Siegfried


Synopsis


And now you are all on the edge of your seats to find out what I thought about the English National Opera’s production of Siegfried.

Well, it didn’t blow my socks off quite the way that Valkyrie did. But perhaps we can blame Wagner for that. Siegfried has got the sword-forging scene at the end of Act I; and it’s got the awakening of Brunhilde in the middle of Act III; and it has Siegfried’s horn and the 'forest murmurs' in Act II -- but it doesn’t have the succession of 'great moments' that Valkyrie does. So perhaps Wagner simply provided Mr Daniel with less opportunity to overwhelm me.


It was a bit rich of the Telegraph’s commentator to say that there had been a mixed reception for the previous operas; that the 'noes' had outnumbered the 'ayes', but that he himself was gradually being won round. Before Glastonbury, critical reaction was anything but 'mixed': Rhinegold and Valkyrie were unanimously assassinated. So it’s strange that the arts pages have largely liked Siegfried. To me, it seems that the two productions had much the same strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side, the attention to dramatic detail, the creation of living characters, and the intelligent and challenging stage images. In the negative column, the bizarre and sometimes incongruous modernizations; and the tendency to skip merrily from one metaphor to another in consecutive scenes. Why praise one opera and condemn the other?


Act I of Siegfried is going to be a problem in any production. It consists of dialogue between Mime and Siegfried -- and I do mean 'dialogue' as opposed to 'duets'. They sing at one another. The music imitates the sound of their speech and reveals the psychology which underlies it. Familiar motifs float past. New ones are introduced. We see them from the outside, through what they do and we experience their feelings, through the music. All this is wonderful. But one can’t deny that there is a lack of (if you will excuse my uses of arcane technical vocabulary) tunes.

If the act is going to engage us then, it has to do so by making us relate to the two principles as characters in a drama. But the drama is not very attractive. We have an heroic youth being raised by an ugly dwarf. But the dwarf is only raising the boy because he wants him to slay a dragon and steal its treasure: then, he means to kill him. Siegfried doesn’t know this, but has nothing but contempt for Mime. He hates him because he is 'ugly, grizzled and grey, stunted and mis-shaped, hunch-backed and hobbling with drooping ears and bleary eyes'. From Siegfried’s point of view, if Mime is ugly, he must be evil: and it turns out that he is right. Wagner doesn’t positively say that Siegfried has blond hair and blue eyes or that Mime has a hooked nose; but if the production goes wrong, you might start to assume that they do. When Siegfried says 'You taught me everything, except the one thing I’d really like to know – how not to hate your guts!', Wagner intends the audience to agree with him. But there’s a danger that we’ll perceive Siegfried as a bully and transfer our sympathies onto the villain of the piece.

Lloyd’s production cuts right through this problem by the simple device of portraying Siegfried as a teenager. Which, of course, he is: the libretto continually refers to him as a 'boy' or a 'child'-- lines which are hard to take seriously in productions where he is 47 and fatter than Brunhilde. Richard Berkely-Steele gives Siegfried the body language and gestures of Harry Enfield’s Kevin. He wears a baseball cap, slouches on his bunk-bed, lolls on the sofa, munches large packets of crisps which he keeps under his pillow. And – provided you have no moral aversion to the modern dress Wagner – it works brilliantly. Siegfried’s rants against Mime are simply the normal, ungrateful sulkiness of the average adolescent. It makes perfect dramatic sense for the big lout slouching on the sofa to say almost nonchalantly to his 'dad' 'I cannot stand the sight of you'. We focus, not on any dodgy ideology but on the interpaly between a believable teenager and a believable old man..

Admittedly, there is a trade-off involved. The epic perspective tends to disappear when we watch the action through naturalistic opera-glasses. When Siegfried is a Nordic super-man, he’s not a human being. When the human dimension is foregrounded, he doesn’t come across as a super-hero. The musical climax of Act I may have suffered as a result of this.

Lloyd’s production idea is, as ever, very exciting. Siegfried does not forge the sword by smith-craft, but recreates it by magic. He doesn’t hammer it on an anvil, but rolls his own body over it; make strange rhythmic, magical movements. (Also sexy: I suspect that we were meant to think of that the emergence of the sword represented the adolescents first experience of playing with himself in his bedroom. Which is a reasonable enough extrapolation from what the sword means in Valkyrie.) All very interesting. But for the first time, the production idea seemed to be fighting the music. For Mime’s cave in the woods to become a nasty bedsit may freak the mundanes: but there is nothing in the score which says 'cave'; there is no necessary clash between what we see and what we hear. But the sword forging music is onomatopoeic. It isn’t only conveying an atmosphere: it’s trying to sound like the thing which it is describing. The rhythm of the orchestra imitates the rhythm of the hammer; the sound of hammer clashing on metal is literally incorporated into the music. Lloyd deals with it all cleverly, of course. As the the musical anvils down in the orchestra pit are going 'dum-da-da da-da-da', Siegfried is doing his magic disco-dance, and striking invisible objects in time with the metallic clashing. But I think that even a newcomer to the opera will look at the scene and say 'Who are they kidding? It’s meant to be a hammer and an anvil.'

And the music itself seemed to lack a certain oomph. Maybe this was the fault of the singer; maybe Richard Berkely-Steele majored on detail in the long dialogues, but didn’t quite have the power to roar out the climaxes. Perhaps, if I could afford tickets to hear Placido doing it at Covent Garden next spring; he would do a better job at making the chandeliers shake. But I fear that the forging may actually have been toned down by design. An essay in the programme comments that 'whether one finds all this testosterone filled energy exhilarating or verging on the tedious is very much a matter of taste.' Testosterone? Tedious? It couldn’t be that the production team is actually embarrassed by this hyper-Wagnerian material, could it?


As with Valkyrie, Acts II and III of Siegfried abandon the naturalism of Act I and start creating symbolic, impressionist environments. The entrance to the dragons cave in Act II was represented as a kind of waiting room – some chairs, a water cooler, and a door. Only a design painted on the walls told us we were supposedly in a forest. Alberich looked distinctly tramp-like. So did Wotan the wanderer. And, granted, there is a lot of coming and going in the act, and Alberich has been waiting maybe 40 years to get his ring back. Nevertheless, I wish that Wagner producers would call a moratorium on allusions to Samuel Becket.

When Siegfried fights Fafner, the latter is, slightly disappointingly, in the form of a giant, rather than a dragon; but it’s done very well making use of the shadow-play which is becoming a hallmark of this production. They fight behind a white screen, allowing the silhouette of the giant to look bigger than the silhouette of Siegfried. However, this scene contained one thing which I didn’t understand. The bath. Fafner seems to be in the bath when Siegfried kills him. Why? There is a reference to the dragon feeling thirsty and coming to drink at the spring, but the 'spring' seems to be represented by the water cooler in the waiting room. Was the bath an allusion, to, say, Agammemnon, or Marat? Or was the naturalistic idea that the Fafner had taken off the Tarnhelm in order to take a bath, and reverted to his original shape? Or (and I have a horrible feeling that this is what the producers had in mind) were we supposed to be thinking of the Ian Huntley murder trial -- the fairy tale ogre who killed two innocents in the bath? Here, the victim turns around and kills the giant with a magic sword, banishing all the fears of childhood?

This would seem to be borne out by two other bits of strangeness in the act. First, Alberich has a baby with him, presumably the infant Hagan. This doesn’t make a great deal of sense at rational level, since, so far as I can tell, there is a gap of about 24 hours between Siegfried killing the dragon and encountering the adult Hagan at the end of Act I of Twilight of the Gods. But it’s a nice way of saying: 'this opera is all about children': Mime and his adopted son; Alberich and his real son; Wotan the father of Siegfried’s father; and the giant who may represent a nightmare vision of an evil father.

And then we have the wood-bird. The wood-bird first pops up when Siegfried is thinking about his mother. As he sings 'Oh how this son longs to see his mother', we see silhouettes of, (and if there’s any sniggering they’ll be trouble) a child riding his toy scooter in the woods. The child on the scooter turns out to actually be the wood-bird -- and considerable kudos to Sarah Tynan for singing her lines while riding round and round in circles. Traditionally, the singer is placed offstage: Siegfried has to mime conversations with a bird the audience can’t see. This never fails to look corny. Here, the 'bird' has a physical stage presence as an enthusiastic child, beckoning Siegfried to follow him on his adventures. Possibly, the 'bird' represented Siegfried’s child-self; a perfectly valid interpretation of what is going on. Even without the scooter.

Act III begins with the cleverest bit of stage imagery in the production. When Wotan encounters Erda the goddess of wisdom, she is asleep. The first line of the act is 'Waken!' -- which is loaded with significance, because Wotan is the one who has sent Brunhilde, Erda’s daughter, to sleep; and the whole act is going to turn on Brunhilde waking up. Erda is the mother of the Norns, the three goddesses of fate who will turn up in Twilight. Here, Erda and the Norns are portrayed as old ladies, asleep over their knitting in a terribly sinister impression of an old-folks home. When the curtain comes up, all we can see is a group of armchairs, pointed at a TV screen showing nothing but flickering flames. We only gradually realize that there are people asleep in the chairs. The stage environment – a sinister old people’s home – matches the basic mythological situation. We look at the stage and immediately say 'Oh look: the Norns.' And it’s a powerful and disturbing image in it’s own right. What is on the TV? Are they looking at Brunhilde’s rock, or are they perpetually seeing the end of the world, gotterdamerung? Or both?

When Siegfried arrives on the scene, he confronts Wotan among the armchairs, knocking them over one by one. This adds an appropriately dream-like quality to the scene. The teenage hero is confronting the killer of his father in an old folks home and as he starts knocking old ladies chairs over no-one reacts or thinks it’s odd. The Norns don’t even wake up as he sends them flying. It is also symbolically appropriate: Siegfried is in the process of taking control of his own fate. In Act I of Twilight it will turn out that the thread of fate is broken and the Norns have lost their powers.

So I’m still pretty impressed with the way in which Lloyd is creating imagery which is in creative dialogue with Wagner’s ideas and which also functions as an environment in which the principles can act. But she has one other very important attribute as a director. She knows when to shut-up. When Siegfried reaches the mountain top, he discovers Brunhilde behind a white screen, so that, once again, Siegfried’s removing her amour and kissing her to life proceeds as a shadow play. But once she emerges, there are no big production ideas. They just sing. Lloyd knows that it is time to to allow Siegfried and Brunhilde alone on the stage; for the music to carry us as they fall in love.

Appendix 1: I cannot speak your barbarous tongue

Just as there are people who are freaked out by the whole idea of opera in modern dress, so there are those who find it strange that the ENO performs opera in English. 'Oh, they say, Italian is a much more musical language. I want to hear Carmen in the original Klingon.' Since I hold to a view of opera-as-musical-theater, it will come as no surprise that I find this position silly. If I ever become one of the idle rich, I might take a year out and learn to speak Norwegian: but until then, I shall only watch English language productions of Ibsen. It’s second best, but I have no desire to see a play done in a language I don’t understand.

A certain kind of opera-goer may have got used to regarding opera as a sort of mime, where characters act out word-free tableaux to the accompaniment of music. They perceive opera as more like ballet than theater. A lot of the repertoire -- Traviata, say -- works tolerably well at this level. If you don’t know Italian, you can follow the plot pretty well by watching what is going on and assuming that they are singing 'La-la-la, I am dying, I am dying.' (Sometimes, of course, this is precisely what they are singing.) It’s not what the composer meant; in a way, it’s an accidental art-form, but if you’ve got used to seeing it like this, this might be how you like to see it. Understanding the words could even be a distraction. If you’ve grown fond of the pretty bit where everyone dances and says 'La-la-la', then you might have your evening spoiled if 'la-la-la' translates as something slightly banal.

I wonder if it is people who watch opera in this way who have propagated the theory that Wagner is boring, turgid, or has great moments but dreadful quarter hours. Act I of Siegfried, or come to that, Acts II and III, must seem like quite an ordeal if you don’t know what they are singing about.

I don’t know any German: my knowledge of the libretto comes mainly from Andrew Porter’s translation, which was used on the famous Reginald Goodall recordings. The current production uses a new translation by one Jeremy Sam. My first impression was to say that it was a much freer and more colloquial translation than Porter’s. In fact, Porter seems to have stuck slightly closer to the literal sense of the German words, where Sam plays faster and looser with the sense in order to get words with the right number of syllables which come in the right order. So in a way, Sam’s version is the more faithful. The big thing about translated opera is that it has got to make sense, but also fit in with the music. (Andrew Porter points out that people in English versions of Italian operas have to say 'Well, goodnight, then' because there are four syllables in the Italian and two in the English and there is nothing that can be done about it.)

So, when Siegfried contemptuously asks Mime why he’s suddenly started making a stew ('bruast du dort Sudel'), Porter gave us 'You’re cooking soup there!', which is a bit feeble. Sam also spots that there isn’t a two-syllable English word for 'soup', but decides that, for the purposes of the plot, 'soup' is not essential, and has Siegfried sing: 'You’re making omlettes!' This gets a laugh from the audience at entirely the right moment.

In a more serious scene, Wagner’s: 'Nothung! Nothung! Niedliches schwert!' is untranslatable. I’m told that 'niedliches schwert' means something like 'most enviable' sword. Porter gave us 'Nothung! Nothung! Sword of my need!' Sam’s over-riding concern seems to have been to retain the German rhythm and word order; and gone looking for a three syllable adjective to replace 'neidliches'. He comes up with 'Nothung! Nothung! Magical sword!' which is not literal, but brilliant.

Slightly more cheeky was his handling of the moment when Siegfried removes Brunhilde’s breastplate and exclaims: 'Das ist kien mann!' Kathleen Broderick is a slim, tomboyish Brunhilde , but even so, it is hard to think that Siegfried could have sung 'It’s not a man!' without getting the audience to laugh at entirely the wrong moment. So Sam’s not-at-all literal rendering of it as 'What have I seen?' seemed quite legitimate under the circumstances.


Appendix II:

Siegfried – Synopsis


Act I



(Mime the Dwarf is at his anvil, forging a sword.


Enter Siegfried, with a bear.


No, really, it’s in the libretto.)

Siegfried:

Look what followed me home. Can I keep it?

Mime:

No.

Siegfried:

Aw... you never let me have any fun. Have you made me a sword yet?.

Mime:

Yes, here it is.


(Siegfried snaps sword in half)

Siegfried:

It’s crap! I hate you!

Mime:

Is that any way to talk to me, after all I’ve done for you?

Siegfried:

Oh, that reminds me. Something occurred to me today. I’m six foot, blond, blue eyed, and you’re... well, a dwarf. That strikes me as odd. Are you really my Dad?.

Mime:

Oh, yes, yes. Yes, yes. Well, no, not if you mean it in the strict genetic sense

Siegfried:

So how do I come to be with you?

Mime:

A woman named Sieglinde dropped dead outside my cottage, and left me her baby to take care of. Which reminds me... I have something here for you. Your father wanted you to have this, when you were old enough... .

Siegfried:

A broken sword?

Mime:

Yes, but I’m going to mend it. See, how much I love you. Go and wash your hands for supper.

Siegfried:

I don’t have to do what you tell me any more! You aren’t my father!


(Runs off into forest)

Mime:

If I could re-forge Siegmund’s magic sword, then I feel sure that Siegfried could use it to slay the dragon and steal the One Ring. I could then steal the Ring from him. But I can’t seem to forge the pieces. I wish there was someone who could tell me how.


(Enter Wotan)

Wotan:

I just happened to be passing, and I propose a small wager. Ask me any question you like and if I can’t answer, you can chop my head off.

Mime:

Er... Who lives in the sky?

Wotan:

The gods. Ask me another.

Mime:

Who lives on the earth?

Wotan:

Giants. Best of three?

Mime:

Who lives under the earth?

Wotan:

Dwarves. Now it’s my turn. Who has Wotan treated badly, even though he really loves them?

Mime:

Siegmund and Sieglinde, the parents of Siegfried.

Wotan:

Quite right. Now, suppose, hypothetically, that Siegfried was going kill the dragon: which sword would he use

Mime:

Nothung, Siegmund’s sword, which Wotan broke.

Wotan:

You’re good at this, aren’t you? Very well then: How can the fragments of the sword be re-forged?

Mime:

I don’t know.

Wotan:

No, you don’t, do you. That was why I was surprised you didn’t ask me that very question when it was my turn. The answer is: 'the sword can only be re-forged by a man without fear'.

Mime:

What, Daredevil?

Wotan:

Don’t worry. I shan’t chop your head off. I shall leave that pleasure to the man without fear.


(Exit Wotan. Re-enter Siegfried.)

Mime:

Er... Siegfried my lad. Have you ever been really scared? I mean, really, really scared?

Siegfried:

Er... Don’t think so. How would I know?

Mime:

Well, you’re heart would go pit-a-pat, your palms would sweat.

Siegfried:

Sounds cool. How do I get scared?

Mime:

Say, fighting a dragon?

Siegfried:

Okay, cool, I’ll fight a dragon tomorrow straight after breakfast. Have you finished my sword?

Mime:

No.

Siegfried:

Let me have a go then.


(Siegfried starts melting down the shards of Nothung in the forge.)

Mime:

I have a cunning plan. While he forges the magic sword, I shall make a pot of poisoned soup!

Siegfried:

Hi-ho, hi-ho, I’m forging a sword, hi-ho, hi-ho, look at me I’m forging a sword!

Mime:

He forges sword. I show him dragon. He kills dragon. I give him soup. He drops dead.. I take Ring. It’s almost too easy!



Act 2



(Outside the dragons cave


Enter Wotan.


Enter Alberich)

Wotan:

Morning, Alberich

Alberich:

Morning, Wotan.


(Exit Wotan, exit Alberich..


Enter Siegfried and Mime.)

Mime:

Right: here’s the plan. You go into the cave, kill the dragon, and take its stuff.

Siegfried:

Oh go away!


(Exit Mime.)

Siegfried:

Hello dragon! Come out and fight!

Fafner:

Roar!

Siegfried:

Oh, boring! I’m not scared AT ALL!


(A big fight. Siegfried kills Fafner with the magic sword.)

Fafner:

Argh!

Siegfried:

Oh, yuk. Now I’ve got dragon’s blood on my hand.

A bird:

Tweet, tweet!

Siegfried:

Hey, cool! That dragon blood must be magic. It’s like I can hear what the bird is saying.

Bird:

Tweet! Tweet! You’ve killed the dragon! Go into the cave, and steal the Ring, which will enable you to rule the world. You should also take the magic helmet of shape-changing.

Siegfried:

Why?

Bird:

Well, it’s going to be a major plot device in part four.

Siegfried:

Fair enough. (Goes into cave)


(Enter Mime.


Enter Alberich)

Mime:

Morning, Alberich

Alberich:

Morning, Mime.


(Exit Alberich


Siegfried emerges from cave)

Bird:

Tweet! Tweet! Mime wishes you no good!

Siegfried:

Like, duh!

Bird:

Tweet! Tweet! Dragon’s blood has another power! Even if someone’s lying to you, you’ll hear them telling the truth!

Siegfried:

You’re making this up as you go along, aren’t you?

Mime:

Would you like some nice chicken soup?.I made it specially, with poison, so I can kill you and take the Ring.

Siegfried:

In that case, I’m afraid I’m going to have to kill you.


(Beheads Mime)

Siegfried:

I’ve been wanting to do that all morning.

Bird:

Tweet! Tweet! See that mountain over there? That’s where Brunhilde is sleeping. If you wake her up, she’ll probably marry you. But no-one has ever been brave enough to cross the magic fire at the top.

Siegfried:

Cool! Either the fire will teach me what it’s like to be really, really scared, or I’ll win a magical woman to be my wife. So I can kill two birds with one... er... sorry.



Act III



(Erda the Earth Goddess is asleep.)


(Enter Wotan.)

Wotan:

Wake up! I have some serious exposition to do.

Erda:

Go away.

Wotan:

There is an army of a dwarves massing to lay siege to Valhalla. The only way to defeat them is to get the Ring; but anyone who owns the Ring will come under a curse and be destroyed in any case. Right now, Siegfried has the Ring, and if he awakens Brunhilde, they will put unspecified forces in motion which will bring down the gods . Oh, goddess of wisdom, what do you think?

Erda:

I think you’re stuffed. (She goes back to sleep.)


(Enter Siegfried)

Siegfried:

Out of my way old man. I’m gonna climb that mountain and find my bride asleep on top!

Wotan:

Show a little more respect, will you!

Siegfried:

Who to? Some one-eyed codger in a silly hat?

Wotan:

Any more of your lip, and I shall break your sword with my spear, just like I did once before.

Siegfried:

You killed my father? That means I get to do the whole revenge thing, too. This is turning into the best day ever!


(Breaks Wotan’s magic spear in two with his even more magical sword.)

Wotan:

Go on. I can’t stop you. The power of the gods is over.

Siegfried:

Yeah, whatever


(Climbs the mountain, and passes through the magical fire. Brunhilde is still asleep where we left her at the end of part 2)

Siegfried:

Well, boys and girls. Here I am at the very top of the beanstalk. And that fire didn’t scare me at all... ... But I can’t see any brides around here... There’s a horse, and some rocks, and some more rocks, but I can’t see a bride anywhere. .What’s that you say, boys and girls?... .Behind me?... ..Yes, you are right! It’s a shining figure in amour asleep on a rock. Beautiful, too... ..I know... ..I’ll ask him if he’s seen any brides!... .Poor chap doesn’t look very well, does he?... I’d better help him breathe... I’ll take off his helmet, and his shield, and his gloves, and his breastplate... .His breast-... It’s not a man after all, is it boys and girls?... .In that case it must be... it can only be... .Mummy!... .What’s the best way to wake her up?... .I know, since it’s my mother, I’ll kiss her passionately on the lips!... .Er, yuk! ... Kiss a... you know... a girl?... .Oh yikes!... . Now I’m really, really scared!

Brunhilde:

(Sublimely): Good morning. Was I out of things for very long?

Siegfried:

Mummy! I’ve missed you so much.

Brunhilde :

Tiny misunderstanding there, I think.

Siegfried:

I love you!

Brunhilde:

Er... this really isn’t a good idea, you know

Siegfried:

I love you!

Brunhilde :

This is all going to end really, really badly!

Siegfried:

I love you!

Brunhilde:

There are prophecies. There are curses... You have the Ring. Wotan’s got it in for both us us... I’m a Valkyrie, you’re a mortal... Oh, and I’m your aunt.

Siegfried:

I love you!

Brunhilde:

Oh... what the heck...

Siegfried:

I love you lots!

Brunhilde :

I love you more!

Siegfried:

I love you even more than that!

Brunhilde:

I love...


(Curtain)


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