This review is part of a four week collection of the Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle.
SIEGFRIED / DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN, BAYREUTH 1976 / PATRICE CHÉREAU
Ring cycles are a continuous movement between emotional highs and lows. After the disastrous end of Die Walküre, a new hero is needed – and the titular character of Siegfried emerges as a beacon of hope. For the third instalment of Wagner’s tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen at the 1976 Bayreuth Festival, director Patrice Chéreau adds a fantastical element to his production’s historical setting, though the struggle for the ring ultimately looms in the background.
Manfred Jung as Siegfried is the image of wide-eyed, smiling naiveté, grudgingly putting up with his guardian Mime instead of giving the impression he wants to throw the dwarf into the flames of his smithy. Bright-voiced and lyrical, he gains vocal heft and a trumpet-like strength after killing Fafner. He marvels at the wonders of the forest and sits opposite the dying dragon as if death were a bedtime story, and the brunt of his overconfidence finally emerges when confronting Wotan with childish ease. Casting Heinz Zednik, who previously sang Loge in Das Rheingold, as the perpetually unlucky Mime might seem unusual, but Zednik’s calm and tired interpretation of the often-caricatured dwarf is most fitting. He loses his mind running after Siegfried so that the path to becoming a child poisoner is well-traceable and both amusing and slightly tragic to watch. Zednik keeps his vocal line straightforward without many growly or shrill notes, but garnishes his descent into madness with the absolute creepiest high giggle. Wotan, again sung by Donald McIntyre, visibly enjoys terrifying Mime when visiting him in Act I and vocally towers over him. While still self-assured during his meet with Alberich, he’s evidently outclassed when confronting Siegfried, the result of his schemes that has taken on a life of his own he can’t control anymore. In Act II, Hermann Becht returns as Alberich, who looks decidedly unhealthy as he camps out in the forest. He has audibly lost none of his rage at Wotan and is an equal opponent for the aging god in voice and in appearance – they wear the same rumpled brown frock. Brünnhilde (Gwyneth Jones) provides the last highlight in Act III after waking from her years-long slumber and launching into the high demands of the final duet. She alternates between incredibly gentle and the blazing tone of her first entrance in Die Walküre and seems fittingly older and wiser than Siegfried, overpowering him in volume at the end. Fritz Hübner’s Fafner is an enlightening, if accidental study in old-school stage effects. The dragon is an actual machine on wheels brought to the front of the stage by puppeteers for the dragon battle, which is at once delightfully old-fashioned and supremely awkward. (A note to future directors: please leave the dragon wagon backstage next time.) Singing-wise, Hübner could play with contrasts and indulge a bit more in his death monologue – a bit more suspense for the dying dragon, please. On the other hand, Erda (Ortrun Wenkel) had a great improvement not only in costume. Her alto, while not the richest voice, seems limitless in range, and her lower register gorgeously conveys pain and weariness. The Forest Bird (Norma Sharp) sang her lines with mischief and agility from offstage, while an actual bird in a cage was provided onstage. (Unfortunately, Siegfried didn’t let the bird loose into the auditorium at the end of Act II.)
Act I takes place in a forest seemingly far from the laws of the gods, but Wotan isn’t above trying to expand his influence here. His suit is imposing enough for Mime to become self-conscious about his own overcoat. The god fails to expand his reach to Siegfried, though, who originates from a place where emotions overrule laws. In Act II, Alberich’s costume is the same as Wotan’s, which provides some food for thought. Has Alberich purposefully abandoned his origins to chase the ring or has the pursuit caused him to change his nature? Either way, Alberich plays in the same league as Wotan now and serves to illustrate that the struggle for the ring is far from over.
When discussing musical highlights, the solo flutist in the forest scene of Act II simply must be mentioned. The melodic line retains an element of mystery and playfulness and a piercing, crystalline tone. Contrarily, Siegfried’s incorrect piping is hilarious. Presumably every orchestra is left some liberties for that part, and this one figured out the humour. Elsewhere, conductor Pierre Boulez navigates the system of echoing melodies and motifs in the Act II prelude cleverly and keeps the Act III prelude springing and energetic without excessive thunder.
Compared to Chéreau’s interpretations of the previous two Ring instalments, Siegfried is a step away from the setting in the Industrial Revolution and instead establishes that the protagonist is from an entirely different world. In a way, the contrasts between the secluded, dream-like forest of Siegfried’s youth and the occasional interludes of the Wotan’s law-bound world already insinuate the final disaster: the two realms clash, and the ring will taint young innocence.
SIEGFRIED / DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN, BAYREUTH 1988 / HARRY KUPFER
As demonstrated by Patrice Chéreau, Wagner’s Siegfried is often a short departure from a more complex reflection on the gods and the ring. At the same time, a simplified stage won’t work for director Harry Kupfer after his already sparse Die Walküre at the Bayreuth Festival. The only direction for Kupfer to go is forward: just like plots to snatch the ring evolve, his setting does too. The hero may know nothing of it, but the world is getting more complicated.
Siegfried Jerusalem sings Siegfried, and perhaps his first name predestines him for this character than too often comes across as gratingly confident. He’s vivacious and full of excessive energy in voice and acting without being a tyrannical bully (although Mime might beg to differ). When left alone to ponder his parentage in the forest, he brings across an interesting mix of youth and contemplative maturity. He’s childishly keen to see the world, and yet Fafner’s death instils a sense of wonder at mortality and his own abilities – a welcome touch to his usual boisterousness. Apparently, it’s a Bayreuth tradition to cast an earlier Loge as Mime in Siegfried, and so Graham Clarke returns in perhaps the crowning role for a Charaktertenor. His Mime is – let this be written with utmost admiration – an actual dwarf, scrawny and sickly pale compared to Siegfried. He’s possessed by mania from the beginning, as if caring for the young Siegfried already eroded his sanity to the point of being an emotionally stunted would-be murderer out of desperation to get rid of this beastly child he’s at wit’s end with. Occasional excursions of his piercing tenor into a frustrated growly speech tone are both apt and hilarious, and his wiry, frenzied physicality is outrageously impressive. His brother Alberich (Günter von Kannen) demonstrated a vocal improvement in terms of more nuanced phrasing between Das Rheingold and now. While appropriately paranoid when encountering Wotan, he’s visibly and audibly Mime’s brother – the two automatically adopt similar mannerisms and singing style when arguing. John Tomlinson’s Wotan manages to sound massive and delightfully unimpressed in his visit to Mime. In Act III, scorn and real desperation snarl in his voice as he taunts Erda; yet, in his final confrontation with Siegfried, he exhibits a rarely-seen emotional control that shows this is just a part of his grand scheme, rather than a derailed confrontation as it’s more often interpreted. He seems to become a vindictive schemer rather than start out as one, completing a mighty character arc in a fashion that leaves no question as to why Tomlinson’s name became synonymous with “Wotan in Bayreuth” for over a decade. Erda (Birgitta Svendén) sounds wearier upon being woken up but has lost none of the vocal richness, especially on the high note of “Meineid”. She harbours some real anger at Wotan, rather than being a sleepwalking oracle. Anne Evans’ Brünnhilde is also benefited by sleep. She sounds luminous and richer than previously and conveys her fear after being woken up without panic, but with focused intensity. (Admittedly, half-hour love duets at the end are not my cup of tea, but as far as I can tell, she sails through it wonderfully.) Philip Kang, aside from sounding threatening enough to eat someone, executes Fafner’s arguably criminally underrated death monologue with a weighty bass that gradually floats off but throws out a final mighty “Siegfried!”. And Hilde Leidland as the Forest Bird carries one of Wagner’s loveliest melodies with a light and crystalline voice.
During the Act I prelude, the appearance of several Leitmotifs is cleverly synced with their associated characters sneaking around the set. In Acts I and II, Kupfer’s timeless aesthetic allows him to create fantastical, elaborate architecture that’s slightly grunge and derelict like sharp teeth – the adherence to Wagner’s wishes from a darker parallel universe. Both Mime’s hut and the Neidhöhle demand unparalleled athleticism: Jerusalem and Clarke sing while pulling each other off ladders and throttle and shove each other around like ragdolls with jaw-dropping spontaneity and ease. Kupfer’s concept also allows him to cherry-pick details that add more continuity to otherwise unexplained story elements, such as Wotan and all of his children being redheads and the god personally sending the Forest Bird to Siegfried.
Daniel Barenboim chooses wiser tempi this time and merges them into each other smoothly. His Act I radiates pure energy but overdoes it in volume occasionally – Wagner is mesmerising when he’s quiet, and this quality would’ve rendered the Wanderer’s announcement that he challenges Mime to three questions more impressive. That problem disperses later on, though. The Act II forest murmurs were beautifully delicate and the final duet rich in contrasts. And a soloist from the orchestra provided a very clean horn call to wake up Fafner.
For both Kupfer and Chéreau, Siegfried is a small departure from their previous concepts. While Chéreau adds some fantasy, Kupfer evolves his set design into more complex forms. Nonetheless, both retain core elements of their interpretations: while Chéreau serves reminders of the “other world order”, Kupfer puts his emphasis on physicality on full display. It brings immense youthful spirit to the opera – the characters are points of light moving around a dark set, triumphant one more time before grand destruction.
Lynn Sophie Guldin, November 2020
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