Richard Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen: Siegfried, Royal Opera House Covent Garden under Antonio Pappano with John Tomlinson as Wotan

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Richard Wagner, Siegfried
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, October 21, 2007

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Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Antonio Pappano, Music Director, Conductor

Mime – Gerhard Siegel
Siegfried – John Treleaven
Wanderer – John Tomlinson
Alberich – Peter Sidhom
Fafner – Philip Ens
Woodbird – Ailish Tynan
Erda – Jane Henschel
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin (replacing Lisa Gasteen)

Director – Keith Warner
Set Designs – Stefanos Lazarides
Costume Designs – Marie-Jeanne Lecca

When, in my review of his recent performance to Haydn’s Creation, I was reflecting on Sir Colin Davis’ career, I mentioned the Ring Cycle he conducted at Covent Garden in 1976. I thought that Siegfried was the most successful of the performances, because Sir Colin seemed to have fallen in love with its spectacular score. In no other work are the beauties of Wagner’s composition so constantly and so openly present. As I sat raptly in my seat, the orchestra and all the wonderful qualities Sir Colin could reveal in it were without a doubt the focus of my attention. And so it is for most of us in most performances, past or present, whether it is Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch, Solti, Böhm (whose splendid Bayreuth performances, available on Philips, should be better remembered), Boulez, or Levine. The orchestra functions as storyteller—a surpassingly eloquent one, with all the resources of Wagner’s musical imagination.

Last Sunday’s Siegfried was different. It is interesting that Music Director Antonio Pappano should observe, as quoted in the program, that the conductor is “trying to weave a thread, and doing this is part and parcel of the success of any performance of Wagner.” The conductors I’ve mentioned appeared to take this for granted. As Pappano himself says, “The music of Wagner is, first of all, a music that never stops.” Wagner built this in, not only into his scores but into the Bayreuth acoustic, and it is difficult for even a mediocre conductor to destroy it. This production is differently conceived, however. Clearly the result of close collaboration between Mr. Pappano, director Keith Warner, and set designer Stefanos Lazarides, everything in this production is intended to further Wagner’s dramatic action and his text, which is its primary vehicle. Again, the program notes make this clear. Stewart Spencer begins his excellent essay, “Wagner’s Way with Words,” with a reference to the notice posted at Bayreuth for the first performance of Rheingold, which assumes that the audience would be reading the libretto during the performance. However, since the lights were to be kept too low for this, it was suggested that the audience should “familiarize themselves with the entire libretto before the performance begins, or to read the relevant sections of it before each act.” In the same spirit Wagner coached the singers in the text before the musical rehearsals were taken up. Whatever else they may have introduced, the triumvirate behind this production took pains to research Wagner’s own dramaturgy and production methods and founded their own approach upon them. Every carefully thought-out detail of the production is focused on furthering the interaction of the characters and supporting the dramatic narrative. Hence Mr. Pappano found it necessary to think consciously about how he will “weave the thread.”

The result is radically different from most Wagner performances, inasmuch as the orchestra deliberately retreats into the background, conceding the primary role to the singing actors in “weaving the thread.” (Actually thread is spun, not woven, but we’ll assume that Mr. Pappano’s catachresis does not signify—or perhaps not: if a musical score resembles a fabric more than a thread, Wagner’s appear to be woven from endless threads. However, even the Norns’ thread breaks…) Adopting this approach must have required impressive discipline on the conductor’s part, not to say modesty, since he is giving up the indulgence of immersing his audience in Wagner’s opulent sound. What he did not give up, however, was the ability to create the most expressive possible gestures and sounds with his orchestra. To put this in context, I observed a similar apparent subordination of the orchestra in James Levine’s Meistersinger at the Met this past spring, in which years of study and performance, as well as an exceptional cast enabled him achieve what Pappano purposely set out to do. Still, that performance was entirely in the mould of Levine’s past work, which was entirely different from Pappano’s.

This emphasis on the dramatic interplay of the characters is in evidence from the orchestral prelude, during which the curtain is already up, and we witness, against a swirl of mathematical symbols and formulae, as countless as the leaves in the forest, a series of vignettes from Siegfried’s life, beginning with babyhood, as he grows up in Mime’s care. As we listen to Wagner’s musical introduction, which in itself needs no supplement, our attention is focused on the characters. By the time the first scene actually begins, we know them a little already. We see Siegfried, when tenor John Treleaven finally appears, as the product of human growth. While this essentially cinematic effect, perhaps most familiar from the opening of The Magnificent Ambersons, is without a doubt anachronistic (Wagner had his own ideas about revealing past events.), it serves a specific purpose in this production. (As far as cinematic allusions go, Mime himself, here a blinkered, materialistic Naturwissenschaftler, burdened by an intellectual apparatus which renders him totally impotent in terms of getting to the point at hand, is immediately recognizable as a shadow of Dr. Caligari, not only in his appearance, but in his gait—all brilliantly portrayed by tenor Gerhard Siegel.) The interchanges between Mime and Siegfried, as between Mime and the Wanderer, are all tightly co-ordinated, and the characterizations are vivid and full of fleeting nuances. A good deal of background, some of it already known to the audience, comes through in these exchanges, the bane of many less than fanatically devoted Wagnerians in more static productions, but here Warner and Pappano have succeeded in making every bar compelling. A case in point is Siegfried’s forging song, so splendidly sung and acted by Treleaven, which became a complex, structured dramatic scene rather than a set piece.

Throughout the work, they have imagined things in such a way that there are ample possibilities for dramatic interaction. Even the bear Siegfried drives in to frighten Mime removes the head of its bear costume to reveal a person with whom Siegfried has some sort of relationship. If nothing else, this prepares us for a Woodbird with a human double, who can interact directly with the young hero, and a similar human form for Fafner, who only changes into his monstrous shape for his conflict with Siegfried. After Siegfried has struck him, he decapitates the monster and carries its worm-like human head forward, sits beside it, and communicates with it almost intimately. This brought out a certain sympathy with the dragon, who was doing what he had to do, however dangerous and evil it was, in contrast to his total lack of compunction about killing the treacherous Mime. Again, the human double of the Woodbird, who operates her avian counterpart as a puppet, provides an opportunity for direct human interaction, and through the puppet Warner retains much of Siegfried’s dreamy dialogue with the air. Through these inventions Warner has extended Wagner’s dramaturgy into a more concrete and vivid realm, while heightening its mythical aura. As Siegfried unfolds, every encounter comes vividly to life.

The production is also especially potent in creating a sense of mystery. The mathematical symbols, which are as close as we get to the leaves of the forest, the World War II fighter plane which has crashed through Mime’s roof in what is more a bunker than a cave, the Wanderer’s emergence from its cockpit, the metal spiral by Fafner’s cave, all create a feeling of mystery, if not bewilderment, as to what has transpired in the time since the end of Die Walküre, during which Wotan lost one of his eyes—a conflagration, it seems—and from this mystery we experience anxiety, even fear. This comes to a head in one of the most remarkable scenes, the rocky crag where Wotan meets with Erda and subsequently with Siegfried at the beginning of Act III. The mountain landscape is represented by a huge square platform which spins and gyrates below Wotan’s feet. His world has lost its underpinnings, is out of control, and Wotan is ready to lose what last vestiges of power he still has. John Tomlinson’s magnificent singing and acting were only enhanced by the elaborate set, which might have proven a distraction otherwise. When she appears, Erda sails around it on a tall, stately throne. Again Tomlinson and Jane Henschel were able to prevail over the stage machinery throughout.

For the final scene, the mountaintop where Siegfried finds Brünnhilde, the platform becomes a wall. Curiously fire, a central symbol in the drama, so prominently and cleverly exploited in the first act, is rather subdued here. The wall, pierced by a single door, appears as a barrier which is only gradually overcome after Siegfried has penetrated Loge’s flames and must subdue the demoted Valkyrie Brünnhilde. Here the wall swings about on a vertical axis, as the two work their separate ways to a common ground. As resourceful as both John Treleaven and Iréne Theorin are as actors, I could not help feeling that the huge mobile wall got in the way of their dramatic interaction rather unduly, which was conceived with as much variety and color as the earlier scenes. The wall was just too big and too mobile as a device in itself, although its symbolism was certainly convincing. This final scene was the most troublesome, the only one in which I thought the ROH team had not quite solved all the fundamental problems. The projection of Brünnhilde and her couch from behind was marvellous, while Siegfried’s repeated exits through the door to share his reflections with the audience struck me as awkward. Theorin in general brought over her mixed feelings most compellingly, but occasionally, in her wild dark wig, she seemed more like an irascible feminist academic than a fallen demigod. As Brünnhilde and Siegfried dodge about the shifting wall the increase in the tempo of their movements was most effective, while the enormous wall made it seem awkward at points. Not to say that the final moment, when the couple hurl themselves onto the filthy mattress Wotan has left behind, isn’t exciting, or fails to express their powerful feelings of liberation.

Antonio Pappano’s approach to the work is unusual, if not unique, and it is difficult—and most likely inappropriate—to characterize it by comparing it to the work of any of his predecessors. Like everything else in this production, it is linked to the dramatic narrative on stage. As Act I proceeded, I had the general impression that he was pushing things along at a relatively fast pace, but when I focused on particular passages, it struck me how flexible his tempo actually was, and certain atmospheric or emotive passages were quite drawn out. A telling case in point was Mime’s narrative of his finding of Siegfried as his mother Sieglinde was dying. Pappano expressed the poignance of Sieglinde’s fate most movingly with a marked rallentando to a very deliberate tempo, which enabled him to make the most of the dark colors in the orchestra. Siegfried’s touchingly naive reaction was perfectly timed. I’ve already mentioned the forging scene, which Pappano built up so powerfully. Pace, melodic shape, and orchestral color were all thoroughly compelling, and it all seemed perfectly natural and unforced. Parting with tradition, the orchestra rarely draws attention to itself. In spite of the challenges of continuity caused by building each section on the dramatic situation at hand, his sense of flow was so coherent that it made Siegfried (of all operas!) seems like a short piece. Pappano’s reading is as original as it is unpretentious. It will be a joy to hear it develop over the years, and it should prove highly influential among the emerging generation of conductors, setting a new course in the interpretation of the Ring.

In order to build interpretative depth and consistency, the Royal Opera House have been working with more or less the same cast since the first performance of Rheingold in December 2004, as each of the music dramas was added through the course of 2005, culminating the Die Götterdämmerung in the spring 0f 2007. In Siegfried the results were impressive. John Tomlinson must surely be the great Wotan of our time. In his interpretation he is a powerful character, not without resources of intellect or will, but paralyzed by his greed for power and status. He can handle Mime well enough, Alberich less expeditiously, and finally Siegfried breaks him as easily as Nothung shatters the Weltesche, the turning point having been the meeting with Erda, whom Wotan once dominated sexually. His Wotan is not with dignity, but nothing like that of Hotter and his imitators. By the third act of Siegfried he is essentially weak at the core, a crumbling bully. Tomlinson projects this with variety, color, and wrenching immediacy with body language and his magnificent dark voice.

As fascinated and delighted as I am by recorded performances from past generations, I am delighted to see the old caricatural, nasel-voiced portrayals of characters like Mime and Beckmesser disappear from the stage. Gerhard Siegel, using the full power of his handsome voice (He has sung all the Heldentenor parts in the past.), gives us a rich, many-sided portrayal of a malevolent positivist gone to seed, corrupted by his greed and arid intellectuality. His tortured brother Alberich is given an similarly nuanced performance by Peter Sidhom, as a low, inherently evil counterpart of Wotan. The staging I have described makes Fafner a richer part than usual, in which Philip Ens excelled, bringing a full characterization to his exchanges with the Wanderer and Siegfried.

The Woodbird, again enriched by a full human presence in the staging, was sung with great flair and color by Ailish Tynan. Jane Henschel gave a rounded portrayal of Erda with a splendid alto voice which can be compared with the finest singers of the role.

I liked John Treleaven’s Siegfried exceedingly. His voice is a handsome and many-sided one. Once he was fully warmed up, he worked his way through his part with an attractive, open, occasionally almost light-sounding top, contrasting with a rich middle register, and a darkish, strong bottom. He lacks the vocal coherence and ox-like strength of a Melchior, but who does these days? His interpretation of the part was full of nuance and color, showing that he had worked out an intelligent and thoughtful understanding of the part. His projection of the naive energy of the young hero, although not entirely free from effort, I found very appealing. The Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin took over Brünnhilde from an ailing Lisa Gasteen with great confidence and mastery. She lacks the vocal power, stage presence, and superhuman dignity of a Flagstad or a Nilsson, but she compensated for it with the humanity of her interpretation. Like Treleaven’s, her voice is not seamless, but it was strong, attractive, and colorful throughout.

With a cast at or near the top of the singers available today, fresh thought on stage and in the pit with meticulous attention to detail and the whole, and the superb Royal Opera House Orchestra, acoustics, and state-of-the-art stage machinery, there were ample resources for a truly impressive, but was it a great one? Obviously so, but I equally thought it was a beginning rather than an end, not least because at 48 Antonio Pappano has many Rings ahead of him. And that can only be for the better. I tend to be a conservative in Wagner staging, although an open-minded one. (I made a manful, but unsuccessful effort to profit from Robert Wilson’s Lohengrin at the Metropolitan Opera.) Of course it’s not my fault, I say. Most of the gimmickry which has come to dominate contemporary Wagner production arises from sheer restlessness and ego, as well as political roots in 1950’s Bayreuth. However, the “ground-breaking” Chéreau Ring took place a generation ago now, and today this sort of innovation is part of our theatrical language. The traditional Ring is the exception rather than the rule. I had no problem relating to the current Royal Opera House production, because of its professionalism and intellectual integrity. In order to get to the spirit of the Wagner’s work the ROH team applied a double-edged method: they allowed their imagination a broad scope while studying Wagner’s own methods of production.

As the essays in the program make clear the early Bayreuth performances were fraught with difficulties and were ultimately flawed. If Wagner’s text and score were, while not as perfect as Tristan, fully elaborated and polished over many years, the production of the work—an essential part of the Gesamtkunstwerk in Wagner’s theory—was an experiment. While a performance tradition evolved which was broken only by the Second World War (although its absurdities early became a target of satire from early cartoons and Fauré’s Souvenirs de Bayreuth to Florence Foster Jenkins and beyond) the Ring has remained, as a stage piece, very much a work-in-progress. The vital interest in the Ring today, its popularity in opera houses around the world, which cannot hope to muster resources remotely near those of the Royal Opera House, is partly due to this unfinished aspect of Wagner’s work.

Of course there is more to it than that. Apart from the demand for the Ring among those who love Wagner’s music and its qualities as a grand show, the essential reason for its vigor today is political. The crisis in Germany following the Third Reich and the radicalism of the 1960’s—Marxism’s last gasp, as it seems today—gave Wagner’s vision a new urgency, not to mention millennial ideas of destruction and renewal, which thrive in all sorts of varieties today. The Ring has been very much alive over the past generation, in spite of its technical and musical difficulties. This splendid Siegfried provided a taste of its future life.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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