So continuing our look at Wagner’s Ring at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, directed by Stefan Herheim, we move on to Siegfried. I think it’s fair to say that all the elements referred to in my introductory post are present in Siegfried with some more thrown in for good measure. Let’s look at it act by act.
The opera opens with Wotan and Alberich (Jordan Shanahan rather than Markus Brück, who sang in Das Rheingold) facing off around some sort of furnace before the action proper opens in Mime’s house. Curiously, the crowd of refugee/spectators are absent this time. Mime is costumed like the famous portrait of Wagner with a sort of floppy beret. He’s also, the notes say, made up to like a 19th century caricature of “The Jew” and he’s clearly wearing stripes reminiscent of a concentration camp uniform I didn’t find the caricature bit at all obvious and would probably have missed it without the reference in the interview with Herheim. I can’t imagine anybody sitting more than a few rows from the stage can have picked it up either. Siegfried, like Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, gets a costume that would not have been out of place at Bayreuth i the 1860s (or the Met in the 1990s). The opening is staged as if Siegfried is giving a Liederabend with Mime at the piano.
It’s all pretty straightforward, though Siegfried’s bear is clearly Alberich for some reason. Also it’s clear that Mime has learned Siegfried’s back story from his copy of the score of Die Walküre. The act ends with a large globe hovering over the stage which one imagines stands for “dominion” in some sense. What’s more notable in this act than the staging s the singing. It’s really good. Clay Hilley has all the heft needed for Siegfried but he’s also quite lyrical with rather a beautiful tone. Ya-Chung Huang, as Mime, is singing properly too rather than using the sort of “half way to Sprechstimme” one sometimes gets from Mime’s. Iain Paterson continues to be excellent as the Wanderer.
Act 2 is much less straightforward. It starts very dark (no crowd of spectators again) and Fafner’s first appearance is as what looks like a large brass instrument emerging from his cave. The Wanderer/Alberich/Fafner business is all pretty by the book. The fun starts with “Forest Murmurs”. This is really camped up both on stage and in the orchestra. Siegfried vainly tries to imitate the woodbird using a pipe made from pages of the score. As he does this Siegmund and Sieglinde with angel wings appear and the use the white sheet to form a backdrop, atop which sits a blindfolded boy; the woodbird. The music and the text here are really 19th century German Schmaltz and Herheim plays it for all it’s worth.
The “dragon slaying scene” is quite spectacular. There are giant eyeballs and Siegfried descends into Fafner’s gut to find a whole bunch of extras with big brass horns. He finds Fafner’s heart and kills him getting sprayed with blood in the process. So apparently does the woodbird. This production goes with Wagner’s original idea of using a boy soprano for the woodbird. This is a bit weird. I think the music is beyond a boy soprano, even an excellent one, so there’s something weirdly forced about the singing. during the “misunderstanding section” Mime starts stripping off. Is this a metaphor for different levels of meaning in his stated and understood speech? Also the angel Wälsungs are back and the woodbird has acquired Alberich’s clown make up. So there’s a lot going on visually and somehow, without changing the visual aesthetic we have gone from campy Schmaltz to something way, way darker. It’s intriguing.
Act 3, of course, is three very loosely connected scenes. In the first the crowd of refugees are back and the Wanderer is at the piano. Erda (Judit Kutasi) is summoned from the prompter’s box. She knows the score better than anyone after all. I think what we are seeing here is another take on the environmental destruction theme. Erda stands for the natural world and Wotan for imposing his will on it even if that means its destruction.
The angel Wälsungs are back for the Siegfried/Wanderer scene but singed black. The cloth, black now not white, goes up in flames but collapses when Wotan’s spear is broken. Alberich is lurking and now he and Wotan are circling Siegfried laughing and pointing. Dark Elf and White Elf know exactly what they have done.
Siegfried arrives on the fire ringed fell and Brünnhilde appears out of the piano. The watching crowd is nervous and keeps breaking up and running away. Brünnhilde bemoans her fate and tears off her blonde wig to reveal an older grey haired woman. She’s clearly still not bought into the “rape/capture” model of marriage! But slowly natural instincts asset themselves and not only the Held and the Valkyrie but also most of the extras, who are down to their underwear, get with the programme. The singing is interesting here. Hilley is still in full ringing Heldentenor mode with no sign of tiredness and he’s rather outsinging Nina Stemme who doesn’t seem as comfortable as in Die Walküre. It will be interesting to see how that plays out in Götterdämmerung. The orchestra, as in the previous two operas, is excellent throughout.
So, Siegfried really continues the themes introduced in the first two operas with some added, mostly humorous, elements. I think the way Herheim deconstructs the Schmaltzy bit is brilliant but I’m not at all sure about the Jewish Wagner thing. Interpolating Alberich into scenes he doesn’t canonically appear in works well too.
Video direction comments and technical details haven’t changed from Das Rheingold.
Catalogue number: Naxos Blu-ray NBD0159V
This is the fourth of six pieces on the new Stefan Herheim production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. The six articles are as follows: