With Siegfried, the temperature has really turned up on Keith Warner's production of the Ring for Covent Garden.
The musical performance far surpassed that for the curiously muted Walküre, and the sheer emotional devastation of Warner's handling of the drama - especially in Act 3 - made for an increasingly compelling experience.
The treatment of the first act won't have been to everyone's taste, but for me it fitted into Warner's spectacular vision for the cycle rather well. The action starts the second the orchestra gets going. We see Mime hard at work on Nothung, the sword which has been damaged in the previous opera. At the same time, Warner shows Mime raising Siegfried from being a baby in a pram to a teenage boy. The music flows underneath the fast-moving imagery in a way that is almost cinematic, and it certainly suits Wagner's style of music theatre.
Tying in nicely with imagery from the previous instalments of the cycle, the drop curtain shows numerous equations with which Mime has been experimenting, following on from what he's learnt in Rheingold from his brother Alberich. When the curtain goes up later in the scene, it reveals a full-sized, crashed aeroplane, showing that Mime has been trying to see through Alberich's technological dream, seen in the previous two operas in the form of a model aeroplane and a propeller dangling from the ceiling. It's ingenious to have Wotan pop up in the form of the Wanderer inside the cockpit of the aircraft, because it allows him actually to experience the invention that had so tantalised him from the moment he saw it in the third scene of Rheingold. Clever, too, that the 'bellows' used by Siegfried in the forging song are replaced by the aeroplane propeller (though it's a shame it didn't quite work at the right moment at this showing).
The moment with the Wanderer in the cockpit in Act 1 has a shattering opposite pole in the mesmerising third act. The wall from Walküre is whirring round whilst tilted on its side and we see Wotan at the end of his tether, a spent force who is reduced to wearing nothing but a plain grey robe, his hair dishevelled. He throws the books that were a symbol of the wisdom for which he lost his eye onto the ground, a rejection of all that he has striven for. More poignantly, the sand timer that has haunted him since his chess game with Fricka in Rheingold is destroyed - and with it, all hope of the future.
I felt the reawakening of Brünnhilde was more emotional in this incarnation of the production, as was the love duet. The symbol of the ring is more obviously the focus of the regeneration of Brünnhilde's new life and Siegfried's future, and the staging of the closing scenes in magical colours and with the wall that divided the two characters slowly allowing them through was bold and clean. I still don't particularly like the handling of most aspects of the forest scene and the dragon is not especially thrilling, but this was the only real issue I had with a generally interesting production.
Antonio Pappano was in his element this evening. I had expected Die Walküre to be the musical highpoint of the cycle, as it seemed to suit Pappano's talents back in 2005 more than the other operas, but here the third act of Siegfried far exceeded my wildest expectations. Every aspect of Wagner's compositional procedure was elaborated. The orchestral gestures, the dramatic significance of Leitmotifs, the long vocal lines, the accumulative effect of the act: all this and more was brought out with love and care. I could scarcely believe the precision of some of the high, quiet violin lines, which often cause pitching problems but here had the accuracy of the recording studio. Pappano seemed to allow the orchestra to unleash a little more power for this act, and it truly worked. Was this his finest moment at Covent Garden so far? The standing ovation from many people sitting in the stalls might be taken to mean something of the sort.
However, the singer who drew the loudest applause and the most significant standing ovation was Sir John Tomlinson, every bit of it deserved. If he seemed perhaps too old to play the virile Wotan of Das Rheingold, here his age added many layers of autumnal poignancy to the characterisation; even the vocal fraying at the top was suitable for the character. We witnessed one of the greatest British singers of our time in his finest role portrayal. It's the stuff of which legends are made.
In my view, scarcely less effective was John Treleaven in the title role. The scene between Siegfried and the Wanderer in Act 3 was an ideal match between two singer-actors of the old school. They may neither of them be at their vocal peak, but both bring such meaning to the text and such immediacy to their acting that all is easily forgiven. Treleaven goes out of tune when pushed to the limits of the register, but this was a valiant attempt at a taxing role.
Former Young Artist of the Royal Opera Ailish Tynan was as lovely a Woodbird as you could hope to hear; Jane Henschel's Erda was deep and haunting, in spite of the dubious electronic high chair on which she traverses the stage; and Philip Ens was splendid as Fafner. Gerhard Siegel has a stupendous voice and was a memorable Mime, but I feel he could use his talents to even greater effect with the right guidance. Peter Sidhom was a menacing Alberich, but I remain a little disappointed in Lisa Gasteen's Brünnhilde. She sounds as if too many heavy, high roles have taken their toll on her voice, which is still rich in the middle but strained above the stave. Her role portrayal, however, seems to have grown since she last performed it here, and I found both Gasteen and Treleaven more touching than I did their first attempt at the opera together at Covent Garden.
If today's performance was an indication of how good Götterdämmerung is going to be, it's time to start phoning in for returns.
Photo credit: Clive Barda
Read our interview with Rosalind Plowright about this production here.
Students take note: a number of tickets remain for the student-only performance of Das Rheingold on 12 October 2007, with the same cast and production, and young conductor Rory Macdonald. Tickets start at £3; for £37.50 you can sit in an Orchestra Stalls seat that would normally cost £212.50. Don't miss this opportunity to be involved in a unique event: for more information, check out the Royal Opera's website here. You need to sign up to the Travelex students scheme and have a valid Student Card to be eligible, but it really is worth persisting.