The Limitations of Magic

Jesse Simon
viernes, 26 de noviembre de 2021
Herheim, Siegfried © 2021 by Bernd Uhlig Herheim, Siegfried © 2021 by Bernd Uhlig
Berlin, viernes, 12 de noviembre de 2021. Deutsche Oper Berlin. Wagner: Siegfried. Stefan Herheim, director. Clay Hilley (Siegfried). Ya-Chung Huang (Mime). Iain Paterson (Wanderer). Jordan Shanahan (Alberich). Tobias Kehrer (Fafner). Judit Kutasi (Erda). Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde). Sebastian Scherer (Woodbird). Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Sir Donald Runnicles, conductor

Of the four works that make up the Ring, Siegfried might be the most difficult to stage. While the third act can coast on vocal great performances alone, the second presents the director with the challenge of creating a dragon that looks if not terrifying, at the very least not ridiculous; and in the first act one is forced to contend with a series of largely undramatic episodes, peppered with large dumps of backstory, and culminating in the real-time reforging of Siegmund’s shattered sword. Given director Stefan Herheim’s previous successes in realising the most conspicuously magical episodes of Rheingold and delineating the subtle character drama of Walküre, one had high hopes that he might even be able to pull off the impossible task of creating a Siegfried that didn’t drag in its opening acts.

Alas, it was not to be. Mr Herheim’s new production of Siegfried – which, due to a long series of pandemic-related reschedulings, ended up being the last part of the Deutsche Oper’s new Ring cycle to appear on stage – had plenty of strengths and a few of the sudden recontextualisations that have made the previous instalments so memorable; but it also seemed less willing to challenge the text. A relatively straightforward retelling combined with a few technical glitches resulted in an evening that felt oddly subdued compared with the sparkling highs of the other three; for the first time in the cycle it felt that the staging was struggling against the boundaries of the opera rather than riffing on its themes.

Wagner: Siegfried. Sir Donald Runnicles, conductor. Stefan Herheim, director. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, November 2021. © 2021 by Bernd Uhlig.Wagner: Siegfried. Sir Donald Runnicles, conductor. Stefan Herheim, director. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, November 2021. © 2021 by Bernd Uhlig.

In the course of the first two operas, Mr Herheim had created an intricate world with its own distinctive vocabulary and logic. There was a group of recurring elements – the piano, the suitcases, the white silk sheets of varying sizes, and the silent chorus – but in each new scene they were reconfigured slightly and put to different uses. In the first two acts of Siegfried all the elements were accounted for, but having placed them on the stage Mr Herheim seemed reluctant to push them further. The suitcases rising to reveal Mime’s workshop and the appearance of Fafner were both duly impressive but the constant visual inspiration that gave the other operas their infectious energy seemed, on this evening, to be in shorter supply.

There were, as always, moments of arresting brilliance, but for the first time in the cycle they were interspersed with the occasional misstep. Mime’s workshop was made claustrophobic by the vast assortment of horns hanging from the ceiling, and the horn theme was picked up again in Fafner’s lair. Yet the sword-forging scene, surely one of the opera’s most obvious opportunities for a conceptual shake-up ­– or, at the very least, some dazzling stagecraft – was oddly restrained, although Mime cooking in time with Siegfried’s hammer blows had the pleasing (if perhaps unintentional) side-effect of calling to mind the encounter between Sachs and Beckmesser in Act 2 of Meistersinger. Siegfried’s idealised imagination of his parents had a pleasing innocence, but the decision to replace the wood-bird with a young boy seemed a remarkable lapse in judgment.

Wagner: Siegfried. Sir Donald Runnicles, conductor. Stefan Herheim, director. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, November 2021. © 2021 by Bernd Uhlig.Wagner: Siegfried. Sir Donald Runnicles, conductor. Stefan Herheim, director. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, November 2021. © 2021 by Bernd Uhlig.

The characters also seemed less rigorously defined. In Rheingold, Mime appeared as Wagner, and the notion of the Ring’s composer as an unwitting (or at least only partially-witting) architect of German nationalism was, if not original, at least well-handled. At the beginning of Siegfried, Mime was still dressed in Wagner’s recognisable side-whiskers and purple beret, and anyone who had been there for the first two nights must have been intrigued to see where Mr Herheim was going to go with the idea. Certainly the promise of a meeting between Wotan ‘the director’ and Mime ‘the composer’ held tremendous potential, and there was perhaps a clever irony in associating Wagner with the one character in the cycle for whom Wagner himself seems to have had the least affection; but ultimately Mime stuck mostly to the script, fawning and plotting without doing anything especially Wagnerian. Siegfried, too, was played remarkably straight, less bratty and a shade more sympathetic than usual, but still headstrong, naive and slightly bland.

Only in the third act was there the sense that the staging was once again running at full steam. The conclusion of Wotan’s encounter with Erda was a genuine shock, a moment of undoing far greater than his subsequent defeat by Siegfried; and while the final scene, which saw the reappearance of the silent chorus, was drawn directly from the Zabriskie Point school of externalising sexual desire – the emotionally-confused couple were surrounded by an orgy of writhing bodies – Brünnhilde’s slow acceptance of her newfound mortality was rendered with such nuance that one could easily forgive the surrounding action.

Wagner: Siegfried. Sir Donald Runnicles, conductor. Stefan Herheim, director. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, November 2021. © 2021 by Bernd Uhlig.Wagner: Siegfried. Sir Donald Runnicles, conductor. Stefan Herheim, director. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, November 2021. © 2021 by Bernd Uhlig.

Among the evening’s vocal performances, Iain Paterson’s Wanderer seemed the most consistently engaged and engaging. His Walküre Wotan is always a delight, but the sense of resignation and acceptance that presides over the Wanderer’s three appearances in Siegfried seemed to bring out a warmth of tone and ease of manner well suited to a god who knows his time is almost up. His answers to Mime’s questions struck a perfect balance between lofty and conversational, and in his superb encounter with Alberich his august grace was cut with a wry fatalism. Ya-Chung Huang’s Mime was also an energetic presence, wiry, paranoid and delightfully malevolent. If some of his line-readings in the first act occasionally came across as too emphatic he rarely veered into overt caricature, and in his excellent final scene he laid bare Mime’s evil intentions with convincingly casual malice.

As in Götterdämmerung, Clay Hilley mixed vocal heroics with passages of surprising restraint. While his Siegfried lacked nothing in power or stamina – if anything the third act was the strongest part of his performance – many of his most impressive moments arose from sudden turns of lyrical tenderness; the hushed realisation that Siegfried was responsible for his mother’s death was a touching moment of introspection amidst an otherwise barbed opening scene, and the dying away of his second ‘Erwache’ while attempting to wake Brünnhilde offered an elegant encapsulation of his newly discovered vulnerability.

Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde sounded energised from the outset. As in Götterdämmerung there were occasional moments when one became too aware of the technique that powered the performance, and there were one or two entries that seemed less than secure; but these were largely insignificant next to her extraordinary understanding of the text and ability to render Brünnhilde’s long arc of emotional tumult with clarity, assurance and immediacy of feeling. The smaller roles received generally strong performances: Jordan Shanahan’s Alberich brought urgent energy to the confrontation with Wotan that opened the second act; Tobias Kehrer infused Fafner’s death with nobility and regret; and Judit Kutasi conveyed perfectly the trance-like implacability of the recently awoken Erda.

If Siegfried is arguably the least engaging part of the cycle as a work of drama, Sir Donald Runnicles made a persuasive case for it containing some of the best orchestral writing. The prelude to the second act was magnificent, an understatedly perfect evocation of forest gloom, and there were numerous similar moments throughout the evening: the Wanderer’s arrival and Mime’s terror at the ‘accursed light’ in the first act, the graceful woodwinds that summoned daylight to the forest floor in the second, and the reverent high strings that accompanied Siegfried’s arrival at Brünnhilde’s rock in the third were all superbly rendered. Only in the sword-forging scene and the third act prelude did the prominence of the brass intrude upon the balance and clarity that presided over so much of the evening.

One of the grand themes running through Mr Herheim’s Ring cycle has been the limited power of the director in the face of a text; a director may act the role of a god, but he remains answerable to a greater immutable authority. If the first two acts of Siegfried were the least engaging parts of the cycle as a whole, it may simply have been the staging coming up against the limitations of the work itself. Mr Herheim nonetheless did everything in his power to keep the opening acts interesting through the richness and variety of his imagery; and as we revisit his cycle in the years to come and become more familiar with the myriad overlapping ideas on which it is built, Siegfried may yet reveal itself to be the equal of the other evenings.

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