What could the audience at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, in the late summer of 1876, have thought of Wagner's radical new opera, Siegfried? Starting with "...punishing torment" and finishing five hours later with "...laughing death," it is certainly the opera with everything. Murder, lust, treasure, endless rivalries, dormant gods, and even a magical bird round out the terribly complicated yet deeply philosophical libretto. If one witnesses it with the right mindset, this opera could be life-changing.
Now, 140 years later in Houston, the opera retains its radical nature. It is a landmark of sorts for Houston Grand Opera, since this is the company's very first staging. The opening night performance at the Wortham Center was, for me, also a personal and life-changing landmark. If you have been following my reviews of HGO's prior operas in the Ring cycle, namely Das Rheingold in 2014 and then Die Walkure last year, you know that I consider these productions from La Fura dels Baus to be "the opera of the future." And if you remember, it's a future I embrace without any reservations.
Aside from a few small production glitches, like something slamming around on the stage when a scrim moved out of the way in Act I, this Siegfried is perfection. The spectrum of great singers is remarkably dazzling, and HGO has done well to engage interpretive artists we already loved from their prior Ring performances.
The brilliantly animated, often cloying tenor Rodell Rosel as Mime did much to provoke a pervasive energy in the first act, and though he is a generally distasteful character throughout the opera, I was sorry when Siegfried chopped off his head towards the end of the second act. Rosel is a star, and let's hope he returns soon to the HGO stage. Elsewhere, Andrea Silvestrelli returns as the terrifying and bellowing Fafner, the brooding Iain Paterson is back as The Wanderer, Meredith Arwady re-emerges from her slumber as the mystical Erda, and Christine Goerke resumes her mesmerizing, role-defining portrayal of Brunhilde.
In the lead as the "brave but dumb boy, Siegfried," is powerful Jay Hunter Morris, an estimable artist who has appeared only a few times on the HGO stage. Yes, he can command an audience in what could be one of the most challenging tenor roles in the entirety of Western opera, and he has the necessary endurance. Morris has his pensive moments, too, particularly in the second act when he wonders, "do all human mothers die from their sons?" It might seem hokey, but there was something completely convincing about this sentimental scene, which Wagner has accompanied by mostly violins.
When he has to be funny, for example when he tries to imitate the Woodbird's song with his own hand-hewn flute, his timing and delivery hit the mark. And despite his rather hilarious leather-and-braids costume, somewhere between Braveheart and Mad Max, and which seems to embody very nicely the brawny aspects of his character, he is nevertheless quite sexy. An inadequate Siegfried would have made the evening laborious. Instead, Morris made the time fly away.
Has there been anything greater this HGO season that the third-act scene in which Siegfried, after following the Woodbird through endless forests and mountains, finally encounters the sleeping Brunhilde at the foot of a rocky mountain? I think not, and that is saying a lot in a season with so many highlights. It didn't hurt that we were treated to another manifestation of that glowing "ring of fire" that made such a wonderful impression last year.
When people talk of the pervasive greatness of Wagner, of his capacity to make an all-encompassing "Gesamtkunstwerk," this scene is likely the best example of what they mean. Wagner, of course, made it even more complicated, to say the least. At first Siegfried celebrates the "blessed solitude" of the location, and then he mistakes Brunhilde for a man, and then he removes her breastplate and experiences a strange desire. For some reason, he calls to his mother for guidance in this dizzying episode.
When Goerke "came to life" in the next part of the scene, her self-arising and exquisitely imposing voice, the embodiment of all clarity and power, filled the theater with deep emotion. These are the really great singers of our time, I thought to myself, but only later, after some of that emotion had subsided. It built and built until the third act concluded in a kind of euphoria.
If you did not like the crazy, technologically vivid set designs of HGO's Rheingold or Walkure, you're going to hate Siegfried. Yes, there is a full-fledged dragon, but it is rather a cubist reconstruction of the idea of a dragon than a realist interpretation. In another moment, Brunhilde indicates her brilliant steed, which is mostly a metal-frame crane. At times, the scenes feel like they came from the world's greatest video game, but where is the problem in that?
There is still a firm consistency throughout that seems to work, and if you are willing to give yourself over to it, you'll have a great time. Bring your imagination and revel in the extraordinary singing. You won't have another opportunity like this at least until next year, when HGO concludes its Ring with Gotterdammerung.
I was thrilled to hear, upon entering the Wortham Center, a French horn player on one of the stairways playing leitmotifs from the scenes that followed on stage. I am pleased to report that the brass section played wonderfully throughout the five-hour performance. Music director and conductor Patrick Summers, not to mention the countless great musicians of the HGO orchestra, certainly have found their sweet spot in this Siegfried.