14 November 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Richard Wagner — SIEGFRIED Act Three (R. Cox, A. LoBianco, M. Ngqungwana, N. Piccolomini; North Carolina Opera, 10 November 2019)

IN REVIEW: Richard Wagner - SIEGFRIED Act Three (North Carolina Opera, 10 November 2019; Graphic © by North Carolina Opera)RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Siegfried, WWV 86C – Act ThreeRichard Cox (Siegfried), Alexandra LoBianco (Brünnhilde), Musa Ngqungwana (Der Wanderer), Nicole Piccolomini (Erda); North Carolina Opera Orchestra; Timothy Myers, conductor [North Carolina Opera, Meymandi Concert Hall, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 10 November 2019]

As Americans’ celebrations of the centennial of their declaration of independence helped to heal the still-fresh wounds of the Civil War during the summer of 1876, a new revolution was coming to fruition on the opposite side of the Atlantic. Artists from a plethora of nations and traditions, dignitaries, disciples, and naysayers gathered in the idyllic Bavarian town of Bayreuth, where Richard Wagner, by that time widely acknowledged as an artist with uncommon vision but still a divisive, controversial figure, brought to the stage of a purpose-built theater the first complete performance of his genre-transforming tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen. With this epic work, an extended parable imparted by a Teutonic view of Norse mythology, Wagner immortalized his singular concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, an idea borrowed from the German thinker Karl Friedrich Eusebius Trahndorff. The first Bayreuth Ring was arguably less consequential than the American colonists’ struggle for independence, but, with the inauguration of Der Ring des Nibelungen and the Bayreuther Festspiele, Wagner unquestionably celebrated truths that he held to be self-evident.

Premièred on 16 August 1876, the third of the Ring operas advances the cycle’s narrative from Wotan’s abandonment of his spirited daughter Brünnhilde, the eponymous valkyrie who in Act Three of Die Walküre is banished from Valhalla and left to slumber, protected by fire, until she is awakened by a hero who knows no fear, to the maturation of the man destined to be Brünnhilde’s champion. Following its title character’s journey from his untamed youth under the nefarious guidance of Mime to his discovery of Brünnhilde, Siegfried is unique among its companions in Wagner’s ‘Bühnenfestspiel’ in having a third act that is longer in duration than the acts that precede it. [Das Rheingold, Der Ring’s ‘Vorabend,’ is of course structured in a single act, without interval.] Moreover, there is in Siegfried an extraordinary wealth of thematic development, Wagner’s Leitmotivs weaving the dramatic threads of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre into a fabric that unfurls to reveal the cycle’s dénouement in Götterdämmerung. In North Carolina Opera’s concert performance of Act Three of Siegfried, Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall resounded with an overwhelming account of one of opera’s most emotionally tumultuous sequences, as the old order represented by Erda and Wotan is supplanted by the purifying passion of Brünnhilde and Siegfried.

Productions of Wagner’s operas by the world’s best-funded opera companies are sometimes financially ruinous. The monetary benefits of performing a work like Siegfried in concert are obvious, but there can also be considerable artistic advantages not only to concert performances but also to performing single acts of Wagner’s operas. [It was by performing successive acts of the four operas in a period spanning October and November 1953 that Wilhelm Furtwängler recorded his much-discussed complete Ring for Italian radio.] Having already offered Triangle audiences memorable performances of Act One of Die Walküre (2013), Act Two of Tristan und Isolde (2014), and Das Rheingold (2016), North Carolina Opera assembled a group of artists who capitalized on every virtue of performing Act Three of Siegfried in concert. Without visual imagery to animate the opera’s drama, singers, instrumentalists, and conductor relied upon the music to exert its enchantment, aided by musicianship that brought the soul of Bayreuth to life in the heart of Raleigh.

Under the baton of the company’s former Artistic Director Timothy Myers, the playing of the North Carolina Opera Orchestra, expanded for this performance to fulfill the requirements of Wagner’s scoring, was superlative. Siegfried’s vocal demands are so formidable that, especially in the context of staged productions, the difficulties of the orchestral writing do not always receive the attention that they deserve. Wagner’s taxing music for horns is heard throughout Der Ring des Nibelungen, but Act Three of Siegfried also contains some of the composer’s most intimidating but incredibly beautiful music for woodwinds and strings. In North Carolina Opera’s Siegfried, the woodwinds rose to every challenge of their parts, Kevin Streich’s, Brian French’s, and Tony Granados’s respective playing of the bass clarinet, bass trumpet, and contrabass tuba garnering particular admiration. In the passage depicting Siegfried’s ascent to the summit of Brünnhilde’s rock, the violins traverse virtually the entire compass of their instrument, from the open G3 of the lowest string to harmonics at the tip of the fingerboard. The efforts of North Carolina Opera Orchestra’s violinists were laudably accurate in pitch and ensemble. Also noteworthy was the work of harpists Jacquelyn Bartlett and Grace Ludtke, their playing heightening the eroticism of Brünnhilde’s awakening and interaction with Siegfried.

Though his work on the score commenced two decades before the opera reached the stage, Wagner’s final revisions to Siegfried’s orchestrations were completed in 1871, when plans for the Festspielhaus’s recessed orchestra pit were also nearing completion. The positioning of the pit surely influenced the extremes of dynamics that provide much of the score’s momentum—and that make performing any of Siegfried’s three acts in concert, with the orchestra on stage with the singers, troublesome. In North Carolina Opera’s performance, Myers observed Wagner’s dynamic instructions with tremendous care, evading none of the score’s cacophonous climaxes, but silence was as significant as sound in the conductor’s reading. Myers’s emphasis on pauses magnified the emotional impact of the waning of Wotan’s power and Siegfried’s first pangs of fear. His pacing of orchestral passages, support for the singers, and intuitive handling of Leitmotivs revealed that Myers is a master of both the big moments that some conductors belabor and small details that are sometimes forsaken. In Myers’s handling, Wagner’s music was equally radical and accessible, the singularity of Wagner’s artistic vision omnipresent but never impeding enjoyment of what is, despite its countless subtexts, an uncomplicated story of social decay and renewal.

First heard in Das Rheingold, Erda returns in Act Three of Siegfried, her manifestation in response to the Wanderer’s summons anticipating Siegfried awakening her daughter Brünnhilde. The failure of her prescience also prefigures the opening scene of Götterdämmerung’s Prologue, in which the oracular faculties of the Norns of whom she sings are extinguished. In Raleigh, Erda’s sparring with the Wanderer was voiced with gravitas by mezzo-soprano Nicole Piccolomini. Her singing of ‘Stark ruft das Lied’ was a stern rebuke of the Wanderer’s intrusion into her repose, but there was also a seductive aloofness in her tones that persuasively portrayed Erda as a figure who once inflamed proud Wotan’s libidinous desire.

As sung by Piccolomini, Erda’s statement of ‘Mein Schlaf ist Träumen, mein Träumen Sinnen, mein Sinnen Walten des Wissens’ was not merely a metaphysical conceit: divining the fates of gods and men was for this Erda a profoundly personal burden. The mezzo-soprano voiced ‘Männerthaten umdämmern mir den Muth’ with bracing intensity, and her declamation of ‘Wirr wird mir, seit ich erwacht’ crested on a striking top A♭. The disdain with which this Erda hurled ‘Du bist nicht, was du dich nenn’st!’ at the Wanderer was crushing. The natural resonance of Piccolomini’s lower register lent Erda’s words seismic fortitude, and the unmistakable finality of the measured exit of Piccolomini’s beautifully statuesque Erda intimated that the twilight of the gods was imminent.

It is as the Wanderer in Act Three of Siegfried that Wotan is last seen in Der Ring des Nibelungen, though Leitmotivs associated with his actions recur in Götterdämmerung. In the guise of a nomadic Wanderer, he comes to rouse and question Erda, the earth spirit who bore him Brünnhilde, and South African bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana assumed the tormented god’s mien with a powerful voicing of ‘Wache, Wala!’ From this entrance until the Wanderer’s ambivalent exit, the weary god both wounded by the demise of his authority and relieved to cede control over the fate of the world to a noble youth, Ngqungwana rose with galvanizing security to the top E♭s and Fs in the rôle’s music.

Asked by Erda why he disturbed her rather than posing his queries to their daughter Brünnhilde, Ngqungwana’s Wanderer replied with a voicing of ‘Die Walküre mein’st du, Brünnhild’, die Maid?’ in which the father’s pain was still raw. The bass-baritone sang ‘Dich Mutter lass’ ich nicht zieh’n, da des Zaubers mächtig ich bin’ with vehemence, the Wanderer’s frustration with Erda clearly a reflection of his own inner turmoil. Heralding the approach of Siegfried with a tense but good-humored ‘Dort seh’ ich Siegfried nah’n,’ this Wanderer interrogated his grandson with genuine interest, seeking in the young man’s words hallmarks of the heroism upon which the redemption of the world depended. Ngqungwana sang ‘Ich seh’, mein Sohn, wo du nichts weißt’ and ‘Kenntest du mich, kühner Sproß’ with dramatic potency that belied the fact that this was his first public performance of the Wanderer’s music. Neither ‘Es floh dir zu seinem Heil!’ nor ‘Fürchte des Felsens Hüter!’ over-extended the bass-baritone’s prodigious resources, and the zeal with which he delivered ‘Fürchtest das Feuer du nicht’ was tinged with resignation. There were moments in which Ngqungwana lost the Wanderer’s battle with the orchestra, a virtual inevitability in a concert performance with the orchestra at his back, but the superb quality of the voice was never eclipsed.

In the 143 years since Siegfried was first performed, there have been Brünnhildes who did not bring the character to life as vividly in fully-staged performances as soprano Alexandra LoBianco portrayed her in this concert presentation. As in her performance of the title rôle in North Carolina Opera’s April 2019 production of Puccini’s Tosca, none of her gestures was superfluous: even the simple action of the singer donning her glasses was dramatically involved, symbolically paralleling her surroundings gradually coming into focus as Brünnhilde viewed the world through a woman’s rather than a valkyrie’s eyes. When the soprano inhaled deeply in preparation for her first line, her smile shone as brightly as the sun she greeted with a luminous ‘Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!’ Unlike some Brünnhildes, LoBianco neglected none of the rôle’s trills, her innate musicality faithfully serving the composer and the character.

Extolling her liberator with an exclamation of ‘O Siegfried! Siegfried! seliger Held!’ that conveyed adoration and apprehension, this Brünnhilde was unusually communicative of the uncertainty that grips her as she, like Siegfried, experiences womanhood for the first time. Though her vocalism was aptly valiant, LoBianco did not eschew lyricism, voicing ‘O wüßtest du, Lust der Welt’ and ‘Dort seh’ ich Grane, mein selig Roß,’ Brünnhilde’s greeting to her beloved horse, with affecting restraint. This contrasted markedly with the stark wariness that emerged from her singing of ‘Kein Gott nahte mir je!’ and ‘Sonnenhell leuchtet der Tag meiner Schmach!’ In a concert performance, LoBianco might have trusted her voice to evince Brünnhilde’s evolving emotions, but, not least in her expansively-phrased ‘Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich,’ her singing was supplemented by unflagging concentration on the subtleties of the character’s feelings. The exultant top C on ‘Leuchtender Sproß!’ and the progression of top Bs that followed were exhilarating without being over-asserted. That the final pages of Siegfried build to the euphoric top C with which Brünnhilde ends the opera is undeniable, but the resulting expectation is often disappointed. LoBianco projected the note into the hall with exuberant ease, achieving the sort of concupiscent catharsis that Wagner surely wanted. Musically, LoBianco was a Brünnhilde who impressed by singing the part accurately and alluringly, but the greatest joy of her performance was the expressive sincerity with which she depicted this iconic character’s bittersweet embrace of femininity.

There are Wagner aficionados who might argue that, by performing only Act Three of Siegfried, the tenor to whom the title rôle was assigned avoided the part’s most punishing music, notably the forging song in Act One. It is true that Siegfried is a mammoth rôle: solely in Act Three, he sings nearly as much as several of Puccini’s tenor protagonists sing in their complete operas. It was no easy task that tenor Richard Cox faced in North Carolina Opera’s performance of Siegfried’s third act, but this gifted artist acquitted himself ably and often splendidly. Ignorant of the fact that the mysterious impediment on his path to locating Brünnhilde is his own grandfather, Siegfried replies to the Wanderer’s quizzing impetuously, and Cox sang ‘Mein Vöglein schwebte mir fort!’ and ‘Was lach’st du mich aus? Alter Frager!’ with the arrogance and annoyance of a scolded adolescent. There was as much satin as steel in his articulations of ‘Bleibst du mir stumm, störrischer Wicht?’ and ‘Zurück, du Prahler, mit dir,’ but the tenor’s bright top A emboldened his singing of ‘Meines Vaters Feind, find’ ich dich hier?’ Cox’s utterance of ‘Hoho! Hahei! Jetzt lock' ich ein liebes Gesell!’ disclosed no unkindness, instead focusing on the playfulness and insouciance of Siegfried’s banter.

Surveying the landscape from the vantage point of Brünnhilde’s rock, this Siegfried exclaimed ‘Selige Öde auf sonniger Höh’!’ with an aura of wonder, and his surprise upon perceiving Grane coursed through a dulcetly-phrased account of ‘Was ruht dort schlummernd im schattigen Tann?’ Siegfried’s transformative realization that the sleeping Brünnhilde is not a fatigued warrior but a spellbound maiden prompted an awestruck voicing of ‘Das ist kein Mann!’ that predictably received ill-timed laughter from the audience. The shyness in Cox’s voicing of ‘O Mutter! Mutter! Dein muthiges Kind!’ was endearingly boyish, and the tenor’s sensitivity to the emotional nuances of Siegfried’s music was apparent in his singing of ‘Süß erbebt mir ihr blühender Mund’ and ‘O Heil der Mutter, die mich gebar!’ Like his Brünnhilde, this Siegfried made an honorable attempt at executing their unison trill. The growing ardor of ‘Wie Wunder tönt, was wonnig du sing’st’ and ‘Durch brennendes Feuer fuhr ich zu dir’ smoldered in Cox’s vocalism, but it was in his singing of ‘Nacht umfängt gebund’ne Augen’ and ‘Dich lieb’ ich: o liebtest mich du!’ that he was at his best, his top As fired into the auditorium thrillingly. Cox was an atypically thoughtful Siegfried, the young man’s lack of fear here not equated with brutishness. There was ample force in Cox’s singing, but volume was but one of his Siegfried’s attributes. Most rewardingly, his was an appealingly-sung rather than a shouted Siegfried.

Sadly, earnest Twenty-First-Century Wagnerians learn quickly that enjoyment of many of today’s performances of Wagner’s operas necessitates tolerance of loud, wobbly singing, indifferent conducting, and bizarre stagings. It is easily forgotten that one of Wagner’s musical idols was Vincenzo Bellini, for whose bel canto masterpiece Norma he composed an alternate aria. North Carolina Opera’s concert performance of Act Three of Siegfried was not merely a rare performance of music from Der Ring des Nibelungen by a regional company: it was a still rarer event in which none of the defects of modern Wagner performances inhibited appreciation of the score’s staggering beauty.