Monday 24 October 2005

Review of Siegfried at Covent Garden, Sat. 22nd October 2005

Episode 3 of the Royal Opera's new Ring Cycle opens in a bleak, black and white space with just the stray detritous of living and a crashed plane. Quite what relevance the plane has to the story of Siegfried and Mime I'm not sure but it did provide a concrete place in which they could interact. The act had opened with something of a coup; a drop curtain covered with equations, Mime frantically scribbling and a series of Siegfrieds (baby, toddler, teenager) who constantly break swords. This aptly sets the scene for the relationship between the grown-up Siegfried (John Treleaven) and Mime (Gerhard Siegel). The interplay between the 2 was one of the best aspects of this new production of Siegfried. Whereas Phyllida Lloyd at the London Coliseum, created a Siegfried who was a believable sulky teenager, at Covent Garden Treleaven and Siegel created a relationship closer to that of Steptoe and Son.

Treleaven makes an impressive Siegfried; whilst not conceivable as a teenager he made a believable, young and naive hero. His voice is silvery rather than golden or brazen. He does lack the ringing top that would be ideal, but he is convincing enough with silver steel tones. And he had reserves of power enough to carry him through the entire opera with a consistency of voice that was entirely admirable (though he did understandably tire towards the end). He is indeed quite a find and you wonder why he has not sung such roles in his native country before.

Siegel is an impressive Mime, struggling in a situation where he feels he has no control. The third, important person in this act is of course Wotan as the Wanderer. Here John Tomlinson, looking wonderfully down at heel, created a shabby, but powerful personage with superb charisma. Whilst it was a disappointment not to be seeing Terfel in the role, it was a such a pleasure to encounter Tomlinson's Wanderer again. He is such a vivid, theatrical performer that Terfel will be hard put to fill his shoes in this production (if he ever does). Granted, Tomlinson's voice is not quite what it once was, but somehow the traces of effort in the upper reaches chimed in with the fatalism and world-weariness of his performance.

Having 2 such strong, physical performers together meant that the '20 questions' scene was so tremendous that you stopped wondering why thy were sitting on opposite sides of a wing from a damage airplane!

The forging scene sounded admirable, but Treleaven was given lots of detailed business to do with spare plane parts, pots, pans etc. The result was indeed a forged sword, but given that the action was so detailed I could have wished for a little more realism, or more abstraction. You can understand Phyllida Lloyd's desire to stage this scene abstractly for ENO, even if that staging did not quite work.

Act 2 took place in a cavernous, dark space with the staging area disappearing into the rear of the stage. Peter Sidhom was a strong Alberich (I hope he reappears the next time Das Rheingold is given here), so the sequence of scenes between Sidhom, Tomlinson and Siegel were brought off with enviable ease. Less gripping was the attempt by director Keith Warner and designer Stefanos Lazaridis, to give the Forest Murmurs scene a trendy gloss. Siegfried disappeared down a hole in the stage, the whole floor then lifted up to reveal Treleaven reclining on a grassy surface atop a group of hospital trollies. As he sang and the orchestra played, 2 supers wheeled on first a stag and then a doe and finally the wood-bird arrived; white clad Sara Fox with a model wood-bird at the end of a rope on a stick. (During Act 1 there had been much by-play with bits of paper (contracts?) and the Wanderer had kept making origami model birds out of paper, presumably to emphasise to us that he is in control of the Woodbird).

Fafner was pretty well done; for most of the time we saw the singer clad as he was in Das Rheingold with the tarnhelm next to him. Only when he attacks Siegfried does he turn into a most convincing dragon. Once fallen, the dragon disappears and when Siegfried lifts off the tarnhelm he takes Fafner's head with it; the final dialogue between Siegfried and Fafner was wonderfully done with Siegfried talking to Fafner's disembodied head - quite magical.

Act 3 opened in an abstract space with a huge spinning platform with the troubled Wanderer on it. Erda (Jane Henschel) appears in her armchair, and floats past in almost disembodied manner, barely impinging on the Wanderer's trouble.

Then the stage re-assembled itself into a simplified version of Act 3 of Die Walküre, i.e. huge metal spiral and the white, moveable wall with just one door. It was this door that the Wanderer barred to Siegfried; Tomlinson and Treleaven were tremendous in this scene; it more than made-up for the rather low-key version of this encounter at the Coliseum. Whatever you think of Warner's staging, he is certainly alive to the mythic elements in the opera (even if he does tend to over-egg the pudding).

The Wanderer gone we waited with bated breath for the final scene.

We never saw Brunnhilde on her rock, she remained behind the white wall; for some reason Warner had Siegfried simply describe what he could see each time his disappeared from our view. Granted, this meant we were spared the more embarassing bits, like when Siegfried has to cut Brunnhilde's armour off her. But it also meant that we never saw Siegfried's first proper reaction to Brunnhilde nor did we see her waking up. In previous productions in this house, Gwynneth Jones was mesmerising as she gradually came to life, you really did believe she'd been asleep for 20 years!

Here, our first sight of Lisa Gasteen's Brunnhilde was a dramatic back-lit one as she stood in the door. From then on, Warner seemed to take a rather down-beat view of this final duet. The dramaturgy, singers' demeanour and rather gloomy setting all conspired to emphasise Brunnhilde's troubles and doubts rather than the couple's overwhelming love. Not for this couple the joyous discovery of young love, the throwing up of Brunnhilde's armour into the air like children, which made the scene between Gwyneth Jones and Alberto Remedios so memorable in 1982. Perhaps I would have felt more joyous if Gasteen had been in more radiant voice; her vibrato seemed more pronounced and her Heil dir as she wakes up was less than radiant. Perhaps she was reining herself in so that she did not overwhelm Treleaven. Certainly the 2 were well balanced and ultimately the opera came to a radiant conclusion albeit through troubled territory.

I look forward to the final instalment of the Cycle next year, but still find the look and feel of this staging rather PUZZLING.

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