Siegfried on the small screen
t's always the same - you wait years for a Wagner opera to be broadcast, then two come along at the same time... In a brilliant piece of scheduling, BBC Radio 3 broadcast Die Meistersinger on Saturday evening, overlapping with BBC 2's television transmission of Part 3 of the Ring cycle, Siegfried. In the event, I ignored Die Meistersinger and recorded Siegfried so that I could fast forward through dear old Michael Portillo's between-act wafflings: I watched it yesterday.
Surprisingly, this is the fourth television transmission of the Ring: around twenty years ago there were transmissions of the Chereau Bayreuth production (the one set in a Victorian industrialised world, taking its cue from Shaw's book The Perfect Wagnerite, which makes an interesting case for the cycle being an allegory for Capital-Labour relations); the realistic Met production conducted by Levine; and a strange production largely set on a space station...
Early productions of the Ring were realistic, with rather overdressed sets of forests, huge log halls, and an attempt at a full-sized dragon. After the Second World War, costs constrained the Bayreuth productions to minimal or no scenery, just a huge empty stage and lighting effects - no horses or dragons, but no distractions from the music either. The Chereau production rather opened the way for more... shall we say 'creative' productions (such as the space station one, which in one scene had a backcloth moving up and down in a manner calculated to make the audience seasick).
The BBC is working its way through the current production at London's Royal Opera House: I suppose you could call this a 'grunge' production. In Das Rheingold Alberich's domain is more like an abattoir than anything else (though I did like the lying Loge being dressed like a Victorian family solicitor): Die Walküre (transmitted recently on BBC4 with no publicity) had menacing concrete sets and a large spiral encircling the stage (which was the location for the very spectacular fire effect at the end).
This set of broadcasts has had a chequered history: last year Das Rheingold was transmitted live, with a live broadcast of Die Walküre supposed to follow: however, Bryn Terfel (who sings Wotan) was the main attraction, and as he went sick only the first act was broadcast. The complete version, as I said, turned up with no warning a few weeks ago on BBC4 (I don't think it had been on BBC2 previously but if it was I missed it): now we have just had the Siegfried.
The Wotan here was John Tomlinson, but of course Siegfried himself carries the bulk of the opera: it is the most physically taxing part in all of opera, requiring not only a lot of action and powerful singing (and on-stage for much of the time) but finishing with a spectacular half-hour duet with a soprano who has been resting up to now. John Treleaven held up well, presenting a lively and cheerful Siegfried and joining Lisa Gasteen as Brünnhilde in the passionate finale.
However the whole opera is over-produced: I quite liked the opening section showing a montage of younger Siegfried's smashing the swords made by Mime, but quite apart from the the sets (Mime's forge has a crashed light aircraft in it for some reason, out of which Wotan eventually emerges) there is a lot of 'business' throughout - producer's fidgets, I call it - which tends to distract from the music. In the finale there was less of this as it's just the two singing, and it was an improvement (though it seemed a shame to have Brünnhilde's awakening take place out of site behind a door). Antonio Pappano was conducting, and from the musical standpoint is was an exciting and enjoyable evening.
On to Götterdämmerung, the final opera... given it's four and a half hours (plus Michael Portillo's contributions) it would be nice if we were given some warning. Probably it will just be slipped somewhere into the schedules. [Update: it's being transmitted on Saturday, March 17th.] However, full marks for doing it at all. Now how about some more ballet?
(George Bernard Shaw's The Perfect Wagnerite is one of the most interesting essays ever written on the Ring cycle)
Posted: Mon - March 12, 2007 at 11:00 AM by Roger Wilmut
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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM