Image borrowed from ROH website

Image borrowed from

A long one, but then, it’s a long opera…

This has been one of my favourite operas for as long as I’ve actually had an interest in opera, so it was a very big event to see it live. Of course, it’s my second time, the ENO having staged it last year – a performance which made a massive impression on me, and inspired much critical debate – unfortunately before I’d taken it into my head to start writing reviews. As usual, I made a particular effort to avoid reading anything about this one beforehand, hoping that it would surprise me, and this was certainly the case, in both the positive and negative sense.

Before the opera started, I found myself scrutinising the drop curtain, which was painted with a swirl of what were intended to look like mathematical formulae, to see if they were actually real formulae or not. I didn’t spot any that made grammatical sense, but at least it was something to do while waiting. The Norns’ scene I found rather lifeless and lacking in enthusiasm, taking place in front of said drop curtain and involving them fidgeting around with some glowing red string, although I did particularly like the voice of the 3rd Norn (Marina Poplavskaya, from the ROH’s Young Artists Programme). Towards the end of the scene, their glowing string seemed to be being yanked back through the doorway they came in from, so a little tug-of-war ensued (but fortunately the director resisted the temptation to have them all fall over in a heap when the rope broke).

On Brunnhilde’s rock, or rather, by Brunnhilde’s slab, Lisa Gasteen sounded great from the start, but unfortunately her Siegfried, John Treleaven, did not, having rather a passing relation with the notes, and indicating that this performance was going to be something of a curate’s egg. I also thought it detracted from the emotion of the farewells to have Siegfried spending most of the time attaching ropes to the floor. (I assume this was intended to represent something important, and I’d appreciate it if someone would tell me what it was.) Brunnhilde’s declaration of the strength and bravery of her horse elicited sniggers from rather a lot of the audience; although we’d seen the Valkyries running round with their horse skulls before, it just semmed particularly comical here, and one just wanted to say “Sorry luv, that horse is seriously past it. He ain’t going anywhere”. I did like the staging of the Rhein journey, though. Like the ENO last year, video projection was used, but with The Slab rotating and taking various orientations to become hill, raft, etc., which was very effective. Fortunately John Treleaven was not required to mime surfing (as Richard Berkeley-Steele was at the ENO) but he still looked rather uncomfortable at times, particularly when the slab tilted alarmingly and he (presumbaly intentionally) lost his footing and slid down it on his arse. Still, lovely water effects.

Meanwhile, the Gibichungs were sitting around in their hall, which was designed to resemble a large version of the silver Rubik’s Cube tarnhelm used by this production. I thought the tarnhelm looked pretty silly, but the look worked better as a set. I interpret the hall/tarnhelm link as representing the illusions perpetrated by the Gibichungs, where no-one is as they seem. The fact that it wobbled when touched perhaps shows the instability of illusions? As for the trio themselves, yes, I know it’s Wagner, so by law we must have incest, but this seemed to me a case of one-upmanship. Siegmund/Sieglinde incest is actually in the original story, as is Wotan/Erda; Wotan/Brunnhilde implications are now de rigeur, and Gunther/Gutrune fairly common, and the ENO had Hagen fantasising about Gutrune. The ROH took it that bit further, with Gutrune portrayed as a nympho who could barely keep her hands off either of her brothers (nor they off her), and included some mild bondage, plus Hagen playing at strangling Gutrune with a bit of red ribbon. That, I could have done without. In fact, when Siegfried turned up and gave his horse skull to Hagen (“noblest steed” etc. – cue more audience giggles), by the way Gutrune took it off him and scurried off, it looked to me as if, having got bored of shagging her brothers, she now fancied trying a horse instead. Meanwhile, Gunther looked like he regretted inviting Siegfried to treat the place as his own when he started walking around on the sofa like a lout.

Peter Coleman-Wright (as Gunther) had a very pleasant voice indeed, although I found his acting unconvincing; Gutrune was more the other way round. I’m a particular fan of evil basses, and had my doubts about John Tomlinson as Hagen, as it’s such an great role, and I can’t say his voice has ever done much for me before. However, I’m glad to say he actually sang it reasonably strongly, hitting some jolly good low notes. I really disliked his interpretation of the character, but one doesn’t know how much of it was him and how much the director’s input. There was more comedy in store, when – or so it looked like from up on the balcony – Hagen mixed Gunther and Siegfried’s blood in a cocktail shaker, complete with ice cubes, before handing it back to them to drink. (Why not go the whole hog and offer them Worcester Sauce or Tabasco to put in it?) Hagen’s watch, which finishes the act, is a lovely piece of music, which Tomlinson bludgeoned. In addition, his removing of his jacket slightly alarmed us up in the balcony, as at the ENO last year, Hagen (Gidon Saks) memorably stripped down to his boxers at this point, and I would really rather not see Mr Tomlinson do the same. Fortunately it was just the jacket.

The Brunnhilde/Waltraute scene which followed was beautifully sung and acted (with Mihoko Fujimura as Waltraute; absolutely lovely voice, dark, soft-edged but with serious power). It was unfortunate that they appeared to be in the Gibichung hall, as the set hadn’t changed during the ample scene-change music, but never mind, it worked. Gunther and Siegfried turned up together, with Gunther mutely manhandling Brunnhilde while Siegfried stood nearby, bellowing with the stupid box on his head. This did not work.

Act Two began with Hagen having more fun with autoerotic asphyxiation (which, again, I could really have done without) before dad turns up in a floating boat. The scene was ok, but so much weaker than the fantastic ENO version (which had Andrew Shore as Alberich). Tomlinson did some good bellowing to summon the vassals to arms, but unfortunately they were like a camp version of the Men In Black, didn’t have any weapons, and were not remotely scary. They did have postmodern black plastic viking helmets, but unfortunately these made them look like a Batman convention. To be fair, they did sound good, though. To the mirrored Gibichung hall had been added full-size gold statues of naked Donner, Froh (nice arse), Fricka (ram’s head?) and Freia, which were wheeled around and worshipped as needed. Later, an extra-big statue of Wotan appeared too, but he wasn’t naked (Wotan just has to have a cloak, ok?) and he didn’t look like Bryn Terfel, either. He had a spear, which Hagen later snapped off for swearing oaths on. (I took this to be a symbol of castration, but then remembered that Wotan’s already been emasculated by Siegfried smashing his spear in the last episode. Can one be castrated twice?) From her entrance, for the rest of the act the stage was entirely commanded by Gasteen, by turns dispirited, horrified, despairing, withering, and boiling with rage. When she swore vengeance it was terrifying. The second most important participant towards the end of the act was the orchestra, which despite a slightly weak start, had by this time really got it together and were a true force to be reckoned with.

The orchestra also sounded particularly fine in Act 3, with some beautiful woodwind solos in the forest, and for the most part, spot-on brass. The pseudo-mathematical formulae on the drop curtain were overlaid with a galactic spiral, and the formulae started to disintegrate, which was a very clever effect. The Rheinmaidens were winsome, and Siegfried almost likeable for a while. The set for this was surprisingly old-school: muddy riverbank, dead tree, etc., making a surprising change from the abstractions of earlier. The Rheinmaidens left behind a collection of significant objects, but from the balcony we couldn’t tell what they were, apart from the sword and spear. One object looked like a rugby ball, and another like a tin of Pringles (this confirmed later, when Hagen appeared to pop the lid and offer Siegfried some crisps – or at least, that’s what it looked like to me). The staging of Siegfried’s death was pretty standard, although I was surprised that he didn’t bleed at all after being stabbed with a spear. (On reflection, this probably just meant that the blood-bag had failed to burst. Note to crew: don’t use extra-strong condoms for blood-bags next time.) Having said that, he also didn’t die at the normal time, but was still staggering about for half of his own funeral march, crawling up a gangplank, and eventually falling off it with a hefty clump. This did not work well. When the hunting party returned, the men shuffled around looking uncomfortable while the Gibichungs argued. Hagen’s nasty bit of red ribbon came out one more time, so he could strangle Gunther (for real, this time), which I really hope he wasn’t enjoying too much. However, soon fantastic Gasteen was back for the finale, involving more cool water projections and lots of real fire (hurrah!) The statues of the gods were hoiked up on ropes, hanged in effigy, then dropped into the flames, apart from the Wotan statue, which was laid down for Brunnhilde to sing to (very touchingly, actually). She and the orchestra were superb, and the ending was visually stunning.

There’s one effect I particularly noticed, but I’ve forgotten at what point it was. There was a projection of a rotating tarnhelm-cube with another inside it. It looked good as it was, but if they had just added extra edges between the inner and outer cubes, it would have made a perfect projection of a tesseract, which contains the implication of a fourth spatial dimension, and so could be a wonderful analogy for the tarnhelm’s power to move people instantly between locations.