Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Forging Ahead

November 05, 2011

Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2011
By the time one gets to Siegfried, it’s usually pretty clear which way things are going. That is, when a single director is engaged to put together an entire production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, the imagery and visual syntax of the whole is typically well established by the time the third night in the music drama comes around. There are exceptions like Francesca Zambello’s recent production for San Francisco Opera where she more or less ignored or jettisoned what was laid out in the first two evenings to take off in any number of other directions after arriving in the bay area to complete the project started elsewhere. And given the lack of theatrical success with the new cycle at The Metropolitan Opera under Robert Lepage, one wishes he might more closely follow her example. I was in the house for the Siegfried performance on Saturday, where the audience was again met with the machine: Lepage’s unit set that has the major leap forward of making the Ring’s scenery as unpredictable in its functioning as the onstage talent can be.

But somehow, things were a bit better this time around for Lepage. There are still big problems: the most interesting visual moments are still the scene changes, action takes place too often in the recess behind the stage apron, and principals are left abandoned at the foot of the stage with little to do at times. The set still serves primarily as a screen for projected images, although the 3D image of the Forest Bird were pretty amazing in this installment. But this Siegfried, or at least the first two acts of it, did come off as more focused with better use of the set and more interaction between the vocalists than Lepage's two prior Ring outings. Perhaps the credit should be given to the cast, and in particular to the Siegfried of the afternoon, Jay Hunter Morris. Morris has rescued this show in a big way, just as he did in San Francisco earlier this year. He has stepped in for an indisposed Gary Lehman who had stepped in for an indisposed Ben Heppner along the way. And Morris' had done it with a rock solid, highly enjoyable performance. True, his voice overall is too small for the role and definitely too small for this particular theater. But he more than gets through this part. He is consistently singing without shouting or barking and has an excellent sense of the music. And he gives one of the best acted Siegfried’s I’ve seen, avoiding all the standard nature-boy mannerisms that are the stock and trade of singers two to three times his size. And bucking current trends elsewhere, Morris actually appears to be an athletic young hero on stage. I'll take some more of that please. He got a hero’s welcome at the curtain call where he was clearly moved to tears. It’s a big moment and he totally deserves all of the accolades he’s getting. He comes off as a humble, hard working guy, and if you don’t believe me, you should check out his website.

As for the rest of the cast, the rule of thumb was the smaller the role, the more impressive the singing. Eric Owens continues to be a commanding stage presence as Alberich. Gerhard Siegel’s Mime (I know, I know not really a small role here) is beautifully sung throughout. Patricia Bardon’s Erda was lovely as was Mojca Erdmann’s Forest Bird. I continue to be at a loss as to why I’m not getting more out of Bryn Terfel in this. There’s something so warm and enveloping about his sound that seems so out of place for the Wanderer. Of course, dressing him up as fat western Gandolph seems a poor choice too, though that is beyond his control. Deborah Voigt did not pull off quite the save here as she did in Die Walküre in the spring. She could be pinched and shrieky although I still enjoy seeing her on stage overall. The other big rescue worker in the show, of course, is Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi who led the orchestra in a rich and detailed performance. I still felt it could have used a few more rough edges here and there, but faulting the orchestra for being too polished feels rather nitpicky. I hope Lepage's Siegfried represents the course of things to come in this cycle. Of course, the other thing about Siegfried is that sometimes its hard to tell. It's like the Stockholm Syndrome of operas. After the prior seven or so hours in any production regardless of its weakness or merits one becomes more acclimated to the shortcomings at hand, and sheer survival, and the immense beauty of Wagner's music, can blur the lines.



Your comment (and others) about the positioning on stage of the actors makes me wonder if this production wasn't conceived primarily with the HD theater telecast in mind. I saw the telecast Saturday and none of the issues you mentioned (e.g., the positioning of the actors at the front of the stage, Morris' "small" voice) were at issue in the theater. Plus, you missed out on some great intermission features!
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