Weird “Siegfried” both flails and astonishes

Burkhard Fritz in the title role of “Siegfried” at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Photo by Todd Rosenberg)

What: “Siegfried”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Nov. 16
Tickets: Lyricopera.org

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Lyric Opera’s new production of “Siegfried,” the third opera in Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, opened to a full house Saturday night. The singing ranged from very good to marvelous while the staging lurched from distractingly odd and idiosyncratic to revealingly dramatic.

Siegfried, the child of incestuous twins Sieglinde and Siegmund, has been brought up by the Nibelung dwarf Mime, who hopes that Siegfried will help him steal the precious ring now held by the giant Fafner, who has disguised himself as a dragon to protect the treasure. Siegfried, a child of nature and someone who has never known fear, slays the dragon and then kills Mime, before the dwarf can kill him. Then he finds the sleeping Brünnhilde, wakens her from the sleep imposed by her father, the god Wotan, and Brünnhilde and Siegfried fall in love.

Director David Pountney takes the idea of the young, unschooled Siegfried in an odd direction. The opera opens in Mime’s hut in the forest. It is decked out in the accouterments of a young child’s nursery – playpen, blocks, crude kiddy drawings –  and is inhabited by a Siegfried who’s clothed in baggy shorts and Keds and who carts around a large rag doll. Pountney’s Siegfried is a literal child living in a “Goodnight Moon” world, rather than a budding hero, and is nearly as annoying as the dwarf who has raised him in order to exploit him. Pountney banishes anything that would point to Siegfried being on the cusp of manhood — he doesn’t make his entrance with the bear of the libretto, but only disguised as a bear by the wearing of a paper bag over his head. Pountney loves such visual jokes and employs them in large number, even when it diminishes the drama or reduces the story to kitsch. His extended jokey reference to Amazon (“Rhine Logitek” with an Amazon-like arrow-logo, makes numerous deliveries of the tools Siegfried requires to forge his sword) quickly becomes stale.

But tenor Burkhard Fritz makes the best of it in the title role. While his voice is not quite large enough for Lyric’s huge theater, he sings with grace and style, and has a purity that is beautiful and compelling. He never flags, singing from the 6 p.m. curtain for almost five hours (including two 30-minute intermissions), never showing evidence of wear. The singing Siegfried is far better than the director’s weird child of a Siegfried, and that makes the opera bearable, even quite exciting at times.

Bass – baritone Eric Owens returns as Wotan, now a wanderer over the Earth. He sings with authority and gravitas, eschewing vocal power in favor of nuance. Owens expertly presages the fall of the gods (coming up in the last of the Ring operas) with his world-weariness and acceptance that his power, and that of all the gods, is waning.

Mime is brought to malevolent life by tenor Matthias Klink. He accomplishes a difficult task: to sing with musicality all the while whining and wheedling. His is a tremendous performance of a craven villain.

Bass-baritone Samuel Youn imbues the role of Alberich, Mime’s brother and fellow schemer, with palpable antagonism and portent. While he hunches over, Owens’s Wotan towers above him, courtesy of stilts under his shoes.

Erde is sung well by mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller and her truly enormous skirt may well be the largest ever to appear on the Lyric stage.

The middle act is where Pountney’s vision has moments which are immensely successful and gripping. The dragon Fafner, an imposing and frightening red creature, is stunning. The forest he lives in grows before your eyes, with green buds poking through the floor of the stage until the fronds are three times the height of a man.

The Forest Bird flits through the trees courtesy of an actor dressed in black who wields a supple pole with a bird on the end of it, creating flight which is striking. Soprano Diana Newman gives voice to the bird in a sparkling performance. Pountney’s innovation here is to have her in Valhalla with Wotan, as he instructs her to communicate with Siegfried. Pountney also includes his own view of what happens to the bird, which is disturbing. But why there are folks carrying pillows for Siegfried to recline on or other folks sporting luminescent green surfboards is anybody’s guess.

The third and final act, where Siegfried and Brünnhilde meet and fall in love, is the least visually convincing. The ring of fire surrounding Brünnhilde is created by black-clad actors holding glowing red items (they look like rolled-up yoga mats) as well as a projection of fire under a platform. While soprano Christine Goerke offers a fantastic singing Brünnhilde, Pountney’s storytelling up to this point makes it hard for us to believe that the little boy Siegfried has what it takes for the formerly powerful, confident, half-god Brünnhilde to fall in love with him. He’s not been presented to us as particularly heroic, and the love scene is done for long stretches with the two of them on opposite sides of the stage in balloon-laden little rooms. Nonetheless, Goerke’s singing is golden, focused, and glowing. Fritz doesn’t have her power, but sings ardently, hitting the high notes and creating long, lovely lines of music.

Sir Andrew Davis leads the Lyric Opera Orchestra in a magisterial performance. The ominous, rumbling brass is perfect, and the soaring strings and beautiful winds make Wagner’s music come to life. The pacing is excellent, and the drama is fully intact in the music. Perhaps still remembering the orchestra strike that was settled last month, the audience gave the orchestra a huge ovation during the curtain calls.