Siegfried [Second Day of Der Ring des Nibelungen; music drama in three acts]
Siegfried – John Treleaven
Mime – Gerhard Siegel
The Wanderer – John Tomlinson
Alberich – Peter Sidhom
Fafner – Phillip Ens
Woodbird – Sarah Fox
Erda – Jane Henschel
Brünnhilde – Lisa Gasteen
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Director – Keith Warner
Designer – Stefanos Lazaridis
Costumes – Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting – Wolfgang Göbbel
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 2 October, 2005
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
If one were being unkind, this review might start with a quote from Benjamin Britten who is reported to have said to a singer at a recording session: “If that is the best you can do, you’d better carry on doing it”. For the Royal Opera’s new production of “Der Ring des Nibelungen” continues with “Siegfried” that is the same frustrating mixture of moments of insight coupled with instances of confusing visual imagery and puzzling directorial decisions which have characterised the previous instalments of the cycle.
We first see an enclosure whose walls are surrounded by varioushieroglyphics – including Greek lettering – and mathematical symbols and formulae in which Mime is discovered brooding his situation. There is then a ‘mimed’ (no pun intended) sequence where we witness Siegfried in various stages of his youth – as a baby, child and adolescent – interacting with a clearly irascible Mime. The inability of Mime to provide Siegfried with a worthy sword is made manifest – that is the subject of the opening scene, but whether this ‘pre-history’ needs to be spelt out quite so blatantly is a matter of debate.
What was then revealed was a crashed aeroplane with bits missing and parts strewn about. It was an audacious image, but quite what it has to do with Wagner’s prescribed setting of a cave inside a forest is not very clear, save that it later served as the location from which the Wanderer emerged.
Gerhard Siegel presented a Mime who was struggling with his unlooked-for parental responsibilities and, mercifully, a character without caricature. In fact, his was an unusually sympathetic portrayal, and for all their bantering and bickering, there was a suggestion of affection – albeit grudging – between him and the impetuous Siegfried, initially at any rate.
John Treleaven was credible in appearance as it is possible for amiddle-aged man to be portraying a youth who is supposed to be probably not more than about twenty-years old. One could admire his stamina, his conviction and his entering into the physical demands of the production. But his is by no means the ‘Heldentenor’ the part demands. Whilst the voice is not exactly small, it does not have the ‘heft’ which is a pre-requisite for much of the time. Not surprisingly, it was in the quieter passages where he was at his most effective, though he certainly had amplitude to a degree for the forging-songs and he paced himself so thathe was not out-sung in the concluding duet with Brünnhilde. No mean feat in itself.
With the entry of John Tomlinson as the Wanderer (Wotan in a none-too-subtle disguise), we had Wagnerian singing of a different league.
This was full-blooded, rounded projection, with text welded to tone with inevitability, and his Lear-like appearance and demeanour were profoundly touching here and in the final act.
Siegfried’s subsequent forging scene was well-staged in context, with the aeroplane providing fuel for the furnace and real fire blazing. A pity Treleaven muffed his final, climactic cry of “Nothung” (the name of the sword), and that Antonio Pappano’s restless conducting did not lead to the inevitable release of tension in the closing pages of Act One – a passage realised supremely by Reginald Goodall.
The pyrotechnics – striking enough in themselves – were no realsubstitute for Wagner’s own stage-direction whereby Siegfried’s newly-forged sword cleaves Mime’s anvil in twain.
Act Two was staged with the kind of perception that would have been welcome elsewhere. We were not, to be sure, in a forest, but we were in a sinister location, with what looked like a damaged bridge and a pathway with scorched holes.
But the interplay of characters and the realisation of certain crucialmoments was extremely effective.
The Alberich/Wanderer scene was notable for the venomous nature of the exchanges – Peter Sidhom depicting almost unbearable frustration at his ring-less state and, seemingly, still bearing the wounds from when it was wrenched from him by Wotan (in “Das Rheingold”).
The scene changed for Siegfried’s forest musings and he was placed on a grassy mound – for once a naturalistic, and welcome, touch – and when his thoughts pondered that his mother’s eyes might have been like those of a roe, a large effigy of the latter and its mate, both white, appeared. The whole was an affecting and appropriate sight, reflecting rather than contradicting Wagner’s poignant woodland music.
Fafner’s appearance as a dragon was not, as has often been the case, a moment for hilarity, but rather was a properly horrifying image, recalling the cadavers on display in Nibelheim, and was unusually well realised technically.
Thereafter, the stage took on an almost Beckett-like bleakness, with disembodied heads (initially Fafner’s, later Alberich’s) with the exchanges between Mime and Alberich suggesting the squabbling pair in “Waiting for Godot”.
When Siegfried is enabled to understand Mime’s words of ‘double meaning’, the latter was seen wearing a rat’s head, and the fairy-tale element of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ was aptly touched upon and made manifest.
Sarah Fox was a visible Woodbird (the score indicates that only the voice should be heard), and her bright timbre was most suitable for the role, though her occasionally quivery vibrato was not always attractive.
Dramatically, the conclusion of the act was spoiled by the Woodbird remaining at the foot of the stage to blow out a candle, instead of leading Siegfried off to find Brünnhilde.
Nevertheless, this second act had dramatic frisson and character interaction which was, unquestionably, gripping.
Images from the third act of “Die Walküre” returned for the final act of “Siegfried” – principally a huge white rectangle upon which John Tomlinson was, at first, required to be perilously perched. The music depicts elemental forces at work – this Wanderer seemed to be having merely a restless night on his mattress. There were balance problems here, with the orchestra much too loud and covering Tomlinson’s summoning of Erda.
Jane Henschel appeared seated in her armchair on top of some kind of tall conveyance. Her utterances were not always as meaningful as they should be and it was not clear why the Wanderer appeared to run Erda through with his spear – in any event, it is not intended in Wagner’s drama.
Treleaven and Tomlinson sparred effectively, though the sense ofimpending calamity was not suggested from the pit.
By this stage, the rectangle had become a wall (as seen in “Die Walküre”) and the singers had to keep pushing it – though to what purpose it was unclear.
The last image we had of Brünnhilde was on a couch sleeping surrounded by her Valkyrie sisters pinned to the wall. This was not repeated, so quite where Brünnhilde was located was ambiguous. It was definitely not on Wagner’s mountaintop. She suddenly appeared at a doorway located within the rectangle/wall.
But the music tells us that Brünnhilde gradually awakes from the sleep imposed upon her by her father (Wotan) – not immediately wide-awake and alert.
Lisa Gasteen is a powerful singer – not always, on this occasion,totally in tune – and suggested the defiant warrior-maiden moreeffectively than the yielding woman.
Nevertheless, her growing ardour – and that of Treleaven’s Siegfried – was affecting, and the two drew the drama to a powerful close, though their falling together on the mattress conveniently remaining for copulatory purposes was not exactly subtle. What is definitely ‘not on’ was Siegfried presenting the ring to Brünnhilde – this is a significant moment in their scene together in the Prologue to “Götterdämmerung”.
The orchestra played well – better, I felt, than in the previous parts of the ‘Ring’ – but Pappano’s conducting continues to be deficient from the point of view of grasping the overall ‘sweep’ of the music. Some scenes were decidedly ‘choppy’, not least the final one which felt decidedly episodic until near the end.
But despite numerous reservations, the invention of Wagner’s musical and dramatic imagination shone through, and Tomlinson’s contribution alone is worth catching. The production is, on the whole, less directly – and provocatively – contradictory towards Wagner’s intentions than is the current English National Opera staging; and I am still haunted by some of those daringimages from the second act.