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Seen and Heard Opera Review

Richard Wagner, Siegfried soloists, orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Antonio Pappano, Covent Garden, 2.10.2005 (JP)


Well, after a very cluttered Das Rheingold and Die Walküre – either the money has run out or some much needed commonsense has enlightened opera director Keith Warner to add some overdue clarity to this Siegfried, even though we are no where nearer understanding what he wants us to get from his concept. If it is a post-apocalyptic Ring – a post 9/11 one based on the skeletal remains of the fuselage of a crashed plane that is a feature of Act I – then we have seen it all better done before. (The ceiling has a hole through which the plane came which is a bit too small and like that of the Pentagon if we are to believe the conspiracy theorists about that sad September day.) Surely the runway Siegfried climbs up at the end of Act II is a slightly askew version of Kupfer’s ‘Pathway to History’ at Bayreuth in the late 1980s? So we could be in a post-nuclear bunker if the thought of that was not so passé as to make one believe Warner has something else in mind.


During the opening to Act I there is a staging of Siegfried’s development from a toddler in a pushchair to moody adolescent capable of breaking Mime’s attempts at forging him a sword. Mime’s spanking parental skills leave a lot to be desired. Swirling images of mathematical formulae hint at scientific knowledge lost, unappreciated or even abused. Mime is well … Mime, shuffling and obsequious though artfully sung by Gerhard Siegel. Siegfried’s bear is some deranged individual in mask and muzzle, even possibly a genetic experiment gone wrong and left to roam this underworld (there are further echoes of this in the Act II Dragon). Siegfried enters looking like almost the oldest teenager since Manfred Jung in the Chéreau Centenary Ring at Bayreuth. (For some reason there were several Adonis-like ‘heroes’ depicted in the programme but that Treleaven certainly isn’t!) Singing conspicuously flat and straining, it was not an auspicious start but he did get better. He is scruffily clothed with cargo trousers and Mime has a sort of tired laboratory technician look with his attire also having seen better days (costumes are by Marie Jeanne-Lecca).

This whole act itself is conspicuously flat until John Tomlinson appears in goggles as the pilot of the plane. This Wanderer with his full white beard has a certain hint of ‘Ghost of Christmas Past’ or Prospero about him and despite his stentorian voice there is a degree of enfeeblement that I hope is Warner’s direction and not time catching up with this great singer. Throughout the evening, as well as revealing a penchant for origami, the Wanderer sits down at the earliest opportunity during all his appearances.


With the Forging Scene things pick up a bit as John Treleaven (making his role début as that rare species, a British Siegfried) has harnessed his resources for this high spot and does not spoil it. He busies himself through one of the most active sword manufacturing processes seen for some time. He minces the metal, casts the weapon using a prop from the engine of the plane and there is lots of hammering – he also has time to crack an egg on Mime’s head as he cooks-up his plot to poison Siegfried. For ‘So schneidet Siegfrieds Schwert!’ he smashes the Aga/worksurface to a shower of sparks.


At the start of Act II the pathway (in Stefanos Lazaridis’s set) spirals into the distance and there is atmospheric smoke effects and lighting (by Wolfgang Göbbel). Alberich carries an open wound as a result of being robbed of the ring in Rheingold; that it has not closed makes him seem rather like Amfortas were Peter Sidholm not to look unnervingly similar to Keith Warner himself and he bitterly confronts the Wanderer. A helix (again!) of barbed wire protects Fafner’s cave, or hole in the ground. Fafner guards his treasures with the Rubik’s Cube Tarnhelm from before. Siegfried and Mime enter and for Siegfried’s ‘Dass der mein Vater nicht ist’ (‘That he is not my father’) we enter a Hansel und Gretel dream world as the stage rises to find him reclining on some grass on trolleys beneath a starry sky whilst further gurneys bring on stuffed white male and female elks … why you well may ask? The whittling of his reed pipe having been standard stuff we now have Siegfried astride the male deer and moved around the stage ‘chasing’ the Woodbird. She is a pretty young singer (Sarah Fox) with a voice to match costumed in pale combat fatigues and with a toy bird she flaps then twirls around on the end of a fishing line. This ‘twirling’ is another Leitmotif of this production, chairs and the fuel hose of the plane in Act I, this bird and a dead rat in Act II.  Mime dons the head of a rat as he unsuccessfully tries to deceive Siegfried and is quickly dispatched. Fafner is the hideous head of that medical procedure gone wrong alluded to before and would be quite scary if the mechanics were smoother. Interesting stagecraft finds the cone-shaped head of Fafner appear downstage under the Tarnhelm and here Phillip Ens poignantly sings his last words ‘Acht auf mich! Siegfried!’ (‘Pay heed to me!’) There is nothing new again as the Woodbird demands the attention of the gormless ‘boy’ to move him in the direction he needs to go to find Brünnhilde - Siegfried gathers up the cuboid Tarnhelm and the Woodbird blows out the candle (lit earlier Tosca-like for Mime and Fafner) at the very last note – distracting us from the fact that after some reasonably pleasant lyrical singing John Treleaven has made little of his last moments and the start of his journey.


As Act III begins there is no loss of dramatic continuity because of the long break between acts II and III just as in the previous Walküre there is none to lose between the first two acts … and then the third. It comes from an entirely different – and better – production. The rectangular white platform/wall reappears from the previous opera against a dark cyclorama. It is said if you take from one person it is theft but if you take from everyone it is ‘research’. (I certainly know that unintentionally I must on occasions in these reviews use a phrase I will have over the years read elsewhere and filed away in my brain. But what is Warner’s excuse?) We have the red lighting from Chéreau, the panorama from Jürgen Flimm’s recent Bayreuth attempt, Götz Friedrich’s hydraulic platform from Covent Garden in 1975 via Warner’s own use of it in his Bayreuth Lohengrin, even the unseen revelation of ‘Das ist kein Mann!’ and subsequent shadow-play was recently seen in Phyllida Lloyd’s, now moribund, new Ring cycle down the road at the London Coliseum.

Nevertheless, despite a lack of originality (to which 95% or more of the audience would be unaware) it all worked stunningly well and made up for the disappointment of the rest of the evening. John Tomlinson was now in full King Lear mode (or impersonating Olivier-as-Lear) and is imperious as he strides the revolving platform before Erda, in black and seated in a black armchair on top of a black tower, impales herself on Wotan’s spear at ‘Weisst du, was Wotan will?’ The horizontal surface now becomes a vertical wall on which later there are some highly effective visual projections of passing clouds etc. Siegfried arrives and confronts the Wanderer and breaks his spear that bars the path (actually a door) to the summit he seeks. For ‘Heil dir, Sonne!’ a sickly yellow light suffuses the stage. There is a brief domestic interlude as Siegfried and Brünnhilde converse seated at a table. Aunt and nephew come together initially as giant shadows cast on the white slab before Brünnhilde races across the front of the stage into Siegfried’s arms. Then after Brünnhilde has accept Siegfried’s ring and they have declared their love the cyclorama drops and a mountaintop vista is revealed that the soon-to-be-lovers revel in as they rush to ‘honeymoon’ on the mattress (originally from Walküre) that was here flung conveniently from his platform as the Wanderer was in a rage at the start of the act. The curtain falls, as they say, not a moment too soon!

After a disastrous beginning John Treleaven can be forgiven everything for this one act alone, some fine singing with his back to us all and the strength of his final ‘Erwache’ being particular highlights. His voice does not have great volume and he is extremely sensitively accompanied by Antonio Pappano’s conducting but he is sufficiently ardent and tireless in this thankless act for the tenor. Lisa Gasteen comes into her own and excels as Brünnhilde and between these two principals there is a passion, drama and total belief in what they are portraying missing in the earlier acts. This is also true of Pappano’s conducting of his faultless orchestra (I’ll give the horn soloist the benefit of the doubt). He seems at his best in this Tristanesque orchestration more so than in the more conversational opening acts where the tempi seemed a little disjointed and the interpretation drifted without focus. Undoubtedly this will improve during the run.

Throughout, an excellent cast including Gerhard Siegel’s Bayreuth-bound Mime (he is the only German in the cast) and Jane Henschel’s Erda all benefit from the not-too-loud playing of the orchestra. Since they also seemed to have been excellently coached almost every German word can be heard unusually clearly. (I notice in Berlin that the mostly German audience are to get German surtitles for Wagner; they would not need it with these singers and conductor.)

Reviewing the cycle thus far, there are only two good acts (the III’s of Walküre and here in Siegfried) to dispel the notion that Warner has nothing new to add to the dramaturgy of the Ring, so even if ‘alls well that ends well’ it does not eliminate the thought that the director has too many voices in his head and does not have a clue which road to take in his staging that will conclude in April with Götterdämmerung. I still have not lost my feelings of nostalgia for the iconic Richard Jones 1996 Ring that was loved by too few and despised by too many.



© Jim Pritchard





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