Antonio Pappano
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
3 May 2006
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live   studio
  live compilation   live and studio
Siegfried John Treleaven
Brünnhilde Lisa Gasteen
Gunther Peter Coleman-Wright
Gutrune Emily Magee
Alberich Peter Sidhom
Hagen John Tomlinson
Waltraute Mihoko Fujimura
Woglinde Sarah Fox
Wellgunde Heather Shipp
Floßhilde Sarah Castle
1. Norn Catherine Wyn-Rogers
2. Norn Yvonne Howard
3. Norn Marina Poplavskaya
Stage director Keith Warner (2006)
Set designer Stefanos Lazaridis
TV director Jonathan Haswell

“Alles weiß ich, alles ward mir nun frei!” – All things I know, everything has become clear to me! – so sings Brünnhilde towards the close of her culminating narration. Whilst Brünnhilde may have gained clarification in Wagner’s drama, I’m afraid this writer cannot claim the same for Keith Warner’s production of the final part of Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Back in December 2004 I welcomed “Das Rheingold”, finding some impressive directorial touches which did not detract unduly from Wagner’s dramaturgy. The subsequent instalments, however, did not live up to these initial impressions.

In this “Götterdämmerung”, perhaps predictably, various visual ‘symbols’ from the previous music-dramas re-presented themselves, but it was not always at all clear what these signified. Why all the ropes? Why the doors? What does the rectangle (in various guises) really mean? Why is one rope red? And the red ribbon? And so forth. Wagner has provided enough enigmas and potentials for confusion without a director imposing more of his own.

Suffice it to say that this production provided – as with the previous dramas in the cycle – moments of illumination coupled with scenes of mystification. And I really don’t feel that an audience should spend its time pondering what the ‘significance’ – or otherwise – of various visual symbols might be when Wagner’s own dramaturgy and music provide symbolism enough.

Additionally, there were some touches that have been seen in other Ring productions of comparatively recent vintage. At the start, the wall that bears various hieroglyphics – including Greek lettering and mathematical symbols and formulae – first encountered at the opening of “Siegfried” – is visible. In fact, this vision also opened the subsequent acts, with whoever was on-stage being obliged to shift it upward. The three Norns – excellently sung individually and in ensemble – appeared in front of this with the (red) rope being passed between them. This made nonsense of Wagner’s text (translated via surtitles) which indicates that the rope is wound round a rock and a fir-tree.

But the Norns’ impassioned singing and the excellent orchestral playing made for a vivid start to the drama; though perhaps the rather suave conducting and playing was somewhat too warm for the Norns’ bleak predictions. Pappano’s reading of the wonderful ‘dawn’ music was fine enough, though a full sense of rapture was not fully conveyed. Brünnhilde bidding Siegfried to depart was not inexpressive, but, at this stage, Lisa Gasteen was not sufficiently emotional. Whilst she seemed to be rather better, overall, than she had been in “Die Walküre” and “Siegfried”, the vulnerable – or human – side of the character did not come over as strongly as it might. Gasteen seemed better-suited to the more venomous outpourings of Act Two, though her tender addresses to her father – not inappropriately sung to a statue of Wotan – were gentle and moving.

John Treleaven presented a personable hero, though he doesn’t really have the ideal ‘Heldentenor’ strength for this taxing role. He has stamina, to be sure, but everything was sung in a somewhat monochrome manner at a consistently loud dynamic. He muffed a top C in Act Two, but as if to compensate, prolonged that note unnecessarily in Act Three. In “Siegfried” he proved affecting in softer passages, but in “Götterdämmerung” even his death-scene lacked adequate pathos and a feeling of regret. This scene was not helped by having Siegfried stagger to his feet following his stabbing, and wander off towards the back of the stage during the magnificent funeral music. Pappano pressed ahead towards the end of the duet, and did not entirely avoid agitation instead of voluptuous exultation.

In terms of the staging, this scene is that in which Siegfried presents Brünnhilde with the fateful ring, but in Warner’s production, he had already done so at the end of “Siegfried”, thus necessitating the object being passed back and forth between the protagonists – to distracting effect. ‘Rasch’ – quick – is Wagner’s tempo indication for ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’, but Pappano’s reading of this was too swift, with some passages veering towards the trivial-sounding. But the transition to Act One proper was well-handled, with a carefully graded ritenuto and dark brass heralding the change of location to the Gibichung Hall. The setting for this was a large three-sided white rectangular space, with two-way mirrors serving as windows to the rear; these, in turn were small rectangles. One pane of glass seemed to be broken; whether this was intentional or not is impossible to conjecture.

Rather intriguingly this construction resembled three sides of the Tarnhelm – of which more anon – perhaps suggesting that the events taking place therein are possibly illusionary. A pity that Gunther and Gutrune were presented as that cliché favoured by modern productions – an incestuous couple. And even Hagen had a snog with Gutrune later on. In the persons of Peter Coleman-Wright and Emily Magee, the Gibichung pair is well-cast, both gaining in strength as the drama progressed. Emily Magee, in particular, displayed a most attractive soprano, especially in her contributions to the second and third acts.

With John Tomlinson, one can confidently state that his was Wagnerian singing of a quite superior order. He is well-versed in the role of Hagen. He projects the text with a clarity that others would do well to emulate, and his baleful tone is just right for this personification of malevolence. After Gunther and Siegfried (now drugged to give him selective amnesia) have departed for the latter to woo Brünnhilde on the former’s behalf, Hagen stays behind to guard the palace. ‘Hagen’s watch’, as this scene is often called, was darkly projected by Tomlinson, and superbly accompanied. It is, though, another inappropriate touch to have Hagen remain on stage for the remainder of the act. I first saw this directorial addition in Götz Friedrich’s second Royal Opera production, and it is a pity that Warner spoiled the effect of music which is clearly Brünnhilde’s by having Hagen and onlookers still hanging around.

Inexplicably, the next scene, where Waltraute visits Brünnhilde, took place in the Gibichung Hall, where Wagner’s story-line has Waltraute visit her sister on the rock where she awaits Siegfried’s return. Again, we have seen the opening of this scene staged before with the sisters refusing to look at one another, but Mihoko Fujimura’s impassioned delivery was enthralling. Possibly one might ask for a slightly darker vocal colouring, but she was thoroughly convincing both musically and histrionically.

The final scene of this long act (just over 2 hours in this performance) finds Siegfried returning to Brünnhilde in disguise as Gunther. His disguise is effected by means of the Tarnhelm. Forged by Mime way back in “Das Rheingold”, this object enables people to change shape and move instantly from one location to another. Customarily presented on-stage as a piece of chain-mail, in this production the Tarnhelm is our friend the white rectangular box placed over the wearer’s head. In this staging, it was dramatic nonsense to have both Gunther and Siegfried confront Brünnhilde. The whole point of the scene is that Brünnhilde subconsciously recognises Siegfried through his disguise – this gives rise to the drama in the second act. In any event, Gasteen was superb in conveying anger, impotence and resignation. John Tomlinson was obliged to manipulate an armchair – to what purpose was not clear – but crashing it down on the last chord of the act was not a good idea as Wagner’s chord is emphatic enough without this percussive addition, especially as the two were not co-ordinated.

Suspended in mid-air in a rowing-boat, Alberich appeared to his son Hagen at the start of Act Two. Peter Sidhom suggested total obsession with the recovery of the ring, and Tomlinson’s implacable delivery created just the right amount of dramatic tension between the characters. Hagen’s summoning of the vassals – purportedly to war, but in a grim joke, really calling the men to greet Brünnhilde as Gunther’s bride – is one of the most thrilling scenes in all Wagner – in all the operatic repertoire, for that matter. The chorus was good, though not as numerically large as one finds at Bayreuth, for instance, but somehow the scene lacked the last ounce of frisson. There should be a real explosion of energy – a sense of release – when the chorus enters. This quality was missing. Although the men described themselves as ‘armed’ in preparation for battle, they seemed to be carrying what looked like computer joysticks. Odd weaponry indeed!

Another scenic device seen in the other segments of this Ring production was a large rectangular platform. This emerged with Brünnhilde atop surrounded by a kind of ‘crown of thorns’ made from barbed wire – an arresting and not inappropriate sight. A shame, though, that the mechanical workings of the platform were all-too-clearly visible. Gasteen hurled out her curses and accusation with power not limited, and the drama was unsparingly projected from strong singing, both solo and choral. The orchestra’s response was good, too, and with a real sense of all the elements working together to create true music-drama. But tension sagged rather in the closing trio, with Coleman-Wright perhaps not having sufficient weight for Gunther’s lines at this point.

The final scene was poorly presented, as the entrance of Siegfried and Gutrune, upstage, was masked by the position of the platform. Hagen’s knowing look to the audience on the last chord was reminiscent of Harry Kupfer’s Bayreuth staging.

The final act opened with a realistic setting of a riverbank, on which a rowing boat (borrowed from Alberich?) and various other objects were strewn. These included the grotesque-looking horse’s-head skull that substituted for Brünnhilde’s horse Grane, and a segment of the red rope. The trio of Rhinemaidens be-sported themselves delightfully. Strangely, though, Siegfried revealed himself to have been under a covering in the boat, instead of entering and encountering the water-nymphs. He was incongruously dressed in his white wedding suit, albeit with a coat which he would later discard after having been stabbed.

Hagen, Gunther and the hunting party entered and there was certainly a rise in dramatic tension as the scene continued, culminating in Siegfried’s death via Hagen’s spear. The funeral music made its poignant point, though the articulation of the semiquavers was faulty – as it so often is (the second should be held longer than the first) – and the visual distraction of having Siegfried amble off into the background didn’t exactly help.

And so to the final scenes where the strands are tentatively drawn together and the possibility of a more positive future suggested. After Hagen’s dispatching of Gunther and Brünnhilde’s explaining to Gutrune that she was married to Siegfried before Gutrune had even met him, Brünnhilde commands the great funeral pyre to be built, into which Siegfried will be cast, to be followed by herself.

Lisa Gasteen projected a range of expression for this Immolation scene which was by turns heroic and inward, finally revealing a degree of vulnerability, which would have been welcome at other points in her portrayal of this remarkable character. With the concluding minutes of destruction – an obstacle course for any director – Warner’s symbolism seemed to have been unleashed with a vengeance. There was real fire, to be sure, but also a re-appearance of the stabbed Fafner, and other personages and artefacts.

Finally, a large circle/ring (get it?) descended onto which a young woman climbed and then ascended skywards (kitsch or what?). Whether or not this was supposed to be a ‘resurrected’ Brünnhilde was impossible to tell.

So, a decidedly mixed experience, which might apply to this cycle as a whole. I concede that some of the visual symbolism might make more ‘sense’ when the dramas are presented consecutively – as they will be in the Autumn of 2007 – but much is puzzling in Keith Warner’s direction and his imaginative design team. My impression is that their combined talents have served to undermine – confuse even – Wagner’s drama, rather than illuminate it.

Antonio Pappano’s conducting has been variable throughout. It was at its most consistent in “Götterdämmerung”, though he has yet to master the art of Wagnerian transition and of how to unleash the ‘big’ moments.

Cast, conductor and orchestra were warmly applauded. The production team was greeted by a mixture of boos and bravos.

Timothy Ball | 17 April, 2006


The final image of Keith Warner’s production of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung sums up his occasionally illuminating but mostly baffling staging of the Ring cycle. It’s been nearly a year and a half since it all began with Das Rheingold, and many of the visual cues in Stefanos Lazaridis’s designs for the earlier operas went up in smoke along with Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde.

Or at least, you assume she did: as the stage became a scorched earth of burning bushes, gas pipes, and totems of the gods of Valhalla, she jumped over the brim of a tar-covered hill, presumably into another fiery abyss. Accompanying her incendiary demise were the horse’s skull that has represented Grane, her trusty steed, since it first appeared in Die Walküre, and the ruins of the boat that allowed Alberich the dwarf to steal off with the gold at the start of Das Rheingold.

Adding to this rubble of operatic symbolism were a crowd of wide-eyed teenagers, three bare-breasted Rhinemaidens, the stately descent of a gigantic chrome-plated ring, and a cameo appearance by an aged Loge, god of fire. Confused? I was.

The problem with this Götterdämmerung, as with all of the other operas in this production, is that Warner and Lazaridis can’t decide if the Ring is heroic myth, political allegory, or human story. Instead, they cram the stage with a vast range of imagery, from the uninspired video art which depicts Siegfried’s journey on the Rhine, to the surrealist kitsch of the Gibichung Hall and the dark naturalism of the hunt scene.

It all adds up to visual incoherence, and swamps the efforts of the cast to create genuine, believable characters. The best of the bunch is John Tomlinson’s leering, conniving Hagen, whose magnificent malevolence is the dramatic heart of the evening. But even he has to deal with directorial interference, staying on stage during Brünnhilde’s scene with Waltraute, and mirroring their each and every reference to the Ring from a white leather armchair. It’s yet another example of needless dramatic confusion, detracting from the power of the music and the progress of the story.

However, there are some classy performances in the rest of the cast: Gasteen may not be the most elegant Brünnhilde, but the steely power of her voice comes into its own in the second act, as Brünnhilde starts to assert her authority over the Gibichungs.

Peter Coleman-Wright and Emily Magee are a pair of preening, self serving siblings as Gunther and Gutrune, and they are both more secure than John Treleaven’s Siegfried. Vocally and dramatically, Treleaven is out of his depth in the role, robbing his death scene of its essential emotional power.

Underpinning the whole evening is the luxurious warmth of the Royal Opera House Orchestra, but Antonio Pappano’s conducting is, like the staging above him, hit and miss: his slow speeds in the first act threaten to stop the music’s momentum completely.

We’ll have to wait until the staging of all four operas as a cycle to see if this Ring amounts to more than the sum of its perplexing parts.

Tom Service | 18 April 2006


Keith Warner concludes his new Ring cycle at Covent Garden and leaves us little wiser as to his ‘vision’ than when he began Das Rheingold. Certainly compared to that Rheingold and Die Walküre, this Götterdämmerung is generally a clutter-free zone. The sets are very spare and there are lots of clean vertical and horizontal lines, as well as the large rectangular platform from Walküre Act III. It opens with a screen depicting a whirl of mathematical formulae. Erda has been left sitting stage right prior to the Norns’ scene but then goes to leave and her children are hooded apparitions at the footlights, entwining themselves in their luminous red rope. Video imagery is the latest ‘in thing’ for opera productions but the Rhine Journey is a direct steal from Phyllida Lloyd’s probably defunct (but infinitely more thought-provoking) English National Opera Ring. The best moment is the point at which the Rhinedaughters are shown as swimming below Siegfried’s feet.

There is a twirling image of a small cube within a large cube and we reach the Hall of the Gibichungs. This is typically sterile and clean, with mirrored panelling reflecting the theatre so we almost have opera ‘in the round’. There is a very long chaise longue – at one end Gunther, the other Gutrune and in the centre – centre stage in all respects – is John Tomlinson as Hagen: here he remains for most of the evening. In an eclectic mix of costumes (by Marie-Jeanne Lecca) Hagen is in a business suit, so typical for this character these days. The biggest crime occurs as Keith Warner’s runs out of new ideas and starts replaying the best moments from his seminal Bayreuth Lohengrin. Brünnhilde and Waltraute sit back-to-back to a typical Euro-Wagner estrangement device already seen in that previous production. This is very poorly staged and totally unconvincing, though Brünnhilde – as she does all evening – defends her honour, and the ring, feistily.

With Pappano already in place Act II begins – ‘Schläfst du, Hagen’ – is some sort of hallucinatory vision because where it fits in the rest of the staging I had no idea. Alberich is still bloodied from Rheingold and is on a drip suspended above the stage in his boat (or it may even be a bath) – come back Richard Jones, all should be forgiven. When the mirrored wall rises it is clear that Keith Warner and his set designer Stefanos Lazaridis have raided the waste bins at the end of last summer’s final Lohengrin and helped themselves to parts of the set, that platform with its creaking hydraulics, as well as costumes and it is put to use recreating those best bits from that staging. If you are not convinced then just look at photos for Act II and III there and compare them the same Acts in this production and you will be! Here is just one example from Bayreuth (Lohengrin Act III).

The vengeance scene is very dramatic as played out with the three characters moving from chair to chair against the moving platform and the Act ends with John Tomlinson’s Hagen in the centre (you guessed that didn’t you?) pulling a gloating face as he nears his goal of reclaiming the ring.

For Act III there is more borrowing from Bayreuth – is there no one in his team capable of approaching Keith Warner to say ‘Hey boss didn’t we do this before?’ It begins not too badly with more projected swirling and then three down-on-their-luck Rhinedaughters in blue wigs mercilessly teasing Siegfried. At last, here and through the warning about the curse of the ring, we begin to see some of Warner’s much vaunted personenregie. Disturbingly, however, we are in an entirely different world to the other Ring operas in this cycle. Hagen and his men enter with crossbows and wearing hunting gear. For some reason they kill what is just like a stuffed white deer and then Siegfried in his white wedding suit from Act II sets about recounting the past. There might be some symbolism in the slaughter of the white animal and the imminent despatching of Siegfried in white.

During the funeral music, Siegfried remains upright until a screen drops. It then lifts to reveal a scene devoid of any connection with the rest of this cycle. There are the square tops of what become four incinerators surrounded by a large rectangular walkway. A gnarled tree trunk and a strip of dark ground against which a Calvary tableau is played out (again as used in Lohengrin) prefix Siegfried as Christ removed from the Cross. At stage front is a fallen statue of Wotan, toppled earlier in Act II, a metaphor reminiscent of other fallen tyrants, from the ‘masters’ of the old Eastern Europe to Saddam Hussein. As fire burns, four other gods (but not Wotan) have their golden idols lowered by rope into fiery pits during the Immolation Scene. (Much is made of Kuwaiti oilfields in the programme so there might have been something we were supposed to spot here.)

There is a great deal of fire – Brünnhilde grabs a branch from the tree before setting it, the tree and everything that needs to be alight before running to the back of the stage to belly flop off it. The spiral from Rheingold is now a stage deep crescent (probably part of a ring?) on which a young person is standing and being looked up to by those who had survived this end to this world. ‘Health and Safety’ probably prevented this being one of Warner’s signature small children. This ‘child’ in Wagner production lore is often thought of as Parsifal.

It was all a mess and without a clear message. John Snelsdon’s recent book on the history of the Ring at the Royal Opera House (Oberon Books) has recently dropped on to my doormat for review and I have been fortunate to see all of the Wagner there for the last 25 years and much elsewhere. Keith Warner has found nothing really original (for himself or us) in the cycle. I know it is easy to criticize but the Ring can be heroic myth, some sort of socio-political allegory or a story full of human drama: it isn’t a cosmic void. It is left here as four disparate (if not desperate) settings that are nowhere near a unified Ring.

The search should begin for a better Siegfried, because he was the singer who most let the side down. I cannot see how John Treleaven has three – or any – Ring cycles left in him. He can surely have never sought advice from anyone who has sung the role – he does not even appear to have heard a CD of it. His singing was often of the single note variety, although a long held top note near the start of Act III appeared to herald a better vocal time but then his voice fell away again during his farewell.

In the twilight of his career as one of the Wagner singing gods, John Tomlinson gave what is becoming his only performance; bluff and gruff with a voice to match. A slightly grumpy eccentric elderly uncle is another way to consider him. Matching Lisa Gasteen’s vocal security and stunning commitment as Brünnhilde was Mihoko Fujimura’s rich mezzo voice as Waltraute, giving full vent to a sister’s anguish in a stunning house debut. Emily Magee and Peter Coleman-Wright made a suitably venal pair of Gibichung siblings, never out of love with one another but doing their royal duty. The high standard of the acting by all the principals is at odds with the general obfuscation around them.

Alberich was a slightly underpowered Peter Sidhom, probably slightly put off by his precarious position up in the air. Three well-matched Norns were balanced by three spirited Rhinedaughters. The chorus sang out lustily and the Royal Opera House orchestra from solo horn to six harps played as if they were the finest opera orchestra in the world.

It is incredibly difficult to cast the Ring these days; just witness the list of relative unknowns stitched together for Bayreuth this year. So to have an evening sung, on the whole, with so much concern for music-drama and given such fine support by conductor and musicians gave the evening a gloss its otherwise dire staging did not deserve. Having your eyes closed would be the best way to appreciate Antonio Pappano’s musically intelligent and blazing account of this difficult score with it many potential longueurs – even the Norns’ scene didn’t drag. Never has a Götterdämmerung gone by quite so quickly despite another ludicrous one hour second interval.

Maybe Keith Warner will pull a rabbit out of the hat and give us a superb Ring in 2007, but the odds are against it. Richard Jones’s version for Covent Garden in the mid-1990s was ahead of its time, unrecorded and largely forgotten. Every scene of his had more wit and provoked more thought about the possible meaning of Wagner’s Ring than Keith Warner and his cohort evoke over four evenings of old hat and second thoughts.

Jim Pritchard | Covent Garden, 17.4.2006

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This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.
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