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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 10, No. 4

Siegfried Through the Lens

by Misha Aster / November 29, 2004

Version française...

Why Siegfried? Das Rheingold is the most compact and optimistic, Die Walküre the most lyrical and dramatically self-contained, while Götterdämmerung, which concludes the Ring epic, is gripping and cataclysmic ; but of the four operas comprising Wagner's Nibelungen cycle, Siegfried rarely gets mentioned as anybody's favourite. Yet, as François Girard openly confesses, "As soon as Richard Bradshaw asked me to join the Canadian Opera Company's (COC) Ring project, I rushed to the record store, bought and listened to the whole thing in a very short time. From the first listening, Siegfried was definitely my choice."

Photo: Michael Cooper

Why should this lengthy, dramaturgically awkward transitional link in the Ring odyssey appeal to the man renowned for award-winning films such as Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Red Violin? "Because Siegfried is the most abstract opera, and therefore, most welcoming for a director."

Taking a short break from rehearsing a new adaptation of another 'abstract' piece, Kafka's The Trial, at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde in Montreal, Girard is thoughtful in approaching his upcoming Wagnerian encounter: "Perhaps it is my film experience speaking," he slowly elaborates, "but I don't think opera works when you try to create naturalistic impressions. For me, Siegfried is exciting because it is so introspective – a total journey into one character's mind."

In Siegfried, set some twenty years after the fateful events of Die Walküre, the surviving son of Siegmund and Sieglinde has been raised in the woods by the dwarf Mime. Impetuous and arrogant, the young Siegfried, whose mother died in childbirth, knows no fear, nor anything of his ancestry; he is naive, save for what he has learned from Nature. "He is a completely childlike character trying to discover his past," recounts Girard. "Every scene is an attempt to reconnect fragments of that past."

This idea of reconstructing the title character's genealogy is central to Girard's interpretation of the piece: "For me, Siegfried is the forest, while everyone else is either Siegfried or a fragment of him." Translated visually, Girard describes how "[...] about twenty bodies will be suspended above Siegfried's head as fragments of his psyche, while all the characters – Mime, the bear, the Wanderer/Wotan, the dragon – will be dressed like Siegfried. It is a kind of Jungian approach, showing everything existing in someone's mind, through Siegfried's personal lens."

The one exception to this pattern of psychological identification is Brünnhilde, the God Wotan's favourite daughter. At the conclusion of Die Walküre, Wotan remorsefully condemns Brünnhilde to an imprisoning sleep on a fire-encircled mountain rock as punishment for her gross disobedience. It is said then, and reiterated early in Siegfried, that only a hero who knows no fear will one day penetrate the ring of fire, awaken the Walküre and claim her as bride. "She is the only character not dressed like Siegfried, because once he has connected the fragments of his past, of his self, Siegfried is ready to meet 'the other'. She is Brünnhilde," explains Girard. "Their third Act scene crowning the evening of Siegfried is oneof the most musically beautiful, and touchingly human, sequences of the cycle."

The challenging visual and dramatic interpretation put forth by Girard was realized in collaboration with Michael Levine, the COC's Ring designer, and the director of Das Rheingold, who is described as the project's all-purpose 'glue'. Having previously worked together to create the acclaimed COC's Stravinsky double-bill of Symphony of Psalms and Oedipus Rex in 1997 (revived in 2002), Girard praises Levine as "a truly great artist." He adds, "For me this is Michael's Ring. He is the one making the connections, pulling the ideas together into a completely organic process." Generating sets and costumes to accommodate the wishes of four different directors, including Girard's, while at the same time retaining a sense of integrity to the whole certainly is a daunting task. "Siegfried is one stop on a longer journey," Girard comments, further lauding Levine's creative versatility. "While Michael is drawing the continuity, in this opera we are able to add this spontaneous extra dimension of re-framing everything through Siegfried's own eyes."

Along this journey of self-discovery, Siegfried slays the dragon Fafner, claiming the powerful ring formerly in the dragon's keep for his own; he then kills his duplicitous ward Mime. Finally, in a haunting confrontation with Wotan, whom he does not know or recognize, Siegfried humbles his once mighty grandfather to fatalistic resignation.

But not only does Siegfried tell the story of a character's maturation, it also encompasses an important span of development in the composer's own life. "It is fascinating to see how the man changed, to see what he discarded and what new meanings he discovered along the way," Girard comments as he reflects on the biographical parallels between Siegfried and Wagner's own life.

Wagner began work on a 'pre-quel' to his outline for Götterdämmerung (or Twilight of the Gods) in the late 1840s, and started compositional sketches for Siegfried in tandem with Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in 1851. He completed the first two operas and was working on the second Act of Siegfried when other projects forced him to set the Ring aside. It was not until the late 1860s, by which time he had written Tristan und Isolde (1865) and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868), that Wagner returned to his epic project. But, while the leitmotifs established decades earlier still formed the kernel of his musical language, a full twenty years separated the beginning of Wagner's work on Siegfried from its completion (1871). In the intervening period, Wagner's harmonic and motivic sophistication had radically advanced, as had shifted some of the composer's thematic preoccupations. Thus, Siegfried does not only reveal itself as a study of one character's evolution, but it also charts the musical and intellectual maturation of its creator.

The composer's background is, for Girard, of keen significance. As director he feels that, "The musical journey of Siegfried is as important as its theatrical dimension." Girard reveals how he imagines a "bare, clear slow-moving" staging, which he hopes will reflect Wagner's 'hanging world'. "It is my great ambition," he continues, "to achieve the dramatic force [of the opera], yet let the music speak for itself. The challenge is to re-scale the audience's 'clocking' to make the experience of four hours feel like one breath." With a genuine sense of wonder in his voice, Girard expresses his desire to "reach the meditative state of the music."

Heading to rehearsals in a few short weeks, Girard is well aware of the inevitable comparisons his Siegfried will have to bear with last season's Die Walküre, not least because that production's stage director,Atom Egoyan, has also made his reputation primarily as a film director. "I know Atom well," Girard graciously comments, "and deeply respect his work. I did not attend his rehearsals last year, but we have certainly talked about our thoughts on the Ring." That said, audiences might be encountering an aesthetic different from Egoyan's come January. Whereas Egoyan was particularly interested in evoking many of the 'extra-dramatic' moral and political themes underlying Wagner's work, Girard seems confident that strong images and clear storytelling will be sufficient for the ideas to be self-generating. "The work," he sums up, "ultimately belongs to the audience. All connections are possible, new layers, new meanings will continue to bounce back at you. It is this continuous flow of ideas that makes the Ring so great." COC audiences shall soon get a taste of these interesting ideas as they discover what Siegfried looks like through François Girard's eyes.

January 27, 30, February 2, 5, 8, and 11, 2005 at the Hummingbird Centre
for the Performing Arts, Toronto. 416-363-8231 www.coc.ca


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