Rebirth of Reason


Wagner - My First Time
by Tim Sturm

Author's note: This started out as email exchange with Wagner-fanatic Peter Cresswell. This is what I wrote to him when I got back from seeing Siegfried, the third part of The Ring Cycle at Covent Garden.

Wow! Wow! Just fucking WOW! Cresswell, you were right, and Perigo was wrong. As wrong as Rand was on Beethoven.

I walked out of that feeling like I had lived through that opera, rather than merely watched it. It was exactly as you say: listeners with a three-minute span of attention should look elsewhere. This was five hours of total immersion!

Where to start? I guess the great thing about this production was that the singing was first rate. Siegfried himself was tireless with a very strong voice, and, although I don't have any point of comparison, it seemed to me he expressed the brazenness and irrepressible joie de vivre of Siegfried just right. I was also blown away by the bass voice of the dragon, Fafner. His voice was, according to my partner (a soprano singer herself) cleverly amplified, but the booming depth of it was simply wonderful.

However, if there was a show stealer, it was certainly Wotan. The richness, depth and sheer volume of the singer's voice was unmistakeable. And the two stand-out scenes for me both involve his character. The first was the interchange between Wotan, Fafner and Alberich at the opening of Act II, where Wotan's regal and sumptuous themes were matched by the even more imperious themes of the dragon. This was just mind-blowingly good, and I don't think I've ever appreciated the sheer staunchness and masculinity of the male voice as much as I have while experiencing this booming interchange.

The second was the opening scene to Act III, where Wotan laments his imminent loss of power. Here the power of John Tomlinson's voice was clear to everyone. This scene also brought the highlight of the production itself. Wotan lay on a very large square tilted at an angle that spun around while swirling clouds were projected onto it. It really was a glorious spectacle, and quite befitting the scene. These imperious interchanges were what really grabbed me, however there was plenty of entertainment to be had elsewhere, in particular through the hilarious Act I interchanges where Siegfried expresses his contempt for his minder, the dwarf Mime.

The production itself ranged from fabulous (see above), to appalling. Fortunately, the appalling bits did not interfere with the spectacle too much, although the postmodern touches were all too clear. The central piece in Mime's cave throughout Act I was a plane wreckage, and much of the action took place on or around a broken wing. Bizarre. And the "anvil" which gets broken by Siegfried's sword, Nothung, looked to me like a hospital trolley.

Somehow none of this was too intrusive, though. The low point production-wise was the sequence where Siegfried goes off by himself in Act II to ponder the identity of his real parents in the forest. At this point some sort of stuffed deer and what looked like a stuffed sheep were wheeled in on two more hospital trolleys. At this point I was shuffling irritably in my seat, but I needn't have worried too much because things generally got better from there, except for some weird metallic box on the 'dragon's' head, although the box-thing was replaced by a more realistic dragon during the fight scene.

And of course the Royal Opera House is itself a wonderful setting, and the orchestra first class. Fortunately, I had forked out a bit extra to get central seats and ensure that we weren't craning our necks around corners or being blocked from part of the view. For a five hour spectacle, it was certainly worth it.

At the end of each Act the audience went absolutely wild, and I have never heard such applause for any performance of anything, anywhere, as at the end. Nor had my partner, who is obviously far more experienced in these things. The applause for the singers was certainly deserved, however, as I stood there clapping like mad with the rest of the cheering, bellowing audience, I felt that I was clapping for Wagner himself more than anyone. I was totally gripped by the whole wondrous spectacle and the time flew by. What a wonderful achievement this epic is, and I still have three more to experience!

You were right PC; like Blackadder said, today I truly felt like a lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky bastard.
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