Lyric Opera, January 24, through February 18

Lyric Opera’s Siegfried, Wagner’s mighty essay on the youthful Volsung hero, continues in the manner of the earlier productions in this Ring cycle, Das Rheingold and Die Walkure: vocally impressive and visually pedestrian.

This is only the second time in Lyric’s 40-year history that Siegfried has been presented–a far cry from the first decade of this century, when the Metropolitan Opera ran annual Ring cycles. Still, Wagnerphiles must be grateful for any crumbs that fall their way, and next year, after the regular Gotterdammerung performances, Chicagoans will have a chance to see the complete cycle as it was meant to be seen. (Unfortunately, many regular series subscribers won’t find Gotterdammerung on their series tickets next year; Lyric is conserving resources for the postseason cycles.)

Wagner’s interest in the shadowy world of myth and medieval history gave rise to all ten of his mature works. His first three thoroughly derivative works aped the mannerisms of German, Italian, and French opera, but then he got on his mythic hobby horse and never looked back. Viewed as a single work, the “Ring of the Nibelung” was Wagner’s greatest labor. The gestation was also prolonged; more than 25 years elapsed between the earliest prose sketches and the performance of the first complete cycle.

Wagner built his drama from end to beginning. His first idea centered on an opera to be called “Siegfried’s Death” (later christened Gotterdammerung). Realizing that hours of Homeric narrative would be necessary to enable an audience to understand the convoluted end of this mythic structure, he made plans for an earlier work to be called “Young Siegfried” (later Siegfried). Even this wasn’t enough, and two more background works, Das Rheingold and Die Walkure, were added.

When Wagner had completed the second act of Siegfried he left the score alone for about ten years, and as a consequence Siegfried marks a turning point in this massive tetralogy. The ten-year pause allowed Wagner to toss off a couple of lighter works (Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg) and return to his Siegfried score with a grander technique. From this point on in the Ring the orchestration is much more dramatically complicated. In ancient Greek drama the chorus was a device to comment on the action; Wagner has the orchestra take on this role. From the third act of Siegfried forward the quality and quantity of commentary delivered by the orchestra is such that even someone who’s been listening to the works for 20 years continuously makes new discoveries.

The title role of this opera is probably the toughest tenor role ever to make it into the repertory–and arguably the most difficult singing role in all of opera. No other role asks so much from a singer for so long. It is the combination of difficulty and length that puts this role on a plane of its own. It calls for light lyrical singing in the forest scene and for bravura fortissimos in much of the first and third acts, and Siegfried is onstage for virtually the entire opera. In comparison, Lohengrin is a piece of cake. Even Wagner knew that he had gone too far; in his only post-Ring opera, Parsifal, the tenor role is much shorter and has an easier vocal line.

Tenor Siegfried Jerusalem did himself great credit in the title role, blasting through the act-one forging and hammer songs yet retaining enough voice to cope with the duet with Brunnhilde in the third act. No one would say that Eva Marton is la bella voce, but at least in raw vocal power she matched her Siegfried. As the Wanderer, James Morris was vocally impressive–not tired as he has sometimes sounded in recent years–especially in his big third-act opening scene with Erda. Graham Clark’s singing and antics as Mime steal most of the first act. The only criticism of his performance would be that he portrayed the character as more eccentric than malignant; his wild eyes, pale skin, and frizzy white hair put one in mind of Christopher Lloyd in one of his mad-scientist roles.

Eric Halfvarson gave a good account of his low notes as Fafnir the Dragon, but the odd electronic treatment given to his voice when he was supposed to be deep within his cave was disappointing. The speakers distorted his voice, giving it an unpleasant effect that wasn’t at all the fault of the singer. Ekkehard Wlaschiha succeeded vocally and dramatically as the evil dwarf Alberich, making him more malignant than his brother Mime and far more menacing. Nancy Maultsby (Erda) and Olga Makarina (the Woodbird) were both good in their roles, which represent the extremes of the female vocal range. The Lyric Orchestra negotiated the long and complex score with scarcely an error under the baton of Zubin Mehta, who also kept the music from dragging.

As for the sets, they were definitely somewhere between mediocre and marginal, evincing an aesthetic that could be described as warmed-over post-World War II Bayreuth with a polite tip of the hat to the Patrice Chereau Victorian-capitalist camp. Designer John Conklin seems to have been uncertain whether this Ring should be traditional or a bit avant-garde, and he never really made a decision. There’s a lot to be said for the less-is-more approach to Ring staging, best exemplified here by the second-act forest set. The technical stagecraft was also disappointing. The third-act neon triangle topped by a neon shaft couldn’t possibly have been seen as intended except by the 40 or so people seated dead center on the main floor or first balcony. Which moves Conklin ahead of Robert Wilson (Alceste, 1990) in the competition for the award for the set designer most oblivious to visual effects as they’re seen from the house.

Comparing August Everding’s stage direction of this Ring to his direction of Lyric’s 1980 Boris Godunov, one might be tempted to think that he’s been taken over by the pod people. Years ago he seemed to be able to distinguish between the desirable and the possible when working with singers onstage. Now he seems unaware of their age and build. In the third-act love duet he had the principals run madly around the set, which succeeded only in making them (to paraphrase Ernest Newman) give the impression of people whose mental development was arrested at the age of 12 and who’ve been in custody ever since.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Don Rest.