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Teenage rebel

Theatre Royal
09/10/2003 -  and 5 November 2003
Richard Wagner: Siegfried

Alasdair Elliott (Mime), Graham Saunders (Siegfried), Matthew Best (The Wanderer), Peter Sidhom (Alberich) Marcus Hollop (Fafner), Gillian Keith (The Woodbird) Mary Phillips (Erda), Elizabeth Byrne (Brünnhilde)

Scottish National Opera orchestra

Richard Armstrong (conductor), Tim Albery (director)

Wagner famously changed his mind about the overall direction of the Ring between acts 2 and 3 of Siegfried, and the overall result is, to say the least, challenging for a director. The first act is a low comic Bildung, a Germanic "Steptoe and Son"; the second act is a fairy tale quest (like Aladdin or Ali Baba) with existential trimmings; and the third act is an hour of singing for its own sake, a celebration of the end of everything except excess. The hero of the title is supposed to hold everything together, but he is an almost intractable figure: he is ignorant of the world, except for the simplicities of the forest and its animals; but his experiences in the course of the opera are nothing like the world in any sense we know it. In the end he has to carry the opera on the basis of an assumed overwhelming life force. Perhaps the problem with Siegfried is that while its narrative is build around Siegfried, it is seen from the point of view of Wotan, who chooses in its course to accept the end of everything he stands for.

Tim Albery's production for Scottish National Opera continues successfully in the minimalist style of the first two operas. The theme of the quest is represented on the stage curtain by a white path that sweeps uncertainly towards a fire in the distance, and there is a road in every scene except the last. The first act is almost heartbreaking in the awfulness of the relationship between Siegfried and Mime, played with great unpleasantness and nothing Disneyesque by Alasdair Elliott, and there is little to distract from it in decor or effects (the bear is a bearskin that Siegfried wears). The second act moves from miserable domesticity to urban gloom: Fafner's cave is under a flyover; Wotan and Alberich sit to talk on a bench under a sodium street light; Wotan summons Erda from the entrance phone of a dingy block of flats and confronts Siegfried on a different section of the flyover. The set is positively prosaic, in contrast to the more elegant worlds of Rheingold and Die Walküre, and paradoxically adds a kind of depressive grandeur to the comparatively leanly played music.

In general the cast of this Ring have been well chosen without being conventional Wagnerians. But Siegfried is so little except a force of nature that a vocally not bad Siegfried seems doomed. Graham Saunders was at the edge of vocal adequacy, often a bit dry in tone, though in person he was ideal: big, fair, open-faced and boundlessly energetic. He couldn't confront Matthew Best's still resonant Wanderer with sheer sound as he should have, and in the final act both he and Elizabeth Byrne as Brünnhilde sounded rough (or in her case, perhaps not warned up), although they kept the music coming with increasing intensity. In the end, though, with powerful reprises of performances by the various deities, the passing of the gods looked like bad news.

HE Elsom



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