Audiences around the world are clamoring for the Ring these days as never before. The global vogue may be traced to 1976, when Patrice Chéreau's "centennial" production, conducted by Pierre Boulez, was unveiled at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, the hall built for the work's premiere 100 years earlier. A classic succès de scandale, Chéreau's cycle was seen at the Festspielhaus by very few. But it was also the first Ring to be captured on film, and in the early 1980s, television brought it to viewers everywhere. In the wake of the telecasts, houses great and small began mounting cycles of their own. Every season brings new ones.
In response to demand, new Wagnerians have been emerging by the dozens. Even in such challenging assignments as Wotan and Brünnhilde, several have displayed surprising authority. But Siegfried is another story. More than any other character in the Ring, the adolescent naïf with lungs of steel seems to slip through a performer's fingers.
True, the tenors who make it to the finish line get their ovations at curtain calls, along with everyone else. But somehow they never fire the imagination. Is it possible to cast the role properly? Have impresarios and conductors more or less given up?
Eva Wagner-Pasquier, the composer's great-granddaughter and newly appointed codirector of the Bayreuth Festival (sharing the honor with her half-sister Katharina Wagner), rolls her eyes at such questions. "This isn't a new situation," she said on a recent visit to New York. "It's been this way for 133 years."
That brings us back to the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876. Under pressure from Wagner's royal patron, Ludwig II of Bavaria, Das Rheingold had been previewed separately in Munich in 1869, Die Walküre the following year. But Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, the segments of the tetralogy in which our hero appears, were unveiled only in the context of the full cycle.
Wagner's first Siegfried was the thirty-nine-year-old Georg Unger of Leipzig, a former student of theology. He auditioned with music from Tannhäuser, was brought to Bayreuth in 1874 to study the part of Loge, in Das Rheingold, but was cast in the first Ring as Froh and Siegfried, a pairing of lyrical walk-on and marathon gut-buster that is beyond bizarre. According to contemporary witnesses, Unger was a disappointment, overshadowed not only by his Brünnhilde, Amalie Materna, but by Carl Schlosser, the Mime. As of the second cycle of the summer, Unger was relieved of Froh, which cannot have eased his burden much. In 1877, Wagner took him along to London for appearances at the Royal Albert Hall; then he dropped him. Four years later, at forty-four, Unger gave up singing; he died a month short of his fiftieth birthday.
Though Wagner may never have encountered his dream Siegfried in the flesh, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld seems to have come close. Wagner first encountered Schnorr as Lohengrin in Karlsruhe in 1862, when Schnorr was twenty-six years of age. Short and round to a fault, but possessed of spell-binding imaginative flair, Schnorr won Wagner over completely. The Ring was in limbo at this time, with Act III of Siegfried and all of Götterdämmerung yet to be composed, but Tristan und Isolde was ready to go, and Schnorr was duly cast as the hero. He sang the premiere on June 10, 1865 at the unbelievable age of twenty-eight. (His wife, Malvina Schnorr, some nine years his senior, sang Isolde.) Here, surely, was Wagner's hero of the future. But shortly after his twenty-ninth birthday, on July 2, Schnorr's life began tragically to unravel. On July 16, he came down with a mysterious condition he identified as "rampant gout," soon falling into a delirium; on July 21, he was dead. We may never know what really carried Schnorr off: Tristan, meningitis and typhoid have all been named as possible causes.
Wagner described Schnorr's voice as "full, soft and gleaming." For sheer sound, he preferred the Bohemian tenor Joseph Tichatschek, the original Rienzi and Tannhäuser, thirty years Schnorr's elder and still in the saddle when Schnorr died. But as an artist, Tichatschek could not compare. Schnorr's death left Wagner shattered. "In him I lost the great granite block needed to raise my building," he wrote, "and found myself directed to seek his replacement in a pile of bricks."
Neither Schnorr nor Tichatschek lived to sing Siegfried, and luckily for their legends, both went into the great silence unrecorded. Listing outstanding exponents of the role in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Barry Millington selects Jean de Reszke, Lauritz Melchior, Max Lorenz, Wolfgang Windgassen, Jess Thomas, Ludwig Suthaus, Alberto Remedios, René Kollo, Manfred Jung and Siegfried Jerusalem. According to contemporary accounts, de Reszke was a marvel; for those who can hear past the surface noise, intriguing scraps of his voice survive on record. But the Siegfried who has towered over all others since the dawn of recorded sound is Lauritz Melchior (1890–1973), born and trained in Denmark, in later life an American citizen. Five years after his debut as a lyric baritone, he made his tenor debut as Tannhäuser, reigning from then on as the heldentenor par excellence. Though his timbre never lost a baritone's dusky sheen, his top notes rang like a clarion. He articulated text with great vibrancy. He was tall, burly, with a moon-shaped baby face and wavy blond hair. In the robes of Tannhäuser, he looks to our eyes like someone's dotty maiden aunt (Charley's?), but by the standards of his time, he cut a credible heroic figure, even in animal skins. And he had staying power. At the Met alone he sang more than 500 performances in a career that lasted from 1926 to 1950.
Melchior's image and his recordings have rather spoiled things for his successors. No matter who steps up to the plate, we are hoping for something more. In the 1980s, Peter Hofmann, who sang Siegmund and had the looks and physique of a latter-day Captain Marvel, was said to be flirting with the part. Few can seriously have believed he could sing it, and he never did. In the '90s, Wagnerites were looking to Ben Heppner as their Great White Hope, thanks to the heft, poetry and stamina he displayed in his best performances as Tristan. Since speculation began, however, Heppner has hit several rocky patches. Now that he has finally taken the plunge, with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, the reviews have been respectful rather than ecstatic.
Part of the problem may lie in the character. Wotan, Brünnhilde, Siegmund and Sieglinde, even agents of evil such as Alberich and Hagen, have tragic stature as shapers of destinies beyond their own. And Siegfried? He forges his sword, breaking free from the past. Other than that, he comes across largely as a shallow action hero, killing his dragon, walking through fire, yet a pawn in the power games of others. By all accounts, Melchior had the exuberance, the face, the physique and above all the voice to make Siegfried matter.
But Melchior stopped singing a half century ago. Is there anyone now living who can have an accurate memory of his impact in the house, in his prime? How closely can it have resembled his recordings? On disc, of course, he invariably dominates the orchestra. Such balances have been the norm in vocal recordings since recordings began, and there are passages for Siegfried (as for all the other Ring characters) that could actually sound that way in the house: his meditations in the forest in Act II of Siegfried and his dying apostrophe to Brünnhilde in Act III of Götterdämmerung come to mind. But elsewhere, the balance implicit in Wagner's writing is quite different.
Looking beyond the Ring, we might cite the cobbling song for Hans Sachs in Act II of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which has much in common with the forging scene in Act I of Siegfried. To ears accustomed to recordings — and whose these days are not? — the orchestra inevitably "overwhelms" the voice in a live performance of either. The "imbalance" may diminish the singer in our estimation, or we may blame the conductor for being insensitive. Wagner, who formed his acoustic conceptions from acoustic performances, may have had quite different expectations. At peak moments such as these (and Siegfried has several others, in both his operas), the point may be less for the voice to outbellow the orchestra than to dramatize human will asserting itself against energies on the cosmic scale. (With the oath at the end of Act II of Otello, Verdi is aiming for just this effect.)
In the theater, where stage action tells its own story, it may be enough for the voice to be a thread in the tapestry, which is exactly what it looks like in the thicket of the full score. An instance of this "theater" acoustic is heard to thrilling effect in the forging song on a live recording of the Ring in Adelaide, 2004, on the Melba label, conducted by Asher Fisch. The Siegfried is the Canadian Gary Rideout, whose tenor rings out lustily, with a rare and infectious sense of enjoyment. Sad to say, Rideout is no longer with us; he died of pneumonia after a brief illness in 2007, at age fifty-five.
To judge from the recording, Rideout was something special, possibly even the Siegfried the world has been waiting for. But he was not alone. From videos of the past ten years, we may form an impression of his competition. In the Amsterdam Ring of 1999 (Opus Arte), the Siegfried is Heinz Kruse. The Stuttgart cycle of 2002–03 (EuroArts) features Jon Fredric West in Siegfried and Albert Bonnema in Götterdämmerung. John Treleaven does the honors in Barcelona (2004, Opus Arte), Stig Fogh Andersen in Copenhagen (2006, Decca).
Kruse and Treleaven approach the music as heavy lifting. Strain takes its toll, but they survive, neither disgraced nor covered with glory. Got up like an overgrown biker, West — the Siegfried of the last of this season's three Ring cycles at the Met — certainly grabs one's attention with his punched-out high notes. Quite unexpectedly, he also pours on the honey in some tender pages of Act II, but overall he loses points for poor parlando, a tendency to shout and frequent incidents of wild intonation. Tall and lean of frame, Bonnema is kitted out in animal pelts, armor with women's breasts and a laughable horned helmet — gag costumes he wears with an improbably good grace. Vocally, he offers a slender, well-focused sound guided by fine dramatic instincts. Andersen, whose Siegfried faltered at the Met in 2000, is in his element in the smaller-scaled Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen.
Some of these tenors are still at it, and many more are in the wings. A recent search on operabase.com turned up forty-five performances of Siegfried between January and August 2009, in fourteen cities, plus thirty-eight performances of Götterdämmerung in twelve cities, with nearly twenty Siegfrieds onboard.
Good luck to them all; no doubt they are a mixed bunch. According to an industry insider I know, one is coming to a major international debut from a long career as a comprimario in the provinces. Another, whom I happen to know, is Leonid Zakhozhaev, a lanky, intense fellow I directed as Lohengrin at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1999. He wore the costume well, but to my ear, the voice sounded unromantic, quarrelsome and dry — perfect, I thought, for Herodes in Salome. Valery Gergiev had other ideas, giving him Narraboth in that opera, lyric roles such as Tamino, Faust and Hoffmann, the notoriously treacherous Benvenuto Cellini of Berlioz, and then Siegfried. In St. Petersburg in 2006, Zakhozhaev all but danced his way through the part, swinging his sword like a teenage Olympian, spearing the high notes with apparent ease and sprinting to the finish line every night as if he was just warming up. The tone was not Melchior's, but it had gained color without losing its edge, and around him, the opera came alive. Was it the stuff of legend? Ask in a hundred years.