Chapter Review of Siegfried (1896-97)

Review of W. J. Henderson in The New York Times



The Production of the Second Drama of Wagner's Tetralogy at the Metropolitan Opera House -- An Evening of Immense Enthusiasm Before and Behind the Curtain

After several postponements and a great amount of nerve-racking rehearsal, Wagner's "Siegfried" " was performed by the Metropolitan Opera House Company last night. The chief significance of the event lay in the fact that the performance, as a whole, was in the hands of artists trained for years in what is somewhat loosely described as the Italian school and, therefore, accustomed to a style of music and traditions of delivery wholly opposed to the manner of Wagner. Strictly speaking the chief singers of last night's performance are of French artistic culture, whence the step into Wagnerdom is shorter and less difficult than that from pure Italian schooling. Nevertheless, the production of "Siegfried" at the Metropolitan Opera House last evening was like that of "Tristan und Isolde" last season, another demonstration of the fact that the dominion of Wagner has been acknowledged, and that the great singers of the bel canto have learned that in his works they would find the field of their highest artistic achievement.

The demonstration of facts last evening has a converse, which is equally important and which calls for especial mention in these columns. For nearly ten years this paper has preached in its musical criticisms that bad singing was not a necessity in Wagner drama; that Wagner's music was not impossible to deliver with all the grace and beauty of the most polished Italian style; and that if it were properly sung, much of the thoughtless comment on its lack of melody would disappear. It was held in these columns that since Lilli Lehmann and Emil Fischer could sing Wagner's music beautifully, there was no excuse for the vocal shortcomings of such distinguished distorters of Wagner's music as Max Alvary. Last season's performance of "Tristan und Isolde " proved conclusively the justness of the doctrine preached in these columns. None of us had ever before heard Tristan's death scene sung. Even Niemann, who was overwhelming in his histrionic exposition of the despair of the hero, could only shout the declamation in disjointed and tuneless patches. Jean de Reszke showed us that it could be sung without the infraction of a single one of those time-tried rules that make for beauty in vocal utterance, and that when so sung this music lost none of its greatness, but on the contrary gained in pathetic potency. Last night's performance demonstrated that the music of "Siegfried" was singable from first to last and that it was all the more beautiful when sung in the Italian or French style-so long as that style was used only as a means, and had behind it a perfect sympathy with Wagner's purposes.

The production of last evening was further notable because only one German was engaged in the work upon the stage. To be sure the saddle of the general-in-chief was occupied by one trained in Germany, and for the most part in the home, and under the eyes, of Wagner himself. But, after all, Anton Seidl is a Hungarian, and so the record may read that one German, Herr von Hubbenet as Mime, was engaged in last night's performance. Of the others, three were Poles, one was an Australian, two were Americans, and one was a Frenchman. Of these artists five learned German solely for the sake of Wagner, and of all the persons in the cast four, at advanced stages of their careers, made their first appearances in this music drama. Of these four three were singers of world-wide fame, who had nothing to gratify but the artist's insatiable ambition to achieve conquests in new territory. These three could not hope to increase the universal esteem for their work as artists, nor to add one jot to their value as members of an operatic company. They undertook their tasks voluntarily because they felt that in the later music dramas of Wagner there was for them a promised land, where they might tread celestial heights unknown before.

These are some of the things proved by last night's performance. It proved others, but they must be reserved for more leisurely discussion at a time when, to paraphrase Swinburne, the hounds of midnight are not on morning's traces. Today's comment must be rather in the nature of a record of impressions and a report of facts than in that of calm and judicial criticism. "Siegfried" is a long drama, and it was late when the performance concluded. General results cannot be adequately summed up in such conditions, but something may be said about them. The drama was presented in the true Wagnerian spirit, except in so far as the work of Mme. Melba was concerned, and of that more may be said hereafter. The impersonator of Siegfried and the conductor carry the burden of two-thirds of the drama upon their shoulders, and Jean de Reszke and Anton Seidl are a combination of Wagnerians that cannot be surpassed in the world, and probably not equaled.

Jean de Reszke, famous as Romeo and Faust, once gave in New York a performance of John of Leyden, which stamped him as one of the greatest dramatic tenors in the history of opera. Last season he displayed the full development of those dramatic powers in "Tristan," when he proved that he was capable of an exact and lifelike embodiment of one of Wagner's two master heroes. Last night M. de Reszke became famous as the young Siegfried. It was for him a doubtful experiment, for a satisfactory impersonation of the young hero of the immortal drama of life's springtime and the birth of love requires youthfulness of appearance and buoyancy of action. M. de Reszke did not, it is true, look quite as young a Siegfried as one could have wished; yet he looked sufficiently young to preserve sympathy and interest, while his splendid physique was that of a hero. His physical proportions are indeed admirably suited to the role, and in vigor and power of action he left nothing to be desired. There were grace and strength in his every movement, and he acted with a freedom which was made possible only by an absolutely perfect acquaintance with the entire score of the music drama. Those who wish to understand how completely he has mastered the score should note at the next performance the unerring accuracy of his hammer beats in the forge scene. He never misses a single stroke of the troublesome rhythms which Wagner has given him.

To rise from the mere physical aspects of his Siegfried to its intellectual and emotional qualities, let us say briefly that his conception of the part is complete, just, and masterful. As it was in "Tristan," so it is in "Siegfried;" there is not a single word of the text or phrase of the music whose meaning he does not understand and reveal. Furthermore, he sets the character of the young Siegfried before us. He gives us the impetuous energy, the fiery will, the fearless courage, the pathetic yearning, the overmastering love, and the youthful ingenuousness with the unfailing skill of a commanding artist who has at his call all the resources of lyric art and knows how to employ them with the most delicate discrimination. In the sum and in the details his Siegfried is a complete and satisfying embodiment of Wagner's ideas. And it is always entrancing to both eye and ear. Jean de Reszke charms the senses, fascinates the fancy, and fires the imagination. He is Baldur, the beautiful, prototype of Siegfried. He is Sigurd, the son of Volsung. He is Siegfried lover and warrior.

It is like uttering a truism to say that he sang the music beautifully. It would be perhaps nearer the truth to say that it never was sung before. Jean de Reszke has not now to prove his ability to voice the declamation of Wagner's later style, but came upon us like a new revelation last night. Nothing more touching could be conceived than his reading of the lines in the forest:
"Doch ich bin so allein, Hab' nicht Bruder noch Schwester; Meine Mutter schwand, Nie sah sie der Sohn"

The purely lyric parts of the rôle he sang as no one has ever sung them before, The "wander song" was glorious in its verve and rhythmic richness, and the celebration of Nothung at the forge and the anvil was a superb example of all that is noblest in lyric art. The whole of the scene of the forest was sung in a manner altogether lovely, and in the final duo, warmed to the highest glow of emotional force, the great singer soared into regions of eloquence in song where the hearer could follow him only in that triumphant exaltation of spirit which it is the clearest privilege of music to establish in common between performer and auditor. M. Jean de Reszke's Siegfriedmust go into the annals of opera as one of the master creations of the century.

Little space is left to speak of the others. M. Edouard de Reszke, as Wotan, achieved one of the greatest successes of his career. But he had less to gain than Wagner. It is a pity that the master could not have lived to behold the ideal Wotan in this drama. The massive form and dignified bearing of the great basso, and the sonorous thunder of his organ-like voice rehabilitated Wotan and made of the mysterious Wanderer a genuine father of all the gods, well worthy to hew his spear from the ash-tree Yggdrasil, and with it for his scepter to rule the world. Mr. David Bispham's Alberich was excellent in every respect. and Herr von Hubbenet, imported from Germany especially for tins production gave a very fine performance of Mime in the accepted style. Of course, Mime must not sing well. His thin and querulant tenor is intended as a foil to the heroic tones, of Siegfried, and Hubbenet's voice suited this requirement of the part perfectly. M. Castelmary cannot be said to have made his first appearance as the dragon. but he sang Father's music through the tin trumpet in a satisfactory, if not striking. manner. Miss Sophie Traubmann was the other invisible person. She sang the music of the forest bird, but in a manner neither birdlike nor blithesome. Mlle. Olitzka was a satisfactory Erda.

Too many considerations for dismissal at this time surround the first essay of Mme. Melba in German opera. She appeared, of course, at a late hour, and there were evidences that even her experience and self-confidence were not proof against the assaults of nervousness. It is undeniable, and may as well be said now as later, that the quality of her voice and her style of singing are not suited to a complete embodiment of Brünnhilde, and she can be praised now only for her conscientious effort and for her ambition, which was more potent than wise.

The drama was admirably put on the stage, with every attention to the numerous and troublesome details in which it abounds. The bird was a little overfed, but the dragon was a beauty of his kind. The change from the first to the second scene of Act III was excellently done-indeed, better than it was ever done here before. Stage Manager William Parry deserves a word of praise for his careful work. It is unnecessary to say anything about Mr. Seidl. Everyone knows that he is master of the forces in such a work as "Siegfried." He conducted with his customary skill last night. The orchestra was tolerably good, the chief blemishes being a coarseness of tone and some imperfections of intonation in the brass. But the trombones always have trouble with this music.

The audience was one that packed the house to its utmost capacity and in every possible way demonstrated its delight. Of course, the greatest enthusiasm was shown after the first act, in which the tremendous power of the forging scene always blows emotion to a white heat. M. de Reszke's superb climax caused him to be recalled half a dozen times and hailed with cheers. Mr. Seidl and Mr. von Hubbenet came in for a fair share of the applause, of which Mr. Seidl received a goodly amount when he made his first appearance in the orchestra. At the end of the second act the enthusiasm was not so great but it never is, for the climax is too tender and poetic to call forth demonstrations of popular approval. Those who were present last night will cherish that scene in their memories. At the close of the drama there was a long outpouring of applause, which must have sent the principal artists home happy, though tired. The performance as a whole was a splendid success, and its one grave shortcoming may he dismissed kindly at this time. Mr. Grau is to be congratulated upon a most valuable addition to the repertory of his house and the de Reszke brothers upon another successful incursion into the field which they love best.



M. Jean de Reszke and Mme Melba Heartily Received at Metropolitan


Recalled Again and Again by One of the Most Brilliant Audiences of the Season

The performance of "Siegfried" at the Metropolitan Opera House last night gained special significance from the fact that Mme. Melba, who has heretofore been known only as a singer of florid rôles, was the Brünnhilde, and M. Jean de Reszke added in Siegfried another Wagnerian rôle to his repertoire.

As M. de Reszke appears early in the first act, his performance naturally claims attention first. The Siegfried of this great artist is musically a beautiful creation, finished in every detail, full of youthful yearnings and energy. His description in act I of how he saw his image reflected in the brook was a perfect example of melodious recitative-faultless in pitch, rich in tone quality and deeply expressive, and in the forging scene, when Siegfried swings his sword aloft with the glad cry:-"Nothung! Nothung! Neidisches Schwert!" (the notes are augmented fifths, which to musicians open up the very arcanum of their art) M. de. Reszke's voice rang out like a shout of triumph. In the famous Waldweben scene his voice was again full of exquisite tenderness and pathos. In the last act he sang and acted with all the passion which the intensely dramatic situation called for. The only fault that can be found with his acting was a certain lack of youthful eagerness in portions of the first and second act. But be that as it may, the fact remains that M. de Reszke sings Siegfried as Wagner wished all his rôles to be sung-with a voice perfectly attuned to every shade of expression and trained in the best school of singing. If ever the theory existed-and I fear it did-that any school save the most perfect school of vocalization is equal to the adequate interpretation of Wagner's music dramas M. de Reszke has exploded that theory.

When during the fall it was rumored that Mme. Melba would sing Brünnhilde in "Siegfried" people smiled incredulously; when it became known that she would they wondered. Last night, after she had sung it, they applauded. Mme. Melba's Brünnhilde was, all things considered, surprisingly good. She had heretofore sung only in rôles entirely different from this Wagnerian character. Considerable hostility had been awakened in some quarters by her intention to assume the part. It is natural that she should be nervous. Her Brünnhilde will doubtless improve with successive performances, when she, hitherto a singer of what are now considered light, florid parts, will be more at home in this dramatic rôle. Others who have sung it here have shown greater breadth and power of voice, yet there is a certain charm in the perfect ease with which Mme. Melba surmounts all the vocal difficulties of the score, and toward the end, as she gained more confidence in herself, she sang with much greater freedom, and in the voice had the true ring of assurance.

M. Edouard de Reszke took the part of The Wanderer, and, true artist that he is, gave it an importance it has never had in a performance. With the capital Mime of Herr von Hubbenet the riddle scene in the first act between Mime and TheWanderer became one of the most interesting passages in the opera. The tones in which M. de Reszke answered the riddle were most majestic, and his invocation of Erda in the third act was superb. The excellence of Herr von Hubbenet has already been hinted at. In his scenes withSiegfried he was repulsively familiar, and, in those with The Wanderer and Alberich, grotesquely comic. Mr., David Bispham was Alberich, M. Castelmary, Fafner; Miss Traubman sang the bird music, and Mlle. Olitzka was Erda.

But, no matter how fine the cast, no Wagnerian music drama can succeed without a conductor who is in his role as great an artist as the greatest of those behind the footlights. Mr. Seidl with his Beethoven-Liszt face had the performance completely under his control from the first tap on his desk to the last wave of his baton, The nervous energy which he infuses into the orchestra, the subtle lights and shades, the numerous gradations in detail and the gradual development of all the parts toward the one grand climax at the end-these are characteristics of Mr. Seidl's leading, and give what we call realism to the most romantic art creations-make them rise up lifelike before us.

As a whole, this performance, especially if the promise of future improvement, which it promises, is kept in mind, must be accounted a success. There were many recalls of artists and conductor after each curtain. After the third act these included also Mr. Parry, the stage manager, whose work, especially in the transition in the last act, was excellent. No stage manager, of course, can make a success of the dragon scene. That is a dramatic impossibility, and I wish a stage manager could be found bold enough to keep this monster-which, instead of being frightful, is always ridiculous-out of sight altogether.