Seigfried is arguably the most difficult of the four Ring operas to stage successfully. Professor Lees told us it was the hardest for Wagner to write and he famously took a twelve year break from doing so. It’s also the hardest to watch at the start as you don’t like either of the characters in the first scene – the sniveling Mime and the boorish boy Seigfried. But as the good Professor explained this is a story about growing up – for everyone. The audience, babies in Das Rheingold, adolescents/young adults in Das Walkure and now in locus parentis is as we watch Seigfried go from boy to adult to hero. And as we follow Wagner’s musical development to full blown symphonic master.
Sounds like hard work and often is for the person singing the title role. Until last night I had not seen a great Seigfried. Performers in both the Adelaide Rings weren’t quite up to the task. The opera largely stands or falls on this one role and Stefan Vinke was superb. Visually and vocally he conveyed the growth of Seigfried. First the callow, rebellious boy trying to extract information about his parentage from the horrible Mime. In his rugby jumper atop a double bunk bed whittling a bear mask (an okay substitute for the real thing), legs swinging he looked suitably boyish. His sword making was enthusiastic with some passages of Notung! Notung! hair-raising. Softer passages in the forest outside Fafner’s cave and his inter-action with the Woodbird were lovely. A believable transition from child of nature to bold adventurer setting out to conquer the world. The confrontations – Fafner, Mime and, finally, Wotan – were all handled well.
He came into his own in the final scene, waking the sleeping Brunnhilde and wooing her. I heard a talk once about how hard this is for the male performer. He’s been on stage singing his heart out for nearly four hours, racing around, first forging and then wielding, his sword against sundry characters, racing hither and thither, finally leaping over whatever the artistic director has decided will depict the ring of fire (in this case he came through a rather lame gold curtain). Now he has to match a soprano who has been resting throughout all this action! Well Mr Finke was well and truly up to this Herculean task. The love scenes were just right, toing and froing before reaching the ecstatic heights.
Given the importance of the role I looked up the singer and found two reviews. One from Seattle that was full of praise. And one from Coventry Garden that was lukewarm. I’m with Seattle. A triumphant performance. Suitably rewarded with the loudest applause at curtain call.
All the other performances were good. I felt Graeme Macfarlane sang Mime beautifully but played it for laughs that served to reduce the slyness and treachery angle which is critical thing for this character. It was further contradicted by the set which portrayed a scene of domestic harmony – fridge, micro-wave, beds nicely made. Surely the thing is Mime has brought the boy up badly, without the comforts a family would provide. We had an interesting discussion about the drawings on Siegfried’s bedroom wall – bad parenting doesn’t value and encourage the display of youthful achievement. So we thought Mime more likely to have torn these down.
Poor Wotan was subjected to more indignities than should be suffered by anyone let alone one who is ruling the world, albeit about to lose all. As the Wanderer he looked shocking. The usual broad brimmed hat was spurned, replaced by a long light grey (it looked blonde at different times) wig. He had a similar long fur coat but dirty grey this time instead of rich brown. Fallen on hard times you see. Worse, he had lost his beautiful crisp white shirt. Explicable in the circumstances. But to be replaced by a badly fake-tanned bare chest! Please! And sunglasses to boot. I thought he looked like an ageing rock star when he settled on the couch in Mime’s cave for the three riddles scene. Others thought he looked straight off the Sons of Anarchy TV set!
This look undermined Wotan’s scene with Alberich outside Fafner’s cave – especially as the latter was still looking spick and span in his shiny grey suit from Das Rheingold (when he was managing director of the Apple type factory). This despite his travails since. And I hated having Wotan writhing around on the ground during the Wotan’s Ride music at the start of Act III – the music signifies he’s back to his archetypal model the raging god, the restless, vigorous god. And he looked like a sad old man well before the youthful Seigfried splintered his spear.
Terje Stensvolde sang Wotan beautifully but the characterization imposed by the Director militated against the tragedy of the fall. I understand (while not sharing) the desire to emphasize Wotan’s humanity and vulnerability, but denying the grandeur leaves a hole at the heart of this Ring for me.
Erda was in a wheelchair, or was she the lady in black wheeling the chair. Took me a while to work out. But poor Erda is used to rough treatment and the idea of a frail old lady was okay. I liked the Woodbird appearing in human form flittering, with suitably birdlike movements, around Seigfried, singing that lovely birdsong beautifully. Alberich (Warwick Fyffe) was good for the second time in his short time on stage. Scarcely believing the news that his great rival is withdrawing from the race to retrieve the ring. Brunnhilde was good – especially her opening Salute to the Sun. Working from the confines of a box – perhaps a take on Sleeping Beauty (if so Brunnhilde got a poor deal, her box was pine wood and plastic not diamond encrusted glass!)
Apart from Seigfried’s superb performance and the concluding love duets, the highlight was the portrayal of Fafner. Another heroic performance. This time from Jud Arthur. It started at the commencement of Act II. We returned to the theatre to find a glowering, contorted face projected onto the curtain. When it was raised we see an actor putting on face paint, his face now projected onto a plain white wall – the projection disturbed a a gaping black hole – the maw of the dragon? We deduce this is Fafner taking on the role of dragon. Later the hole is revealed as the entrance to Fafner’s cave. At the crucial time Seigfried reaches in to plunge Notung into Fafner’s heart. A spray of red ribbons indicates blood. Followed by the actor staggering out, blood covered, naked, dying. Compelling.
This Melbourne Ring will be remembered as one of uniformly high quality from nearly all the singers – unusually for a Ring thus far there haven’t been any complete duds. I’m not so sure about the look. As with the two preceding operas there are bits that work really well. A friend thinks Neil Armfield’s does great tableaux. I loved Seigfried’s entrance onto Brunnhilde’s rock. Soft lighting. He, sword in hand stage left. Brunnhilde in her box stage centre and gradually Grane came into view back right. And others, like Mime’s cave, that seem to deliberately subvert traditional interpretations. Some small touches work well, like the breeze rustling through the forest floor – more green confetti as seen in Die Walkure. Simple is always best. Others not so much like the gold curtain that was meant to represent the encircling fire (I think). And the costuming is a disappointment. Beauty and glamour are in short supply. Nor is there much that is inventive or innovative to set you thinking about characters in a different way.
Once again here are the reviews. I haven’t read them yet. Too busy preparing for Götterdämmerung tomorrow! And here are the pictures; seen much more clearly than from our aerie in the gods.