Sunday 7 October 2012

Siegfried, Royal Opera, 7 October 2012

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Mime – Gerhard Siegel
Siegfried – Stefan Vinke
The Wanderer – Bryn Terfel
Alberich – Wolfgang Koch
Fafner – Eric Halfvarson
The Woodbird – Sophie Bevan
Erda – Maria Radner
Brünnhilde – Susan Bullock 

Keith Warner (director)
Walter Sutcliffe (associate director, first assistant director)
Stefanos Lazaridis, Matthew Deely (set designs)
Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)
Mic Pool, Dick Straker (video designs)
Claire Gaskin, Michael Barry (movement) 

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor)

It has been something of a disappointment not to have been able to attend the Royal Opera’s present revival of Wagner’s Ring in its entirety. (Incidentally, would journalists, publicists, et al., kindly take note that this ` is not, repeat not, called The Ring Cycle. By all means refer to The Ring, the Ring, The Ring of the Nibelung, Der Ring, Der Ring des Nibelungen, the Ring cycle, etc., etc., but never The Ring Cycle. That admonition counts for more, should you belong to the organisation claiming to perform a non-existent work.) I have seen it before, most recently in 2007 (see here, here, here, and here.) Nevertheless, I am immensely grateful to the reader who, unable to attend, most generously offered me his ticket for Siegfried. Moreover, I have today managed both to secure a return for Götterdämmerung and to take a Rheingold standing ticket off the hands of someone who can no longer go, so who knows? Dropping in at this stage is a different experience from experiencing Siegfried in its proper place, so what I say should be read hedged with necessary qualifications.

Keith Warner’s production underwent a degree of de-cluttering before the first complete cycles in 2007. My memory is too hazy to be able to say with any degree of certainty how different, if at all, the staging is this time around. What I can say is that I liked it better. The ‘educating Siegfried’ action during the first Act Prelude is apposite to the story; if it is not what one hears from the orchestra at that time, then one could equally well argue that one does not have to have, say, Fafner scenically represented, since one can hear him anyway. Last time, I wondered about the aeroplane; this time, I ceased to do so and simply thought it an arresting image. Direction of the singers was a great strength for much of the evening, a particular highlight for me the Beckettian exchanges between Alberich and the Wanderer (even though the latter proved somewhat lacking vocally, of which more below.) The forest scenes have magic to them, the green grass a crucial hint of Nature apparently unsullied – though the animals on trolleys remain a bit of a problem, technically as well as visually. I recall the dragon being more outlandish, but that may be a trick of the memory; at any rate, the visual representation worked, its red eyes fixing themselves in the more recent memory. If I cannot help suspecting that the contrasting minimalism of the third act might suggest budget restrictions rather than an æsthetic decision, it is only really the final scene that seems a cop out: no fire, too much happening behind a screen, and, perhaps most surprisingly, less than convincing Personenregie or at least execution thereof.  Use of a little video seems pointless.

Sir Antonio Pappano has grown as a Wagner conductor. The first times these dramas were staged, individually, the results from the pit were well-nigh catastrophic. In 2007, we had progressed to competence, if hardly greatness; the same could be said of 2012. The dreadful stopping and starting that had so disfigured Pappano’s initial efforts  seems to have been properly sorted out. If the orchestra in this particular drama seemed less a dramatic participant – Wagner’s Greek Chorus – than it had in 2007, at least the first two acts flowed nicely enough. Pappano seemingly remains content, however, to assume the role of ‘accompanist’. Sadly the first scene of the third act – the peripeteia of the Ring as a whole – was underwhelming, with little sense of anything, let alone something truly world-shattering, at stake. Much of the rest of that act dragged too. Pappano’s performance was not bad, but one hopes for a little more than that.

There was much better news when it came to Siegfried himself. (How surprised I am ever to find myself writing that!) Stefan Vinke fully justified the high hopes I had from having heard him as Lohengrin and Parsifal in Leipzig, sounding quite rejuvenated after a couple of recent lacklustre London performances in concert. Just about anybody would be preferable to  John Treleaven in 2007, yet Vinke was better than merely preferable; his was probably the most impressive Siegfried I have heard in the flesh as opposed to on record. There was no sign of flagging, despite the cruel demands Wagner places upon his tenor. Words were clear and meaningful; phrases were well turned. And this was a credible dramatic portrayal too, Warner’s belief, however misguided, that acting should trump singing, at least paying dividends in the results achieved here on stage. This Siegfried was more human than one generally finds; too often, one ends up wishing that Mime would succeed in his plot. In the present instance, however, one felt sympathy for the boy’s plight, without doubting his ‘natural’, unconscious strength and the problems that might entail.

Gerhard Siegel proved an excellent foil to Vinke’s Siegfried. Siegel can certainly do the wheedling, but he never resorts to mere caricature. (Wagner was adamant that Mime should be nothing of the sort.) This Mime was possessed of a fine, often powerful, voice, and all the more credible for it. Wolfgang Koch’s Alberich was dark, disillusioned, equally attentive to words and music. Alas Bryn Terfel’s Wanderer was disappointing. His intonation was dubious, to say the least, upon his first act entrance, and though that problem cleared itself up after a while, Terfel signally failed to impart due gravitas to the role. Strange, attention-seeking mannerisms – for instance, a very peculiar ‘effect’ upon the singing of the word ‘Wurm’ during the second act – irritated, More serious was the apparent lack of dramatic, philosophical underpinning to the words enunciated with careful – too careful? – clarity. One does not have to have read Feuerbach and Schopenhauer to sing Wotan, but one needs to seem as though one might at least consider doing so. During the pivotal scene with Erda, this Wanderer seemed more a bit of a madman than someone preparing to renounce the Will. Sir John Tomlinson’s extraordinary, Lear-like portrayal of 2007 was preferable in every respect.

Sophie Bevan presented a keenly-voiced Woodbird, but the other two women were less impressive. Susan Bullock gave the impression that her voice was simply not ample enough for Brünnhilde and that she was therefore having to try too hard. The result was too often a mixture of the timid and the tremulant, and the acting was not much better. Maria Radner’s Erda similarly lacked presence, whether vocally or in stage terms; she seemed miscast.

A gripe concerning practicalities: I am all for having decent length intervals, so that if one wishes to have a drink, one does not have to return to the theatre immediately after having fought one’s way to the front of the queue, but an hour and a quarter between the second and third acts, for a performance beginning at 3 p.m.? Had it been a ‘supper interval’, however irksome, it would have been understandable, but I cannot imagine many would have wished to dine at a quarter past six. All that was achieved was to spin out the running time to an entirely unnecessary six hours and ten minutes.