Metropolitan Opera 2018-19 Review: Siegfried
Stefan Vinke Delivers A Debut For the AgesBy Francisco Salazar
On April 14, The Metropolitan opera opened the third opera in Wagner’s tetralogy, “Siegfried.”
Perhaps the least performed of the four operas due to its nearly impossible tenor role, the Metropolitan Opera landed one of the best performances of the season and with it saw a heroic and historical debut.
A Heroic Performance
In his Met debut, Stefan Vinke got tremendous applause for what might possibly be the best debut in years.
The moment Vinke stepped on stage he was Siegfried. He was a swaggering youth looking for adventure and discovery and he was playful throughout; this was most apparent in his interactions with the bear, the moment he forging his sword, and even when he was lip synching and mimicking Mime’s phrases. This Siegfried was physically active, running around the stage with his sword, beating Mime, and in his interactions with Brünnhilde as he attempted to seduce her.
Vinke also brought levity to numerous moments such as the scene with the dragon when he laughed off all of Fafner’s threatening approaches. Then there was Siegfried attempting to mimic the bird. He began playing the wooden flute and upon realizing that he was a disaster at it, he just threw it aside and started playing the horn. The audience went wild for him throwing the flute aside, but the kicker was that he didn’t end there. When he played the horn, he smiled at the heroic sound it produced, drawing greater enthusiasm. Another moment that caused a laugh was his treatment of Mime, who he playfully bullied.
But it was not all fun and games. In his confrontation with Wotan, Vinke finally showed his heroic stature. Here he towered over Michael Volle’s increasingly weak Wotan and easily broke the staff in two, gaining even more valor to cross the fire mountain.
When Siegfried finally, encounters Brünnhilde, he finally feels fear. And that very feeling added to the maturity that Vinke expressed in his Siegfried. The youth and naivety were gone, replaced by confusion and angst as he confronted this woman for the first time.But as he let his emotions grow for her, Vinke’s Siegfried took on a more gentle and passionate expression gazing at her warmly.
Vocally Vinke is a hero. Siegfried is one of the most demanding tenor roles in the repertoire as he is expected to sing for four hours straight with few breaks. The music is heavy and demanding and by the end of the evening, most tenors turn to short breathed phrases with lessening power. But Vinke kept a consistent tone throughout, bringing muscularity and ardor to each and every one of his scenes. You could sense that audiences were in for a treat from the opening phrases as he rose to the demanding high C with ease and sang the coloratura line with flexibility. Then in the staccato fast-paced “Da Hast du die stücken,” when Siegfried rages against Mime’s inept attempt at forging Nothung, Vinke sang each phrase with finesse, escalating to the higher tessitura and easily bringing the voice down to the middle and lower range. The repetition of this same phrase saw even more energy and power, coupled with a virtuosic display of the text. Then during his forging song, Vinke delivered irresistible intensity and swagger. He emphasized his “Hoho!” with joyous energy and the “Nothung” with a bold and vivacious sound.
In Act two, Vinke restrained the voluminous potency in his vibrato a bit, giving his timbre a more refined aura, particularly in his interaction with the bird. Attempting to resemble the delicacy of the woodbird, Vinke brought a lyrical and pensive quality that undoubtedly grew in impressive vocal outbursts that reinforced his youthful portrayal. Upon hearing of his wife, Vinke’s voice was filled with ardor and was taken by the emotional drive of the music. In his scene with the dragon, there was undoubtedly a heavier quality to the voice that displayed the youth attempting to imitate the menacing sound and putting his strength on equal footing with the dragon.
In Act three, Vinke’s tenor sounded more profound overall. The opening monologue “Das ist kein mann!” saw his voice take on some hesitance and detached lines that emphasized the confusion in Siegfried. But then as he awakened Brünnhilde, he gained a tender and lush timbre with connected phrases that emphasized the melodic line. As the duet gained ardor and force, his voice too took on a heroic tone that brought wild and passionate emotions. His voice easily took flight over the orchestra and resonated into the hall with the freshness he exhibited at the start of the night. And if it wasn’t enough he capped off his incredible performance with a steely high C. He should be singing all the “Siegfried’s” he wants at the Met in the coming future.
In the role of the Wanderer, Michael Volle finally debuted his acclaimed Wotan, bringing the power and authority in his voice that Met audiences have come to expect.
When he first came on stage for the riddles with Mime, Volle gave his instrument a rugged sound trying to gain access to Mime. Both his stage demeanor and his timbre gave the sense of an old and powerless man. But once in the hut, Volle brought wit and his instrument gained a luster that was reminiscent of the once powerful god. Volle sat on one of Mime’s chairs and comfortably took off his shoes, laughing at the Niebelung who attempted to trick him. His voice gained warmth as he answered each question and described each event. His emphasis on text allowed each of his answers to be a story in themselves. But at the end of the game, he gave a menacing tone as he warned Mime of the impending hero.
In Act two, Volle began the scene with a more stoic and godly figure attempting to show his dominance over Alberich. But seeing as the villainous character would not budge, this Wotan used his intelligence featuring emotional outpouring that would show his weakness. Volle used a charismatic pull that brought out comic moments, particularly when he called out to Fafner. In many ways, he mocked the dragon as he warned him in “Fafner! Fafner! Erwache wurm!”
But in Act three, Volle’s Wotan took a tormented quality as he called on Erda in a tempestuous and full-blooded “Wache, Wala! Wala! Erwach!” That controlled quality in his singing was gone as his power erupted throughout the ensuing duet. His despair and anguish were finally coming to the fore, the bass-baritone singin with an emotional pull as his movements increasing looked weaker on stage. In his confrontation with Siegfried, he attempted to bring out the stoic presence but that wary and rugged quality returned, emphasizing the weakened Wotan. Volle also used more staccato lines to express sarcasm toward Siegfried and to wield some degree of power over him. But he was easily overpowered by the force of Vinke’s more ardent lines. The torment and the anguish in the voice returned toward the end of the duet.
In the role of Mime, Gerhard Siegel brought back his signature interpretation which was filled with nuance and complexity. At the beginning of the opera, Siegel slaves away trying to forge Nothung, all the while singing with a piano sound that continuously built with intensity and which eventually took on a scheming voice in the lower depths of voice. Accompanied by the brass sound of the orchestra he gave his timbre a darker color. That darkness eventually took on a more tormented and intense sound as he realized he could not forge the sword in order to get the ring.
He built on the complexity of this villainous character as Siegfried started to torment him with the bear and then with a parade of insults. In this production, he gets something like a hump and Siegel adds to the physical deformity by giving Mime a limp that does make him more vulnerable and sympathetic.. That solidarity toward the character only built as Siegel sang with a warm sound turning the phrases “Liebe ist das verlangen.” Where Wagner gives Mime detached and non-melodic lines, here Siegel used the few moments of lyricism to redeem his character and to give him another layer. In many ways these moments allowed one to feel sorry for him. In his riddle scene with Wotan that weakness came through when he lost the final question. His powerlessness was on full displayed with the tenor digging into a leaner sound.
But all these emotions changed as he realized it was Siegfried who would forge the sword. Siegel’s Mime returned to the slimy and dubious character that he displayed at the beginning. He sang as if he was planning something with a slithery quality that emphasized his villainous ways.
Christine Goerke returned as Brünnhilde giving the character multiple dimensions. When she first awoke there was a moment of wonder as she looked around her territory which immediately turned into fear as she rejected Siegfried’s advances. That fear turned to tenderness as she continuously rejected Siegfried and explained how she wanted to keep her pureness. But as Siegfried’s passionate pleas continued, Goerke’s expression continued to shift until she finally gave into her burgeoning emotions and passionately embraced Siegfried. That explosion of emotions only grew until the final climax as Goerke ran across the stage and took Vinke’s Siegfried by the hand and brought him to the floor to consummate their passionate and wild love.
Vocally, Goerke took some time to warm up. She had an uneven start with flat intonation hindering her otherwise solid singing. Each opening phrase had a rough patch and every time she attempted to decrescendo the tone became grainy. The same occurred as she ascended into her higher register, closing the sound and preventing it from ringing out into the audience. As the duet developed Goerke’s tone warmed up, with the middle voice gaining more resonance and power and the piano sound easily connecting each phrase with delicacy. Her volume also built along the way as the music’s organic crescendos evolved.
But where Goerke was finally at ease was in the final portion of the duet “Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich.” Here her onsets featured delicacy and a finesse in the timbre, obtaining the bel canto line Wagner was looking for. She caressed the phrases with tenderness and crescendoed until rising up to a gleaming high note. Then when she sang the famed Valkyrie theme, Goerke brought out heroic power that eventually joined with Vinke’s voice. Both voices melded into one with Goerke singing a climactic and arousing High C at the end.
A Stellar Supporting Cast
In the role of Fafner, Dmitry Belosselskiy displayed a menacing, booming bass throughout his short period as a dragon. He created the aura of an all-powerful and untouchable creature. But when he was slain and turned back to his human form, that invincible voice took on a softer tone that slowly died out.
As the Woodbird, soprano Erin Morley provided bright colors that resembled her flute counterpart. Each coloratura line flowed well into the magical lines that Wagner wrote for the short but crucial part.
Karen Cargill’s Erda took on a very stoic approach at first. Like her music in “Das Rheingold,” Erda’s music in Siegfried starts off very formal with long lines and the melodic and emotional outpouring reduced. Cargill’s movements coincided with the musical approach, featuring minimal movement. However, as Wotan continued to question her, her Erda took on a more human form, moving about in a fragile state. Her piano sound eventually evolved with her fear of the Gods’ downfall taking shape and Cargill’s full sound exploded into the auditorium. What seemed like a formal dialogue at the beginning ended in a full confrontation between both characters.
Tomasz Konieczny continued to dominate as Alberich in his brief scenes. In his moment with Wotan, this Alberich was no longer outwitted by the god. Instead, Konieczny played on the villain’s wit and power to make himself Wotan’s equal. Unlike in “Rheingold,” here Alberich works with Wotan to get the gold from Fafner but is unable to outwit the dragon. Still, it was apparent that Konieczny’s Alberich had another plan to get his gold back and one could see it through his sarcastic and snarly singing. We still saw some panic as he initially confronted Wotan, the bass-baritone’s vocalization featuring hesitance and detached lines. Still, his power grew in the scene, even going as far as taking Wotan’s staff and playing with it. Konieczny used his full-bodied bass-baritone to power over the orchestra and even Volle’s voice; you could feel the impending threat that he posed.
But this Siegfried would not have been successful if it wasn’t for the impassioned conducting of Phillipe Jordan who held the orchestra together in a way that was not only precise but also emotional. Throughout the evening, Jordan used tempi that drove the action forward and which also allowed for moments of calm and reflection. And then when the music continuously built to an intense crescendo, he let the orchestra’s full sound out, never covering the singer or feeling restrained.
Among the evening’s highlights was the opening prelude where Jordan he drew a dark brass sound that brought out a menacing quality that eventually evolved into the Nibelung theme played by the strings with rhythmic precision. Then came the the brass and winds, joining with the strings in a potent crescendo to a harrowing conclusion that eventually died down. But the rhythmic theme of the strings continued intensely with Mime imitating the orchestra as he attempted to forge the sword.
Another impressive moment was the third act prelude. Jordan immediately drew swift tempo created a sense of a turbulent storm. The repeating phrases each time grew more forte and built to the eventual climactic melody which reveals Wotan. The sound of the entire ensemble brought forth thunderous emotions.
Then there was Brünnhilde’s introduction. Jordan gave space for the violins to reach their highest register before giving way to the brass theme that introduces the former Valkyrie. The harp then gave the entrance a magical and celestial feel as it extended the line ever so slightly with the violins also taking a slower tempo. It was a heavenly moment and extremely potent especially in comparison to the tempestuous and heroic music that preceded the entire evening. There was tremendous sense of breadth in each phrase and the pitch perfect precision of the orchestral playing only added to the emotional pull.
Other highlights were flautist that portrayed the woodbird and the horn player, who gave strength to the scene.
The Low Point
The evening was almost perfect except for one major component, Robert Lepage’s production.
Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that the production was being fixed up so that the creaking would be less of a distraction. However, this was not the case and the noise of the machine was particularly apparent in the quiet prelude of the opera. It was impossible not to notice the sounds the machine made as it turned back and forth to finally remain in position for the first act. The second act was no different as it converted into a forest. Only in the third act when the orchestra was booming during the prelude and Siegfried’s journey into the mountain did the machine get drowned out by the orchestra’s glorious sound.
And while the visuals might dazzle, the substance of the production itself is nothing to marvel at, especially with regards to how it limits the performers’ space on stage.
The hut from the first Act is very constricted with the second act moreso. In this second case, the the planks are in an upright position taking away a sense of profundity that no special effects could add (it’s the same problem with movies using green screen backdrops), making any battle sequences lack any visual depth or interesting choreography.
The third act is probably the most interesting from a color scheme perspective as the machine shifts from a blue mountain with water to the fire mountain before arriving at a rocky green mountain. A lot of noise is made during this final change for the machine as it aims to place Brünnhilde into position.
Then there’s the big question about interactivity. When Lepage first announced his big plan for the Machine, he talked about how the production and its performers would interact and how the images on the machine would shift depending on the intensity of the singers. That is barely anywhere in the first two operas of the tetralogy (save for the Rhinemaidens in “Das Rheingold”) and it always seemed like “Siegfried” had a hint of that in its initial runs. But on this night the only images changing were a running waterfall, leaves in the third act, the water Wotan moves at the beginning of the third act, snakes in the second act and the aforementioned bird. But all these elements seemed pre-programmed and any sense of true interactivity with the actors themselves was limited and uninspired.
None of the machine’s shortcomings are helped by the non-machine mise-en-scene elements of the production, which is dominated by an overriding sense of cheapness in the costumes and props. Siegfried notes how hideous Mime is but his costume or makeup make him look like a normal human, without really giving you any true reason to believe he is all that ugly physically. And you can’t blame it on his clothing either because what Mime wears is no different from the robe that Siegfried wears. The Wanderer’s wardrobe also looks like a pair of sheets put together randomly (the sombrero / cowboy hat is not a great look either) and Erda the goddess of earth wears a dress that sparkles throughout the theater, making it hard to look at her.
In the second act, the dragon moves about like a puppet that has no strings, imitating the singer in a way that makes the whole moment look like a joke. Every character in the opera talks about how it is supposed to be this dangerous creature and the menacing music also gives us this impression. However, Lepage’s creation is nothing more than a bad circus act. After all this setup, the payoff elicits the kind of laughter that is any director’s worst nightmare.
Regardless of the continuously disappointing production, this was an unforgettable performance thanks to the masterful cast that the Metropolitan Opera put together. There are two more performances, but Vinke only sings once more in this particular opera.