Siegfried – Not the ideal first opera

22 Oct

During the long interval of the performance of Siegfried on 21st October, I struck up a conversation with a guy who had been wandering past the Royal Opera House about 20 minutes before it started and, on the off-chance, had got a standing ticket in the Balcony for £17.  This was his first opera.  It isn’t one that I’d choose for my first opera but he seemed to be coping pretty well and hats off to him for standing all the way through.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt that it must be quite difficult to make a lot of it without the knowledge of what has gone before.  For me the most interesting thing about Siegfried is the way in which the characters you have seen before develop – the resonances from the previous operas and the ironies.  How can you remotely understand the emotions going on in the Wotan/Erda scene or the Wotan/Siegfried one without a knowledge of what has gone before?  I think the sense of the old order apparently being thwarted by the arrival of youth and innocence has greater resonance if you have seen the earlier pieces.

As before, there are some wonderful things in Keith Warner’s production and some deeply frustrating ones.  I don’t understand why you need to have a ‘plane have crashed into Nibelheim for the first scene and I found the conscious artificiality of the forest murmurs scene unnecessarily funny.  I think that to have Siegfried just lie back on the mattress while going through the magic fire is a complete cop out.  I wonder if there were some technical problems with the projections – they didn’t seem that well co-ordinated and I don’t remember feelling so frustrated last time I saw this production.  I’m not sure why Wotan needed to kill Erda at the end of their scene together and I’m not sure what having what was, I think, the Woodbird around for the first scene and climbing into the bear costume brought.  Above all I found Mime changing into rat frequently while trying to make Siegfried drink the poison very tiresome and silly.  Can’t Warner trust us and Wagner?  I can’t blame Warner for the early snapping of Wotan’s spear but I did wonder if all was well backstage.

But there are some greatnesses too.  The second act, round Neidhöle is really well done – huge, cavernous darkness and a picture of Fafner on his own, seated, clutching the gold model of Freia and I love the circling stage at the beginning of the third act with Wotan apparently combatting the elements as well as everything else – splendid image of the turnoil he’s feeling.  The direction of the acting is fine and he catches the jokes in the text.  I didn’t find this as fascinating an evening as I did Walküre or, indeed, the Richard Jones production before this, but it’s still a hugely intelligent evening.

I’ve at last seen Terfel’s Wanderer/Wotan and, as before, I admire it enormously.  He manages the conversational elements superbly and his phrasing and ability to sing softly make you understand the subtleties of the role.  He was particularly fine in the scenes when he is playing with Mime and Alberich.  I felt that Tomlinson last time round got more of the elemental anguish and doubt of the first scene of Act III.

We also had a new Siegfried.  Stephan Vincke is a new name to me.  The voice is on the dry side but he has huge stamina and appeared to be singing with the same freedom and energy at the duet as he was at the start – in fact, slightly more so.  It’s not a particularly beautiful sound and there are times when it would be nice to have a little more freedom and heft – but he more than gets through the role and he acts it engagingly – just the right amount of naive cynicism.

I thought Susan Bullock even better tonight than she had been in Walküre.  There was slightly more steel in the voice this evening and, best of all, she brings out the femininity and wisdom of the role.  I remember in particular how beautifully she sang the “Ewig bin ich…” passage (when the Siegfried Idyll bit comes in) – there was a raw honesty about this.  She conveyed the emotions of the woman outstandingly – everything felt true – though how much someone who hadn’t seen Walküre could get out of this scene, I don’t know.

Wolfgang Koch was a lowering, nasty Alberich, Gerhard Siegel was just right as the petty, small-minded Mime, Sophie Bevan a lovely, clear Woodbird and Maria Radner was a fine Erda.

Pappano and the orchestra did fantastic things in the second Act – they caught the tension and danger, together with the beauty of that act beautifully.  I’ve heard more incandescent love duets – I remember both with Haitink and, I think the last time here, catching the train home with the themes at the end rolling around my head – not so much this time.

So this was a civilised was of spending a wet Sunday and I got a lot out of it.  I hope that my acquaintance wasn’t entirely put off opera.

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