February 22, 2007


Wagner: Siegfried. Jon Fredric West (Siegfried), Heinz Göhrig (Mime), Wolfgang Schöne (The Wanderer), Björn Waag (Alberich), Attila Jun (Fafner), Gabriela Herrera (Forest Bird), Helene Ranada (Erda), Lisa Gasteen (Brünnhilde). Staatsoper Stuttgart and Staatsorchester Stuttgart conducted by Lothar Zagrosek. Naxos. $35.99 (4 CDs).

      Siegfried is the least frequently performed of the four operas in Wagner’s Ring cycle. This excellent new version led by Lothar Zagrosek makes it clear why that is so – and why it shouldn’t be.

      There is no question that Siegfried, dramatically speaking, is lacking. There are only eight characters, and only one – Siegfried himself – is human by birth. Most of the opera consists of conversations, some of them reminiscences (to explain what has gone before in the cycle), some of them anticipations (the most notable being Mime’s plans to destroy Siegfried, Siegfried’s ability to hear what Mime is thinking, and Siegfried’s striking down of Mime after hearing those thoughts). There are individual moments of high drama, as when the spear of The Wanderer (Wotan) is broken by Siegfried’s re-forged sword, Nothung – whose re-forging itself is a high point of the work. But there are far more situations in which characters talk (and talk and talk) at each other, as when Mime and The Wanderer ask each other three questions (giving the audience important background information, but offering nothing very interesting dramatically). Furthermore, Siegfried himself is rather bland – famed classical-music parodist Anna Russell described him as “very strong, very brave, very stupid” – especially when his character is contrasted with the tremendous human drama of his parents, Siegmund and Sieglinde, in Die Walküre, and the world-spanning intensity of the multifaceted duplicity of the characters in Das Rheingold. Both those operas are performed as standalone works far more often than Siegfried is; and the final and longest work of the Ring cycle, Götterdammerung, is also done on its own more often than the third installment.

      Yet this is a highly important opera, and not just as a necessary placeholder between the destruction of the Volsungs and disobedience of Brünnhilde in the second work, and the downfall of the gods in the fourth. Jon Fredric West’s strong tenor voice makes Siegfried more sympathetic than he sometimes is – a naïf, yes, but one with a sense of unfulfilled destiny that is tearing at his innards. Tenor Heinz Göhrig is as sly and unctuous as can be in the role of Mime, while bass Björn Waag makes a suitably evil mastermind as Alberich, whose brief appearance here foreshadows what will happen in the fourth opera. Wolfgang Schöne has a somewhat thankless role as The Wanderer – this is a very difficult part to handle, being neither sympathetic nor particularly noble. But Schöne’s voice, a strong bass, makes a good contrast with that of fellow bass Waag in the Wanderer-Alberich confrontation; and Schöne effectively communicates the role of a god whose power is waning. Fafner’s power is doomed as well, of course, and yet another bass voice (this is a very deep opera, vocally speaking) puts that across quite well: that of Attila Jun, who also did a fine job as Hunding in the Stuttgart company’s Die Walküre (Jun has a good sense of the vulnerability of villainy).

      The darkness of Siegfried is partly explained by the minimal use of female characters. Soprano Gabriela Herrera makes a fine, light-toned Forest Bird, albeit one with less-than-perfect enunciation; and contralto Helene Ranada as Erda is appropriately fed up with The Wanderer in their brief confrontation scene. But they are forces of nature, not people. It is soprano Lisa Gasteen as Brünnhilde – appearing only in the final half hour of this four-hour opera – who is the most crucial to the plot and whose vocal lines, intermingling with Siegfried’s, are the most welcome (as well as the most portentous). Gasteen manages, in her relatively brief part, to run through a greater tangle of emotions than Siegfried encounters in the entire opera. Just as she is turned into a human by Wotan’s decree, and comes in this opera to accept her fate, so her emotional intensity makes Siegfried seem fully human for the first time – just when it is almost too late for both of them.

      Siegfried is in some ways an opera that is more effective in recorded form than on stage. It is notoriously difficult to produce it as Wagner originally intended, and attempted updates border on the ludicrous (the booklet cover for this CD set, taken from the Stuttgart Opera production, shows a modern-dress Siegfried and Brünnhilde in what appears to be a very large, very white suburban kitchen). The soloists and Stuttgart chorus and orchestra make a very strong case for the underlying musical drama and intensity of Siegfried – a stronger case, perhaps, than was made on stage when this top-notch performance was recorded live, with an audience that is not always as quiet as it ought to be, in October 2002 and January 2003.

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