July 28 2021

Sigfried’: ‘The Tetralogy’ continues at the Teatro Real

Bayreuth is a mecca for Wagnerians. Being a Wagnerian is like a religion. And on ‘the holy hill’ in this Bavarian town, the music of the German genius is worshipped. Throughout Central Europe, Wagner operas are performed at times that would seem impossible here.

Now, in order to comply with the curfew rules imposed by the Community of Madrid -because of this coronavirus pandemic- this heroic  Sigfried of the Teatro Real began at half past four in the afternoon. As in Bayreuth.

And it does so with an Austrian heledentenor, Andreas Schager, who could well be defined as aÜbermensch’, Nietzsche’s term so closely linked to this Wagnerian work. To finish Siegfried as he does, without a trace of fatigue, without faltering for a single moment during such a marathon day (four hours of beautiful, but very hard music; with the two breaks, the performance lasts almost five hours), is not human. Alongside him, a solid cast in which stand out The Wayfarer brought to life (and voiced!) by Tomasz Konieczny, the delightful Leonor Bonilla as the Voice of the Forest Bird and Andreas Conrad’s Mime.

The cast, which took the big bravos of the night, is completed with Martin Winkler (Alberich), Jongmin Park (Fafner), Okka von der Damerau (Erda) and Ricarda Merberth’s valkyrie Brünnhilde.

Pablo Heras-Casado works miracles with a Madrid Symphony Orchestra spread throughout the theater, with part of the brass and the six mythical harps placed in the stalls. Conducting like this must be crazy. All in order to keep a safe distance between the almost one hundred musicians who cannot fit in the pit. The other standing ovation of the premiere was for the theater’s resident orchestra.

 

“Only he who knows no fear will forge Notung [the sword] anew,” says The Wayfarer [Wotan] to Mime in the first act. But not knowing fear is not synonymous with being irresponsible. The coliseum continues, against all odds, with the programming despite the health, economic and social crisis that has paralyzed all opera houses in the world. And now it does so with nothing more and nothing less than the second part (and third installment) of the Wagnerian tetralogy in the hands of Pablo Heras-Casado, in the pit, and Robert Carsen on stage.

After Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), the prologue; Die Walküre (The Walkiria), first part, Sigfried (Siegfried) has just arrived. And it does so with this now historic staging by the Cologne Opera. In the prologue, Carsen’s Regia fled from myths, gods and traditional symbolism with the usual Nibelungenlied, showing us a rotten Rhine, without water and full of garbage. In The Valkyrie, after also descending to the subsoil, the staging ended with Wotan walking towards the fire.

Now, in Sigfried , the Canadian regisseur’s vision of the Ring was once again challenged on opening night. Opinions were divided, with resounding boos in the hall. But also with many bravos. The opera is alive. Carsen is coherent with his bet and, like it or not, what is out of discussion is that narratively speaking it is impeccable. Without gods, Valkyries, dwarves and Nibelungs, the plot follows perfectly and, above all, allows the artists to sing well and with meaning. Here they all sang very well. And thanks to the excellent direction of the actors, with an imposing stage presence.

He places the first act where it belongs: in a forest. With a caravan in which Mime has raised Sigfried and where he forges the sword. A dirty forest, full of garbage and pollution. Let us remember that already since Das Rheingold he made it very clear that it was a critique of what man has done to the planet. Sigfried, and also The Ring as a whole, narrates the birth of a new man.

The staging has moments of great poetry. Like the entire second act, with a forest of shattered linden trees, without a canopy, and with a bulldozer that perfectly resolves the death of Fafner (a dragon, remember, all the mythological characters are all people). Watching Sigfried slay the dragon, talk to the birds and sing Wagner’s beautiful score on a stage mutilated by the human hand is of a beastly poetic force.

The descent of the destructive crane is brutal. Pure poetry, sublime romanticism, in a terrible forest of linden trees destroyed by man. And with that wonderful dialogue between man and birds sung by the exquisite Andreas Schafer and Leonor Bonilla. Definitely, the necessary birth of a new man.

It is in the third act when the harps located on the left side of the stalls possess the hall. It is the apogee, when Sigfried awakens Brünnhilde and they reach the climax of “radiant love, smiling death”. This third act is, musically, completely different from the previous two, as Wagner composed it fifteen years after finishing the first two. In between, he created Tristan and Isolde. There is no need for further arguments.

Since The Ring is a pure ritual, a ‘lay religion’, we can use liturgical language to explain the strange distribution of the orchestra: part of the strings, specifically the six harps, occupy the boxes on the Gospel side, those on the left. While part of the brass instruments occupy the Epistle side, i.e. the right side. Everything is thus prepared for the ritual to begin. And the truth is that the orchestra sounds different, with a feeling that Matabosch, artistic director of the theater, has defined as surround sound.

We are waiting to see what happens when Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) brings the Ring of the Nibelung cycle to an end next season 21/22. Everything as planned for years.

But, we insist, and this is very important, what was not foreseen is that this Sigfried would arrive in the middle of the world pandemic due to the COVID-19 that has closed theaters all over the world. All except the Teatro Real, which since it raised the curtain last July 1 -with an also historic Traviata– has become a beacon of world opera, thanks to the regulations of the Community of Madrid, which has been trying for months to ensure that culture and leisure can survive the chaos in which we are installed.

All artists from abroad who step on its stage wonder what happens in Madrid that does not happen in their respective countries. And those who do not step on it, wonder the same thing, but from their homes abroad to see all their contracts canceled. Perhaps the answer was given by Wagner himself: “A coward will never conquer the bride, nor awaken Brünnhilde: Only he who knows no fear!”, he insists to the titular protagonist of The Voice of the Woodpecker. Something that, we stress, has nothing to do with irresponsibility, as it has been shown.

As we have said, Sigfried is possibly the most complex opera of the tetralogy. It is the origin of everything, since it is the one that Wagner considered the most important, and the one that took the longest to finish of the cycle: fifteen years. Perhaps that is why it is also the most complicated to mount. It was originally to be called The Young Siegfried. Musically, it is immense. And, as we have pointed out, with great differences in melodic structure between the first two acts and the third. To stage a work of such magnitude under the present conditions is almost a miracle. That the orchestra sounds as it has sounded is a marvel.

The protagonist of this story (and of the whole Ring) has a mission: to break with the past. In the words of Joan Matabosch in the program, “what interests Wagner in the character of Sigfried is not so much his daring deeds as the fact that he symbolically embodies what the social utopias of the time considered the ‘new man’: free from morality and social conventions, indomitable before the pacts and outdated laws of the past”.

What we are experiencing in Madrid sounds familiar and we can extrapolate it to a phrase that we all know very well: “All Gaul is occupied by the Romans… All of it? No! A village populated by unyielding Gauls resists, still and as always, the invader”. We are fortunate that this village, once populated by Asterix and Obelix, is now ours. And it is inhabited by all those who make it possible for the curtain to rise at the Teatro Real. As in La Zarzuela, and in other non-lyric coliseums in Madrid.

From the Real have reinforced the measures and have done everything possible to ensure that security is guaranteed. Everything is done under the strictest of controls to avoid any risk not only among the public, but also among artists and workers.

This is what they emphasize in the face of the misgivings that have arisen from programming such a long opera, five hours long. The measures taken have been conveniently communicated to the public since July 1, 2020, the day on which the Real went down in history for being the first opera house in the world to come back to life. On the other hand, no one is obliged to go to a theater if they do not want to, or if they are afraid, although it has been proven that culture is safe. The data corroborate this.

Let’s enjoy it and let’s boast about it. What is happening in Madrid is something to be proud of. And to stage a Sigfried in these conditions, we insist, is heroic. Bravo!