It’s often been observed that Siegfried is the Ring’s scherzo, the third “movement” of the four, and that it generally beats to a far fleeter pulse than any of the other constituent parts. But, in performance at least, this isn’t all that often evident. Richard Farnes, however, clearly takes the truism at face value, for this was by some margin the zippiest Siegfried I can ever recall encountering live, all done and dusted in just 3 hours 50 minutes (79’/73’/78’). In principle, I approve: I grew up listening to Goodall at work at the Coliseum but now find, somewhat to my surprise, that his accounts, as recorded live – fabulously well-sung as they were, way beyond the dreams of any opera house management today – are just dead-in-the-water exercises in turgidity and sloth, with some very poor orchestral playing to boot (perhaps as a result). So, a touch of briskness is more than welcome, such as Haitink – also to my surprise – used to bring to the work in his earliest performances (at the ROH in Götz Friedrich’s second staging, and in the recording studio for EMI). But Richard Farnes, I think, slightly miscalculates here, in that there were numerous passages, particularly those in Act I pertaining to what is termed “Siegfried’s Wrath” and the latter stages of the forging of the sword which tonight could only be described as frantic, to the point that not only could the Siegfried not manage to articulate the notes properly, but that there actually had to be a second percussionist drafted in to bash the little orchestral anvil on alternate notes to the main player, since it would be beyond the power of any mere mortal to hammer the notated rhythms accurately at this tempo on their own.
Of course, it may just be that the conductor thought he was doing his tenor a favour, keeping it all light and brisk so that Lars Cleveman could simply get through it relatively in one piece, for the Swede’s voice, though evenly emitted throughout and with firm tonal focus, is at least two sizes too small for the role of Siegfried, lacks the depths the role plumbs in Act III, and would in my view be better heard as a Mime rather than the hero (to the which, I may add, neither his build nor appearance remotely lends itself, exacerbated here by, like everyone else, having to appear effectively in propria persona rather than given anything so useful as a wig, or make-up, or a meaningful costume to help with the illusion). Indeed, as surprisingly often in the past, I half expected the actual Mime – here, Richard Roberts – to sing him off the stage (as Gerhard Siegel did poor Stefan Vinke last time out at Covent Garden, four years ago). Alas, proper balance between the roles was maintained, but only because Roberts’ voice is really much too small as Mime, whole stretches trailing off into inaudibility under the orchestral onslaught. Like Cleveman, Roberts can act very well, but unlike him has the physique-du-role (a left-handed compliment, to be sure). If only he had more voice. Throwing both into the shade vocally was Jo Pohlheim – who looks strangely like Michael Volle, and is not dissimilar sonically, either – returning as Alberich. The voice has the scale neither of the others does, and though it’s a bit gritty of tone, contains the occasional lump and bump in the emission and can sporadically be wayward of pitch-focus, it serves the role remarkably well (a pity the two Nibelung brothers’ brief, very funny confrontation in Act II was taken at such an unconscionable gabble that all either singer could do was, effectively, just grind out Sprechstimme).
Three nights into the Ring and we’re on our third Wotan: Béla Perencz. I thought him by some margin the best of the three, coolly authoritative, and with a naturally commanding tone and stage presence. Again, the voice is (just the) one size too small for the great rolling pronouncements contained in the scene with Erda at the start of Act III, but what he lacked in scale he made up for in steadiness, which after his predecessors in the role is a commodity not to be undervalued, trust me. Kelly Cae Hogan – how is her middle name pronounced, I wonder? – returned as Brünnhilde, and like so many before her, found the deceptive brevity of her contribution to this opera very taxing indeed. She has the scale of the role, both sounding and pretty much looking the part: but the awakening scene needs longer-drawn lyrical singing with no trace of strain in the placement or fluctuations in the emission, a tall order it’s true, and something I’ve heard perhaps twice in my whole life, but without which the aimed-for radiance emerges more as rattiness at having been woken up. Predictably, the later passages of, first, perturbation and then exaltation fared much better, and she capped it all with a firmly secure – if ungenerously unprolonged – ossia top C (the Siegfried, not for the first time, clearly considered that discretion being the better part of valour, he’d stick to the written, octave-down C, except, alas, it was inaudible).
Ceri Williams repeated her Erda – whom I unaccountably left out of my Rheingold review, tsk, tsk, tsk – and confirmed the positive impression she made then. The voice is very strong both up top and down below, but to my ears there’s some kind of intervening registral disconnect going on between them, which tends to render the more conversational parts of the role written in the middle of the voice as oddly tentative-sounding and relatively unfocussed. Jeni Bern, our erstwhile Woglinde, sang the Woodbird clearly and accurately. In a “staging” low on innovation I was surprised to see her come on at all – Fafner didn’t until he’d already been killed, and given Mats Almgren’s gravelly garglings I’d just as soon he hadn’t – so her presence up in the hitherto unoccupied choir loft bouncing around with one feathery piece of arm jewellery seemed a lot of input for precious little result (and the sight of her pounding across the forestage at the start of Act III, running into Wotan, and fleeing, all without so much as having a note of music to sing, seems like directorial overkill when so much else of genuine scenic significance is either ignored or reduced to the appalling intertitles). Tonight, these latter got on my nerves so much I wanted to throw something at the screen, with their volumes of irrelevant back story we all know by now, especially during the prelude to Act II where the poor music – some of the most creepily atmospheric and evocative Wagner ever wrote – was reduced to the level of underscoring to the evidently far more serious business of having to read, in blood-red script – the only time it’s legible, wouldn’t you know? – most of the story so far and how Fafner got to be in the cave in the first place. Dear God, will this dumbing-down never stop?.
The orchestra, set some real challenges by the conducting in this, the most interventionist account we’ve had so far in this cycle, rose to them superbly, with some quite sensuously gorgeous string playing and a really fat, beefy melos throughout (and commiserations to the first horn, who had an absolute nightmare with the latter, rapid-fire stages of Siegfried’s horn calls that awaken the dragon in Act II, where nothing went right for him at all, the poor man).
Well, one more to go, and then we can all toddle off into the Twilight….
Stephen Jay-Taylor © 2016.