Siegfried fighting the dragon, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2005
The San Francisco Opera is about to begin their full run of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, and tonight Dad took me to a dress rehearsal for Siegfried, the third opera in the cycle. It tells the story of a young hero raised by a dwarf, who seeks to use his ward to gain the fabled Ring for himself. Siegfried willingly sets out to confront the dragon Fafner, keeper of the Ring, so that he can learn what it is to fear. After he defeats the dragon - a transformed Giant - a bird warns him that his guardian, Mime, will kill him to get the Ring. Siegfried slays Mime, but now he is alone in the world. The bird leads him to the beautiful Brünnhilde, who is enchanted in an eternal sleep, and Siegfried wakes her. They fall in instant love, and the story ends with them trotting off into the sunset, happily ever after. (Little do they know that the world will end in three days, and it will be all their fault. Dun dun duh...)
On paper, this sure sounds like an epic opera, don't you think? There's sword fights, a dragon, treachery, romance, and power plays between the gods, giants and dwarfs. However,
a big chunk of each act is dedicated to recapping events in previous operas and even previous acts, and it's easy to get antsy as Wotan laboriously recounts family histories and scenes that the viewer just saw. But when you've got strong singers and clever prop designers, Siegfried can be a great opera, even for kids.
Sadly, the dark, grim version performed by the San Francisco Opera didn't quite reach its potential. It's set in a crumbling, post-apocalyptic world filled with rusted-out trailers and sagging industrial warehouses. It's bleak and depressing, which wouldn't be so bad were it not for the fact that in the final Ring opera, Götterdämmerung, the world of the gods ends. That drama is greatly reduced when life is already pretty crappy, free of splendor and glory. Oh well. This isn't the biggest disappointment.
For me, the key scene is the dragon fight. When I was a kid, the promise of a dragon was all that could keep me seated through Wotan and Mime's booooooooring conversations, and evn as an adult the dragon makes or breaks the opera for me. A good dragon would be like the puppet used by the Lyric Opera, pictured above. It's creepy looking and could scare little kids. I've seen productions where the dragon was a Chinese dragon, like the kind seen at New Year's parades - also good. I was extremely disappointed by the great suckitude that is Fafner the Dragon in this production of the Siegfried.
This is not a good dragon. Nope. Not at all.
(Photo taken from a production in Washington DC, but SF uses the same costumes and sets.)
Speaking of Siegfried...he's supposed to be young, right? A "youth" is how he's described again and again. Now, I get that in opera a certain suspension of belief is required; training is so rigorous that there just aren't any teens or young twenty-somethings capable of performing Wagner. But when the boy hero has visible gray hair, it's really distracting. Don't get me wrong, Jay Hunter Morris seems to be a fine singer, but I just didn't think he was right for the role. His voice sometimes got lost in the music and was overpowered in the final scene by Stemme's Brünnhilde. I would like to see him in something else, though. I bet he'd kick ass in a comedic operetta like Die Fledermaus.
But, y'know, I'm not a music expert, I'm just someone who likes to be entertained, and generally, I was. I'm pretty bummed that I'll be in Italy when the whole cycle is playing on the stage. I've see the first three operas; I wish I'd be around to finish off this round of the Ring with Götterdämmerung.