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Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883)
Siegfried (1876) [243:36]
Siegfried Jerusalem (tenor) – Siegfried; Graham Clark (tenor) – Mime; John Tomlinson (bass) – Der Wanderer; Günter von Kannen (bass) – Alberich; Philip Kang (bass) – Fafner; Anne Evans (soprano) – Brünnhilde; Birgitta Svendén (mezzo) – Erda; Hilde Leidland (soprano) – Der Waldvogel
Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele/Daniel Barenboim
Staged and directed by Harry Kupfer; Stage design: Hans Schavernoch; Costume design: Reinhard Heinrich; Video director: Horant H. Hohlfeld; Artistic supervision: Wolfgang Wagner
rec. Bayreuth Festspielhaus. June-July 1992
NTSC System 16:9; Colour; Region code NTSC 2345; LPCM Stereo Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 62320-2 [2 DVDs: 243:36]
 

After the Amsterdam/Haenchen Ring cycle which was very special with minimal sets and a visible orchestra centre-stage, the 14-year-old Bayreuth/Barenboim/Kupfer production is quite a different proposition. More traditional but also highly inventive and illuminating, it stands at the opposite pole. It has been perspective building to see both. I have so far missed Barenboim’s Walküre but found much to admire in Das Rheingold, though the giants were more or less ridiculous and some of the antics of the gods were a bit over-the-top. This ‘preliminary evening’ was, like the equivalent Amsterdam version, fairly abstract, while Siegfried is ‘realistic’ in fairy-tale fashion. The first act is dominated by Mime’s fanciful combined lodging and smithy, looking like a mix between a stranded submarine and the witch’s gingerbread house from Hänsel und Gretel. In act II we are in a mountainous landscape, painted by a latter-day Kaspar Friedrich David. The humour of this opera – one could almost call Siegfried the scherzo of Der Ring des Nibelungen – is also underlined. Mime’s caprices are of course rather frightening when one knows the evil character of the dwarf. There is however a great deal of playfulness throughout, most of all perhaps Wotan’s handling of the Woodbird, carried through by a visibly amused John Tomlinson. Siegfried’s killing of the dragon is a spectacular show with the reptile’s arms and claws projected with stunning realism. Kupfer-Schavernoch have clearly set out to make this, the most open-air of the Ring operas, a kind of half-dream, half-waking romantic fable.
 
Filmed over a lengthy period on the Bayreuth Festspiel stage, but not during actual performances, we get the best of both worlds. There’s the famed Bayreuth acoustic, slightly subdued but with enough clarity to project both orchestra and singing. There’s also the advantage of close acquaintance with the sets and direction as well as opportunities for second takes when necessary. Sometimes the close-ups reveal a lack of realism, as when Siegfried boxes Mime’s ears; the camera shows us that the blows are empty gestures. We know that Siegfried Jerusalem would never dream of hurting a hair on Graham Clark’s head, however slimy the creature he impersonates.
 
Graham Clark, who was also Mime on the Amsterdam set, is just as repulsively repugnant here. Still, he retains an aura of dignity and at times making the viewer feel sorry for him. Such is the identification and psychology in his portrait that he tends to steal every scene where he appears. That was even more obvious in the Amsterdam performance with Heinz Kruse’s well sung but tamely acted Siegfried. With Siegfried Jerusalem looking the Nordic hero of one’s dreams and acting the part with such nerve and conviction, the competition is more even. As a matter of fact it is hard to imagine these scenes better done, especially since Jerusalem, although past fifty in 1992, looks much younger than his years and sings with the marvellously youthful beauty of tone that so captured many of us when he first came to notice in the mid-1970s. While having the requisite power for Siegfried’s most muscular outbreaks, notably the forging of Notung, he would still be able to sing Tamino. Dressed in blue overalls he looks and acts like a man brought up in a blacksmith’s workshop, cooling himself down at the water-bin when the heat from the furnace becomes too oppressive.
 
By the side of these two great tenors the remaining cast makes a wholly winning impression. We meet John Tomlinson’s sturdy and sonorous Wanderer, noble and warm and good-natured with a smile on his face and his eyes glittering. It seems that the years of wandering have been good for the sometimes over-stressed head of the gods from the preceding operas. His travels have made him more relaxed, his singing as always deeply intense and his diction as perfect as Graham Clark’s. Just as in Das Rheingold, Günter von Kannen’s Alberich is also a formidable presence, his face so expressive and pouring out Wotan-like bass-baritone notes. Philip Kang’s Fafner may be a bit on the dry side but he is darkly menacing before the duel, sadly resentful after he receives the deadly blow. Hilde Leidland, who was Woglinde in Das Rheingold, is a suitably chirping Waldvogel.
 
In the third act the whole atmosphere changes. Here we are on an open plain shrouded in fog. During the stormy prelude Der Wanderer lurches forth and stumbles. He falls to the ground and invokes Erda, who appears from under ground, just as in Das Rheingold, still half-lowered. She has aged but she sings gloriously, arousing memories of her compatriot of an earlier generation, Kerstin Thorborg. In their dispute Wotan is no longer the good-natured, smiling god in retirement but a furious ruler of the world back in office. The ensuing confrontation between Wotan and Siegfried, where Siegfried finally breaks Wotan’s spear and thus dethrones him, is a real combat of giants. Here are two glorious singing actors spitting venom with unflinching vocal security.
 
The famous final scene, when Siegfried finds Brünnhilde and wakes her up, the uncertainty at first and the final ecstasy, comparable to the first act finale of Die Walküre for exuberant intensity, is unfolded by Barenboim in Furtwänglerian fashion. Here is a tension that never slackens and the Festival Orchestra’s strings glow with passion. Anne Evans, caught at the height of her powers, is the warm and loving Brünnhilde one has always wanted to hear, her sovereign tones radiating both determination and vulnerability. This scene has always been one of my favourite passages in the Ring since I first got to know it through a DG recording from the 1950s with Astrid Varnay and Wolfgang Windgassen. Evans and Jerusalem are in their league and seeing as well as hearing them lends an extra dimension.
 
When reviewing the Amsterdam Ring I was often bowled over by the freshness of approach, the timelessness of the concept, while having regrets about some of the singing. Generally Siegfried was vocally the most convincing part of that cycle and it is a version that I will gladly return to (see my review), but in overall excellence it has to yield to this Barenboim/Kupfer production. One deciding factor is Barenboim’s reading of the music, so deeply considered and so magically played. Haenchen, for all his positive qualities, feels shallower. I have always had a soft spot for the Barenboim in its sound-only incarnation and with the added impact of the visual it becomes even more impressive. Newcomers to the Ring will more easily be won over by this Bayreuth set and understand the complexity of the text. Once they have been hooked they should also try Haenchen as a refreshing alternative. In both cases they will have Graham Clark’s hard-to-beat Mime.
 
Göran Forsling
 

See Das Rheingold
Die Walkure
Siegfried
Gotterdammerung


 



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