Baggage checks have been an understandable necessity on entering the Royal Opera House of late. What a shame they can’t be taken one step further, forcing those who disliked the first two instalments of the Keith Warner / Antonio Pappano Ring Cycle to leave their preconceptions – their intellectual baggage – at the door as well. Every time an artwork is performed or reconceived, it becomes an entity of its own.
So this new Ring deserves to be taken on its own terms and not read in terms of Chéreau or Kupfer or Boulez or Haitink. Clearly starting from the position that the work is rather frequently performed, Warner and Pappano match each other in presenting a fresh and – shock, horror – entertaining reading of nineteenth-century opera’s biggest project.
Considering that Siegfried is traditionally the most boring part of the tetralogy, this third section was particularly impressive. The levity that was apparent in Pappano’s reading of Die Walküre earlier in the year was also perceptible here – certainly a refreshing slant on a difficult score.
There is a huge difference in style between the first two acts and the third, simply because there was a gap in the compositional period between them. Wagner had moved on a lot in the intervening years, writing Tristan and Die Meistersinger for instance, but the consequential change in the way he constructs themes and manipulates form in fact makes each act better than the last. The orchestra responded magnificently to Pappano’s emotional drive in Act III particularly, holding the audience rapt in wonder at the beauty of the string sound and the unusual agility of the brass.
This opera deals with Siegfried’s break away from his guardian, Mime, following his progress through the forest to win back the Ring from the giant Fafner (disguised as a dragon) and awaken Brünnhilde from her long sleep (a punishment from her father, Wotan, at the end of the previous opera).
Warner focuses, as before, on the conflict of personalities, making this into a human drama in spite of the presence of deities and the supernatural. It’s a series of encounters between the superman Siegfried and his putative parent-figure, Mime; between Siegfried and his previously unknown grandfather, Wotan; and so on. The intense psychological warfare in this production seems attuned to Wagner’s highly psychological approach to conceiving music-drama, which is perhaps why it works so well.
Meanwhile, Stefanos Lazaridis’ spectacular set designs continually stun, and this time include a semi-demolished aeroplane in Act I, out of which ‘the Wanderer’ (or Wotan in disguise) makes his first entrance, and a slightly comical but somehow menacing Spielbergian dragon representing Fafner in Act II. Again, the spectacle satisfies one of the composer’s biggest demands and is not something to be derided.
One of the real successes of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre was the debut of Bryn Terfel as Wotan. Here, the older and wiser character was aptly played by a more experienced Wotan, John Tomlinson, and he was a knock-out. Tormenting Mime and Alberich, frustrating Erda and frustrated by Siegfried, Tomlinson’s Wotan was magnetic, and his singing and German were brilliant. One had a real sense of Wotan coming to terms with the end of the gods, surrendering their fate to his daughter and grandson.
Siegfried is perhaps the most taxing tenor role in the Wagner repertoire, not least because he is on stage most of the time. So it would have been reasonable for John Treleaven to flag towards the end. Instead, his performance in Act III was towering, at last giving forth a true Heldentenor power.
He was perhaps inspired by the first appearance of Lisa Gasteen as Brünnhilde, whose long wait until the opera’s final scene allowed her to channel her full resources into a full-blooded and feisty assumption of the role of the famous Valkyrie.
In both his commanding projection and witty acting, Gerhard Siegel was ideal casting as Mime. He seemed to relish Warner’s concept for the unusual opening scene, in which we see Siegfried as a baby, a young child and a teenager, at every age frustrating Mime’s attempts to reconstruct the magic sword which will allow him to steal back the Ring.
Peter Sidhom was excellent as Alberich, more satisfying than in some of the Verdi roles which he has attempted; I think he’s found his niche. Erda, the earth goddess and Wotan’s wife, was the reliable Jane Henschel, and Phillip Ens boomed scarily as the giant/dragon Fafner.
The cheers and bravos which were apparent at the end of every act showed that the audience loved it. What other reason is there to stage an opera?