Teatro Real de Madrid Review 2020-21 Review: Siegfried

Andreas Schager Delivers a Heroic Turn in a Solid if Uneven Robert Carsen Production

By Mauricio Villa
(Credit: Javier del Real)

The Teatro Real de Madrid marched on with its current season despite concerns over COVID-19 around the world.

Wagner’s “Siegfried” was the opera of choice, presented before a live audience, with COVID-19 safety regulations firmly in place. To maintain social distancing within the pit, the theatre used the first four boxes closest to the stage to set the six harps on the left side and some brass instruments on the right; this actually created a beautiful effect of sound for those seated at the orchestra level. Masks were made available for the audience members in case someone wanted to replace their mask throughout the five-hour opera. The theatre was kept at 60 percent capacity with socially distanced seating.

Destroying Nature

Robert Carsen’s third opera of the Ring focuses on the destruction of nature by man. We see a glimpse of this in the first part of the Ring cycle in the production of “Das Rheingold.” The opening act of “Siegfried” begins at a dumpsite where an old, rusty trailer serves as the home of Mime and Siegfried.  The Second Act is set in a forest where all the trees are chopped down and the bird that sings to Siegfred is dead. Meanwhile, the recreation of the dragon was an amazing choice by Carsen, beginning with just two lights moving back and forth imitating the sight of the beast, before lifting up an enormous excavator arm — a flashback to Notung.

It is difficult to find a “but” in a Carsen production due to his mastery and theatrical experience, but I find it an odd choice to set the first scene of Act Three in an abandoned hall of  Valhalla, the same set we saw in “Die Walküre” for the first scene of Act two but with few old furniture cover by sheets. It just does not make sense with the libretto. This scene is supposed to happen in the mountains near the rock where Brünhilde is sleeping. When is it placed in Valhalla, which is the castle of the Gods, it makes it completely unbelievable that Erda, the goddess of the earth would appear there, as the castle is in heavens. It is even stranger to see Siegfried there as only the gods and the souls of dead heroes can habitat Valhalla. According to the story, it is utterly impossible for a living Siegfried to cross into Valhalla to reach Brünhilde’s rock.

The last scene happens on the same set used for the Third Act of “Die Walküre.” The stage is limited by iron walls (which is the leitmotiv that links all the operas) as if everything was happening inside an industrial unit. Despite the odd choice for the aforementioned scene, the production keeps showing all the genius of one of the most highly regarded stage directors in the world.

Climbing Mount Everest

Austrian tenor Andreas Schager took on what could be the hardest roles for a tenor in this repertoire. Someone who is able to learn all of this difficult music and words and end the performance with a fresh voice deserves all my admiration. He truly is a Heldentenor, with a big dark sound potent enough to cut through the huge orchestration as well as the stamina to be singing and acting for nearly 90 minutes straight.

The staging was not easy as it demanded hammering in rhythm while sustaining a forte high A natural, running, and fighting a dragon. It is a very physical role and Schager was very focused on his incarnation and staging.

The writing of the role is not a piece of cake either. While we could say that it mostly lies in the middle of the voice, it demands certain scenes where the continued singing of G and A’s make it very hard for a big voice. But this role goes further as it demands a high C at the beginning and a sustained high B flat in the Third Act. Schager’s voice is secure up until A natural. He had no problems with the first high C, but he couldn’t hold the high B flat of “Jetzt lock’ich ein liebes Gesell.”

That said, his forging scene in Act one was really astonishing, as he could attack all the high As (and there are a lot) perfectly. He was lyrical and expressive in his solo scene of Act two “Dass der mein Vater” although you could notice that it was really hard for him to sing mezza-voce. He was excellent in the final awakening/love duet which concludes the opera, maintaining a fresh voice that was still capable of emitting dozens of strong high notes.

Other Heroes

Andres Conrad sang the Nibelungen Mime, one of the most underrated roles. To begin with, his part is the second largest of this opera, much larger than Wotan, and he has to sing in a very high tessitura where he has to sustain a high B natural in the first Act and sing an incisive phrase hitting several high B flats in the second.

Conrad showed complete mastery of the role. He had the “ideal” Mime sound, which requires a high plain sound by tradition (to contrast the Heldentenor voice of Siegfried) and his voice carries neatly over the orchestra withprecise projection, even if Mime hardly sings when the orchestra is playing forte. But I consider his acting inappropriate for this production. I can’t say if it was because of Carsen’s directing or his own choice, but it came off as clownish and overdone throughout. Carsen’s idea of making Mime fall dead with his head over a cake was a bad joke.

Tomasz Konieczny reprised the role of Wotan, which he sang in “Die Walküre” last season, to similar success. He has a velvet, round, and potent sound, with a beautiful timbre and a mesmerizing palette or dynamics and vocal colors.  As written, Wotan has long lyrical phrases that suited Konieczny’s vocal qualities perfectly. The role also has outbursts, mostly in Act three during his duet with Erda and his confrontation with his grandson Siegfried, where he showed off his potent high F sharps. The tessitura in this opera is the highest one of the three operas where Wotan appears, though it requires a solid lower register. The part is shorter than in the preceding opera, but it is a long night for the bass-baritone as he appears in every act. His personification showed dignity as well as remorse and pain. He is definitely one of the most solid Wotans today.

Ricarda Merbeth reprised the role of Brünhilde. I had my doubts when I saw her performance last season, but sadly enough I was not wrong. Her vibrato has become uneven, although, surprisingly enough her high B and C were very well supported and sustained. Her part is short as she only sings at the end of the night in one duet that lasts 40 minutes. The part is well written and allows the singer to warm up gradually to the climax which is where all the high notes appear as the orchestration gets heavier and louder. Her part ends on a sustained high C, which she emitted well. But only her high notes were acceptable as there were many moments where her intonation was dubious and lacked a precise pitch. It is also notable that she was more audible in this role than she was in “Walküre.”

In the other shorter roles, audiences were treated to excellent performances by Martin Winkler, Jongmin Park, Okka Von der Damerau, and soprano Leonor Bonilla. All of them were committed to their roles both vocally and dramatically.

The work of Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado in this masterwork continues to mature. He was cautious in “Das Rheingold” and more temperamental in “Die Walküre,” but his work in “Siegfried” gets closer to excellency. He found the perfect balance between orchestra and singers, and for once (in a Wagner opera) every singer could be perfectly heard despite the volume of their voices. This helped the singers too, as they could focus on dynamics and expression rather than singing loudly. He created great moments of depth and atmosphere especially in the beginning of each act. The First and the Second Acts were mysterious, creepy, and dark, while the beginning of the last act was heroic, thunderous, and apocalyptic.

In all, this was a terrific production with a fascinating leading man.


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