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Wednesday, December 10, 2003

. . . And Ralphie Wiggum is Siegfried

Wagner is a funny, funny guy. Don't let anyone tell you different. Der Ring Des Nibelungen is a gay romp in its entireity, of course, but Siegfried is truly the slapstick before everyone Learns an Important and Apocalyptic Lesson in Gotterdamerung. It's got dwarfs, it's got allopatricide, it's got a dragon, and it's got incest so complex that V. C. Andrews would have needed a map, a flashlight, a sherpa, and a healthy supply of bread crumbs. What's not to love?

The set for Act I was bitchin'. Before the curtain rose, the lights came up in minute increments, revealing a bone-white death mask projected on to the black drapery during the overture. Because the lights never came up enough to reveal the details, it was incredibly creepy.

The entire stage was separated from the wings by portcullissessesss on either side extending from floor to proscenium. Mime and Siegfried's dwelling was represented by a sort of diorama centered within the cage of the and ringed with twisted rope representing the river. The house itself was set a few feet above the stage and there was a loft inside the house in the upstage right corner. The varying heights gave the actors a lot of vertical space to work with, and the second proscenium formed by the open front of the house also served to convey information about violations of rules, time, and space by The Wanderer (Wotan) and Mime (a Nibelung), while poor Siegfried is forced to bring in his bear via the upstage door. (Yes, there's a bear; if that's not comedy, I'd like to know what is.)

In addition to the main sphere of action, the back of the stage had sliding doors masking a scrim at the upstage-most margin that was used in a number of ways (some interesting, some distracting) throughout. For example, in Act I, sections (I couldn't figure out what to call them . . . they're not scenes---Richard would roll in his grave; they're not numbers---the flow is everything to Wagner; ditties? Power ballads?) in which Wotan was the focus were accompanied by an enormous, looming moon projected on the fabric, whereas during Siegfried-centric bits, it was replaced by a World Ash Tree. At other points, the sliding doors would be closed entirely, giving everything a hopeless, claustrophobic feel.

The lighting design in Act I was a touch intrusive, but later the use of color as emotional and conceptual emblems worked quite well, both internal to this phase in the Cycle and to tie this back into Die Walkure. As a result, I'm not sure whether to feel that I just needed to get acclimated to enough to stop thinking "Hmmm . . . fear is turquoise; I'd have said hot pink," or if the lighting designer was enough of an attention whore that s/he must be spanked like a bad, bad donkey.

On the subject of attention whores, The Wanderer deserves an honorable mention. So Wotan, having surrounded his favorite daughter with the largest, most flammable, and, ultimately, most ineffectual chastity belt in the history of sexual repression, is supposed to be wandering the Realm of the Walsung in disguise, contemplating fate, inevitability, bad moves, big mistakes, and the like. Now I realize that incognito presents a greater challenge for the supreme Teutonic god than it does for say, yours truly; however, I think that the eyepatch, shiny leather greatcoat, fedora, and hella-conspicuous spear show a certain lack of commitment to flying below radar. One is moved to quote Mystery Science Theatre 3000: "Let's slip away under cover of afternoon in the biggest car in the county."

The set for Act II was interesting and, I imagine, deceptively difficult to design, begging the question of how you render a naturalistic setting in a mythic, fragmented universe in the first place and, oh by the way, when we say "naturalistic" we mean "there's a dragon's lair in it." Wisely, they went with simple, laying out a quadrilateral only slightly smaller than the stage with the corner in the uppermost stage right quadrant pulled upward, giving the appearance of a grassy slope. The lighting in this act was terrific, using different hues and subtle gobos to transition from Alberich guarding the lair to Mime and Siegfried kvetching at one another in the forest to Siegfried's communion with nature and its graceful cardboard pterodactyls (CAW! CAW!).

I am also gratified to note that the Nibelungen are equal opportunity evil, love-forswearing, tripartite-world-destroying dwarfs. Alberich was, for no reason I could fathom, apparently a samurai, whereas Mime seemed of dubious heritage in his Osh Kosh B'Gosh high-water overalls. I have to say, though the overalls really serve to make David Cangelosi's performance all the more impressive. Lyric done good when they snagged him for their artist's circle or whatever they call it. He's been terrific in everything I've seen him in so far (Squeak in Billy Budd; Tobias in Sweeney Todd [the only performance that I've heard that didn't reduce the role to Gavroche levels of saccharinity {Gavroche must die!}]; Beppe in Pagliacci; and Little Bat in Susannah), but none of that prepared me to see him turning cartwheels and frog leaping around the stage after three hours of solid singing and never miss a single note. Plus, he's superteeny! He'd make an excellent pocket accessory to match Danny Strong.

So enough with the snarking about Act II, because, in spite of the INCREDIBLY goofy bird puppets manned by twiglets in emerald green, the whole thing rocked on account of Fafner. Bits o' Fafner were done up in white with just enough phosphorescent bluish paint to give it a truly creepy look. The parts were manned by probably 8 or 10 performers in black: One each for the giant claws; two for the head and upper jaw; another two incredibly talented puppeters who managed the fluid movements of the lower jaw in synchrony with the singing; probably another four or so each manning a vertebra. In the midst of the puppeteers, initially obscured from view, was Raymond Aceto, the voice and heart of the dragon. As Siegfried brutally and unlawfully hacked poor Fafner to bits with Nothung, the performer would peel off the line and swirl to the ground.

As pieces of the skeleton drifted offstage, Aceto was gradually revealed in a stark, double-breasted black cassock and blood-red gauntlets, with his entire head covered in deathly grey-white makeup. The costume was incredibly effective, and his singing was superb. I feel that I should absolve both him and John Treleaven (who sang Siegfried) from all guilt in inspiring my subject line. That's 100% Richard for thinking that internally consistent characterization and well-mapped out plots should include a character singing extensively about how badly his hands are burning from the dragon's blood covering them and then proceed to have a transformative experience after licking the fingers that taste like burning. Oh, and shame on whoever decided that the Tarnhelm could be usefully represented by something spangly that could be hooked on Siegfried's belt.

In Act III, the latticework enclosing the sides of the stage was reduced to pieces heaped in piles along the margins and the main stage was missing a large, square section at the center. As Wotan entered and summoned Erda, she rose slowly on the central platform until she was flush with the rest of the stage. She was swathed in gorgeous goldenrod fabric from head to toe, matching several staves of the same color strewn about the stage. Erda's role in Siegfried is probably my favorite female performance in Wagner and Jill Grove's voice is so rich and haunting. Pair that with James Morris (Mmmm . . . James Morris; Jim, if Bryn Terfel ever kicks it [Nooooooo!], you're gonna be my main bass baby) as Wotan and I could have listed to the two of them for 4 more hours (provided there were snacks). As it was, I was sad to see Erda descend back into the Earth.

The lighting effects when Nothung shatters Wotan's spear effectively vindicated the same gimmick in Act I when Siegfried cleaves the anvil (at the time, they looked a bit cheesy, mainly due to the low roof of Mime's house). As grandfather and grandson got up one another's noses, the sliding doors upstage parted slightly to reveal a projection of a mammoth face etched in crumbling stone. Equally as effective as the death mask projected on to the cyc at the top of the opera.

In the second scene of the act, the Walkurean Rock is looking a little the worse for wear since the installation of the no-nookie ring of fire. Despite requiring some pretty intensive DIY projects, it still manages to evoke the cover of Dark Side of the Moon. Once you've liked the pyramid in neon, you really have to run with the gag, I guess. It was nice of the other Walkure to (a) dress Brunnhilde up in her spiffy armor and (b) sit her down in a chair with a NASA-grade thermal woobie.

What can one say about the second scene of Act III? Brunnhilde greeting the sun is as glorious and stirring as Hojotoho! from Die Walkure, and a lot less silly because Bugs Bunny has never done it. Siegfried has to have won some serious persistence in seduction awards, particularly given the wafer thin motivation for his sudden lust for his double-half-aunt-warrior-thingie.

I worry for Jane Eaglen, I really do. She is . . . not small and Brunnhilde is a role that calls for a whole lot more vigor than she's capable of. It's less notable here (where her stage business includes: Recline, with woobie; pace and try to talk your double-nevvie-destroyer-of-worlds-thingie out of keeping it in the family; run up three steps; give up and snog said double nevvie) than in Die Walkure (where's she's supposed to be leaping lightly from rock to rock), but he vocal performance seemed to suffer, even given the limited amount of mobility called for here. Add to this that James Treleaven was recovering from a cold and was a bit less forceful than Siegfried is probably meant to be, and this dragged a bit, particularly in comparison to powerful opening scene.

Still, every aspect of this beat the hell out of watching Parsifal through the ass-end of an animal pelvis. Two out-of-period Viking horns up.

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