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Mad Max on the Rhein

Kennedy Center Opera House
05/02/2009 -  & May 5, 9, 14, 17m
Richard Wagner: Siegfried
Andreas Conrad (Mime), Pär Lindskog and Scott MacAllister (Siegfried)
Alan Held (The Wanderer/Wotan), Gordon Hawkins (Alberich), Gidon Saks (Fafner), Micaëla Oeste (Woodbird), Nancy Maultsby (Erde), Iréne Theorin (Brünnhilde)
Washington National Opera Orchestra, Michael Güttler (Conductor)
Michael Yeargan (Set Designer), Catherine Zuber (Set Designer), Mark McCullough (Lighting Designer), Jan Hartley (Video/Projection Designer), Francesca Zambello (Production/Stage Director)

P. Lindskog (front) & A. Conrad (back) (© Karin Cooper)

When Plácido Domingo stepped in front of the curtains and addressed the capacity audience of Kennedy Center Opera House on Saturday evening, I was immediately reminded of the famous New Yorker Magazine cartoon in which an impresario steps in front of the curtains of the Metropolitan Opera and says: “Is there anyone in the house who can sing Siegfried?” Maestro Domingo informed us that Swedish tenor Pär Lindskog, who was scheduled to make his Washington debut as Siegfried, was indisposed with severe bronchitis and the role would be sung by American tenor Scott MacAllister. However, as Francesca Zambello’s athletic staging was quite complicated and there was not enough time for tenor MacAllister to learn it, he would sing the role from a music stand at the far right of the proscenium while tenor Lindskog would act and lip-sync the role onstage. It sounded like the makings for a major train wreck. Nonetheless, it worked with beautiful cohesion. It took no time at all to suspend my disbelief, and from where I sat the lip-sync was perfect. This was the second major cancellation for the beleaguered company. Music director Heinz Fricke had to withdraw earlier to undergo heart surgery. His replacement, conductor Michael Gûttler proved to be a major find, and he led a strong and energetic performance.

This production was the third installment in Francesca Zambello’s American Ring Cycle. It is devised as a struggle between the “haves” and “have-nots” set in a post-apocalyptic America with images of devastated landscapes under industrial power grids, which were projected before each act. Imagine, if you will, Siegfried as Mel Gibson playing Mad Max: a boy in transition to manhood trying to discover himself and his place in the “new” world order. He and the dwarf Mime are portrayed as “street-persons” living in a “white-trash” trailer in a junkyard. Alberich is seen as bagman collecting tin cans and bottles in a grocery pushcart. Wotan is depicted as a fallen steel magnate, accepting the demise of his world as it collapses around him. The dragon/giant Fafner has encased himself inside an enormous Caterpillar type backhoe with gigantic claw-like shovels. Brünnhilde is discovered sleeping on top of something resembling a still smoldering nuclear generator. If it seems far removed from Wagner and his intentions, it isn’t.

Zambello’s poetic vision opens and investigates the story in a manor that is remarkably relevant for today’s audiences. It is a stunningly impressive production. It is well conceived, well sung, well directed, and well conducted. I overheard soprano Evelyn Lear, who now heads the Wagner Society of Washington and the Lear/Stewart Emerging Artists Program, proclaim at intermission to those gathered around her that it was the “greatest performance of Siegfried” she had ever seen!

The casting was remarkably strong and all of the artists gave dramatically and vocally convincing portrayals. Tenor Scott MacAllister sang with a free and clarion tone all evening long. He paced himself well and had plenty to give in climactic moments right up through the final duet with Brünnhilde. In fact, it is difficult to imagine that tenor Lindskog, who was still ill for the second performance, could possibly be any better.

Soprano Iréne Theorin, who was to make her American debut in this production, was called to the Metropolitan Opera in April to replace the MET’s ailing Brünnhilde, thereby making an unscheduled debut in Die Walküre. She made a beautiful Valkyrie with long flowing blond hair. Her voice has plenty of the requisite thrust and steel.
She let go with a startling High C at the end of the opera.

As Wotan, bass Alan Held was indeed magnificent. He is in his vocal prime and in much healthier vocal estate than the MET’s James Morris. He was quite believable in his love and aspirations for the young Siegfried. His best moments came in the great scene with Erde, which was wonderfully sung by Nancy Maultsby and splendidly staged by Zambello. Having the mountains divide with Erde rising from the bowels of the earth was pure theatrical magic.

Why baritone Gordon Hawkins is not singing at the MET is a mystery to me. He is one of the great American baritones and his portrayal of Alberich was powerfully sung and acted. Tenor Andreas Conrad was equally effective as his brother, the conniving and cruel dwarf Mime. I have never heard that role better sung. Gidon Saks was imposing as the fire breathing Dragon Fafner. He has an enormous voice and he used it to maximum dramatic effect. The most charming performance of the evening came from soprano Micäela Oeste. Her sweet and well-controlled coloratura voice perfectly conveyed the delightful chirpings of the Woodbird. Ms. Oeste is one of the many remarkable young artists being groomed and developed by the Domingo/Cafritz Young Artists Program.

As a rule, I do not usually appreciate “concept” productions of standard 19th century operas. Francesca Zambello’s concept of Wagner’s Siegfried, however, is difficult to resist. It is very well thought out, highly poetic, and deeply revealing.
Unfortunately, the WNO’s run of Siegfried is completely sold-out.
Patrons who have tickets are indeed fortunate!

Micaele Sparacino



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