For those who view Wagner’s Ring Cycle in symphonic terms, Siegfried is often described as the third movement Scherzo: an episode of comedy in between the existential musings of Die Walküre and the action-packed, apocalyptic Götterdämerung. Last night’s performance at the Opéra Bastille in Paris gave us plenty of high comedy and much more besides.

Torsten Kerl as Siegfried and Alwyn Mellor as Brünnhilde © Opéra national de Paris / Charles Duprat
Torsten Kerl as Siegfried and Alwyn Mellor as Brünnhilde
© Opéra national de Paris / Charles Duprat

It’s possible to engage with the Ring in a variety of intellectual ways. You can view it as political allegory (Wotan as the forces of religious and temporal authority, the Nibelungs as the downtrodden proletariat, etc), or as philosophical treatise (Feuerbach’s view of God as a human creation). You can consider its position and history in German or Norse myth. You can deconstruct and marvel at Wagner’s musical craftsmanship: the richness of his orchestration or the way in which leitmotifs are constantly shifted and blended.

But there’s another way: you can forget all of that and simply let the music and the story-telling wash over you - allow yourself to be transported into the land of Wagner’s imagination and stop worrying about how he’s done it or what it all means. With the fantastic sound that Philippe Jordan’s orchestra produced last night and a set of singers who exuded charisma, that’s what happened to me.

Most of all, I was captivated by every one of the characters. The majority of Siegfried is in the form of duets between various pairings: as they threaten each other or tell each other stories of what has gone past, we are drawn into understanding each one.

First, we meet the downtrodden dwarf Mime. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was sensational as he portrayed Mime’s shifts between cringing and scheming, between terror at the strength of those around him and delusion that he can win out in the end. It’s a shifting role musically as well, always in motion between a harsh speaking style and a more fluid melodic one: this was negotiated with aplomb. The comic effect was enhanced by Günter Krämer’s production, Mime being depicted as terribly camp, clad in outrageously kitsch clothing in a home filled with plastic plants and garden gnomes.

Until the very end of the opera, Siegfried himself is not a heroic figure in the conventional sense: rather, he is a human teenager, experiencing intense growing pains. He can be rude, loutish, violent; he can also be confused, searching for his identity and needing love. But he is also the archetypal boy who does not know fear, nor does he know his own strength. Torsten Kerl acted the part wonderfully with immense good humour in both voice and body language. He also displayed true beauty of voice: clear, effortless, flexible. But he was frequently overpowered by the orchestra. Partly, it’s that the sheer size of the hall didn’t help; partly, no doubt, it’s easy for the orchestra to be carried away by the sheer vigour of the music that accompanies Siegfried. But the fact remains that while I could hear the other singers above the orchestra almost all of the time, I often lost Kerl.

There was one scene, however, in which Kerl was magnificent: the reforging at the end of Act 1 of the sword Nothung, where the power and excitement had me at the edge of my seat. Similarly, I was blown away by the moment at which Egils Silins’ Wanderer, who has been discoursing pleasantly with Mime, reveals himself to be Wotan in his full majesty. The music is stunning, Krämer’s staging is a real coup de théâtre, and Silins was simply awesome. Actually, I was captivated for the whole time that the Wanderer was on stage: he is another character who shows many faces. He has impish humour, he has a nasty violent streak, he can be wise, he can be world weary and ultimately, in the meeting with Erda (sung attractively and mystically by Qiu Lin Zhang), he shows redemption. Silins showed each of these sides, his voice deliciously warm from the top of the bass-baritone register down to the depths. I loved every minute.

There were more wow moments with Siegfried’s horn call (a real virtuoso piece for the principal horn player) and the moment in Act 3 at which Siegfried realises that the sleeping knight in the ring of fire is a woman. But from then on, I’m afraid, my attention wandered. I can’t fault Alwyn Mellor’s performance as Brünnhilde: she has a huge voice in very much the vocal tradition one associates with Brünnhilde, she acted well enough, and the whole scene was very attractive musically. But Wagner’s dialogue, so gripping through the preceding three hours, seemed to falter. It’s a momentous setting - after all, Brünnhilde has just lost her immortality and come face to face for the first time with a man who is neither (a) about to die nor (b) struck with awe at her magnificence; she has also fallen head over heels in love with a man expected to be the saviour of the world. For me, the ensuing dialogue is stilted and doesn’t measure up to the enormity of the situation, or even to the simple power of love at first sight.

I very much enjoyed Krämer’s staging of Act 1; I was less taken by Act 2, in which the dragon is represented by a collection of naked soldiers bearing assault rifles, and I was baffled by Act 3, in which Brünnhilde is protected not by a ring of fire but by a cohort of her Valkyrie sisters, her horse Gräne represented by a man in a top hat and cloak. To be fair, I haven’t seen Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in this cycle; perhaps that would have made things clearer.

But ultimately, it’s Wagner’s storytelling that won. I left the opera house high as a kite, filled with tales of dwarves, magic swords, dragons, gold, riddles and of the decadence of all-powerful gods, buoyed up by all that breathtaking music. It seems churlish to ask for more.

****1