Monday, 22 October 2007

Siegfried, Royal Opera, 21 October 2007

Royal Opera House

Mime – Gerhard Siegel
Siegfried – John Treleaven
Wanderer – John Tomlinson
Alberich – Peter Sidhom
Woodbird – Ailish Tynan
Erda – Jane Henschel
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Keith Warner (director)
Stefano Lazaridis (designer)
Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)

Antonio Pappano’s conducting has not only improved vastly from previous years’ performances; it has also improved considerably during this cycle. Siegfried received a commanding reading. It was not flawless, although there were fewer orchestral slips than in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre; it did not possess the gravitas of Haitink, nor the chamber-music subtlety of Karajan, let alone the all-encompassing metaphysical drama of Furtwängler. Yet the orchestra sounded far more impressive in its rich and varied sonorities and in its dramatic range. The ebb and flow of narrative and commentary were surely navigated throughout, with none of the uncertainties that had characterised earlier attempts. For the first time, the orchestra could justly be said to have assumed the role allotted to it by Wagner, namely that of the Greek chorus. As he wrote, in a letter of 1849, ‘the heroes of absolute music … and especially Beethoven, have raised the expressive potential of music, notably through their handling of the orchestra, to the level of a completely new artistic force which had earlier scarcely been dreamt of.’ Such a force was now very much more than a dream, and never more so than in the extraordinary Prelude to Act III, in which by musical means alone Wagner prepares us for the turning-point – peripeteia in Aristotelian terms – of the Ring as a whole: Wotan’s renunciation of the Will. Contrapuntal clarity and the dramatic interplay between the host of motifs summarising the god’s predicament were combined with a propulsion that paid tribute indeed to the excellent Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

On stage, however, things were more mixed. I felt that the production, in particular that relating to design, rather lost its way. It began well enough, with scenes from Siegfried’s childhood and upbringing, although they did not necessarily complement the music of the Prelude, which should surely be the starting point for whatever is to happen on stage. Then, for some reason, the action of the first act took place around a crashed aeroplane. I could not understand what this was doing in Mime’s cave, nor why the Wanderer should emerge from it. Had he been there all along, watching? Perhaps, but none of this was made clear and it all seemed highly unnecessary. Equally baffling was the appearance of Fafner, supposedly invisible in his cave, as the giant we had seen in Das Rheingold rather than as a dragon. I could have understood if he had simply donned the Tarnhelm later and turned into a dragon, or indeed remained ‘in reality’ a giant throughout, pointing to the possibly illusory nature of the Tarnhelm’s promises. But we had Siegfried referring to a dragon’s jaws and teeth he could see, and a little while later a sudden, arbitrary transformation into the form of a dragon. This was rather unfortunate, since the dragon was one of the most convincing I have seen. The less that is said about the forest’s animal figures being wheeled around on trolleys the better, apart from noting that, to begin with, one of the trolleys conspicuously failed to move.

Perhaps oddest of all was the more or less empty stage for the final scene. This could have worked perfectly well in a more minimalist production, but here seemed unmotivated, as if the money had run out. All we had was a wall, which occasionally revolved, with a door, which occasionally opened, and a few images of clouds. I suppose, at a pinch, it might be claimed that this was a humanistic simplicity born of the removal of divine clutter and the reintroduction of ‘purely-human’ love into the world, but that was not how it seemed on stage. Siegfried and Brünnhilde floundered somewhat, as if in search of props. There was not even any sign of fire, which seemed especially odd given its undeniable reality when Wotan had put Brünnhilde to sleep, supposedly in the very same place, at the end of Die Walküre. Discovering the Valkyrie, it seemed, might have happened to anyone, rather than only to a hero without fear. The bad old confusions of place and (dis-)continuity, endemic to the earlier stages of the Ring dramas, had returned with a vengeance.

This might have mattered less had it not been for an equally signal, some would say fatal, flaw: the casting of Siegfried. Now the question might come back: ‘whom would you cast?’ I should have to admit that I have no idea, but what I can say is that John Treleaven is simply not up to it. Many would-be Siegfrieds lack the vocal power and sheer stamina for the role. Treleaven actually possesses these; indeed, his voice was as strong at the end of the final duet as it had been at the outset. The problem is that he has none of the vocal quality. One might politely refer to a Heldentenor bark, but in reality this is coarse and often downright unmusical singing. His vowels are all over the place and so, far too often, is his tuning. And his stage presence, is, to put it mildly, un-heroic. Siegfried is Wagner’s charismatic hero par excellence, the character who, at least at this stage, bids fair to conquer the world. Such prospects never entered one’s head here.

Elsewhere, Phillip Ens was adequate as Fafner, but little more than that. Gerhard Siegel’s Mime was well sung and acted, although it lacked the pathos that can make one sympathise all too readily with Mime’s miserable lot. As Michael Tanner has written, the problem with Mime is ‘not, as is usually alleged, that Wagner draws Mime too unsympathetically, but rather the reverse. He conveys to us what misery it is to be Mime, and thus tends to elicit our protectiveness.’ Had it not been for the orchestra, I should merely have wished that Mime and Siegfried could have hurried up with their dialogue, and perhaps finished each other off. Ailish Tynan did not seem even to attempt the purity that the role of the Woodbird demands, appearing – both vocally and visually – as a rather strange girl who had somehow wandered in from the set of another opera. (The production certainly did not help.) Jane Herschel once again impressed as Erda, although I felt she did not quite possess the gravitas evinced in Das Rheingold. Peter Sidhom was every bit as impressive as he had been in that Vorabend; his is certainly an Alberich that demands to be seen – and heard. The dejection and venom were all there, as was an astute handling of the sometimes extreme chromatic twists of his line. Lisa Gasteen was still suffering from a heavy cold, so Iréne Theorin took a step up from her Walküre Helmwige. In the circumstances, she did very well, and was a far more convincing stage and vocal presence than Treleaven. However, I often felt that the vibrato needed to be toned down a little, and sometimes rather more than that.

That leaves the crowning achievement of this Ring so far, which I cannot imagine being matched, let alone surpassed: John Tomlinson’s Wotan. In his guise as the Wanderer, Tomlinson is fully able to build upon his years of experience in the role. This worldly-wise traveller and observer, poised to relinquish joyfully what he had once resolved out of anger, ought to have eaten Siegfried for breakfast. His dismissal of Erda and her realm of Fate was truly awe-inspiring. The attentiveness to every vocal and verbal nuance is too easily taken for granted, as is the towering, Lear-like stage presence. Should there be just one thing we shall all remember from the present production, let it be Tomlinson.