CDs / DVDs, 01. June 2006
Evaluating Wagner is very different from evaluating other composers. His works aren’t well assessed in a formulaic manner. Understanding how the drama works at deeper levels is crucial to any perceptive assessment. Siegfried poses special challenges. Despite being a unified work, the Ring’s individual operas are quite distinct. Siegfried is, in some ways more intense because it centres on three figures, the Wanderer, Mime and Siegfried. The whole drama pivots on what these figures represent, throughout Wagner’s entire worldview. Unlike, say, Das Rheingold, where unexceptional singing from minor characters is not critical, the core performances in Siegfried make or break the opera.

The present performance is wonderful because of Graham Clark. His Mimes vary with different productions because he understands the importance of integrating character development with the overall interpretation. Here, his Mime is strikingly complex. Part insect, part human, this Mime is a troglodyte who scrapes an existence living off others, like a parasite. Jealousy consumes him yet he is unable to do anything original of his own to get ahead. Instead, he takes from others, thinking that somehow, by stealing what they have, and then destroying them, he can triumph. Even Alberich, in comparison, has greater integrity, despite his evil. Clark’s every movement enhances the depiction of Mime as parasite. His hands twitter the way ground beetles twitch; his head moves like an insect sensing the air for spoils or danger. His costume, by the award-winning Eiko Ishioka, is a fantastical conflation of tramp and dung beetle, complete with scaly, hairy nether regions. Alberich’s sexuality caused him to attack the Rhinemaidens and later engender Hagen. Here, Mime uses his equivalent of pubic hair in the potion he mixes to poison Siegfried. It is brilliant, subtle touches like this which bring out the deep levels in the drama which make the Ring the powerful work it is, details completely lost in superficial and clichéd work.

One of Wagner’s preoccupations was the contrast between direct action and derivative action. Secondary producers, such as Alberich, who used other people’s labour to profit were tainted. Wotan, despite his failings, was essentially a seeker after first-hand knowledge and experience. Hence the interaction between the Wanderer and Mime dramatises two completely opposed ways of living. Wherever the Wanderer may be journeying, he’s observing and learning, and willing to impart knowledge, while foregoing the comforts of hearth and home. Mime won’t share with him willingly - so different from Sieglinde’s hospitality - and only lets him stay for what he might get in return. As the Wanderer says, Mime wastes his questions on subjects he already knows about because he isn’t actually interested in anything but himself. John Bröcheler’s Wanderer is a charismatic figure, dressed in black veils. His voice is resonant with gravitas: this Wanderer is no passive observer but all too aware of the danger Mime and Alberich represent. The contrast between Bröcheler’s singing and Clark’s is delicious, both completely in character and in superb form.

Heinz Kruse has the voice for Siegfried, if not the looks. On the other hand, Siegfried doesn’t "have" to be a paragon of youthful perfection. He is a simple-minded innocent after all, without graces, who, without the destiny ordained for him might have just been another boorish yokel. His words of hate for Mime may sear the text, but Kruse’s Siegfried lives for the moment, and doesn’t feed on bitterness - a Niebelung trait. I was much less convinced by the Waldvogel, sung by Stefan Pangratz. We may be more accustomed to the role sung by a woman, but dramatically it works well with an androgynous character. Pangratz’s voice though, trained in Bach and counter-tenor repertoire, doesn’t quite convey the mystery of who the bird is, and why it knows so much. Perhaps the idea was to stress the fragility of Siegfried’s new knowledge? Or the vulnerability of the natural world? Or is it in deliberate contrast to the subterranean grotesquery of Mime and Alberich? Does it refer to the idea of beauty glimpsed by the earthbound Fafner and Fasolt? Given that it raises so many significant interpretative insights, I’m inclined to agree that the use of a male voice in the part is very much in keeping with the spirit of the music drama overall. There are plenty of straightforwardly beautiful female Waldvogels, so in the context of this production, this has its merits.

In my earlier review of Das Rheingold in this cycle I wrote of Audi’s decision to bring the orchestra on stage, integrating the music directly with stage action. In Das Rheingold, the idea worked very well, focusing attention on the drama and music, not the trappings of scenery. Real Wagnerians have known for decades that the cycle is based on ideas, not on specific mythology, but Teutonic kitsch has a stultifying stranglehold on popular misconception. Audi’s "no set" set should be a required antidote for newcomers to the cycle. As in the earlier opera, putting the orchestra on-stage inspires glorious playing. Haenchen is superb, galvanising a tight, precise and very animated performance. It’s faster paced than usual and surprisingly lucid. This is a Siegfried to listen to, as well as watch - though missing Clark’s Mime would be a shame. But because Siegfried is more concentrated than Das Rheingold, it works less well having the orchestra on stage. At moments the intensity of the interplay between Mime, Siegfried and the Wanderer is interrupted by the sight of the conductor or a musician in the background. Nonetheless this is an admirable production, very highly recommended.

Anne Ozorio