6th November 2004
Three-quarters of the way through Phyllida Lloyd's new staging of the Ring Cycle for ENO we are getting a pretty clear understanding of her approach and its various strengths and weaknesses. She seems to be at her most sensitively creative in more intimate scenes. The dualogues between Mime / Wanderer, Mime / Alberich and the glorious staging of Wanderer / Erda, bring out the best in her with each word counting and characterisation subtle, deft and telling.
Yet there are other moments when the gods seem to desert her. After the precise naturalistic detail of the opening scenes in Mime's kitchen the lack of a forging scene is a bitter disappointment. Thankfully Act Two has a better sense of continuity with a delightful forest murmurs scene and a charming wood bird. Needless to say there was no dragon - I look forward to seeing one before I die but I don't hold out much hope at present! - but at least the fight scene pitted Siegfried against something massive and intangible.
Act Three opened with a gasp from the audience. Where the music talks of storm and tempest we were presented with the dull grey armchairs of an old people's home and four elderly ladies knitting while watching the TV. Erda and the Norns have been reduced to spectators now that Wotan has taken the initiative away from them - and of course himself. Siegfried blunders into this world oblivious to who is there and literally destroys it on his way through the very vivid fire to awaken Brunnhilde. The Norns and Erda can only look on passively. It is utterly convincing and in keeping with text and music.
Unfortunately it is as if inspiration ran out as Siegfried ascends to the heights for the final scene is visually and dramatically dull. Where Valkyrie Act 3 had given us lowering cloudscapes and a sense of place, for Brunnhilde's awakening we were firmly in a theatre with Siegfried tugging on ropes to raise scenery and backlights clearly in view. Even the final sunset - revealed only in the concluding bars - is disclosed by Brunnhilde raising the curtain herself. What is going on? After so much naturalistic detail the return to overt theatricality was confusing.
Much of this would have washed over us if the musical side of the evening had been thrilling. Though much was certainly exciting the changes in level left one rather uncomfortable. John Graham-Hall is a highly intelligent and musical Mime, both sympathetic and disgusting at the same time, at his best with Wanderer and Alberich, and splendid in the short scene telling Siegfried about his parentage. Andrew Shore is one of the finest Alberich's available today and raised the whole level of Act Two. My liking for Robert Hayward has grown with the cycle and if his singing is at times somewhat rough-edged it is never less than dramatically convincing. Patricia Bardon is a vulnerable Erda - quite different from her Rhinegold appearance - her age seeming to have sapped her of strength and vision. It is a fine performance in contrast to Robert Hayward's edgy Wanderer. Sarah Tynan was a delight as the scooting wood bird.
And so to the central protagonists. Current thinking on Siegfried is to see him as essentially an oaf - a wild teenager almost totally out of control and with hardly any redeeming features. As such Richard Berkeley-Steele is highly convincing, The slobbish side of his nature comes out all too easily in Mime's kitchen with the only hint of more sensitive training evident in his delicate sandwich making. As hinted above I have no idea how he made the sword and I doubt if he did either. The problem with this approach is that so much of Siegfried's music is heroic and sympathetic. We need to warm to him at some level but there was little that was likeable in this characterisation. Thankfully his voice held up throughout the evening with only occasional signs of strain at the end and this will certainly settle during the run.
While I had enjoyed Kathleen Broderick's Brunnhilde more than I had expected to in Valkyrie my concerns returned in the final scene of Siegfried. Her gutsy, rugged approach may be in character for the wild child but it brings little sympathy and this, together with some rather embarrassing adolescent rolling about, created a distance where surely there should have been empathy. The ENO Orchestra were on fine form, particularly in the Third Act, and Paul Daniel's handling of the score was well paced and frequently exciting. Brass particularly impressed.
Maybe some of the dramatic problems will be ironed out before the whole cycle is staged. In the meantime we have the new year's Twilight to look forward to where the large number of intimate scenes may once again bring out Phyllida Lloyd's very real strengths.
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