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The boy done good

11/06/2004 -  and 10, 13, 17, 24, 27 November, 3, December 2004
Richard Wagner: Siegfried
John Graham-Hall (Mime), Richard Berkeley-Steele (Siegfried), Robert Hayward (Wanderer), Andrew Shore (Alberich), Gerard O'Connor (Fafner), Sarah Tynan (Woodbird), Patricia Bardon (Erda), Kathleen Broderick (Brünhilde)

Paul Daniel (conductor), Phyllida Lloyd (director)

ENO Orchestra

Wagner audiences seem doomed to misery by a thousand disappointments. Lovers of bel canto and Verdi tend to appreciate opera as a build up to a handful of high notes that the composer (usually) didn't write, and find the performance great or worthless depending on whether the singer delivers the notes. Wagner's devotees have internalized his symphonic crystal of music, text, "philosophy" and action, and grind their teeth at every failed bond, as well as at every rough note or crack. Any shortfall destroys a universe while leaving wreckage that exposes fully the potential greatness that hasn't been achieved.

Given the resources that the Ring requires, it seems odd that German regional houses perform it quite often these days, and even more that two cash-strapped UK companies, and another artistically wobbly one, have risked setting off cycles over the past three years. The Royal Opera next month starts a cycle directed by Keith Warner with Bryn Terfel as Wotan and a suitably expensive cast, which has more chance of satisfying the faithful than anything else in Europe outside Bayreuth (and perhaps there). Scottish National Opera's was a striking success, in spite of its mainly unknown cast and limited means, but it may have blown the company's budget for ever.

The ENO's cycle, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, has probably cost even less than the SNO's, but it may never be seen as a complete cycle because of financial restraints and the lukewarm reception of its parts so far. Lloyd has kept the big ideas -- shabby modernity and capitalism opposed to love and nature -- but made them smaller and prosaic: Wotan and Fricka are a power couple with property development interests, "love" more or less means energetic sex between good looking young people and the opposite of "noble" is probably "chav". (There is rather too much already dated reference to alleged contemporary life.) All that is cosmic is the massive scale of the theatre, which at times allows Lloyd, the singers and the orchestra to write simple things large at the expense of the tragic interconnectedness of everything.

Yet there is a lot to be said for Lloyd's Siegfried, as there was for her Valkyrie. The orchestra under Paul Daniel achieved a sensible balance between excitement and clarity, which brought out some good bits that aficionados already love and other listeners have never noticed before while keeping things moving along. There was a somewhat unWagnerian sense that great effects were achieved with limited means, and this was even more true of the production, which (apart from a bear,
which many directors don't bother with these days) used almost no resources that couldn't have been picked up at a 1960s rag-and-bone yard. Older viewers might not have been surprised at the resemblance to Steptoe and Son, where a twisted and manipulative father tries to tie down a son with his eye on greater things, while slightly more up-to-date types might have spotted an emotionally desiccated Del Boy and Rodney. This is fine, since the first act of Siegfried is nothing if not a low domestic comedy. Siegfried's forging of Nothung, though, was more disco than erupting heroism. Very old viewers indeed might even have thought of the man on Opportunity Knocks who twitched his overdeveloped muscles in time to cheesy music. But the music was far from cheesy, although the temptation is always within reach with Wagner.

The transition to the woods and Fafner's cave was done with broader strokes but considerable humour -- wallpaper-like trees around a waiting room, and a "dragon" that was inexpensive even by the standards of this production, but amazingly effective. The Woodbird, a child of indeterminate gender on a scooter, was absolutely canonical. Erda and the Norns, old ladies in comfy chairs dozing and knitting in front of a television that showed a fire (maybe Brühilde's, or perhaps the end of the world news), even got a round of applause, they were so spot on. Brühilde herself was still standing, without a visible fire, as she was at the end of The Valkyrie, and the opera ended with more of that energetic sex.

If the singers wouldn't generally have shone at the Met (no-one loud enough), John Graham-Hall's sleazy Mime and Andrew Shore's sinister, thuggish Alberich, now with infant Hagen in tow, were good enough for Bayreuth, where Shore at least is down to repeat his role. Both, as usual, delivered the words as well as the music. Richard Berkeley-Steele looked great as a petulant but basically good-natured blond hunk, pumped up a bit with layers of tee-shirts but still quite muscular when he finally got them off for Brühilde. His singing was less muscular, but none the worse for not being pushed in an attempt to fill the Coliseum. Robert Hayward was morphed into Bryn Terfel for the Wanderer, and in places even sounded a bit like him. Vaguely sympathetic, he didn't convey much sense of who the Wanderer is or what he is going through. If the idea was that Wotan is just going through the motions before he gives up completely, there wasn't too much sense of that either. Hayward definitely has the voice and presence for the role, though.

Patricia Bardon was an earth-grandmotherly Erda, looking weary and grizzled but still sounding luscious. Sarah Tynan was suitably cute and charming as the Woodbird, though she already sounds at risk of pushing a glorious young voice too far too fast. Kathleen Broderick both looked and sounded magnificent as Brühilde. With less to sing in this opera, her only constraint was the content of the music, and she put a Götterdämmerung's worth of voice into it. The whole evening was entertaining enough, but it would have been worth seeing just for her.

HE Elsom



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