Jay Hunter Morris Saves the Day as the Almost-Perfect New Siegfried at the Met

United StatesUnited States Met Live in HD 2011/12, Wagner, Siegfried: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York, conducted by Fabio Luisi. Produced by Robert Lepage. Directed for TV by Gary Halvorson and broadcast to the IMAX, Waterloo, London (and other cinemas throughout the world), 5.11.11. (JPr)

Jay Hunter Morris and Deborah Voigt. Credit Ken Howard and Metropolitan Opera.

The old theatrical adage ‘the show must go on’ is synonymous with New York’s Broadway and not far away at the Metropolitan Opera it was the turn of the understudy to save the show once more and perhaps in a true ‘rags to riches’ way (as the host for this broadcast, Renée Fleming described it) become a star. The role was that of Siegfried – a daunting challenge because the singer is onstage and singing for most of the opera’s five hours – but it is not as impossible as some, including Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, would have the international viewing audience believe. The part had already defeated two previously announced tenors: Ben Heppner dropped out some time ago and his replacement Gary Lehman, pulled out because of a long-standing strength- sapping illness shortly before the dress rehearsal. The Met’s saviour was Jay Hunter Morris, who coincidentally appeared on Broadway in 1995 in Master Class.

Morris seems to have paid his dues and deserves his piece of good fortune. He seems a refreshingly down-to-earth Texan whose speaking voice (that – for those of a certain age – is like Dennis Weaver’s Chester from TV’s Gunsmoke) belies his bright sounding, flexible and lyrical singing voice. It seemed impeccably schooled in well-nuanced German, the meaning of every word registering on his expressive bearded face. The character of Siegfried evolves from a carefree young man to a cold-blooded killer and then he braves the fire at the top of a mountain to wake with a kiss Brünnhilde to whom he is instantly attracted. Morris took us on this journey with rare dramatic truth.

In a broadcast it is impossible to completely review Morris’s voice ; I would need to hear it in the theatre to do that. I wonder how much heft he had at his disposal. He clearly must learn to husband his resources better in order to survive the marathon, because his voice failed him in the climaxes of each of the three acts. Of course he is not young but he is impressively tall, slim and broad-shouldered, so with an extravagant blond wig he looked more like Wagner’s ideal of a dragon-slaying hero than any previous singer of the role. If Leonardo da Vinci were alive he would use him as a model. He and Deborah Voigt’s voluptuous Brünnhilde made a visually handsome pair.

Carl Fillion’s 24-plank set cranked and creaked a little but set up some amazing stage pictures on which Robert Lepage has his singers walk around, in front of, behind and even climb across (or a body double does). In Act I there is the impression of a waterfall flowing into a pool of water that can show a reflection or be stirred up. When characters moved through the Act II, forest leaves seemed to scatter under the performer’s feet, and in Act III the flames flickered impressively around Brünnhilde’s rock. Sometimes even on the huge IMAX screen it was difficult to discern every bit of Pedro Pires’s video imagery but it seemed suitably atmospheric for each scene of Siegfried.

In Act II after Siegfried accidentally tastes the dragon’s blood and understands what a bird is saying to him, a yellow animated ‘Tweety Bird’ points him towards the Tarnhelm and the ring, and shows him the way to his future bride. We see the bird in the trees mouthing the words we hear from Mocja Erdmann’s agile soprano voice and it flies through the ‘trees’ and is also seen sitting on Siegfried’s lap at one point. As amazing as it is in HD at the cinema, it must have been even more wonderful at the Met. However, I am not sure what was going on with Fafner’s dragon; it seemed to be a puppet-like snake (or even a huge worm?) that Siegfried could have defeated with a toothpick – he really had no need for the sword he had recently, fairly-realistically, forged.

Bryn Terfel was Wotan, travelling incognito as the Wanderer; his still smooth bass-baritone and huge stage presence brought a visceral tragic grandeur to his scenes with Patricia Bardon’s persuasively potent Erda. His follow-up encounter with Siegfried was the best work he has done in this Ring so far, despite it being only the third time he has sung this role. The line-up of Siegfried’s antagonists were completed by Eric Owens’, dark-hued, powerful, bass-baritone as the wily Alberich, and Gerhard Siegel as his equally-conniving brother, Mime, and if his very non-PC hunchback is overlooked, he looked a lot like James Levine who was originally to have conducted these performances. Siegel is now a veteran of over 100 Mimes and had a heart-attack at the Met in 2009 and in his interview credited people there for saving his life. He had a voice that still sounded capable of Siegfried himself, a role he sang at the start of his career … and Eric Owens sounded even more like Wotan than Bryn Terfel.

Deborah Voigt’s Brünnhilde made the transformation from confused virgin goddess to passionate woman subtly and her soprano voice – though seemingly hardening and thinning out at the top – sounded suitably multi-layered and expressive during her 30 minute ‘love duet’ with her tiring Siegfried.

The long evening never dragged as it sometimes can thanks to Fabio Luisi, the Met’s new principal conductor. Eschewing James Levine’s more reverent heavy-handed approach to Wagner (or ‘German pathos’ as Luisi named it) it was a very bright, briskly flowing, transparent account of Wagner’s colourful score. It was a little like an old master painting renewed by being stripped of dirt, grime and varnish. As much as can be gauged from this HD broadcast his orchestra seemed to respond to him with some superb playing, and for once Siegfried really did sound like the scherzo of the Ring Cycle.

Finally, if anyone from the Met reads this it would be a good idea to avoid scheduling a broadcast to the UK on 5 November when the sky is awash with fireworks causing atmospheric disturbance and causing the picture to break up intermittently at IMAX; it spoilt things a little but not too much.

Jim Pritchard


Check out your local cinema listings as the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD 2011-12 season continues as follows:

19 Nov: Glass’s Satyagraha

3 Dec: Handel’s Rodelinda

10 Dec: Gounod’s Faust

21 Jan: The Enchanted Island

11 Feb: Wagner’s Götterdämmerung

25 Feb: Verdi’s Ernani

7 April: Massenet’s Manon

14 April: Verdi’s La traviata