Friday, August 14, 2009

Ringblogging III: Siegfried in Seattle

Seattle's Siegfrieds are evidently somewhat snake-bit. When the Stephen Wadsworth production was first unveiled in 2001, Alan Woodrow tripped over an exercise machine shortly before his company debut and severed his quadriceps, which left him unable to walk; he sang from the wings while the cover tenor, Richard Berkeley-Steele, leapt and cavorted and slew dragons.

This week, the Danish tenor Stig Andersen kept up the tradition by coming down with a viral infection just before his company debut. Speight Jenkins made the announcement before the curtain went up on Wednesday's Siegfried, and it brought on all the usual emotions — apprehension at his appearance, relief that there was no cancellation, frustration over the fact that there was going to be no reliable way to gauge what we were about to hear. And so it was.

Andersen sounded convincingly like a decent heldentenor still in the grips of a bronchial something-or-other, which is about all I can say. His singing was ragged and hazy by the end of each act (the Forging Song was particularly strained), although he did muster a sweet, precise tone in Act 2. I wasn't much taken with his stage presence (somewhere between nimble and heroic without quite being either) but again, there's no knowing how much of that was due to the vocal struggles.

Oh but look — I buried the lede. The great revelation on Wednesday was Janice Baird's Brünnhilde, as potent and gleaming and theatrically vivid as her Walküre Brünnhilde had been wan and unimpressive. This was a Tarnhelm-like transformation (though to judge from some of the comments here, this sort of inconsistency or unpredictability is something of a trademark), and once again the direction things were headed was obvious before she even opened her mouth.

The first moments of Baird's awakening were an intensely physical display — rubbing one arm and then another, raising her face to the sun in a worshipful grin of delight, moving each muscle in her body, and at last turning a slow whirl of exuberance that would have been an awkward milkmaid cliché under any other circumstances. I don't know when I've seen the thrill of being conscious and alive conveyed with such solid specificity.

And then came "Heil dir, Sonne," and I practically fell out of my chair. Here at last was the big, radiant and superbly controlled sound that you want for Brünnhilde (and especially at this juncture). And she kept it up all the way through the long final scene, launching volley after volley of effortlessly heroic tone over the din of the orchestra and evidently inspiring Andersen to similar feats. If this version of Baird shows up again for Götterdämmerung we're all in for a treat.

The rest of the evening was no less fine. Greer Grimsley finished out his assignment with a resplendent Wanderer, full of regrets and autumnal wisdom; his dialogue with Erda (the rich-toned Swedish contralto Maria Streijffert) was particularly probing. Richard Paul Fink's saturnine Alberich made a welcome return.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night, though, was tenor Dennis Petersen as a strong-toned and incisively acted Mime. Petersen came up through the San Francisco Opera training program a good while back (I'm pretty sure I reviewed his debut recital as a cub critic more than 20 years ago) and since then he's been mostly relegated to small character roles — at least in San Francisco, where he's been the go-to Goro practically forever.

Turns out he's been underused all these years. His Mime was a prodigious display of vocal muscle and unapologetic physical vigor, with nary a hint of cringing, whining or wheedling. The effect was to make him loom as a formidable antagonist both to Siegfried — the notion that he might succeed in chopping off the boy's head suddenly didn't seem so laughable — and to the Wanderer in the riddle scene, which I like to think of as the Wagnerian version of Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me! ("Answer three questions about the events of the past few nights and win Carl Kasell's voice on your answering machine!").

Siegfried also contains what may be my favorite of Thomas Lynch's gorgeous sets, the mountain-and-forest combo of Neidhöhle in Act 2. Most of the sets to this point have been either rocky cliffs or piney woods, and whenever the curtain goes up on this new setting — divided right down the middle of the stage between the two — I start trying to figure out which of those previous sets we're revisiting. The answer, of course, is none. This is a transmuted blend of themes already encountered — which is to say, nothing less than a visual counterpart of Wagnerian leitmotif technique.


At 8/14/2009 9:20 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

Whoa, nice turnaround for Baird!

If I were asked to pick my favorite music in the Ring, it might be the riddle scene. Strange, but true.


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