Antonio Pappano
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
31 October 2018
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedStefan Vinke
MimeGerhard Siegel
WotanJohn Lundgren
AlberichJohannes Martin Kränzle
FafnerBrindley Sherratt
ErdaWiebke Lehmkuhl
BrünnhildeNina Stemme
WaldvogelHeather Engebretson
The Guardian

Blunt hero is hard to like in a cluttered production

Stefan Vinke brought impressive stamina and Nina Stemme was magnificent, but the third part of Keith Warner’s Ring cycle is a patchy evening

There is a basic problem with Siegfried, the third opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. By 21st-century standards, its eponymous hero – cruel, arrogant, immature – can be hard to stomach, a Heldentenor with few opportunities to demonstrate anything besides vocal brawn.

Keith Warner’s production at the Royal Opera House makes Siegfried even less appealing. Returning to the physical comedy of Das Rheingold, Warner’s hero is an overgrown toddler let loose among the pots and pans in the act one forging scene (where no surface is left unbashed) – and dim-witted enough to leave behind the symbolically crucial sword he has just made. Returning to the role he took in the previous revival, Stefan Vinke brandished his voice like a blunt weapon, his stamina impressive but the unceasing torrent of sound ultimately monotonous.

A grotesque repertory of hisses and squawks… Gerhard Siegel as Mime in Siegfried. Photograph: Bill Cooper Gerhard Siegel’s Mime, by contrast, boasted a grotesque repertory of hisses and squawks, roars and neurotic twitches. As the giant-cum-dragon Fafner, Brindley Sherratt produced a slowly vibrating fog that curled down into the tuba’s thick black beam (a highlight in another patchy performance by Antonio Pappano’s ROH Orchestra), while Heather Engebretson’s acrobatic Woodbird wove a fine thread of light through the prevailing gloom. Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s Erda was mesmerisingly poised; John Lundgren incisive and commanding disguised as the Wanderer. Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde – rudely awakened and torn between love and fear – had the melancholic magnificence of a late-summer’s evening and expressive powers that Vinke’s Siegfried could not match.

Meanwhile, bits of aeroplane, a broken pram, a cooking station worthy of Masterchef and a pair of woodland animals on casters come and go. But the conveyor belt of symbols gradually halts. By the time Siegfried hurls himself thuggishly on to Brünnhilde on an empty stage as the curtain falls, Warner seems to have given up – the opera abandoned to its worst tendencies.

Flora Willson | 1 Oct 2018

Wagner’s Siegfried, magnificent but elusive

How do you begin to assess Covent Garden’s Siegfried? From a purely vocal point of view, this was a magnificent evening; it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that this was as fine a cast as you are likely to hear anywhere today.

Keith Warner’s production, however, remains somewhat troubling; one can spend more time trying to unravel the allusions, the meanings behind the clutter, the complex perceptions of comedy and tragedy than would be wise for any sane man.

Der Ring Des Nibelungen is all about interconnectivity and Warner’s direction attempts to establish this, even in esoteric ways. The toy aeroplane from Das Rheingold, for example, is transformed in Siegfried as the curtain rises into the wrecked fuselage of a stripped down, much larger aeroplane. As with much of the imagery here it’s symbolic – just as a sword rises from a wrecked pram during the Vorspiel, so Wotan, disguised as the Wanderer, does so from the broken shell of the cockpit. But why there should be an aeroplane here at all is quite another question. As with much of Wagner, time is constantly in a state of flux; motifs come and go, and Warner does the same with his imagery. Act III of this Siegfried floats moving clouds against a wall but it’s the perspective that is different and looks back towards Act I. Rather than looking two-dimensional, the angle gives the impression of floating through clouds, rather as you’d experience from a plane as we recall the wreckage from earlier. For a fleeting moment, you’re reminded of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. The sprawling algebraic equations before Act I begins make little sense – both as to their meaning and why they should be there – but when we get to Act II, as Siegfried confronts Fafner, the Tarnhelm itself is nothing but an algorithmic Rubik’s Cube.

Paradoxes abound in Siegfried. It’s a comedy within a tragedy; it’s about the transition of the world of Wotan and the Gods into the redemptive vision of love he has for Siegfried and Brünnhilde, the old order giving way to a new order. If the downfall of the Gods is seen as inevitable, the calamity that will become the tragedy of the final opera isn’t foreseen. Warner’s take on this in Siegfried isn’t really clear – other than the biggest paradox of all in that Wotan is placing his faith for a new future in a Siegfried who is clearly unsuitable.

The comedy in this Siegfried is surprisingly restrained. Warner takes a notably neutral standpoint characterising his Mime, for example. Gerhard Siegel, returning to this production, is magnificent, both vocally and dramatically. Balance becomes an art form in his purely theatrical characterisation of the role – in no sense could one suggest this is a caricature of the part, as can so easily happen. Warner makes a distinction between comedy and making his Mime a clown – Siegel is every part a malevolent dwarf, part mad scientist, as untidy and living amid his clutter as he is scheming and hollow of emotion. He howls, groans, screams and whines. He’s intemperate and evasive. Siegel’s long scenes with Stefan Vinke’s Siegfried are wonderfully complementary: There is a real sense of spontaneity between these two singers, and the humour unfolds without feeling forced.

Stefan Vinke’s Siegfried is so extraordinarily convincing – this is after all the 100th time he has sung the role – you often feel he is the Siegfried of our time. With his patched-up army fatigues and leather battle vest, there is a punkish, roguish side to him that Warner is more than willing to explore. There is a boundless energy to this Siegfried – he hops over discarded mattresses, jumps back and forth over barbed wire fences and brandishes his newly forged sword like a warrior. He’s as crusty as he is anarchic; but there is a seething unpretentiousness and innocence as well. One minute he is cracking an egg over Mime’s forehead; the next he is forging his sword. He transforms from a boy into an all-knowing grease-monkey who can work the aeroplane’s propellers to set the forge working and attach pumps to fuel the flames. Does Warner make this all seem incredulous? Well, yes, he does. This Siegfried seems entirely schizophrenic. On the other hand, this is a Siegfried who is all but immune to any manifestation of physical danger or fear. Siegfried’s battle with Fafner, and his transformation into a dragon, might be considered partly comic – but Warner makes Vinke’s Siegfried take his cue from Wagner’s music, with all the darkness it portrays, rather than the literal humour the libretto suggests.

But Vinke’s Siegfried is another paradox in this production too. The heroism of Act II at the foot of Fafner’s cave is a correction to the beguiling innocence of his woodland scene with Heather Engebretson’s acrobatic Woodbird. But innocence can easily become petulance; he becomes frustrated by his inability to make a sound from the reed he has made. In Act III, Warner completely subverts the balance of love versus power that Wotan has imagined for Siegfried and Brünnhilde. This isn’t exactly a vision of Siegfried who will emerge from the Volsungs to triumph over the power of the Gods. Siegfried the punk is too radical to embrace the concept of love – his reticence as he awakens Brünnhilde is borne of childlike shyness. Even the lighting of this scene cleverly suggests it’s full of apprehension and unknowingness. Warner literally tosses the concept of love into the flames. But even when Nina Stemme’s magnificent and imposing Brünnhilde emerges we don’t get the inklings of a consummation but a game of cat-and-mouse. Warner keeps them apart, on opposing sides of a grey wall. They are literally and figuratively a world apart, Brünnhilde’s ecstatic dialogue – so searingly sung by Stemme – almost falling on Siegfried’s deaf ears. As Siegfried throws himself onto Brünnhilde at the opera’s very end it’s as charmless as the filthy mattress itself.

Even withstanding the complexity of ideas in this production, and the somewhat wilful direction, there is much that stands out as exceptional. You can never escape the underlying tension and anger that characterises much of this Siegfried: I lost count of the number of times a chair was thrown somewhere around the stage. Antonio Pappano’s gripping conducting of the score is so extraordinarily visual, so seismic and visceral at times, that it mirrors the staging to perfection. His pacing of the score may be fast for some listeners but it seemed near-perfect to me. Only briefly, notably in Act II, did the outstanding Royal Opera House Orchestra wobble or have issues with intonation. Vinke’s hammering in the Act I forging scene is breathtakingly musical and is replicated in the timbre of the orchestra, too; it is not always like this in staged performances of Siegfried. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more dramatic Vorspiel than the one we got to the opening of Act III. Pappano’s very brisk, fiery tempo was electrifying, but combine this with Wotan angrily tossing a mattress and whatever else he could get his hands on from a rotating platform and the effect was unforgettable. If the earth goddess Erde being wheeled in on a high throne seemed perhaps a touch clumsy, the orchestra was as dark as Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s gorgeously plush voice. John Lundgren’s Wanderer had every reason to struggle while singing on a revolving platform but he didn’t. The voice remained as rich, dark and focused as it had from his first appearance in Act I. His Riddle Scene with Mime was full of mystery. Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Alberich resonated evil, and Brindley Sherratt’s Fafner had a dark tone that cracked like thunder.

Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde has grown into one of the great dramatic performances. It isn’t just that the voice has such tremendous range, it’s now that she believes entirely she can equal the complexity of the role. The evenness of tone, the ability to be both lyrical and dramatic is very impressive. She fortunately lacks the hardness of inflection that sometimes marred a Nilsson performance – Stemme’s Brünnhilde is quite notable for being exceptionally warm in tone, but she is equally merciless in keeping the line clean.

Stefan Vinke’s Siegfried is simply peerless. Casting Siegfried is always a problem but Vinke has everything you could ask for in a great Siegfried. Certainly, when I heard him take on the part early in his career there were times you felt he lacked the stamina to see it through; that is unquestionably not the case today. That he had such reserves of power to give with Stemme such an overwhelming final duet was remarkable. So much of Siegfried lies in the higher part of the voice that it’s easy for a tenor to become lazy but Vinke has a laser-sharp power to his upper range which enables him to sustain a note effortlessly. Nothing felt clipped; you didn’t feel that there were any shortcuts. There is also beautiful clarity and tonal richness to this voice as well – it’s honeyed, golden, entirely even for a Wagner tenor. I think I’d be hard pressed to hear a better performance of Siegfried from anyone else than the one we got here.

From a vocal, musical and artistic point of view this Siegfried was one of the great evening’s at Covent Garden in many years.

Marc Bridle | 02 Oct 2018

A fantastic tale, an outstanding cast

Siegfried, as we all know, is a long opera; Wagner allowed himself the space to include a whole series of crisis moments which give the orchestra and the eight singers an opportunity to bring themselves into the spotlight and wow us. Rarely, I would suggest, have those opportunities been grasped as comprehensively as they were at the Royal Opera yesterday.

At the foundation of it all were Sir Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. While I’ve come to expect a sure sense of pace and rigourous attention to balance from Pappano, what struck me this time was the conductor as painter: how a chord or phrase would start with a simple timbre, perhaps in the strings, and then thicken out into a riot of orchestral colour as the crescendi of different instruments come into play.

And that made it even more remarkable when Nina Stemme came on for Brünnhilde’s awakening, deep into Act 3, and did exactly the same thing, with just her voice. Listening to Stemme was watching a time-lapse film of a rose blooming: a delicate bud slowly starting to reveal its colour and then exploding into a complex, beautiful shape. Let’s be clear: I don’t actually like Wagner’s poetry at this point. But the effect of Stemme’s voice was utterly transcendent.

Who would choose to be Siegfried to Stemme’s Brünnhilde? To spend five hours forging swords, slaying dragons, disposing of evil dwarves and disarming gods, all at the highest level of vocal exertion, only to be forced to compete with someone who has just woken up and given out a powerhouse performance like that? The answer: Stefan Vinke, who didn’t seem remotely fazed. For most tenors, Siegfried is a brattish teenager, an oafish braggart whose superhuman strength is matched to the brain of a newt. Many simply won’t touch the role (apart from anything else, the sustained high tessitura is punishing). But Vinke clearly loves the role: he bounds about the stage, radiating youthful exuberance and enthusiasm to a point that you can’t help but find him endearing. And the voice is unforced, blithely lilting its way through high powered passages as if this were the easiest thing in the world. The sword forging scene was one of the most powerful passages of opera I’ve ever seen, Vinke’s exuberance blending with staggeringly high octane stuff from the orchestra. Audience members could be seen punching the air at the hammer blows.

Each act of this opera presents us with confrontations between pairs of characters; each was magnificent. Gerhard Siegel has refined his portrayal of Mime over the years to the point where he has turned him into a truly tragic figure, a dwarf with no advantages in life who has hopes and dreams like any of us, but lacks the means – fair or foul – to achieve them. I doubt Wagner had such a portrayal in mind, but I find it steeped in dramatic pathos.

John Lundgren’s Wotan improved yet again. He was outstandingly sardonic in the riddle game with Mime and the crucial confrontation with Alberich at Fafner’s lair (where he was well matched to Johannes Martin Kränzle’s wordly-wise, sharp-tongued dwarf); when appealing to his godhead, the voice was regal, unwavering, disarmingly smooth. The only passage which fell flat was the prelude to his meeting with Erda (well sung by Wiebke Lehmkuhl) where he was required to sing on a revolving platform which did strange things to the acoustic balance of voice against orchestra. Brindley Sherratt’s cavernous bass made for an eloquent, poignant Fafner. And Heather Engebretson deserves some sort of special prize for singing Woodbird phrases while actually doing backflips in a harness, suspended high above the stage.

For this third episode of Keith Warner’s staging, I’ve stopped trying to look for hidden meaning and simply enjoyed the visual appeal. The toy fighter aeroplane of Das Rheingold has morphed into a life sized crashed wreck, battered but gleaming, which provides the fuel for Mime and Siegfried’s smithy (and one of the few points of brightness in a generally dark lighting scheme). Fafner’s lair is an impressive rocky cavern; his transformations to and from a fearsome giant red head are imposing. Brünnhilde’s awakening scene is handled with gentle good humour.

Where Warner excels is in the personenregie: this may be a fantastic tale, but every member of the cast exuded conviction in their character. So many of the big lines were invested with huge power – Mime’s description of Sieglinde’s death in childbirth, Wotan’s description of the gods’ glory in the riddle game, Fafner’s nobility in defeat, and many more. Yes, Siegfried is a long opera, but of the six hour experience, the only parts that dragged were the intervals.

David Karlin | 30 September 2018

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 48.0 kHz, 534 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (BBC 3; transmission date: 17 November 2018)
A production by Keith Warner (2005)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.