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Seen and Heard Opera Review

 

Richard Wagner, Siegfried, Soloists and Orchestra of English National Opera, Paul Daniel (cond), Coliseum, 6th November 2004 (MB)

 

 

Siegfried throws up so many challenges – orchestrally and vocally - that it is easy to distort its on stage dramatic structure. Musically, this opera contains some of the starkest and darkest music of the cycle (take, for example, the enormously powerful prelude to Act III); any on stage action can seemingly detract from the musical inspiration that defines it. This was precisely what happened as the curtain went up on Act III – with an eruption of applause that undermined the context of the scene between the Wanderer and Erda. The blazing anger in both trumpets and trombones (and a thrilling thunder machine) seemed somewhat underwhelming besides the scene of Erda in a nursing home, surrounded by Norms sat in vast armchairs knitting and drinking tea whilst watching on screen flames prematurely engulfing Valhalla (a less than subtle attempt to capture our all too human obsession, post 9/11, to watch disaster unfolding before our eyes).

 

 


Similarly, one almost despaired at the forging song at the close of Act I – accompanied as it is by music of breathtaking heaviness in its brass chords – which showed Siegfried fashioning Nothung with the minimal of physical effort. Rather than the labour of hammer against anvil, the colossal effort required to finally forge the sword and raise it aloft was accompanied by stage direction that created the illusion of magic, with its static, flaring flashes of splintered light, billows of steam and fiery-red background, which swamped Siegfried as he pulled the sword from beneath the stage, symptomatic of production values that seemed intent on diminishing the musical and over-egging the dramatic into almost separate operatic entities.


These were disappointing moments, but so much else in this production was outstandingly visualised, even if the singing remained uneven. It was hardly surprising, given Phyllida Lloyd’s and Richard Hudson’s domesticated Gods and mortals in Rhinegold and The Valkyries, that Siegfried should open with Mime’s hut viewed as an image of Faustian gloom. An old sofa, cut out pictures pasted onto the walls, a bunk bed, a dirty sink (and enough food to feed an army) made the Mime/Siegfried relationship seem spellbindingly normal. When Siegfried entered (bear in tow) it was as if a young, teenage skater had accidentally popped up on stage: with his baseball cap and baggy jeans, Richard Berkeley-Steele made a decent stab at knocking 20 years off his age, and this only got more convincing as he toyed around with battery operated jeeps, listened to music on a Walkman and read magazines in bed. This may well be the most ‘teenage’ Siegfried I have seen on stage. Yet, Berkeley-Steele, if not always resplendent of tone, had a youthfulness to his voice that matched his impetuosity on stage, a more than decent contrast to John Graham-Hall’s Mime, acted not only with slippery craftsmanship, but sung with characterful precision throughout. Here at least both singers moved with the orchestration: Siegfried quietly lyrical, Mime psychologically dark and sombre (and in his final Act II scene bordering on the demented). As in Valkyrie, Robert Hayward’s Wanderer had vocal authority and a hefty tone, even if one missed some warmth to his phrasing (but do we really feel this singer’s presence when Wagner alludes to him through the majesty of his orchestration?)

 


Gerard O’Connor’s tattooed Fafner remains an imposing creation and is splendidly sung. If the dragon-like breathiness of the orchestral prelude to Act II didn’t quite prepare us for subsequent amplification of his voice, it was overshadowed by Lloyd’s and Hudson’s skilful use of lighting to convey his physical presence. Emerging from his bath (a recurring image in this cycle, just as fire extinguishers are) – and growing ever taller as he did so – his pre-destined death at the hands of Siegfried nevertheless seemed to have an echo of menace about it. And here we got the first coup of this production: stumbling on stage, bloodied and covered in plastic sheeting, Fafner was all but eclipsed by Berkeley-Steel’s majestically introspective Siegfried: vocally impressive, we get the first hints of Siegfried as hero (as opposed to anti-hero) as power finally seems to make us to warm to him. It’s a short-lived moment, however, because the appearance of the Woodbird (a rather squally Sarah Tynan) on a scooter throws us back to the image of the hip-skater Siegfried, something that robs what has preceded it of any long-term significance. Tynan’s voice improved markedly during the opening of Act III (only to be overshadowed by the richly toned Erda of Patricia Bardon) but a kind of Keystone-cop type farce bloodied events as Siegfried petulantly overturned chairs, throwing the Norms and Erda to the ground in the process. Suddenly, the anti-hero was before us again.


But the depth of Berkeley-Steele’s characterisation of Siegfried is that he is always greater than the sum of his parts. Thus, when he happens upon Brünnhilde (Kathleen Broderick) after breaking through the curtain of fire he is seemingly heroic, physically towering and simply unaware of fear as he seeks to wake her from sleep. If his ascent to the summit is perhaps more an ascent from below, in a moment of startling beauty, we see the shadow of Brünnhilde cocooned like an Egyptian mummy; Siegfried’s prize to her as they embrace is for her to throw off the shackles of her imprisonment and make her blossom like a newly born butterfly. Here the orchestra under Daniel excelled themselves: radiant, high violins were as pure of tone as you could have wished for, rekindled like oxygen breathing life into fire, replacing the almost endless subterranean orchestration that preceded it. That it should actually have been noticed at all is to Daniel’s and the orchestra’s credit. The radiance that develops after this moment was taken by both Broderick and Berkeley-Steele to ignite vocal as well as physical passion. It was a perfect summation of their fusion of ecstatic, lyrical affirmation, and a fitting conclusion to this production.

 


Siegfried showed Lloyd and Hudson more confident in their vision of this ongoing cycle, and that confidence is replicated in the orchestra pit as well. The ENO orchestra – especially the brass – were both magnificent and resplendent and Paul Daniel showed less unevenness in his grasp over the score than he has done in earlier parts of this Ring. Indeed, this production is almost a triumph.


Marc Bridle

 

Picture credits: John Graham-Hall (Mime), Richard Berkeley-Steele (Siegfried), Robert Hayward (Wanderer), Kathleen Broderick (Brünnhilde) – photographer, Neil Libbert.


Further Listening:


Richard Wagner, Siegfried, Soloists, Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan, MYTO HO55


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