MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Du sollst mich nicht lieben! Siegfried in Seattle

Die Walkure

One of the most-anticipated new elements in the current revival of Seattle Opera’s Ring cycle is the appearance of German tenor Stefan Vinke as Siegfried: the character who initially attracted Wagner to the potential of this material. (The Ring, incidentally, is in the end a myth Wagner made up – not, as sometimes asserted, merely a narrative simplification of actual Nordic myths: several of the key pieces he used to construct it have no relation to each other in their original context.)

Apart from the role’s notoriously wicked vocal demands, the brave soul who takes on Siegfried has to try to gain the audience’s sympathy despite playing an annoying, intensely dislikeable character. Productions can only get so far by retreating into fairy-tale escapism or, at the other extreme, by amping up Siggy’s repulsively thuggish side and hence the ironic distance between the character we see onstage and Wagner’s outsize vision of the hero. (To sing an antihero, do you need an anti- or a counter-heldentenor?)

I admit that, like many, I tend to find Siegfried‘s first two acts contain the weakest links in the entire Ring. But Wednesday night’s performance of Cycle I at Seattle Opera awakened me to the real brilliance of the Ring‘s “second” evening (counting trilogy-wise).

I don’t recall ever being so drawn in by the young Siegfried or being made to feel his mix of curiosity and profound loneliness beyond all the ADHD and nasty treatment of Mime. I don’t just mean that Stefan Vinke somehow “looked” the part (at least more than is usually the case). For me Vinke plausibly depicted a youth in conflict and capable of emotional depth, especially in the anguish he shows when thinking of his mother’s death from childbirth during the “Forest Murmurs” scene. The production’s emphasis on nature is so in sync with its psychological realism here that this scene is one of the highpoints of the Seattle Opera Ring.

Vocally, Vinke veers ever so slightly flatward from time to time (I can’t stop Stab-reiming!), and his enormous voice in general makes an impression with size, not with beauty of tone. His stamina alone is reminiscent of Jane Eaglen in Rings past. The cliche about Siegfried having to face a Brünnhilde who is “fresh as a daisy” just as he’s worn out from hours of singing didn’t even come to mind this time.

But Siegfrieds who have nothing but stamina to offer bore me precisely because it ends there, with stamina – and just reinforce the stereotypes of the role. I thought Vinke was able to give dimension to this phase in the hero’s life, which is otherwise so cartoonish. He really seems to get inside the music, to make it work dramatically and to act convincingly with his voice.

Seattle’s new Brünnhilde, Alwyn Mellor, had to cancel appearing in her one scene in Siegfried because of an allergy attack that morning – and to (we fervently hope) preserve her voice for the massive finale. Speight Jenkins was fortunate to be able to count on soprano Lori Phillips as Mellor’s cover. As with her Turandot, which I heard here last year, I found Phillips has a problematic top but a beautiful voice and genuine stage presence. (Puccini, as it happens, set up a dramatic situation at the climax uncannily reminiscent of the Siegfried-Brünnhilde meeting but died before he could complete the score.) And she had the acting style Wadsworth has been cultivating down completely: the psychodynamics between her and Siegfried, where she can’t quite say goodbye to the old way of life, were riveting.

Crucial to this production and its reimagining of Siegfried are the “kindler, gentler” Mime in a richly crafted performance by Dennis Peterson and Greer Grimsley‘s subtlest portrayal among his three Wotans (as The Wanderer).

Of course a lot of the credit for such a persuasive Siegfried goes to the incredibly detailed staging by Stephen Wadsworth and to the ear-opening, sumptuous attention to color from conductor Asher Fisch. His work in the second act reminded me Mahler’s particular fascination with this score – Mahler conducted Siegfried four times during his stay in London – especially its trippy contrasts. More reflections on Wadsworth and Fisch to come. Now that Vinke has given us a clearer sense of the young Siegfried’s identity, I’m eager to see how he’ll carry it through in Götterdämmerung.

(Image: Seattle Opera’s Siegfried: Dennis Peterson (Mime), Stefan Vinke (Siegfried). Photo © Elise Bakketun.)

Filed under: review, Ring cycle, Seattle Opera, Wagner

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