Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I Want My Dragon Back!

 ‘You know that Siegfried is the most boring of the Ring Cycle operas’ said a wise friend to me, when he heard I was going to my episode three tonight. Boring? I didn’t understand what he meant. I’ve seen the show a few times and I don’t recall being bored. But I thought about it, and I do see what he means. If Die Walküre has longueurs, Siegfried has them in spades. Know what I mean? Act One, Siegfried forges his sword. But he doesn’t do so until we’ve had an hour of ‘the story so far’, in one guise or another, from Mime and Wotan. Act Two, Siegfried kills the dragon .. and, incidentally, Mime .. but not before everyone has talked a very great deal. And when Siegfried confronts the dragon what does it do? Roar, like any decent dragon would do? Spurt fire? No. It gives us ‘the story so far’. Again! Act Three, Siegfried jumps over the previous episode’s firewall and awakens Brünnhilde. But only after Wotan and Erda have dialogued for half an hour. And having wakened the maid and aroused the audience to laughter with his ‘das ist kein Mann’ , he and she postpone jumping on each others bones for half an hour whilst they talk about it all. And, yes, there’s a bit of the ‘story so far’ in there as well… But hey, there’s a dragon, and a talking woodbird, and the ring of fire… boring? Surely not. But the comment stuck in my mind. After all, it’s a long evening, and … 

Things didn’t look promising when, firstly, it rained and my favourite Deutsche Oper outside bar was closed down, secondly when I noticed that whereas pavement-people had been sleeve-tuggingly begging for tickets on Rheingold night, this time there was a line of people disposing of tickets, and thirdly when that dreaded little man in a black suit, who always heralds horrid cast changes, put in his appearance. But no-one was ‘off', he was simply pleading a ‘leger indisposition’ for .. oh, no! both Siegfried and Wotan. This pootles me off. If these guys are sick, tell them to stay home and put the understudy on. If they want to go on and earn their 20,000 euros for the night, then stop wingeing. If you go on, I’m not ‘making allowances’. And, in fact, as it turned out, unless they are a lot better than I think, neither of these artists needed any indulgence. 

 Tonight, as the story lurched forward, we were dealing with many of the same characters we had met in the earlier operas. Now, if this were a series of unrelated performances, the casting wouldn’t worry me at all. But this is advertised and played as a cycle. So why do we have a character played by one artist one night and another the next? Imagine if the characters in East Enders or Neighbours were played by a different actor in each episode. Happily, however, the changes for tonight were nearly all improvements. And, happily too, my two favourite vocalists from the earlier episodes – Alberich (Konieczny) and Erda (Wolak) – were retained, and proved to be as outstanding as they had been before. Their appearances were, for me, the highlights of the night. But we had a new Wotan, a new Brünnhilde, a new Mime, a new Fafner, a new character (with paternal resemblances) in Siegfried … My biggest disappointment was Fafner. I had so looked forward to hearing Andrea Silvestrelli as the dragon. The man who sang it wasn’t bad at all but … horror of horrors, THERE WAS NO DRAGON! I was brought up, at my father's knee, with the tale and the picture of Fafner the dragon: Siegfried just isn't Siegfried without it. Here is the moment to say that, sorry, revered 1984 production or not, tonight’s stage production and visuals were quite simply drear. Mime’s forge, in spite of its fiery furnace, was just tatty, the wood was unatmospheric and overgloomy, and there was NO DRAGON. Just a sort of Dalek thing hidden somewhere behind shadows and more dry ice than a 1950s pantomime. And as for the fancy ‘Time Tunnel’ idea.. well, people just walked in and out of it, and when it was finally revealed in toto from behind the flimsy drops, Siegfried made his exit down it in a manner far too reminiscent of Alberich in Das Rheingold. Why cannot directors think things through, be consistent..? 

But back to the performance. The big change for me was, of course, the replacement of that first Wotan (Delavan) whom I had found so frustratingly limp. And it was very much a change for the better. Egils Silins plays the part splendidly. It is, needless to say, a help that he has poise, incisiveness and charisma. It is a huge help that (in spite of the now even grubbier trench coat, and a ladies’ gardening hat) he looks like Darth Vader as painted by Munch. He also looks sexy, which I’m not sure is part of what Wotan should be (though Fricka may have other ideas). Vocally, too, he is far superior to Wotan Number One, even though his lower register is somewhat pale. His heavy scene at the opening of Act 3 was grandly done and if he was a bit outsung in his confrontation with the Alberich with the six-mile voice .. well, we all know that Konieczny will be singing Wotan as soon as he can be spared from being a superb Alberich. 

I was sad not to have the little Mime of Rheingold back. Somehow a six-foot tall Zwerg (dwarf) feels wrong. But Burkhard Ulrich sang this huge and often drearily expository part impeccably, so you couldn’t complain. And he was roundly applauded at the final curtain. And then there was Siegfried (Stefan Vinke). When he bounced on to the stage, I thrilled. Yes! Here was my ideal Siegfried: a big, bonny, blond (wig?) boy, with a super-cheesy grin, hundreds of white teeth, big pudgy cheeks (at both ends) and a kiddie overall … go, go, go! And when he opened his apologised-for mouth, out came a grand, clear, ringing Heldentenor. Yay! Well.. in the end only yay with a small y. Maybe it was his ‘indisposition’, but he got a bit lost during the forging of Nothung ... you felt he had mislaid his spectacles and couldn’t see the conductor ... still, his ‘Nothung, Nothung, neidliches Schwert!’ rang hugely out to much better effect than had Siegmund’s the previous night. But. But he kept on ringing hugely out. In Act 3, he was still ringing hugely out, face distorted .. anything less than forte seemed to be not in his armoury. Mr Vinke has natural advantages in the departments of looks and voice … but subtlety and acting (of which – witness his limpwristed ‘killing’ of Fafner and Mime -- he seems largely oblivious) have yet to be acquired. 

I don’t quite know what to say about the Brünnhilde of Janice Baird. Folk around me were quite vehemently against it. But I actually liked it better than the vast-voiced, bouncy teenager version of Ms Herlitzius. Ms Baird makes the ex-Valkyrie attractively womanly, helped by the fact that the ‘Walhalla salon’ had obviously been in while she slept and toned down the ghastly red hair to a Californian dark-blonde. They might have done something about the Modesty Blaise costume while they were at it, but alas, no. She acted and moved much better than her predecessor, and sang with a wholly different quality of voice and only a touch of Herlitzius’s wobble and approximativeness. I’m not sure why folk were so against her: I found her somewhere between unobjectionable and all right. What I found wholly not all right, the vocal horror of an evening which looked for a long time as if it were not going to have such a thing, was the tuneless, wobbly rendering of the music of the Waldvöglein. There must be 100 chorus girls in the Operette companies of Berlin who could have sung it better than the lady who did. And in tune. And – with a capital ‘a’ -- can someone tell me why, if we have a Waldvöglein all tizzied up in feathers and fard, we don’t get a proper dragon? Why the inconsistency? I had some good times tonight – Erda and, of course, Alberich at the top of the list of pleasures, and the sexy Wotan a revelation – but in the end I came away dissatisfied. I can stick out the longueurs, the ‘boring bits’, but I WANT MY DRAGON BACK!

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