidious duplicity and corrosive greed to create a colorfully absorbing Mime. For her uncanny voice-of-the-Earth soulful depth, contralto Meredith Arwady’s Erda was alone worth the price of admission. And soprano Christine Goerke, with her power, range and charisma, is no less than an ideal Brünnhilde. Such performances and such an ambitious vision of the Ring cycle more than compensate for the glitches and bizarreries of this Siegfried.  —Gregory Barnett 

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