Siegfried at the Royal Opera House, October 2012 – some reflections

I am writing this late on after coming back from the ROH production of Wagner’s Siegfried, just wishing to put in writing a variety of thoughts emerging from the performance, which on the whole I enjoyed very much indeed. I should first point outthat this is the only opera from the current production I have seen, so am not in a position to comment on how well it integrates into the production of the cycle as a whole. What follows are a series of thoughts and reflections concerning various aspects of this individual performance and production.

The production was directed by Keith Warner, assisted by Walter Sutcliffe, with set designs by Stefanos Lazaridis, costume designs by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, lighting design by Wolfgang Göbbel, and movement direction by Michael Barry (all of these with assistants). In few ways did the production concur with Wagner’s own stipulations; nor did it seem to have any intention to do so. Act 1 takes place in some unspecified place vaguely akin to a lair, but featuring a damaged airplane in centre-stage, upon which Siegfried climbs at various points, various surfaces upon which both cooking and forging take place, though nothing really resembling an anvil (at the conclusion Siegfried simply chopped one of these surfaces in two). Most unusually, during the opening music and first section of the opening scene we are presented glimpses of a brattish younger Siegfried, played by Graeme Dalling, whose place is taken later on by a boyishly-dressed Sophie Bevan (who will later appear as the Woodbird). Upon Siegfried’s entry she is transformed into the bear (Bruno) who he brings in to taunt Mime, simply by transparently placing a bear’s head upon her, anticipating Mime’s adoption of a goat’s head during those lines in which his murderous plans are inadvertently revealed to Siegfried in Act 2. Other props add little and can have what appear to be unforeseen consequences, such as the foodstuffs eaten by Siegfried at various points (at one point something appeared like a product of KFC, at another he seemed to be eating a toffee apple), not to mention a clearly artificial goat and stag being moved on wheels around the stage during the forest scene (the goat appearing to get stuck at one point). The ring itself, probably little visible from seats further back, was red rather than gold, with a sometimes flashing light which seemed more bling than ring, whilst Alberich brandishes some gold object when laughing (from within a hole in the ground) at the moment when Siegfried kills Mime – if this is meant to suggest that Alberich succeeds in gaining possession of at least some of Fafner’s horde, then this has no basis in Wagner’s libretto or stage directions.

Overall, the staging in Act 1 seems over-fussy and distracting for no particular reason. The symbolism of the airplane is not clear – perhaps a look forward to world wars, to give the impression that the lair is the refuge of those involved in a military emergency landing, or otherwise to symbolise the importance which the activity of flying had in early 20th century German masculine culture? – but it seems tacked on, actually detracting from what might otherwise be quite a claustrophobic environment. The Wanderer’s long cloak and hat, and Mime’s scruffy work clothes, serve as a good foil to Siegfried’s relatively plain brown waistcoat, white top and trousers; the combination of some brown and the shaved head giving some fascistic undertones without overdoing these.

Otherwise, however, this is not a production to shy away from the most offensive elements of the most problematic opera of all of the Ring (and perhaps of Wagner’s entire output), and is all the stronger as a result. It is possible to attempt to portray Mime, as one who takes and nurtures a child apparently selflessly (bearing in mind that he has only previously been seen as the hard-done-by brother abused by Alberich in Rheingold), with some sympathy, at least in Act 1, until after he is driven momentarily senseless by his encounter with the Wanderer, and firms upon his plan to deceive and poison Siegfried. But I find this type of interpretation unconvincing; in his opening material it is not long before Mime begins to dwell upon Fafner guarding the horde in the forest, strongly suggesting that his primary interest in forging a good sword is in order to be able to slay the dragon and get his hands upon the gold, made explicit in his words, inadvertently heard by Siegfried in Act 2 at the denouement between the two, ‘aus Liebe errog ich dich lästigen nicht: dem Horte in Fafner’s Hut, dem Golde galt meine Müh’.

From the outset of this production, Mime (performed with utter conviction and menacing unctuousness by Gerhard Siegel) comes across as petty, ill-adjusted, mean-spirited and coldly-calculating; and his most shrill and excitable utterances are played and sung for all they are worth. Few other singers could have made the character more odious than does Siegel, in whom hardly an ounce of warmth can be discerned, his pleas to the bullying Siegfried conveying little other than self-pity. But what makes this most striking, and emphasises the very moral ambiguity and dubiousness of the work, is the way Vinke, with a vocal manner which conveys a youthful stridency ill-masking a will-to-violence and an utter lack of any type of empathy, equally fails to elicit sympathy. Maximum testerone unmarried to any form of human socialisation is on display throughout the whole opera (in ways which can become problematic in Act 3, as I will return to later), so that the first and third scenes of Act 1 become for the most part hopeless in humanistic terms, only propelled forward through the sheer impetuousness of much of the writing. Vinke can give plenty of body of tone to Siegfried’s ‘forging’ music, succeeding in making him more fearsome rather than conveying any sort of remotely loveable strength of character. Macho competition to outdo the surrogate father is far more apparent than any suggestion of well-applied strength and skill. At the outset of the first act we also encounter a large black backdrop covering the whole front of the stage, upon which are written numerous equations (to which Mime adds some detail at one point, clearly demonstrating that this is his writing), signifying without doubt his representation of a type of ‘intellectualism’ in contrast to the more nature-rooted character of Siegfried.

In Act 2, a rather tall Alberich (played by Wolfgang Koch, somewhat taller than Eric Halfvarson as Fafner, rather unfortunately considering the latter has earlier played a giant to Alberich’s dwarf) easily puts Mime in his place, through the more measured (and of course lower) vocal writing, using many ascending contours in contrast to Mime’s flitting back and forth around his tessitura. Much of this is down to the perfectly judged material given to either character by Wagner, but Siegel’s body language and ability to leap upwards without strain, in contrast to the more carefully paced physical gestures of Alberich, articulate this strongly, without either character necessarily overshadowed by the other in terms of strikingness of projection.

Siegfried’s revelation (encouraged both by the dying Fafner and the Woodbird) of Mime as a character he was right to distrust, and whose only real motivation is to stab him in the back in order to get his hands upon the gold, then flows entirely naturally from Act 1; in no way is there any uneasy character transition to navigate. This is Mime as the epitome of every anti-semitic attribute (much worse than Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger), a wholly loathsome character almost calling out to the audience to be killed by Siegfried (who by this stage is a little more ‘humanised’ by his exchanges with Fafner and the Woodbird). Despite having known the opera intimately for over 30 years, I remained shocked by the hate-inducing nature which came across, and see little to contradict this in anything which is directly from Wagner’s own creation. Then at least until the end of the second Act Siegfried himself grows in terms of his power in a way which is not easy to resist; yet this is to me just as sinister, because of the implicit advocacy of ruthless selfish, individualistic application of brute force as the route to power and salvation. Siegfried may not obviously represent a ‘nation’ (in the way in which such a conceit clearly underlies Hans Sachs’s warnings near the end of Die Meistersinger), but the recounting of his relationship to nature at various points in Act 1, made more concrete during the extended passage incorporating the ‘Forest Murmurs’ in Act 2 prior to his meeting with the dragon, serve as a surrogate for such a concept, contrasting with the dwarf’s lair and the ethereal world inhabited by Wotan and the Gods. All the essential elements are there to produce the most crystallised form of proto-Nazi ideology in the first two acts of this opera; whilst there is certainly no such thing as a ‘neutral’ production, and some productions can attempt to counteract these elements, this production and performance communicated them so effortlessly that it is hard not to see such an ideology as a most fundamental part of the work at the time of its conception.

The most impressive of the singers is Bryn Terfel as the Wanderer. Terfel managed a combination of high articulacy (with maximum clarity of diction) with an array of developing feelings, successfully navigating his character’s trajectory from world-weariness to despondency whilst remaining sympathetic and maintaining a level of stature and dignity through his encounters with others (especially during his scene in Act 1 with Mime). Terfel’s singing appears effortless, in such a way that the expression of The Wanderer’s own strain seems in no way a response to physical limitations, whilst his carefully planned and executed measured physical gestures almost force most others (even Siegfried to an extent) to scamper around him.

Of the other smaller parts, Sophie Bevan gave a beautifully penetrating (without ever being strident) and entrancing characterisation of the Woodbird, also demonstrating some fair degree of physical agility as she descends (sometimes suspended upside-down) from a height (beginning at the top of a huge raised square plank, very high up, having dangled a model bird down provocatively at Siegfried) in the manner of a trapeze artist. Her darting around the stage and provocative gestures at Siegfried even communicate an eroticism which is striking in itself, though could be said to bring more painfully into focus the rather forced nature of the encounters between Siegfried and Brünnhilde in Act 3.

Like many of the most radical works, Das Rheingold falls somewhat prey to didacticism (other examples would be Musorgsky’s unfinished The Marriage or the first version of Boris Godunov); putting his advanced theories of music-drama into practice fully for the first time, Wagner seems to have felt the need to follow them almost by the letter, with a vast amount of the musical detail dictated primarily by the motivic implications of the text or other aspects of the plot. There can come a point where the automatic association of an idea with a motif becomes predictable and a little hackneyed, though this does make possible such powerful moments as the anticipation of the ‘sword’ motif in the fourth scene. In Die Walküre, not least by virtue of the need to portray the more intricate romantic interactions between Siegmund and Sieglinde, and also to set up the complex relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde, Wagner relaxes his earlier didacticism in order to create a music which goes more significantly beyond the telegraphing of signifiers of meaning (it would be a huge overstatement to say that Rheingold is primarily about this, but there is certainly an element of it).

In the first two acts of Siegfried, in response to the loveless relationship between Siegfried and Mime and then the intercutting power struggles between Mime, Alberich and Fafner, Wagner returns to something more akin to the world of Rheingold, with dramatic and symbolical meaning given precedent over wider expressive intention and interaction. But this is far from the whole story; most obviously the extraordinarily dark harmonic and timbral writing in both acts (especially the second), or the interplay between the arrogant, impetuous youthful material for Siegfried, and the shrill material for Mime, provide for other locii of continuity and development. But Pappano was least successful in conveying these, perhaps because of a desire to clearly project and individuate every motivic instance (not to mention a similar approach stressing clarity of individual lines over blended sonorities with respect to orchestral balance). Carefully judged tempi which never flagged meant that the music certainly did not lapse in terms of its pacing, but I would have welcomed a more multi-layered approach. This was most apparent in Siegfried’s scene alone in the forest in Act 2 after the departure of Mime. Here Wagner gradually allows extended tremolos to engulf the music, whilst interrupting various cadential passages in order to signify the gradual nature of Siegfried’s sense of peace, as he returns to thoughts of Mime, before the final resolution into E for the ‘Forest Murmurs’. When Siegfried sings ‘Ha! Gewiss, wie ich selbst! Denn wär’ wo von Mime eine Sohn’, the Nibelung’s music returns, but either a less obviously pronounced contrast (to take account of the fact that Mime is at least no longer physically present, and remains a memory for Siegfried), or a greater pause for the music to relax into the murmurs following Siegfried’s ‘Ich mag ihn nicht mehr seh’n!’ would do a good deal to effect a gradual transition rather than a continuous quasi-cinematic form of jump-cutting. Wagner’s shift into a 6/8 metre is perfectly sufficient to signify a final change of mood. In the passage which follows (Siegfried’s ‘Da bang sie mich geboren’) Wagner moves between keys of E minor (implied if never completely established), C, G, C again, then finally back to E major, to accompany Siegfried’s yearnings for his mother. The passage in G (at the moment of Siegfried’s ‘ein Menschenweib!’) presents an undulating figure moving up the muted strings, each section leading from this into accumulating arpeggio figures, from which a zart melody (derived from Freya’s motif from Rheingold)emerges in a solo violin, a signifier of the lost mother whom Siegfried imagines. In Pappano’s performance, this line was projected outwards clearly rather than seeming any type of extension of the other figurations, which are definitively a form of accompaniment. But this makes nature and Siegfried’s mother as two very distinct entities, rather than allowing for the possibility that both might be part of the same general category of Siegfried’s thought. And at the same time each of the string parts is very clearly presented as a separate entity, rather than something more akin to another branch on a large tree or some other comparable natural phenomenon. This is just one example of how, in Pappano’s apparent desire to keep different lines and parts clear and distinct, some of the possibilities of synthesis, blending, and merging of ideas, thoughts and symbols, are excluded. The first evocations of the woodbird in various woodwinds which follow in the next section are inevitably going to be more separate from the rest of the texture by virtue of their timbral distinctiveness, but these would be even more striking if they contrasted more with what came previously.

Pappano also does not allow for much flexibility of tempo throughout most of the work. Sometimes this can be hugely effective, not least at the beginning of the second act, which when also played in a very hushed manner has tremendous menace and foreboding, never letting up. As a means of depicting an external world which is threatening and awe-inspiring, Pappano’s tightness is ideal; for conveying introspection or a more intricate relationship between the characters and their environment, it is less convincing.

Various directors have had Fafner shift between human and animal form during this act, and Warner was no exception. Fafner’s first appearance, when summoned by Wotan to talk to him and Alberich, had him sitting indistinctly in a partially-illuminated chair near the back of the stage as a human; it is in this form that he appears in response to Siegfried’s horn calls (some of which he was not made to play himself, presented as if a response from the Woodbird, from Bevan holding her own horn high up on a platform). Only when Siegfried takes up the challenge to fight does he morph into a huge red face, which Siegfried manages to half-heartedly stab somewhere under the chin. Nothing much can be done to portray Fafner’s spit, nor his tail, nor lifting his body up to crush Siegfried, making some of Mime’s earlier warnings have little meaning. Then Siegfried removes a type of cage (which I thought may have been the Tarnhelm, but was not sure) to somewhere nearer the front of the stage, and removes it (almost like a charger above food) to reveal Fafner’s head there, from which position he sings his final material. Halfvarson was able to transform his earlier eerie stillness of tone, and low resonance which sets him apart from Alberich and The Wanderer, into a particular type of gravitas during his dying moments, though his facial expressions had a rather more tragicomic quality akin to that of some silent film stars.

Between 1857 and 1869, Wagner took an epic break from the composition of Siegfried, and at times entertained the possibility of abandoning the cycle. The interim period saw the creation of both Tristan und Isolde (1857-59) and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1862-67), not to mention the rescinding of his ban from the German Confederation (having lived in exile after fleeing following the unsuccessful Dresden uprisings of 1849), the death of his first wife Minna in 1866 (from whom he had been separated in 1862), and his affair with and later marriage to Liszt’s daughter Cosima, married at the time to the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, who conducted the premieres of both Tristan and Die Meistersinger. It would have been surprising if Wagner’s musical and musico-dramatic language had not moved on at least somewhat during this period. Wagner’s achievements in broad terms of both an integrated use of chromatic expression in Tristan, and a type of almost pan-diatonicism used for both comedic and ‘hearty’ effect in Die Meistersinger, both find their way into Act 3 of Siegfried: the former from Siegfried’s reaching the top of the rock and encountering bewilderment and fear for the first time when overwhelmed by the sight of Brünnhilde, the latter in the final section of the work, with its sequences of melodic fourths. This latter is a masterly touch, providing some resolution of the previously almost unbearable sexual tension between the hero and heroine, and even allowing a degree of light-heartedness to infiltrate the high seriousness of the rest of the opera, thus making the romance more convincing (in a way which is not really to be found in Tristan, at least to my ears, though would be more inappropriate in Die Walküre on account of the taboo nature of the situation of the two lovers). In this performance, this section emerged quite naturally from the preceding material in the manner of a culmination, rather than as a marked break; furthermore Vinke played the moment with a degree of lightness and even teasingness (not inconsistent with the arrogance which he has earlier exhibited) which ended the opera in especially good spirits if perhaps depriving the conclusion of the gravity and intensity of eroticism that it might otherwise have. This attitude to the end of the opera was new to me (it contrasted with the more animalistic, raw and untethered passion one often sees) and whilst requiring some more processing, is quite fascinating.

Wagner’s use of motives at the beginning of the act is considerably more intricate than hitherto, gnarled accumulations of figures creating a quite different and more tempestuous mood to anything previously in the cycle. Whilst this is developed considerably in Götterdämmerung, nonetheless it presents difficulties in continuity with the previous act. Once again, Pappano’s priority was clarity, enabling the listener with some prior knowledge of the work to pick out each strand of material with relative ease, though in the process allowing less room to convey the extent to which Wagner had finally transcended some of his earlier motivic didacticism. Wotan’s opening scene with Erda, played by Maria Radner, was one of the least convincing moments; Erda appeared at first on top of a huge chair (around 15 feet high) wearing a velvet outfit uncomfortably close to a character from The Addams Family, whilst her delivery lacked the requisite degree of power or clear diction to be able to stand against that of Terfel. Indeed, only the sheer presence of Terfel throughout carried the scene as a whole. He was then laying on top of a very large piece of wood, at first flat, which would eventually rotate upwards to form a wall in front of which he encounters Siegfried, a relatively minimalist approach which differed considerably from the assemblage of objects in Act 1 or the used of coiled barbed wire in Act 2.

Siegfried’s ascent through the flames on the rock was represented simply by him laying down on a rather dingy mattress in front of a large wall, with little else occurring in stage to match the hugely dramatic and vivacious music – I was actually unsure if this there had been some error or mishap on stage which precluded something else planned happening. If not, I was at a loss to see how this approach was meant to be meaningful at such an important moment. Then Brünnhilde is placed behind this wall, and Siegfried’s first sight of her and subsequent kiss are viewed only in silhouette, producing a very strong distancing effect which once again seems to jar with the musical intensity, without seeming to throw new light upon it.

One of the only glitches in otherwise outstanding orchestral playing came with Brünnhilde’s awakening, in which there were a few momentary lapses in synchronisation in the wind for the beginning of their III-I et al cadences, but this was of no great consequence. The sonorities were bright and generally vibrato-less, entirely appropriate in order to anticipate Brünnhilde’s hearkening towards the sun and the day (the harps seemed a little too foregrounded, but that was probably a result of the position in the stalls in which I was sat, very close to them, sitting separately from the pit). But an equally bright sonority from the strings both in their concluding trills and then expansive line once again communicated more of vivid depiction rather than inner warmth, a quality which remained for much of the rest of the movement, not least through the tender E major section which is at the heart of the Siegfried Idyll.

Brünnhilde’s own first clear appearance (as we do not see more than an outline of a figure when she is behind the wall) took the form of her appearing somewhat frantically at a door in the wall (upon which the Wanderer had previously placed his spear to secure, with Siegfried smashing it in half in this position rather than being held at the time by the Wanderer himself). Her own anxiety at the situation came through clearly as a result, emphasising her mortal status, but for my tastes this would have been better introduced gradually from the moment of her ‘wer ist der Held, der mich erweckt?’

Susan Bullock’s Brünnhilde did not, unfortunately, have the same degree of presence as the other characters, for various reasons. Her softer-toned voice could have offset Siegfried’s continued degree of stridency, but the effect (especially when the two sing together) was more of being overshadowed or overwhelmed. She wore something which looked like a night-dress and never wholly overcome a sense of having just woken up. Holding back from meeting Siegfried’s glance longingly until a very late stage could work with a performer able to communicate the appropriate degree of passion at the very end, but this fell short.

To some extent this was also Vinke’s responsibility. Siegfried is a notoriously difficult part to play, not least because of the need in Act 3 of the opera to convey the development of his character so that he can convince as a more mature adult in the first act of Götterdämmerung. One way to achieve this is to project first the humanisation of the character in Act 2, so that a line can be perceived connecting his thoughts when alone in the forest with the desolation of the top of the rock, or the exuberance of his listening to the Woodbird with his thoughts, fear and ultimately joy from awakening Brünnhilde. Vinke was more impressive at the latter of these than the former, but this was not really sufficient; we can see him happy, but less how he might be able to perform such a function for another. His new-found fear upon seeing Brünnhilde came primarily through the text rather than any particular qualities in the singing, and was less than wholly convincing as a result. Thus Siegfried’s ‘Wie des blutes Ströme sich zünden; wie der Blicke Strahlen sich zehren; wie die Arme brunstig sich pressen’ veered dangerously close to one forcing himself upon another rather than seducing; if Bullock had herself been able to demonstrate a sense of sexual excitement at such a degree of forwardness, then this could have been captivating and more than a little erotically dangerous, but this level of sophistication was not apparent in either singing or acting.

But these reservations notwithstanding, the final act was paced in such a way that the music never became overwrought, and the music propelled towards the conclusion with great momentum. No single production or performance will probably ever completely satisfy any individual with a degree of familiarity with and convictions about the work; nonetheless I enjoyed it immensely and am living in hope of being able to obtain a ticket from returns to see Götterdämmerung as well.

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