Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Wagnerian Marathon!

Siegfried – Wagner - Liceu

The hero of last night’s performance of Siegfried was not the eponymous hero, it was the orchestra.  Conducted by Josep Pons, from the atmospheric opening moments of the music to the last ecstatic chords the playing was superb, I have rarely heard the Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu on such form.  I cannot pick out any section of the orchestra for special mention because this was an ensemble tour de force!
            But the opera does have a name and, as part of The Ring Cycle it is a barrier that every Opera House has to respond to, knowing that many of the customers will have seen other productions and will certainly have heard any one of the myriad majestic versions easily available in our technological age.
            So how does this one stand up to the competition?  Five hours is a long time to demand from even the most compliant of backsides!  In a word, for me, it was OK.  And if that doesn’t sound amazingly enthusiastic, then neither was the audience at the end of the performance.  Polite?  Yes.  Enthusiastic?  No.
            The positively magical orchestral opening promised much and when we finally got to see the woodland glade we were presented with a junkyard in which a broken-down, dilapidated caravan was the main feature.  Mime, Peter Bronder, was presented as a slovenly, vest wearing caricature constantly keeping his comb-over in place – but he sang with authority and his mannerisms with constantly amusing.  I don’t know if the caravan was meant to bring the word Traveller to mind, to match the character of The Wanderer?  Or am I reading too much into the setting?
            Stefan Vinke was to have sung the title role, but he was replaced by Lance Ryan.  This Siegfried was played with insouciant gusto by Ryan but his voice was not at home in the character.  I felt that he came into his own in Act III when his lighter lyrical tenor was more at home in the mawkishly embarrassing scenes with his aunt/lover.  For too much of this opera Ryan’s voice was overwhelmed by the orchestra, and not because of the inconsideration of the conductor.  Helden tenor Ryan is not and we needed one to match the other sung performances during the long night!
            Greer Grimsley as the angst consumed Wotan, impeccable in neat suit, coat and hat with his silver topped cane/spear, gave a magisterial performance with a voice powerful, yet nuanced.  He managed to convey a sort of sense of power-overload, of someone bored with his own capabilities and looking for change, any change even if it meant destruction.  His scene with Era, Maria Radner, in the ruined sitting room of a chaotic castle was finely sung and a masterpiece of existential emptiness made musical!
            As far as scene setting was concerned the re-forging of Nothung was competently done, but Siegfried’s demonstration of its power by smiting the caravan and having the whole of one side fall off was, to put it mildly, slightly absurd.
            I liked the use of slight and smoke to convey the power of the dragon and I liked the theatricality of a pair of well lit bulldozer claws as the mouth, beneath which the giant/man that was always the base of Fafner, Andreas Hörl, was able to appear.
            Alberich, Oleg Bryjak, was played with some style and vocal satisfaction and the antagonism between Alberich and Mime brought out the underlying theme of Waiting for Godot that pervades the feeling of this production.
            The Liceu likes fire.  That is not a reference to past destructions, but rather to the number of times that real flames light up the stage in various productions.  This opera was meant for this opera house and it used fire interestingly, from the flames of Mime’s smithy to the magic flames keeping everyone but a hero away from the sleeping Brünnhilde, Catherine Foster, it always played a justified role in the action.
            Foster was at home in her role and sang with passionate beauty.  Act III had some of the most touching music making in the whole opera and, even with the strange situation and the even stranger words that they sing, there was real passion and a sense of excited exploration in the ending to the opera.
            Did the staging make sense?  Not entirely for me.  This production was full of good ideas: I liked the concept of Siegfried played as a bizarre mixture of the incomprehensible innocence of an Oliver Twist under the tutelage of a Fagin-like Mime, yet also with some of the amorality of The Artful Dodger as well!  But I found myself wondering, too often, about some of the concepts and just how they satisfyingly tied in to a unity in the piece that could give it strength through the radical reworking of traditional ideas.
            This was a production largely drained of primary colours, but there were some spectacular scenes in spite of the sub-fusc palette used. 
            And there was always the music!

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