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Reviews

02 Oct 2018

Covent Garden: Wagner’s Siegfried, magnificent but elusive

How do you begin to assess Covent Garden’s Siegfried? From a purely vocal point of view, this was a magnificent evening; it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that this was as fine a cast as you are likely to hear anywhere today.

Siegfried: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 29th September 2018

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Gerhard Siegel as Mime.

Photo credit: Bill Cooper

 

Keith Warner’s production, however, remains somewhat troubling; one can spend more time trying to unravel the allusions, the meanings behind the clutter, the complex perceptions of comedy and tragedy than would be wise for any sane man.

Der Ring Des Nibelungen is all about interconnectivity and Warner’s direction attempts to establish this, even in esoteric ways. The toy aeroplane from Das Rheingold, for example, is transformed in Siegfried as the curtain rises into the wrecked fuselage of a stripped down, much larger aeroplane. As with much of the imagery here it’s symbolic - just as a sword rises from a wrecked pram during the Vorspiel, so Wotan, disguised as the Wanderer, does so from the broken shell of the cockpit. But why there should be an aeroplane here at all is quite another question. As with much of Wagner, time is constantly in a state of flux; motifs come and go, and Warner does the same with his imagery. Act III of this Siegfried floats moving clouds against a wall but it’s the perspective that is different and looks back towards Act I. Rather than looking two-dimensional, the angle gives the impression of floating through clouds, rather as you’d experience from a plane as we recall the wreckage from earlier. For a fleeting moment, you’re reminded of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. The sprawling algebraic equations before Act I begins make little sense - both as to their meaning and why they should be there - but when we get to Act II, as Siegfried confronts Fafner, the Tarnhelm itself is nothing but an algorithmic Rubik’s Cube.

Bill Cooper SV Siegfried(1).jpgStefan Vinke as Siegfried. Photo Credit: Bill Cooper.

Paradoxes abound in Siegfried. It’s a comedy within a tragedy; it’s about the transition of the world of Wotan and the Gods into the redemptive vision of love he has for Siegfried and Brünnhilde, the old order giving way to a new order. If the downfall of the Gods is seen as inevitable, the calamity that will become the tragedy of the final opera isn’t foreseen. Warner’s take on this in Siegfried isn’t really clear - other than the biggest paradox of all in that Wotan is placing his faith for a new future in a Siegfried who is clearly unsuitable.

The comedy in this Siegfried is surprisingly restrained. Warner takes a notably neutral standpoint characterising his Mime, for example. Gerhard Siegel, returning to this production, is magnificent, both vocally and dramatically. Balance becomes an art form in his purely theatrical characterisation of the role - in no sense could one suggest this is a caricature of the part, as can so easily happen. Warner makes a distinction between comedy and making his Mime a clown - Siegel is every part a malevolent dwarf, part mad scientist, as untidy and living amid his clutter as he is scheming and hollow of emotion. He howls, groans, screams and whines. He’s intemperate and evasive. Siegel’s long scenes with Stefan Vinke’s Siegfried are wonderfully complementary: There is a real sense of spontaneity between these two singers, and the humour unfolds without feeling forced.

Cooper SV Siegfried.jpgStefan Vinke as Siegfried. Photo Credit: Bill Cooper.

Stefan Vinke’s Siegfried is so extraordinarily convincing - this is after all the 100th time he has sung the role - you often feel he is the Siegfried of our time. With his patched-up army fatigues and leather battle vest, there is a punkish, roguish side to him that Warner is more than willing to explore. There is a boundless energy to this Siegfried - he hops over discarded mattresses, jumps back and forth over barbed wire fences and brandishes his newly forged sword like a warrior. He’s as crusty as he is anarchic; but there is a seething unpretentiousness and innocence as well. One minute he is cracking an egg over Mime’s forehead; the next he is forging his sword. He transforms from a boy into an all-knowing grease-monkey who can work the aeroplane’s propellers to set the forge working and attach pumps to fuel the flames. Does Warner make this all seem incredulous? Well, yes, he does. This Siegfried seems entirely schizophrenic. On the other hand, this is a Siegfried who is all but immune to any manifestation of physical danger or fear. Siegfried’s battle with Fafner, and his transformation into a dragon, might be considered partly comic - but Warner makes Vinke’s Siegfried take his cue from Wagner’s music, with all the darkness it portrays, rather than the literal humour the libretto suggests.

But Vinke’s Siegfried is another paradox in this production too. The heroism of Act II at the foot of Fafner’s cave is a correction to the beguiling innocence of his woodland scene with Heather Engebretson’s acrobatic Woodbird. But innocence can easily become petulance; he becomes frustrated by his inability to make a sound from the reed he has made. In Act III, Warner completely subverts the balance of love versus power that Wotan has imagined for Siegfried and Brünnhilde. This isn’t exactly a vision of Siegfried who will emerge from the Volsungs to triumph over the power of the Gods. Siegfried the punk is too radical to embrace the concept of love - his reticence as he awakens Brünnhilde is borne of childlike shyness. Even the lighting of this scene cleverly suggests it’s full of apprehension and unknowingness. Warner literally tosses the concept of love into the flames. But even when Nina Stemme’s magnificent and imposing Brünnhilde emerges we don’t get the inklings of a consummation but a game of cat-and-mouse. Warner keeps them apart, on opposing sides of a grey wall. They are literally and figuratively a world apart, Brünnhilde’s ecstatic dialogue - so searingly sung by Stemme - almost falling on Siegfried’s deaf ears. As Siegfried throws himself onto Brünnhilde at the opera’s very end it’s as charmless as the filthy mattress itself.

Brindley Sherratt as Fafner , Stefan Vinke as Siegfried (C) Bill Cooper.jpg Brindley Sherratt as Fafner and Stefan Vinke as Siegfried. Photo Credit: Bill Cooper.

Even withstanding the complexity of ideas in this production, and the somewhat wilful direction, there is much that stands out as exceptional. You can never escape the underlying tension and anger that characterises much of this Siegfried: I lost count of the number of times a chair was thrown somewhere around the stage. Antonio Pappano’s gripping conducting of the score is so extraordinarily visual, so seismic and visceral at times, that it mirrors the staging to perfection. His pacing of the score may be fast for some listeners but it seemed near-perfect to me. Only briefly, notably in Act II, did the outstanding Royal Opera House Orchestra wobble or have issues with intonation. Vinke’s hammering in the Act I forging scene is breathtakingly musical and is replicated in the timbre of the orchestra, too; it is not always like this in staged performances of Siegfried. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more dramatic Vorspiel than the one we got to the opening of Act III. Pappano’s very brisk, fiery tempo was electrifying, but combine this with Wotan angrily tossing a mattress and whatever else he could get his hands on from a rotating platform and the effect was unforgettable. If the earth goddess Erde being wheeled in on a high throne seemed perhaps a touch clumsy, the orchestra was as dark as Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s gorgeously plush voice. John Lundgren’s Wanderer had every reason to struggle while singing on a revolving platform but he didn’t. The voice remained as rich, dark and focused as it had from his first appearance in Act I. His Riddle Scene with Mime was full of mystery. Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Alberich resonated evil, and Brindley Sherratt’s Fafner had a dark tone that cracked like thunder.

Vinke Nina Stemme as Brunnhilde.jpgNina Stemme as Brünnhilde and Stefan Vinke as Siegfried. Photo Credit: Bill Cooper.

Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde has grown into one of the great dramatic performances. It isn’t just that the voice has such tremendous range, it’s now that she believes entirely she can equal the complexity of the role. The evenness of tone, the ability to be both lyrical and dramatic is very impressive. She fortunately lacks the hardness of inflection that sometimes marred a Nilsson performance - Stemme’s Brünnhilde is quite notable for being exceptionally warm in tone, but she is equally merciless in keeping the line clean.

Stefan Vinke’s Siegfried is simply peerless. Casting Siegfried is always a problem but Vinke has everything you could ask for in a great Siegfried. Certainly, when I heard him take on the part early in his career there were times you felt he lacked the stamina to see it through; that is unquestionably not the case today. That he had such reserves of power to give with Stemme such an overwhelming final duet was remarkable. So much of Siegfried lies in the higher part of the voice that it’s easy for a tenor to become lazy but Vinke has a laser-sharp power to his upper range which enables him to sustain a note effortlessly. Nothing felt clipped; you didn’t feel that there were any shortcuts. There is also beautiful clarity and tonal richness to this voice as well - it’s honeyed, golden, entirely even for a Wagner tenor. I think I’d be hard pressed to hear a better performance of Siegfried from anyone else than the one we got here.

From a vocal, musical and artistic point of view this Siegfried was one of the great evening’s at Covent Garden in many years.

Marc Bridle

Richard Wagner: Siegfried

Stefan Vinke - Siegfried, Nina Stemme - Brünnhilde, Gerhard Siegel - Mime, John Lundgren - Wanderer, Johannes Martin Kränzle - Alberich, Brindley Sherratt - Fafner, Wiebke Lehmkuhl - Erda, Heather Engebretson - Woodbird; Keith Warner - Director, Antonio Pappano - conductor, Stefanos Lazaridis - Set Designer, Wolfgang Göbbel - Lighting, Orchestra of Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; 29th September 2018.

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