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Review: Siegfried @ Bayreuth Festspielhaus 

Posted by Weeping Tudor from Cardiff - Published on 26/08/2014 at 15:45
0 comments » - Tagged as Culture, Environment, Festivals, Music, Stage, Travel

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Bayreuth Festspiele - Siegfried

Bayreuth Festspielhaus, Bavaria, Germany

Wednesday 13th August 2014 

Admittedly, Siegfried is the one part of this epic cycle (called the Ring Cycle) that I've never gotten to know properly. Whether it was watching the stupendous Royal Opera House production of the Ring on TV (it was the one part I missed) or the whole of the Ring over a marathon day on Classic FM or even the Ring at the BBC Proms last year (it was the first year to have all four parts done), it just seems to allude me. Since I have the Ring on DVD, CD and even vinyl (very kindly given to me by David West, lead French horn player for WNO), there really is no excuse to not knuckle down with the penultimate episode in this great saga...

To get up to speed with the story from Die Walküre, Sieglinde has fled into the forest. Desperate and all alone, she is pregnant with her only child. Alberich's brother, Mime from Das Rhiengold finds her. He assists in the birth of her son and she dies shortly after. Mime endeavours to raise the child as his own, though not with the best of intentions. This child, Siegfried has a lot resting on him. Wotan is adamant he can claim the ring back (Die Walküre doesn't feature the ring in the story at all) and restore order to the world. Wotan now gallivants around incognito as The Wanderer, checking up on things involving his grandson. 

Like a typical stroppy teenager, Siegfried is sick of Mime and wants rid of him. Mime's efforts to make him decent swords are futile, Wotan visits Mime and asks him three questions (perhaps the most boring part of the whole Ring), he leaves, and Mime finally comes clean about Siegfried's past. He shows him the sword, Nothung, and explains about his mother Sieglinde. In a flash, the hero begins to forge the sword with great gusto. It is only when Mime plots the youth's death (he knows that Siegfreid will obtain the ring), that Siegfried completes work on the sword and callously slices the anvil on which he was working in two (such is the power of the sword). End of Act One.

Alberich quibbles with his brother. Mime leaves and Wotan comes to Alberich, only for these two characters to lament their loss of the ring. Fafner, the giant - also from Das Rheingold - has kept the ring, hoarded the gold and used the Tarnhelm (magic helmet) to change into a fierce dragon. Alberich and Wotan warn him of Siegfried's approach. The hero embraces the wilderness of the forest, ponders his existence and puzzles over who his parents really were (this part is known as the Forest Murmurs). A forest bird (Waldvogel) sings, but he is unable to understand what it says. As he calls back with his horn, Fafner emerges from his cave. 

They battle... Siegfried is victorious! Getting some of Fafner's scolding blood upon his hands, he puts them to his mouth to cool them down. Now he is able to hear the birds' calls, which tell him to retrieve the gold, look out for Mime and that Brünhillde lies on the rock waiting for him. He obtains the ring, Tarnhelm and hoards of loot; he stabs Mime (the blood also made him hear Mime's true intentions); Alberich gives out a disturbing cackle in the distance; and Siegfried follows the bird to find his bride. End of Act Two...

As Wotan rekindles his relationship with the earth goddess, Erda (also in Das Rhiengold), they go through deep issues, such as their daughter Brünhilde's punishment, the end of days and why Erda has been woken up in the first place. His obsession with her and what will happen to the gods has dogged Wotan for a lifetime. Is he ready to give up all he knows and accept the gods' fate? The Forrest Bird flees from the sight of Wotan (his ravens are usually near him). 

Siegfried, without knowing it, gets a first glimpse of his very own grandfather. Becoming a mild irritant, Wotan wishes to stop Siegfried to test him. Angered by the old man, he strikes Wotan's spear of knowledge (and symbolically castrates him by doing so). Looking at his broken spear, he knows it is only a matter of time until things go belly-up for the gods. Siegfried goes to Brünhilde on the rock, overcomes the flames and claims her as his bride (after a great deal of singing, including elements of the composition, Siegfried Idyll). Things couldn't be happier, that is until Twilight of the Gods...

In keeping with the Soviet themes of Walküre, Siegfried opens with a massive Mount Rushmore with the heads of LeninStalinMao and Marx (Karl did actually try and see Wagner's Ring in Bayreuth but the hotel was fully booked). The revolving set, like in all the parts, is huge and extremely impressive. The other part of the set is a huge street scene with a revolving stock exchange monitor. 

With no video in the first act, these huge heads had us gazing at them time and time again. We see the four faces develop a neon-lighted glaze when Siegfried and Brünhilde sing towards the end, like drawings by Leonard Cohen (Book of Longing). As Wotan and Siegfried bicker, we witness the ingenious decision to have an image of Wotan's face cover Stalin and Siegfried's cover Lenin. Clearly proving who was the equivalent, in recent history-terms, of these mythical characters, this setup resembled the production of La Fura Dels Baus' Le Grand Macabre.

The young hero does not kill Fafner with Nothung, his trusted sword. Instead he brandishes a rifle, giving off the best use of a firearm in a production I've ever seen (we were warned in the programme). But if there was ever an audience to say how much they disliked a staging or singer, it will defiantly make it clear here in Bayreuth. They despised this production, with much booing after each act. 

I really took to this production and found it a good and proper starting point into Siegfried as a whole piece. I'll agree that using animatronic crocodiles (or alligators?!) was an odd and lurid thing to have in stage, even when the story features a dragon. They briefly appeared in the second act, but bothered us as an audience, whilst the lovers at the end where singing their most rousing music. Even the Wood Bird climbs into one of their mouths for no discernible reason, only to be pulled out by the youth. It was a stupid idea to have them on stage; enough said about that. 

Speaking of the Wood Bird, her costume was a hair-raising mix of Apache warrior and Las Vegas showgirl, as if about to go on-stage. Mirella Hagen (who sang as the birds with passionate trills and fine melody) could barely move around the stage, yet proving to be Siegfried's fling before settling down with Ms. Fire upon Rock. 

The still-uncredited actor (also playing the diner owner in Rheingold) played the bear here when Siegfried brings him home. I'm keen to know his name as he has added to each of the productions (later playing a butler). As if at a rock concert, he bashes his head back and forth, as Siegfired forges the sword on his anvil (heavy metal, indeed). With the amazing Anvil Chorus [the video is wrongly labelled] in Das Rheingold, you won't hear the anvils again. The tension is taken up as he does this; the pounding slams of metal both in the orchestra and in the repetition of the anvil strikes are edge-of-your-seat thrills and excitements. 

Wolfgang Koch returns for the last time as Wotan (The Wanderer). As surly and morbid as ever, he retains his stature as head god, even if the inevitable is soon to befall him. Burkhard Ulrich made a cunning and highly untrustworthy Mime, making you pity and despise the wretched creature. Oleg Bryjak is such a firm Alberich, pulling off the highly-determined quest for the ring in a resentful and near-maddening plot of unsuccessfulness (he never gets the ring back). As for Fafner, Sorin Coliban was just himself (no dragon here) as he smeared those attentive bass notes into the ground, asking who it is who has killed him, covered in fake blood from his bullet wounds. 

The fantastic Nadine Weissmann reemerges as Erda. As glamorous as ever, she dines with Wotan at a picnic table, later storming off, then only returning to fellate him (bit of a shock, I can tell you). She has more stage time than before (Siegfried also has the smallest cast out of all the operas) and has an enriched voice and stage quality to hold her own as the no-nonsense earth mother. Catherine Foster in her Brünhilde awakens with more impressive singing and more to be held in the final opera. Her high notes are not too shrill, her low notes not too forced. Her moment is coming up soon.

Here's to the end of the world: Götterdämmerung...

Rating: 8/10

Der Ring Der Nibelungen continues at the Bayreuth Festival in Bavaria, Germany along with performances of TannhäuserDer Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) and Lohengrin until Thursday 28th August 2014. 

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Photos Credit: Enrico Nawrath

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