By Bryson David Hoff
There is a problem with making strong conceptual choices in theatre and opera staging: Sometimes a decision meant to highlight a theme works too well. When that happens, it’s like a black hole that warps and throws the rest of the production elements out of balance. Sadly, Lyric Opera’s new production of Siegfried seems to be a perfect case study for this phenomenon.
Part three of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, Siegfried follows the son of part two’s protagonist, who has been brought up by the wicked dwarf Mime (tenor Matthias Klink) with the goal of having him defeat the dragon Fafner (bass Patrick Guetti) so that Mime can reclaim the magic ring that forms the central conflict of the four-opera cycle. The journey of the titular Siegfried (tenor Burkhard Fritz) is an archetypal fairy tail: the hero comes from an inauspicious beginning to defeat the evil dragon that lives in the dark forest and rescue the beautiful maiden from her enchanted prison. And it is that archetypical nature that seems to have inspired the production’s greatest weakness.
The production design for this Siegfried has latched onto the hero’s youthful impetuousness and naïveté and made the entire world of the opera a reflection of that. What that means is that the 80-minute first act is dominated by an immense backdrop showing Siegfried’s destruction of Fafner as rendered by a crayon-wielding toddler. Mime’s hut is full of giant Fisher-Price furniture including, eventually, a Baby’s First Anvil for Siegfried to use to re-forge his father’s mythic sword. Siegfried himself is clothed in paint-stained child’s play clothes and drags dolls and plush dragons around the stage as he rages at his foster father.
It’s not just that the design is ugly, though it certainly is, it’s that it actually undermines the author’s intent. Wagner wants the audience to like Siegfried, even as they acknowledge that his selfishness and refusal to think critically about the events in which he finds himself embroiled are real problems that will lead to tragedy in the cycle’s finale. Likewise, the audience is meant to share Siegfried’s distain for Mime, as his obvious conniving makes him instantly untrustworthy.
The issue in this production is that Siegfried’s infantilization makes his character-establishing first scene inspire annoyance with his childish cruelty and sympathy with the piece’s villain. It’s the same pity you feel watching a parent deal with an unruly two-year-old at Starbucks, which makes it difficult to reconcile with the following action, in which Siegfried is meant to rise to the role of hero.
There are still moments of scenic inventiveness, though they are few and far between, generally harkening back to the recent Lyric productions of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre and their more, for lack of better term, mature sensibilities. The puppetry used to create Fafner, for instance, is a successful integration of the fairytale whimsy director David Pountney seems to want for his Siegfried with the almost Brechtian “visible theatre” aesthetic that carries throughout his Ring. Likewise, the entrance of Erda (mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller) is a pleasant reminder of the more adult moments of theatricality found in the previous two installments.
In fact, most of the bright spots of this production are returning elements from these earlier installments. Bass-baritone Eric Owens as Wotan continues to be a highlight of Lyric’s Ring Cycle, here radiating a mature charisma and wisdom that are sorely needed to keep things somewhat grounded amidst all of the “clever” ideas.
The act three return of Brünnhilde to the plot, here embodied by soprano Christine Goerke is the undeniable highlight. Goerke’s turn in Die Walküre last year was a genuine treat and she is, if anything, in even better voice this year. It is a shame that her duet with Siegfried is undermined by a final intrusion of the preschool design concept, which insultingly trivializes what should be a rich emotional moment of Brünnhilde’s full realization of what she has lost in her expulsion from Valhalla.
It would unfair to compare this production with its two predecessors, were it not for the fact that this is all a build up to the mounting of the complete Ring Cycle in Lyric’s 2019-2020 season, where this production will be remounted alongside 2016’s Das Rheingold, 2017’s Die Walküre and the forthcoming Götterdämmerung. It seems likely that, unless some similarly overblown concept is applied to the finale, Siegfried will be the weak link in this iteration of Wagner’s epic cycle.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “Siegfried” at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago through November 16. More information and tickets are available here.