After the moving Valkyrie from Phyllida Lloyd’s new Ring Cycle for ENO, I was anticipating another revelatory evening with the next instalment of Wagner’s marathon epic. Evening? With a performance starting at 4 pm call that half a day, with travelling… in any case, I wasn’t disappointed.
True, the first act had its longeurs but that’s Wagner for you. John Graham Hall was in wonderful voice as Mime, though it’s difficult to imagine a less dwarf-like singer. His portrayal of the fussy, devious and cowardly Nibelung was a masterpiece.
The entrance of Siegfried (with bear) was explosive. This is Siegfried as teenage misfit (hardly surprising after an upbringing by Mime) who goes straight to the fridge for a beer and then lounges on his bed, earphones plugged in to drown out Mime’s disapproval. Not only is this a compelling interpretation of Siegfried as hero – of course he knows no fear, what teenager does? – but Richard Berkeley-Steele has the mannerisms and the movements of a 17-year old spot on. He’s helped by the loose-fit jeans, layers of T-shirt and a mop of blonde curls, but even so it’s impressive.
It was difficult to tell whether his voice was going match the portrayal in the first act; it didn’t really have the volume to cope with the heavy orchestration of the sword-forging arias. Paul Daniel has assembled a vast orchestra for these performances, mind, and is not known for holding back in the big orchestral movements.
In the second act it became obvious that here is a Siegfried to cherish. Outside Fafner’s cave his sweet, rich tenor came into its own, and there were some truly beautiful moments during the idyll, helped by the clear, pure tones of Sarah Tynan as the Woodbird.
This is the most challenging act to stage – how do you convincingly have Siegfried kill the giant-cum-dragon Fafner and chat with the Woodbird? Phyllida Lloyd manages this triumphantly, well aided by designer Richard Hudson and lighting from Adam Silverman: suffice to say shadows have rarely been used to such good effect. A word of praise too for Gerard O’Connor, whose wonderful sepulchral bass made Fafner seem truly alarming to all but Siegfried. And although, at first view, what appeared to be kids on scooters made me fear the production had lost its way, it hadn’t. Trust me on that one.
The third act opens with Wotan (Robert Hayward continuing his finely judged portrayal) seeking out Erda (Patricia Bardon), by whom he had Brünnhilde and the other valkyries. Now that things are beginning to go badly wrong for the Gods, where else should she be found than in the communal TV room of an old-gods home… and what’s on the screen but the ring of fire surrounding their daughter. When Siegfried arrives in all his over-enthusiastic impatience the contrast is superb, and the coup-de-theatre as the walls turn to flame is one of those thrilling moments you’ll always remember.
And so to Brünnhilde’s mountain-top, where she was left in her new-found mortal vulnerability at the end of The Valkyrie. Siegfried is struck by her beauty and finally knows fear… and how fitting that seemed too, as part of this young, immature personification. To take on Brünnhilde as your first love is no mean challenge, let’s face it.
The production is not particularly subtle during this scene – the enlarging phallic shadow the most obvious device in the world – but it’s effective and gives plenty of space for Kathleen Broderick to bring Brünnhilde back to life and come to terms with her hero. And the long duet for the two was gorgeous, Broderick combining strength and beauty in her voice and Berkeley-Steele by now finding a glowing warmth of tone that would surely have melted a tougher woman than Brünnhilde.
Paul Daniel, as always, gave his all in the pit and the ENO orchestra – supplemented by four harpists, four Wagner tubas and goodness knows what else as well – played magnificently.
If you enjoyed The Valkyrie at Glastonbury, why not get the next instalment? (Wagner fans need no such injunction of course – they wouldn’t dream of missing a new production anyway.) Just as with The Valkyrie, I came away feeling I had insights into this opera that other productions – however radical – just hadn’t provided.