Here's a little advice for all you aspiring critics, or indeed any other people who may already be offering their opinion in print or on line: you never know who is going to read your reviews. I have been pleasantly surprised (most of the time, anyway) to receive some very thoughtful emails from producers, directors, stars and scenarists through the years of my professional reviewing duties, even when I have not been particularly kind in my assessment of any given piece. Such was the case with my reviews of the first two parts of Wagner's Ring Cycle as performed by the Weimar Staatskapelle. While I found both Das Rheingold and Die Walküre elegantly sung and played, I found the staging (especially with regard to production design and costuming) of the former absolutely ludicrous and I was exceedingly distressed at some of the low volume levels on Walküre's BD. So imagine my surprise when I received several quite lengthy missives from one of the producers of the discs, a very gentlemanly individual by the name of Rainer Mockert. Mr. Mockert assured me he was concerned about the volume issues on Walküre, and would look into it. He followed up a few days later by assuring me that, yes, some of the volumes are on the low side (especially in the opening), but only because there is a gigantic 50 dB dynamic range which had to be taken into consideration, so therefore some sonic "middle ground" had to be found to balance out the overpowering orchestral forces Wagner brings to bear later in the opera.
And so, in deference to Mr. Mockert's very kind emails, I'm just a bit conflicted as I prepare to give what will probably be seen as a "mixed message" of sorts. As with both of the preceding entries in this series, this is one of the most gloriously sung and played Rings I've experienced. I doubt even a Bayreuth or Berlin musical interpretation (emphasis mine) could match that of the Deutsche Nationaltheater and Staatskapelle Weimar. Carl St. Clair, an American conductor who served as Staatskapelle Weimar's Music Director for three years (2005-08), guides the gargantuan orchestral forces with ease (the brass is especially resplendent in all of these performances), and maintains good balance between the accompaniment and vocalists, something that must be difficult considering the disparities between the two forces.
The production design is, as it was in Walküre, minimalist and quite engaging--most of the time. Two elements however stuck out like gigantic, stuffed sore thumbs. One of them actually contains a gigantic, stuffed sore thumb (well, I'm not sure about the sore part, but you get the idea)--the simply ridiculous Jabba the Hut meets Sumo wrestler meets the Michelin Man meets the Pillsbury Doughboy getup that is Fafner's costume. When Siegfried plunges his sword into the folds of fabric that surround singer Hidekazu Tsumaya, I half expected the hapless giant to start flying around the stage like a deflated balloon. The other patently strange element is the gigantic teddy bear that adorns center stage for most of the first act's repartee between Mime and Siegfried. I would just like a little clarification--is that a bra festooning the beast's chest? I'm not sure if these two issues tip the scales into what I've decried previously as "Eurotrash" reimaginings of classic works, but one way or the other, they certainly don't help. I had to wonder if there was a subtext for Siegfried and Brünnhilde putting on blindfolds as this massive opera lumbered toward its conclusion.
Siegfried took Wagner around a quarter of a century to finish, and at times it may seem like it's taking that long to actually watch the damned thing (this particular production comes in at slightly over four hours). No one ever faulted the Germans for a lack of national will, whether that be a will to power or simply the fortitude to sit through several nights of overwrought emotion, mythical hyperbole and Wagner's none too subtle philosophizing on what exactly has forged the Aryan soul. If Siegfried moves at least slightly away from some of the tragic elements of Walküre, Wagner's music in this episode only magnifies the frankly overpowering emotional and psychological aspects of the characters as Siegfried seeks to find out where he's come from and what cosmic forces are leading him to his betrothed, Brünnhilde. Wagner's genius in elucidating these characters cannot be understated, though for an audience member unaccustomed to the earth shattering forces Wagner brings to bear on his subject, it may seem like the compositional equivalent of "Whack a Mole"--there's very little left standing, at least from an audience perspective, by the end of this gargantuan piece.
And so from a listening standpoint, I wholeheartedly recommend this Siegfried. Alternately gorgeously lyrical and triumphantly bombastic, this production will provide sonic delights galore, especially if you're a Wagner fan. From a production design standpoint, this is certainly better than Rheingold, with the exception of the two elements mentioned above. For those moments, you may want to have your own blindfold ready.