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October 13, 2005

Stop the Buck - Wagner's Siegfried at Covent Garden

Posted by David Conway

Richard Wagner's Siegfried
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
conducted by Antonio Pappano, directed by Keith Warner
in repertory 2nd - 22nd October 2005

David Conway considers the orphan of Wagner's Ring cycle.

In the first part of Wagner's Ring tetralogy, the gold of the Rhine and the Ring itself, which have the power to make their owner the ruler of the world, pass into the hands of first the dwarf Alberich, and then the god Wotan, before ending up in the possession of the giant Fafner. In the second part Wotan schemes to reclaim the Ring for himself, having spawned (among others) a hero who will do his dirty work, but is foiled by his own scruples. In the third part, Siegfried, it falls to Alberich's abused brother, Mime, to try his hand at reclaiming the Ring, using as his catspaw Siegfried, the offspring of Wotan's hero, of whom he has obtained custody in dubious circumstances. Fafner, in the form of a ferocious dragon, spends his time asleep guarding the treasure – if Mime could just persuade Siegfried and Fafner to destroy each other, the world could be his with little trouble.

The characterisation of Mime is an awkward problem for the director. It is easy, especially in the retrospect of 150 years, to seize on the indisputably Jew-baiting aspects of this role – the wheedling music, Mime's pantomime cowardice and servility, his blatant two-facedness – and use it today to link Wagner to the "Holocaust industry" school of the arts. But matters are not quite so simple.

Wagner's attitude to the character was highly equivocal. His original stage direction for the opening scene of Siegfried reads:

Mime the Nibelung alone. He is small and bent […] his head is abnormally large […] there must be nothing of caricature in all this: his aspect, even when quiet, must be simply eerie: it is only in moments of extreme excitement that he becomes outwardly ludicrous, but never uncouth.
Wagner later deleted this description. The critic Theodor Adorno astutely remarked:
Wagner's fear of caricature […] suggests, as does the suppression of this stage-direction, that Wagner recoiled with shock from the similarity between Mime and himself.
Wagner's own characterisation of Mime during rehearsals of Siegfried is said to have transfixed those present by its intensity.

This suggests that those productions which present the Mime episode as a mere comic turn (albeit ending in his humiliation and slaughter) between the ecstatic closing scenes of Walküre and Siegfried pander to a Stürmer-style conception which is rather beyond whatever Wagner may have intended. Mime is the only character in the Ring with the capacity for detailed craftsmanship – he was suborned by Alberich to create the Ring itself and other trinkets from the Rhinegold – and Siegfried, we deduce, absorbs these skills during his enforced residence in Mime's remote smithy, much as Wagner himself would have absorbed the skills of contemporary opera composers during his years of servitude as a composer in secondary opera houses in Germany and the Baltics.

Of these composers the most successful and influential was Wagner's early patron and some-time idol, the Jew Giacomo Meyerbeer. Act II of Siegfried, in which Mime is killed by his protégé, was fully sketched by 1857. Then Wagner laid the score aside. Before he returned to it, he wrote Meistersinger and Tristan. In May 1864, Meyerbeer died in Paris. In September of that year, after a seven year break, Wagner began to score Act II of Siegfried, and later started on act III, with Siegfried at last free to wander in the world, in which he could deploy his now matured musical style. Go figure, as they say.

It is a weakness of Keith Warner's production of Siegfried at Covent Garden that although it contains many clever, indeed inspired, details, it seems to lack the cohesion to get its message over clearly. Elements of design which carry through from his productions of the first two Ring episodes (which I have not seen) include the pervasive form of a helix, denoting one supposes DNA/inheritance/race. But is Siegfried's loathing for Mime fuelled by Wotan's DNA in his veins? Other motifs in the production suggest otherwise. Whilst Wotan, when he comes on stage in his guise as The Wanderer, claims that he is present only as a spectator, not an agent, the appurtenances with which he is provided hint that he is still keen to meddle.

The most significant of these is evident peeping under the curtain before the evening starts – the wing of a crashed aircraft. When the curtain is fully raised, we see that the plane has dived through the roof of Mime's smithy many years previously, and that its propellers and engines have been used by the cunning dwarf to create useful tools. The Wanderer himself appears, to our surprise, not traditionally by penetrating the forest, but by lumbering (in full flying kit) out of the wreck's cockpit. Perhaps, then, the plane is a "plant" as blatant as the sword Wotan left lying around for Siegfried's father in his hour of need in Walküre. This suspicion is enhanced when the Wanderer (excellently acted and commendably sung by John Tomlinson), toddles off after his inquisition of Mime whilst fondling an origami bird, presaging perhaps the Woodbird of Act II.

Gerhard Siegel was quite outstanding as Mime, and the atmosphere he creates is as close as we are likely to get to Wagner's first thoughts. John Treleaven's Siegfried is a big bully, unsympathetic in demeanour and unfortunately, to me, not much more sympathetic in timbre, although I do not think he deserves the censure of crudity that the first-night critics laid on him. As this was only the second performance, the two may be able to develop a sense that they have lived together for seventeen years or so – I got the feeling that they had just been dumped together like contestants for Big Brother. The price one paid for all this in Act I was a lack of exhilaration at the climax when Siegfried re-forges his father's sword, although Pappano led the orchestra to it in exemplary fashion.

If Act I was generally stimulating, I am afraid that in Act II things fell apart badly, although it began well enough with the separate confrontations of Alberich (Peter Sidhom), who has also been keeping watch at the dragon's lair, with the Wanderer and with Mime. Now one clearly saw that these three wrecks of their former selves were all living in worlds of delusion, fuelled by memories of past glories - like Yeats's beggar crying to beggar, "being frenzy-struck". But these strong performances, and that of Philip Ens as Fafner, rather put Siegfried in the shade. To make things worse, the "forest murmurs" scene, which has an important function in providing a moment of repose - indeed it is the point where Wagner stopped work on his first draft in 1857 – was ludicrously thrown away in a Jeff Koons moment, with stagehands manoeuvring an unscripted Bambi's mum and dad on wheels through the glade. This buck should have been stopped before it entered the forest.

In Act III, where Siegfried is united with his destined love the ex-Valkyrie Brunnhilde, Treleaven needed perhaps a strong production to project his character in sharper relief. But in the climactic scene Warner and his designer (Stefanos Lazaridis) seem to have thrown in the towel. The only scenery, (apart from the residual sweep of a spiral), is a wall with a door. For a large part of the scene this is lit in a virulent yellow that pains the eye. Moreover, we do not discover Brunnhilde asleep, as Siegfried does – she is the other side of the wall. He nips back and forth to the door to report to us on what he sees and what he is doing, but the effect is more Pyramus and Thisbe than budding romance. When Brunnhilde (Lisa Gasteen) finally appears at the doorway we therefore get no great sense of revelation or developing tension. During the duet that leads to their embrace at the climax, the two are kept as often as not at opposite ends of the stage – is this perhaps a leftover from the recent Covent Garden Tristan? Gasteen was fine vocally, except for one or two uncertainties – but once again, as the curtain fell, Pappano's sterling work with the orchestra had been dissipated.

Like its hero, Siegfried is an orphan. Although Wagner imagined it would be the most popular of the four Ring instalments, the opposite has turned out to be the case. Myself, I like it a lot, but I look to get a special punch at four moments – the climaxes of Acts I and III (in this case, failures), Wotan's summons to Erda at the start of Act III (Tomlinson here on superb form), and the dying Fafner's brief dialogue with Siegfried in Act II (so-so). Nonetheless I rate this production as more than 1.5 out of 4, especially bearing in mind the potential for its improvement. The music is sound and the voices never less than acceptable, the performances in some cases of the highest order. There is nothing fundamentally flawed in the production concepts – what is needed is more focus and more quality control. Partly these may grow naturally with performances. Partly they require some revisiting by the director and designer before this production takes its place in the full new cycle next year. There is more than enough here to make me want to see the complete vision, and hear the complete interpretation.

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