It Yet Still Continues: The Wiener Staatsoper's Ring Cycle

Siegfried, like Die Walküre is one of the linchpins of the Ring Cycle. Both of these operas are more recognized than Das Rheingold or Götterdämmerung. While the performances in this production continued to be generally solid, Siegfried did not feel as well put together as the preceding two operas in the cycle in the Wiener Staatsoper's production. The sets continued to be lackluster, and the voices, with some very notable exceptions, were neither as kind to the ear nor as consistent as in the other operas.

Synopsis & general information:


Siegfried | Richard Wagner

Christian Thielemann | Dirigent
Sven-Eric Bechtolf | Regie
Rolf Glittenberg | Bühne
Marianne Glittenberg | Kostüme
fettFilm | Video

Stephen Gould | Siegfried
Linda Watson | Linda Watson
Albert Dohmen | Der Wanderer
Tomasz Koniczny | Alberich
Anna Larsson | Erda
Wolfgang Schmidt | Mime
Ain Anger | Fafner
Chen Reiss | Stimme des Waldvogels

The sets for this production of Siegfried echoed the design in Die Walküre in that each scene took place in some sort of box. The first scene had three tall walls with small industrial-looking fans at the top. there were several large steps and a grid of nine workbenches, with an assortment of tools, water for tempering, anvils, a bellows, and so forth. Some of this material is necessary for the workshop that is the literal setting of the act. The second act was comprised by this same box covered with various wild animals running all over its surface (obviously something that is realistically impossible as they were parallel to the ground). Later, when Siegfried is in combat with the dragon (Fafner), the back wall of this set slid outward, revealing a screen and a ditch behind the slightly elevated stage. This allowed Siegfried to jump down as he went to fight the dragon, which was portrayed on the screen. This, like all the previous visual effects in this Ring Cycle, left much to be desired. The dragon's green eye loomed, looking back and forth following Siegfried's movements, until he disappeared.
Then, alternating with burst of fire from the eye, a silhouetted form with a sword fights in the eye's center, looking essentially like a dancing figure from early iPod commercials. Only after this ended, the eye turning red to indicate blood, and physical Siegfried returning, did Ain anger rise on a pillar as high as halfway up the proscenium, wearing a snake outfit draped to the floor. From here he gave Siegfried his warning before disappearing below. The final act began with the same two walls on the side but with The Wanderer, Erda, and Siegfried interacting around a ditch representative of the calling of Erda, with a sheer background sporting eerie projected light. In the last scene, in which Brünnhilde and Siegfried actually meet, the same box from the beginning is utilized, but the back wall was tilted away at a 45 degree angle, allowing Siegfried to lay on it. These sets, like those from previous operas in this Ring Cycle felt like they were trying to bridge a gap, equivocating between abstract and literal. While a desire to stay true to Wagner's setting while still innovating is understandable, it felt as though the design could have benefited from a clearer artistic perspective.

The singing in the Wiener Staatsoper's production of Wagner's Ring Cycle seemed to reach its height in Die Walküre before sloping off in later productions. The parts in Siegfried are, of course, very difficult to perform and impressive just to get through. There weren't performance-ruining issues, but things felt a little less well-rounded here compared to previous operas.

Wolfgang Schmidt's performance was the most bothersome. He was undesirable in the role of Herodes in R. Strauss' Salome because his shouting, pinched, and roughly grating tenor voice did not become a king. In Das Rheingold, his Mime felt okay, simply because as an abject brother whose stage time was relatively small, the voice felt appropriate and unobtrusive. In Siegfried, however, he is onstage for quite a long time. While his voice did give him an aura of sliminess appropriate for a character like Mime, the voice was so strangely and seemingly unhealthily produced that it was hard to listen to and felt simply too remote from standard vocal production to be enjoyable. The character of Mime can be portrayed without this unusual production and still portray both cunning and sliminess.

Alberich, Mime's brother, was still performed by Tomasz Koniczny. Koniczny's rich bass voice continued to thrill in the role, but seemed to be taking on a bit thinner sound, whether from changes in the role of Alberich musically, changes in Alberich's character, or from Koniczny's fatigue, it is hard to say. Also, the abstract motions he made previously became more erratic and pronounced here, to the detriment of the character's portrayal. While this was seemingly an attempt to portray Alberich's strangeness physically, rather than through costuming, it simply went to far compared to the level of abstraction in the rest of the show. This unfortunately distracted from his singing, and perhaps might be part of the reason his voice was less solid than previously.

Ain Anger returned as Fafner, dressed this time as a snake rather than a giant, though singing offstage for part of his role while the hokey dragon video was playing. Paired as Fafner is with Fasolt in Das Rheingold it was hard to get a solid read on Ain Anger's abilities as an individual performer. Here, however, he was considerably more impressive. His voice was not the largest around and also not incredibly remarkable. Nonetheless, it was consistent and robust. This, combined with his size (amplified by standing on a pedestal), face, and makeup gave him a foreboding impression that potently delivered his warning to Siegfried.

Chen Reiss, though never onstage, brought an incredibly exciting voice to her small role as the voice of the forest bird. I am almost certain that she, seemingly like many of the Staatsoper's offstage performers, was amplified. Nonetheless, her high, cutting voice would likely have traveled over Wagner's excellent scoring in any case. Her vibrato was very quick, with an unusual sort of ghost resonance - not large and full in the way that many large voices are, but still with a sound that felt warmer than many light voices with great squillo. Some listeners might have objected to this voice, but especially for the chirpy, otherwordly birdsong that the role demands, Reiss' tone was perfect.

Another otherworldly character, Erda, continued to be well performed by Anna Larsson. Erda has much more presence in Siegfried compared to Das Rheingold. Larsson, despite the greater demands, kept her hauntingly earthy contralto consistent, adding wavy, eerie stage movement to this to temper the portrayal with onstage presence. Though other singers in this Ring Cycle fit their roles well and sang acceptably, Larsson might have portrayed the most artistically completely character in the entire cast.

Linda Watson stepped in for the role of Brünnhilde due to Katarina Dalayman being sick. Watson's voice is decidedly more Wagnerian in scope and color than that of Dalayman. Also, though the stagetime is shorter, the demands of Brünnhilde in Siegfried compared to those in Die Walküre seemed like they might overwhelm Dalayman's somewhat smaller voice. While Watson brought a frankly huge, pillowy sound, it was less intriguing than Dalayman's unique voice with more bite and a younger feel. Indeed, Watson's actions on stage were somewhat static as well, and left the question hanging whether Dalayman would have offered a more dynamic performance. Watson was appreciable and gave a completely well-rounded outing as Brünnhilde, but definitely took no risks.

Stephen Gould's entrance to this Ring Cycle in the role of Siegfried would have been impressive had it not come on the heels of Christopher Ventris' performance in the role of his father, Siegmund. While Gould's voice might have had greater stamina, a large overall size, and a greater capacity to push the voice to dramatic heights, it did not have the freedom and ringing heroism that seemed so easy for Ventris to achieve. If anything, I would almost have preferred them to be reversed, though Ventris does not have Siegfried in his repertoire, perhaps because the stamina or volume required do not fit his voice. Though it was hard to realize at first, Gould's great skill in his portrayal of Siegfried is in his blithe, carefree attitude. He both looked and acted like a sort of kid, almost, dashing from one thing to another without fear or foresight. He capitalized on this initial portrayal by then truly expressing fear, shock, and love when meeting with Brünnhilde. All in all, Gould presented a well acted Siegfried with acceptable singing throughout, but with a tone that left a bit of freedom to be desired.

A final note: In his final outing in the Cycle, Albert Dohmen continued his well rounded performance. In many ways, his performance as the more subdued, restrained, and reluctant Wanderer fit his voice even better than that of Wotan in the previous two operas. It felt like a culmination of the weariness he wove through the role of Wotan to see him here, almost defeated, in the more conservative role of the Wanderer.

With only Götterdämmerung to go, it is clear that the Wiener Staatsoper's first production this season of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen is by no means a failure, if not completely even across operas or roles. The sets have been decidedly mediocre, but the singing has been in a broad range with enough performers coming out in the positive to give the Cycle as a whole a successful feel.
Not the same cast, but the same production and a funny joke!


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