Arts & Events

New: Wagner’s SIEGFRIED Is Hard to Take

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday June 19, 2018 - 09:20:00 PM

Act I of Wagner’s Siegfried has to be the most vile, mean-spirited act in all opera! It is one long, vituperative attack on an individual, Mime, the brother of Alberich, who in the course of this act reveals himself to be the ultimate stereotype of Wagner’s notion of the Jew. Mime is forever whining, and when he’s not whining, he’s wheedling for an opening to advance his greedy self-interest. What is perhaps even worse, Siegfried, the ostensible hero of this opera and of the entire Ring cycle, epitomizes just how Wagner believes Jews should be treated, which is utterly beyond contempt.  

Throughout Act I of Siegfried, young Siegfried shows nothing but loathing and disdain toward Mime, in spite of the fact that Mime has raised this boy from birth to young manhood. However, for no apparent reason other than finding Mime physically repulsive and ineffectual in reforging the shattered sword rent asunder by Wotan to allow Hunding to slay Siegmund, Siegfried demonstrates nothing but contempt for the man who has raised him. In Francesca Zambello’s staging, Mime’s abode is a funky old trailer parked in an urban junkyard under overhead power lines. In the tedious exposition that dominates Act I, Mime tells Siegfried he found Sieglinde heavily pregnant with child, alone and exhausted after her twin and lover Siegmund was killed by Hunding. Mime saw Sieglinde die as she gave birth to Siegfried. Mime took the infant Siegfried under his wing and raised him to adulthood, which is where this opera begins. Mime’s ulterior motives, it becomes clear, however, were always dominated by his own self-interest. Siegfried, Mime understood from the start, might prove useful to him in acquiring the Ring and thus obtaining wealth and power. In this endeavor, Siegfried might eventually become for Mime a powerful ally against Mime’s own brother, Alberich, who also compulsively seeks to get the Ring back in his hands.  

None of this is clear, however, when Act I of Siegfried begins. And right from the start, Siegfried responds to his surrogate father with nothing but contempt, which is demonstrated in both physical and verbal abuse of Mime by Siegfried. The young bumpkin, for that is what Siegfried is, repeatedly throws Mime to the ground, kicks him, and reviles him as a worthless, misshapen gnome. Is it any wonder the Nazis found inspiration in Wagner for their treatment of Jews? In the wake of Wagner’s Act I of Siegfried, are Nazi storm-troopers far behind?  

If the Jew is, first, deemed repulsive and, second, forever devious, then, in Wagner’s view, the Jew must be treated with the utmost contempt. This contempt Wagner indulges openly, through his ‘hero’ Siegfried, who makes absolutely no effort to cloak it any polite terms. As for Mime, sung here by tenor David Cangelosi, he spends as much time on the floor groveling and whining, as he does working haplessly at his forge. I find it painful to sit through Act I of Siegfried, and I am not a Jew. I find the music in this act ugly, tedious, and decidedly offensive. As for the text and dramatic action, they are utterly abhorrent. I once vowed to myself I’d never sit through another live performance of Act I of Siegfried. If I now broke that vow it is out of a sense of duty to share with my readers just how determinedly I am opposed to everything this music and this libretto stand for. (The libretto, of course, is by Wagner himself.)  

Act II of Siegfried I can also do without. I find little of interest in the musical and dramatic staging of the giant Fafner, who has turned himself into a monstrous dragon in order to protect the Ring he now holds. In this San Francisco Opera production, Fafner’s dragon is a two-ton vehicle resembling a huge scrap-metal compactor. Who goes to opera to be enthralled by a two-ton scrap-metal compactor? Musically, however, the Forest Murmurs and the song of the Forest Bird provide lovely moments, though I don’t approve of director Zambello’s decision to make the Forest Bird, usually just an off-stage voice, appear as a young hippie girl Siegfried happens to hear singing in the forest.  

Act III of Wagner’s Siegfried brings our bumpkin of a hero, played as such by American tenor Daniel Brenna, to the rock where Brünnhilde sleeps encircled by flames. First, however, Siegfried arrogantly dismisses Wotan, whom he does not recognize. Siegfried even shatter’s Wotan’s powerful wooden spear. This is yet another bit of phallic symbolism, with the young man using the steel sword/phallus earlier bequeathed to him via his mother to shatter the primitive wooden spear/phallus of his royal grandfather, thus rendering the now present but aging chief god impotent. Indeed, his spear/phallus now broken, Wotan is seen no more in the Ring. 

When Siegfried reaches the rock where Brünnhilde sleeps, our not so intrepid hero hesitates, then breaches the flaming circle. When he removes the helmet and breastplate from the sleeping Brünnhilde and sees her ample bosom, he utters in fear and astonishment, “This is no man.” Siegfried, you see, is now encountering the female for the first time in his life. Oh, by the way, Siegfried in this production is now wearing around his neck the green sash that Mime kept from his encounter with Sieglinde. Siegfried is now under the sign of his mother. In fact, when Brünnhilde awakens at Siegfried’s awkward kiss, his first utterance is that his mother, too, didn’t die, but rather, like Brünnhilde, only slept. 

Brünnhilde corrects Siegfried and tells him his mother is gone forever, but Brünnhilde now offers herself in place of a mother who will never return. What ensues is a long, tedious and somewhat laughable love-duet between Siegfried and Brünnhilde. It is laughable in the clumsy way Wagner depicts the woman as reluctant to give in to her human feelings of love; and here an overly made-up Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde seemed laughable indeed, though she sang beautifully. This love duet is also laughable, at least in this production, because of the exceedingly clumsy way Daniel Brenna as Siegfried goes about trying to urge Brünnhilde to yield to him sexually. He acted for all the world like an oafish high school boy on prom night awkwardly trying to get his date to put out.  

This love-duet, according to Nietzsche, should have been the highlight, and maybe the end point, of Wagner’s Ring. In this production, though elegantly sung by Theorin and Brenna, it just seemed preposterous and quite ludicrous. On my way out of the Opera House, I met a woman carrying the opera program at the street-corner, who just shook her head and muttered out loud, with a grimace, “Oh! The 19th century.” My only reply was, “Yeah. What a crock!”