Siegfried, as we all know, is a long opera; Wagner allowed himself the space to include a whole series of crisis moments which give the orchestra and the eight singers an opportunity to bring themselves into the spotlight and wow us. Rarely, I would suggest, have those opportunities been grasped as comprehensively as they were at the Royal Opera yesterday.

Stefan Vinke (Siegfried), Gerhard Siegel (Mime) © ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper
Stefan Vinke (Siegfried), Gerhard Siegel (Mime)
© ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper

At the foundation of it all were Sir Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. While I’ve come to expect a sure sense of pace and rigourous attention to balance from Pappano, what struck me this time was the conductor as painter: how a chord or phrase would start with a simple timbre, perhaps in the strings, and then thicken out into a riot of orchestral colour as the crescendi of different instruments come into play.

And that made it even more remarkable when Nina Stemme came on for Brünnhilde’s awakening, deep into Act 3, and did exactly the same thing, with just her voice. Listening to Stemme was watching a time-lapse film of a rose blooming: a delicate bud slowly starting to reveal its colour and then exploding into a complex, beautiful shape. Let’s be clear: I don’t actually like Wagner’s poetry at this point. But the effect of Stemme’s voice was utterly transcendent.

Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) © ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper
Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde)
© ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper

Who would choose to be Siegfried to Stemme’s Brünnhilde? To spend five hours forging swords, slaying dragons, disposing of evil dwarves and disarming gods, all at the highest level of vocal exertion, only to be forced to compete with someone who has just woken up and given out a powerhouse performance like that? The answer: Stefan Vinke, who didn’t seem remotely fazed. For most tenors, Siegfried is a brattish teenager, an oafish braggart whose superhuman strength is matched to the brain of a newt. Many simply won’t touch the role (apart from anything else, the sustained high tessitura is punishing). But Vinke clearly loves the role: he bounds about the stage, radiating youthful exuberance and enthusiasm to a point that you can’t help but find him endearing. And the voice is unforced, blithely lilting its way through high powered passages as if this were the easiest thing in the world. The sword forging scene was one of the most powerful passages of opera I’ve ever seen, Vinke’s exuberance blending with staggeringly high octane stuff from the orchestra. Audience members could be seen punching the air at the hammer blows.

Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) © ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper
Stefan Vinke (Siegfried)
© ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper

Each act of this opera presents us with confrontations between pairs of characters; each was magnificent. Gerhard Siegel has refined his portrayal of Mime over the years to the point where he has turned him into a truly tragic figure, a dwarf with no advantages in life who has hopes and dreams like any of us, but lacks the means – fair or foul – to achieve them. I doubt Wagner had such a portrayal in mind, but I find it steeped in dramatic pathos.

John Lundgren (Wanderer), Johannes Martin Kränzle (Alberich) © ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper
John Lundgren (Wanderer), Johannes Martin Kränzle (Alberich)
© ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper

John Lundgren’s Wotan improved yet again. He was outstandingly sardonic in the riddle game with Mime and the crucial confrontation with Alberich at Fafner’s lair (where he was well matched to Johannes Martin Kränzle’s wordly-wise, sharp-tongued dwarf); when appealing to his godhead, the voice was regal, unwavering, disarmingly smooth. The only passage which fell flat was the prelude to his meeting with Erda (well sung by Wiebke Lehmkuhl) where he was required to sing on a revolving platform which did strange things to the acoustic balance of voice against orchestra. Brindley Sherratt’s cavernous bass made for an eloquent, poignant Fafner. And Heather Engebretson deserves some sort of special prize for singing Woodbird phrases while actually doing backflips in a harness, suspended high above the stage.

Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) with Fafner as dragon © ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper
Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) with Fafner as dragon
© ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper

For this third episode of Keith Warner’s staging, I’ve stopped trying to look for hidden meaning and simply enjoyed the visual appeal. The toy fighter aeroplane of Das Rheingold has morphed into a life sized crashed wreck, battered but gleaming, which provides the fuel for Mime and Siegfried’s smithy (and one of the few points of brightness in a generally dark lighting scheme). Fafner’s lair is an impressive rocky cavern; his transformations to and from a fearsome giant red head are imposing. Brünnhilde’s awakening scene is handled with gentle good humour.

Where Warner excels is in the personenregie: this may be a fantastic tale, but every member of the cast exuded conviction in their character. So many of the big lines were invested with huge power – Mime’s description of Sieglinde’s death in childbirth, Wotan’s description of the gods’ glory in the riddle game, Fafner’s nobility in defeat, and many more. Yes, Siegfried is a long opera, but of the six hour experience, the only parts that dragged were the intervals.

*****