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Wednesday 10 October 2012

Siegfried at the ROH


I have tickets to all the Ring operas! Annoyingly I'm seeing them out of order (Rheingold, Siegfried, Gotterdammerung, Walkure), so it will be difficult to appraise the cycle properly as a piece of story telling, but better this than nothing!

On the whole I really enjoyed Siegfried. I usually find that Act I drags until the forging song, because up until then it might uncharitably be described as an argument between a malevolent midget and an angry simpleton, but here I was completely captivated throughout, both by the dramatics and the music. In the opening minutes of the opera we are shown chronological slices of Siegfried's youth from pram to adolescence with Mime's increasingly desperate attempts to forge him a sword. Gerhard Siegel offers a Mime that combines his humorous patheticness with a genuine pathos and sadness. He is disturbing not because he is evil, but because his normality is just a shell: he has many of the familiar drives that we have, but at his core there is a vacuum, where something very fundamental is missing (In this he is a much like Hagen). There is no doubt, for instance, that his scheming for the ring is only half the story - there is a genuine desire towards parenthood, even if he can only be a terrible parent. We question what Mime's own awful upbringing might have been like with Alberich, and what psychological scars is he trying to heal with his "own" son. Siegel put this all across in a rather understated way and vocally his truly perfect diction, power and sensitivity are a model for the other singers.

Siegfried's own inarticulate longing for his mother are ravishingly captured in the music of Act II, and one wonders even whether there is not some erotic tension present in the music as well, what with his already sexually confused heredity, and him sharing direct lineage with Brunnhilde in the form of Wotan; indeed he confuses her for his mother in Act III. (As an aside, because of the incestuous genetics, both Brunnhilde and Siegfried have half of Wotan's genes. Second aside: It has been noted by feminist writers that the physical between a mother and her child is an erotic one, centred on the breast, and that intense pleasure is often derived from both parties.) Staging wise, this bit is the best thing about Act II: Siegfried disappears down a hole in the middle of the stage, the roof of which then rises to reveal a star lit sky and green paddock: apart from anything it's just a rather beautiful, if typically quirky image. I heard grumbles in the interval about the deer on wheels that appear, but Keith Warner's slightly light hearted aesthetic is very firmly established by this point, so I didn't find it jarring. The difficult to stage dragon scene is acceptably presented - the dragon head is quite scary, and moves with a threatening air, though the fight is rather perfunctory as usual, and though Siegfried is meant to see the whole thing as a sort of joke, at one point he just runs round the stage to make the scene last longer it seems, which is clumsy and undramatic.

Stefan Vinke's Siegfried is a very different matter from Siegel's articulate, needy Mime - Vinke never once genuinely connects with another person on stage, and although I don't think this is an intentional acting choice, it works as an interpretation: the only human contact that Siegfried has had has been from his emotional cripple of a parent, and so he would clearly be a rather underdeveloped or even damaged young man, incapable of the normal range of human emotions. He feels closer to the animals he sees, and what saves him is his radiant energy, love of freedom and instinctive feeling that Mime's actions are wrong. I like this almost autistic interpretation - but if this was the intention it could have been more precise, definite and troubled. Vocally it's not exactly the most exciting voice, but this is an impossible role, and he sings all the notes, largely in tune, and can even sing quietly when needed. He was clearly saving himself for the final duet in which he truly erupted volume wise, and I don't think I've ever heard an ovation so loud at the ROH.

Wagner of course broke off after Act II, as he felt he couldn't yet compose the music he needed to for the close of Siegfried, and so honed his skill with two little compositional exercises commonly referred to Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg. The abrupt and inevitable change in style between Act II and Act III is hard to complain about when the later music is of such manifest inspiration and consistent beauty and power: Act III combines the ecstatic erotics of Tristan, with the magnificent grandeur of Meistersinger, making it one of the most sheerly pleasurable Act of any of Wagner's operas in terms of aural beauty. What also changes though is the pacing - Wagner slows things right down, and suddenly psychology and philosophy are meant to do the heavy lifting drama wise. I liked Wotan's casting aside of his books and objects of power as he prepares to reject the Will, though the scene with Erda is slightly underwhelming. He does hurry along his desire to end the gods' power by goring her which was rather strong. Vinke's goonishly smiling Siegfried is well contrasted to Terfel's wracked Wanderer though again the scene didn't quite resonate with the energy it needed. Then the fated meeting of Siegfried and Brunnhilde: this is where Warner's staging begins to falter, and he finds it difficult to consummate the eroticism that is in the text and music. First is the botched scene when Siegfried awakens Brunnhilde - it all occurs behind a large wall, which Siegfried pops out from behind occasionally to tel the audience about what he's thinking/doing. When Brunnhilde has actually woken up and the duet occurs they are barely touching, let alone interracting - often they are stationed at opposite sides of the stage singing about the feel of warm breath and bodies. Does Warner not believe in their genuine attraction? At one point we see them either side of a table: Brunnhilde's domestication - the transformation from goddess to woman, but still there's no intimacy. Strangely her horse is dead, and only the head remains - are they both delusional about this? Is it a clue to the rest? (This doesn't resolve itself in Gotterdammerung either...) The ending then is unsatisfactory and a disappointment after the compelling first two acts.

Terfel's Wanderer is quite interesting - subtly acted and with a lot of vocal nuance - but also problematic. He doesn't quite register with the quiet import that he should, and though he can more than sing all the notes, the timbre is very bright and metallic for a bass baritone - not quite what we have come to expect in this role. Having missed Susan Bullock's Brunnhilde in Walkure (I'm seeing it 18th Oct), my first experience of her was much less bad than the reports I had been hearing. She certainly wasn't too quiet as so many have claimed, at least from where I was sitting, though she is clearly working quite hard, and can't truly "ride" the orchestra in the fashion of the truly great Brunnhildes. It's not a very beautiful sound and there is significant wobble on the high notes which are squally and metallic, but she can sing quite beautifully in the quiet moments, and anything below about a g above the staff is basically OK. Her diction is good and she manages to get the text across quite well. (I liked her more in Gotterdammerung, so will talk more of her there.) Similarly to Rheingold, I thought Maria Radner had the right colour, but not enough weight for Erda. I really don't think Sophie Bevan is cast well when doing these light, high lyric coloratura roles (as here with the Woodbird)- she can sing the notes, but the voice is heavier and darker than is ideal. Wolfgang Koch and Eric Halfvarson both more than did the job as Alberich and Fafner.

Pappano takes an almost Straussian delight in the wonderful orchestral effects of the first two acts and makes them exciting and surging, while sensitively accompanying the cast. The orchestra are sounding magnificent under him at the moment, and the warmth and beauty of Act 3 was quite wonderful. It's not the grandest or deepest Wagner you've ever heard in terms of long range structure or shape, but that possibly wouldn't play ideally to the slightly fragile cast. In the purely orchestral sections he really lets the orchestra go, and the momentum and power is infectious - I couldn't wait for the conclusion in Gotterdammerung (which I have now seen).

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