[Part Three of the Ring Cycle. Sung in Jeremy Sams’s English translation]

Siegfried – Richard Berkeley-Steele
Brünnhilde – Kathleen Broderick
Wanderer – Robert Hayward
Mime – John Graham-Hall
Alberich – Andrew Shore
Fafner – Gerard O’Connor
Erda – Patricia Bardon
Woodbird – Sarah Tynan

Orchestra of English National Opera
Paul Daniel

Phyllida Lloyd – director
Richard Hudson – designer
Adam Silverman – lighting designer
Paul Stannering – sound designer

[Ring cycle sponsored by MFI: ENO Season sponsored by Sky & Artsworld]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 November, 2004
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Coming between the overtly human confrontation of “The Valkyrie” and the many-layered denouement that is “Twilight of the Gods”, “Siegfried” can be a difficult stage-work to realise – its highly diverse acts presenting not so much a dramatic unity as three approaches to telling a story that just happens to be consecutive in human as in musical time. So, how to motivate the outer trappings of the drama while pointing up the consistency of Wagner’s thinking so that a seamless overall conception results.

One thing about Phyllida Lloyd’s staging that strikes home immediately is the extent to which the gangster-like imagery that dominated “Rhinegold” and underpinned – not always subtly – various aspects of “Valkyrie” has become generalised to the point where it ceases any longer to play an analogising function in this production. True, the rundown squalor among which Mime is found living suggests a ‘poor relation’ ever down on his luck; something that Siegfried, here the truculent adolescent bar none, is intent on driving home to his hapless guardian. The original mise en scène is further loosened come the setting of Act Two – here in what looks to be an amorphous warehouse, within which resides the dragon formally known as Fafner, protecting his treasure with an undeniably stoic dignity.

That the music-drama moves onto a new musical and dramatic level in Act Three seems to have been ignored given the setting of its first two scenes in a rest-home for aged gods and goddesses – with the conflagration of Valhalla anticipated on a communal television – not least the weary Erda: resigned to her fate as Wotan, in the guise of the Wanderer, enters prior to his confrontation with the eponymous hero. Yet, thanks to some simple but effective props and starkly memorable silhouetting, the transition to the final scene is given an emotional charge that is more or less sustained through the gradual coming together and eventual union of Siegfried and Brünnhilde. In short, a staging that mostly adds little or nothing to the experiential depth of Wagner’s music, but which goes against the representational grain less than might be supposed, and which touches on much the right expressive points of emphasis – even though it could have done so more subtly and imaginatively in the process.

That the overall effect of this production is by and large positive – albeit almost in spite of itself – has much to do with the persuasiveness of the performance as a whole. Richard Berkeley-Steele has the right demeanour and presence for the title-role, and if the upper reaches of his ‘heldentenor’ are sorely tested over the course of four hours, this at least emphasises the unvarnished rawness of the character at this stage in the drama: it will be interesting to hear how his assumption deepens as the complex machinations of ‘Twilight’ unfold. For now, the sheer bravado of his forging songs – as if shamelessly emphasising the paucity of musical interest at this point – and his excited confusion at slaying a dragon and penetrating a circle of fire at least keep him focused as the centre of interest.

Too much has been made of John Graham-Hall’s excessive height to be playing a dwarf; apart from the naivety of implying singers should physically resemble the characters they portray, it ignores the fact that, vocally, this is a wholly convincing assumption of the part. Whether in the wheedling manner with which he cajoles and berates Siegfried in the opening act, or the comical insouciance with which – in Act Two – he unknowingly betrays his true intentions and seals his fate, he makes the character more absorbing than it can often seem. Andrew Shore’s Alberich continues to impress with its astute mixture of vengeful paranoia and constantly inept opportunism. The repartee betweenhim, the Wanderer, and Fafner is vividly dispatched, confirming Act Two as the comic portion – albeit a decidedly malevolent one – of “The Ring” as a whole. A quality enhanced by Sarah Tynan’s Woodbird – skateboarder-clad and scooter-driven, but with its pervasive coloratura confidently rendered.

Nor is there much to quibble with in Gerard O’Connor’s Fafner – surviving a somewhat “Wizard of Oz” reduction from dragon to human in his slaying, and evincing an integrity that communicates audibly to Siegfried at this point. After reaching an expressive highpoint in the final act of “Valkyrie”, Robert Hayward’s Wotan adapts to his Wanderer status with some conviction – setting up a psychological smokescreen in the first two acts so that his climactic encounter with Siegfried conveys pathos as well as resignation in the face of the inevitable. So too, and once the banality of her presentation is overlooked, does Patricia Bardon’s Erda – dignified in its all-knowing fatalism, and with a ‘contralto’ richness of tone wholly appropriate for the role. As Brünnhilde, Kathleen Broderick continues to open up facets of the cycle’s emotionally most inclusive figure – powerfully encompassing the phases of amazement, fear, regret and rapture tellingly juxtaposed in the opera’s final scene, while suggesting that further shades of expression are there to be drawn upon in the concluding instalment of “The Ring”.

Occasionally unsure as to dramatic pacing in the difficult first act – though the scene between Mime and the Wanderer is outstanding in its flexible handling of their existential guessing-game – Paul Daniel rarely goes wrong thereafter, though the sense of intoxication as union of Siegfried and Brünnhilde becomes a reality could have been more potently delineated. Moreover, the ENO orchestra’s playing sounds more assured with each opera, capped here by an uninhibited rendering of the famous ‘horn call’ from John Thurgood (who rightfully joined the cast to share the applause). As Daniel’s tenure nears its final stage, it looks likely that this “Ring” cycle will go down as the summation of his achievement with the company and that the interpretative best of this cycle is yet to come.

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