Shortly before the opening of the sold out revival of Wagner’s epic Ring cycle in Dresden, Christian Thielemann made a very public complaint about lack of rehearsal time for Siegfried. Considering Thielemann is the Staatskapelle Dresden’s Chief Conductor and obviously involved in rehearsal scheduling, such a protest seemed somewhat disingenuous. That said, there was certainly no evidence of poor preparation. The only noticeable differences were a number of variations in tempi, especially during the prelude to Act 3 which is marked Lebhaft, noch gewichtig but felt almost Presto vivace.

After writing Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde during a gap of 12 years between parts 2 and 3 of Siegfried, Wagner’s orchestration of the last act is understandably more complex and Thielemann’s overall reading reflected this chrysalis. Tempi were spacious without lagging, rhythmically crisp without being metronomic. The splendid Staatskapelle Dresden excelled with some virtuoso Wagner-tuba playing, sensual clarinets and absolutely raucous timpani thumping out the Giants’ Leitmotif and other oomphy sections. Cellos were consistently sumptuous and the string tutti before “Ewig war ich” truly idyllic.

Set designer Wolfgang Gussman’s ubiquitous theatre seats were mostly absent but replaced by lots of wooden chairs, starting with an upended pile in Mime’s hovel-cum-forge, redefining Sitzprobe. Gussman’s “boxes and balls” fixation continued with most scenes framed in angular turquoise cartons of varying sizes. Wotan’s spear was so long it was more javelin than Rune recorder. The bear which terrifies Mime was a cuddly soft-toy teddy. Fafner’s cave was an aquamarine-tinted picture frame reminiscent of Henri Rousseau’s jungle paintings. The comical gold bowler-hat Tarnhelm returned and Alberich’s accursed ring an ostentatious bijou straight from Liberace’s jewellery box.    

Director Willy Decker had one original idea, which was effective until overuse. The off-stage Woodbird was represented by a Doppelgänger mini-Siegfried, identically dressed (albeit multiple sizes smaller) who became horn-bearer, mute Mime-indicter and infant factotum. There was an amusing bit of business when the boy covered his ears during Siegfried’s out of tune reed pipe playing. It would have been better if the neonate muse had disappeared after Act 2, but Decker kept him on deck to assist in Siegfried’s final epiphany of discovering fear.  

There were several continuity problems between Die Walküre and Siegfried. Brünnhilde must have smuggled a maid onto her impenetrable rock because instead of the drab, dark Valkyrie costume worn at bedtime, she awoke in a vibrant crimson gown more suitable for the SemperOpernball. There was no amour or even reinforced brassier for Nothung to cut free. The huge white globe which represented Brünnhilde’s rock so strikingly in Die Walküre was mutated into the oblate floor of a pastel cloud-painted aeroplane hangar.

With the exception of Petra Lang’s nervy Brünnhilde, Siegfried was the best ensemble performance thus far, principally due to Stephen Gould’s stentorian, if not always elegant singing in title role and Gerhard Siegel’s superlative Mime. Unlike many buffo tenors who make up for vocal shortcomings with clever characterisation and whining Sprechstimme, Siegel is a serious tenor who could technically have sung the part of his irksome foundling. "Als zullendes Kind" was a model of clarion intonation and impeccable diction. 

Albert Dohmen was a much more secure Alberich than in Das Rheingold and Georg Zeppenfeld’s switch from Hunding to Fafner only minimally less convincing. Although obviously miked in the cavernous “Wer stört mir den Schlaf?” passages, his later unamplified “Wer bist du, kühner Knabe” showed no diminution of vocal skills. Christa Mayer metamorphosed effortlessly from the nagging Schlossfrau Fricka into the somnolent savant Erda. The tessitura of this ageless Sybil lies slightly higher in Siegfried than Das Rheingold and Mayer’s dark, warm-timbred mezzo was suitably dignified and mellifluous. Vitalij Kowaljow was again a dramatically convincing and vocally exemplary Wotan and the confrontation with Alberich in Act 2 was one of the highlights of the performance.

Petra Lang continued her interpretation of Brünnhilde with admirable commitment but uneven vocal quality. “Heil dir, Sonne!” lacked the wondrous sonorous slow crescendo that for all the wobbles, Gwyneth Jones for example made so memorable. The D natural trills on “heiter” were merely proximate and anything above an A natural pushed. Although not as long a sing has Hans Sachs, Siegfied is no role for the faint-hearted and American tenor Stephen Gould acquitted himself with distinction. The almost impossible extended high tessitura was managed with crystalline assurance. Dramatically there is not much to do with a character Wagner described as a naive child of nature at best and an idiot at worst, but there was real pathos and moving mezzavoce  on “Sterben die Menschenmütter”.

During the ecstatic “leuchtende Liebe, lachender Tod!” concluding duet, the planet-like orb rose again in the distance with Alberich perched ominously on top of it. Clearly bad things were in store, probably starting with more theatre seats in Götterdämmerung.