Lost and Found: Call Me Siegfried
by Matthew Gurewitsch • Feb 1, 2010 at 9:50 pm
News is not everything. Recently, a correspondent contacted me about an article of mine on the phenomenon of the heldentenor. Her particular interest was in a specimen of the breed named Siegfried Jerusalem, whom—unbeknownst to her—I had profiled years ago for the New York Times. Hoping to forward the article, I looked it up in the newspaper's electronic archive only to discover that it does not appear there. As a reality check, I fished out a hard copy dated March 8, 1992. The title as it appeared in the Times was "A Siegfried, Not In Name Only."Otherwise, what follows is a verbatim transcript.
When the Metropolitan Opera taped Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" for its 1990 telecast, one man who was in no hurry to see it was the Siegfried, Siegfried Jerusalem. "It's a nice thing for my children," the German tenor said in a conversation at the time, his shaggy blond curls and low-key manner making a gentler impression than his sturdy build and imposing height. "I'll take a look at it some day. But I'm very critical. The money isn't much. It's nice for the family and to be what they call famous. But what good it does you, you don't know."
Like every other tenor aspiring to the heroic repertory, Mr. Jerusalem was greeted at first with mixed hope and skepticism: hope because the creatures they call heldentenors are desperately needed, skepticism because so many have so quickly come to grief.
Mr. Jerusalem is the happy exception. On Thursday, 12 years after his Met debut as Lohengrin, he returns for his first New York Parsifal. In the meantime, he has appeared in the Met "Ring" not only as Siegfried but also as Loge, the wily god of fire. (He is seen in both roles on the Met video due this month from Deutsche Grammophon.) The role of Siegfried is his also in Bernard Haitink's "Ring," in progress for EMI Angel ("Siegfried" has been released; "Götterdammerung" is to follow), and in a second video "Ring," conducted by Daniel Barenboim and directed by Harry Kupfer, to be taped this summer in Bayreuth.
Dangerous fare. Wagner expected nothing less of his performers than fanatical devotion. Consider Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, the first hero in "Tristan und Isolde," who died in delirium within weeks of the opera's premiere, in 1865. On his deathbed he sang snatches of Wagner's verse that Wagner had not yet even set to music. At the end he cried, "O Siegfried, Siegfried, farewell! Console my Richard!" Some say the cause of death was meningitis, but his Richard took it otherwise. "Mein Tristan! Mein Trauter!" Wagner wrote his royal patron Ludwig II, quoting his own libretto: "My Tristan! My beloved! For me he lived, for me he died."
What makes Wagner's heroes so punishing to sing? Sheer hours on the stage, unremitting emotional intensity, merciless competition from a gargantuan orchestra. The man who can stand up for his final bow is a man who has proved endurance.
But that is merely an athletic consideration. Bringing the heldentenor part to life requires romance, too, a pleasing timbre, a songful legato, a passionate grasp of character and, ideally, the trick of conveying the impression of youth. To a man, Wagner's heldentenors enter the drama as youngsters, even as boys. It counts for something when a singer looks his part.
Really, Wagner asks too much. And practically speaking, three types of ersatz heldentenors have evolved: the lyric who sings in cultured tones but falls short at climaxes, the noisy, who rides over the orchestra no matter how he sounds (not good), and the great majority, who disappoint both ways.
Still, within recent memory there have been portrayals of great authority. Jon Vickers comes to mind as Siegmund, Tristan and Parsifal, searing with inward anguish. James McCracken, late in his career, made a bristling, volatile Tannhauser. To these we may now add Mr. Jerusalem's Siegfried: fresh-voiced, boyish, exuberant, yet with a stern side, too. Mr. Jerusalem is in a paradoxical new class of his own: the real lyric heldentenor, never sacrificing beauty of tone, undaunted at the climaxes.
"The lyric side is a large part of Siegfried's character," the singer said. "He has been brought up badly – to be a killer. But his normal being is not brutal. He has grown up in nature, and he loves it, too. He can't go around shouting all the time.
"I was lucky with my first Siegfried. In Kupfer, I had a director who sees every mistake in your thinking. In Barenboim, I had a strict conductor, who never let me get away with anything."
Few who witnessed Mr. Jerusalem's Met debut, in January 1980, could have foreseen what has come to pass. On that occasion, he was following another Met newcomer in the part of Lohengrin, the former decathlon champion and part-time rock idol Peter Hofmann, a blond white knight the likes of whom the opera world had never seen. A matter of days after Mr. Hofmann's haughty performances, Mr. Jerusalem's demeanor put one critic in mind of a dour young doctor in a white lab coat. Mr. Hofmann's tone was drier and crisper, Mr. Jerusalem's more rounded. Both seemed fairly light-weight; neither was the answer to a Wagnerian's prayer.
Pessimists predicted trouble, and Mr. Hofmann proved them right. In short order, he wore his instrument to tatters. He staggered on for a while as Siegmund, in "Die Walkure," and (more plausibly) Parsifal. With nothing left to lose, he accepted the part of Siegfried, but withdrew in good time. At last word, he was starring in Germany as Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera. Still, the memory of his glory days lives on on video in his Siegmund in the celebrated centennial Bayreuth "Ring," taped in 1979 and 1980, conducted by Pierre Boulez and directed by Patrice Chéreau (Philips). Mr. Jerusalem does a cameo in that "Ring," too, as Froh, the youthful god of the rainbow. Blink, and you would miss him.
Look at him now. He is a livelier yet subtler artist than in the early days. The voice has acquired fuller body, yet the character of the sound remains recognizably the same: focused, smooth, mellow, with a curious, highly distinctive warm hum on certain vowels (almost nasal, but not) and a lisp so light it never gets in his way. Heavy parts have not spoiled him for Mozart or lieder; nor was he out of place last year as Eisenstein in the Met's "Fledermaus."
Young as it sounds, this is the voice of a man over 50. Born in 1940, Mr. Jerusalem studied violin, piano and bassoon, then played the bassoon professionally for 10 years before beginning to study voice. By then, he was in his 30's a time of life when the standard-setting Lauritz Melchior was already recording legendary excerpts form "Die Walküre" and "Lohengrin" on 78's. Four years after his first lessons, Mr. Jerusalem made his debut as a singer. Two seasons later, in 1977, the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth cast him as Froh and as the Sailor in "Tristan." Then came Lohengrin and Parsifal.
Of course, fine things happen in the blended, forgiving acoustics of Bayreuth's small-scale house that cannot be duplicated elsewhere, and Mr. Jerusalem's recordings from around 1980 hardly suggest a budding Siegfried. There is a plausible Siegmund under Marek Janowski (Eurodisc) that stretches the singer to his limit. His Florestan in Kurt Masur's pointedly Mozartean "Fidelio" (Euridisc) seems a better fit, the twin of his Tamino in Bernard Haitink's "Magic Flute" (EMI/Angel). All three sound healthy, thoughtful and a little square.
Similarly, in a new "Parsifal" under Mr. Barenboim (Erato), the hero's troubles find Mr. Jerusalem somewhat muted. (The coming performances at the Met could correct this impression. But cut to Mr. Jerusalem's other recent recordings, and he displays both great tenderness and great excitement, his tenor vibrant, with glints of gold. His Waldemar in the post-Wagnerian excesses of Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder" under Riccardo Chailly (London) flares with wild romance, and his Loge in James Levine's audio "Rheingold" from the studio (Deutsche Grammophon) plays with the words as confidently as he plays with the music.
Better still is his Siegfried for Mr. Haitink, disarmingly youthful, with the Forging Song poured out in big, clean phrases, the Forest Murmurs scene exquisitely shaded with longing and the love duet rising to a jubilant ardor. From live performances, one may anticipate equal success in "Götterdammerung," particularly with his account of Siegfried's Narration and Death, which begins in affable plain-spokenness and proceeds to transcendence. Here is a portrayal that comparisons with historic precursors do not illuminate; it has a wholeness of its own.
"I've studied this part a long time," Mr. Jerusalem said. "It needs to be played in a very lively way, very naturally. It's not easy to sing. But I always had fun practicing it. My name is Siegfried, after all. That's part of it, too."