OPERA: D.C. ‘Siegfried’ tricks an illness

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The Washington National Opera faced one of its most daunting potential disasters to date Saturday evening as it opened a limited run of its long-awaited new production of “Siegfried” at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Highly acclaimed Swedish tenor Par Lindskog had rehearsed the title role exhaustively with the company, but about two weeks ago he came down with a severe case of bronchitis.

Bronchitis is bad news for anyone, let alone for a heldentenor in the cruelly strenuous role of Siegfried. It’s a dilemma for an opera company as well. There are few singers in the world at any given time who are available for the role under any circumstances.

WNO made a risky bet and chose to mount the production, but with a twist. Mr. Lindskog, recovering with the aid of antibiotics but still unable to sing, would be a kind of Siegfried avatar, acting and lip-syncing his part. Meanwhile, unobtrusively perched at the edge of the stage, relatively unknown American tenor Scott MacAllister, recruited to sing Siegfried at the proverbial last minute, handled the actual vocals.

After an uncertain few opening moments, the surprise of it all was that it actually worked. The awkwardness began to ease during Act I’s famous sword-forging scene. During the finale’s love duet between Siegfried and the now-awakened Brunnhilde, the chemistry blossomed between Mr. Lindskog and his Brunnhilde, the fabulous, powerful soprano Irene Theorin, even though the hero’s voice was sent in from the wings.

The new production’s post-industrial wasteland is gorgeously detailed, although it still continues this “American Ring’s” relentlessly irritating socialist visual tics. That said, the Act II transformation of Wagner’s famous dragon into a monstrous, diesel-smoke-belching steam shovel (global warming, anyone?) was visually inspired even in this jaded era of industrial light and magic special effects.

The singing, including Mr. Lindskog’s vocal emulation, was inspired. Tenor Andreas Conrad’s sneering, sniveling Mime was a sensation as was baritone Gordon Hawkins’ malevolent, Molotov cocktail-manufacturing Alberich. Local bass-baritone favorite Alan Held excelled as the decaying Wotan turned “Wanderer” who faces imminent defeat by Siegfried.

In shorter roles, mezzo Nancy Maultsby’s earth-mother Erda was highly effective, as was bass-baritone Gidon Saks in his brief turn as the dying former dragon, Fafner. Young Domingo-Cafritz soprano Micaela Oeste also sparkled as the sprightly Woodbird.

A special hat-tip to the versatile Mr. MacAllister whose polished, game-saving contribution made this show happen. This performance alone should win him a solo turn in some future WNO performance.

Negatives? Aside from the sheer oddity of experiencing nearly five hours of operatic ventriloquism, the only disappointment Saturday evening was the uneven performance of the WNO orchestra under the baton of Michael Guttler, particularly in the recalcitrant brass section.

It’s unknown whether Mr. Lindskog will be able to resume singing his role during these performances, so each evening will continue to be a surprise. Even in its present format, WNO’s “Siegfried” rates three stars; if Mr. Lindskog returns in full form, it might rate four.

★★★

WHAT: “Siegfried” by Richard Wagner, Washington National Opera

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Tuesday, Saturday and May 14 at 6 p.m.; May 17 at 2 p.m.

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