It's easier to sympathise with anti-heroes than with heroes. That's our main problem with Siegfried, both the fearless character and the fearsome third opera of Wagner's Ring Cycle, which is currently playing at the Royal Opera House. It doesn't help that the hero in question is a brainless bully with no respect for history. In his Act III confrontation with the decadent head-god Wotan — a bully too, but one whose powers are fast failing — we couldn't help but root for Wotan.
Wagner must have had an inkling of this problem. In his original conception of the Ring Cycle, Siegfried was the central character, but he later replaced him with Wotan and rewrote the cycle's ending to make it bleaker. Wotan's downfall is a much more interesting story than Siegfried's vacuous heroism.
It doesn't help that Bryn Terfel, who plays Wotan in the ROH production, is so much more compelling a singer and actor than Stefan Vinke as Siegfried. Terfel not only possesses a beautiful voice, but he also acts with it superbly, forever colouring tone to match emotion. The highlight of Sunday's performance was the first scene of Act III, when Wotan — now roving the spinning earth as the 'Wanderer' and looking several decades older than he did in Rheingold last week — dismisses the earth goddess Erda and all her oracular wisdom as a fraud.
Vinke bounds around the stage convincingly enough and pulls out efficient high notes when needed. But for much of the opera he sang flat, both musically and emotionally; his monochrome voice has none of the lyricism desperately needed to infuse Siegfried with humanity. The best that can be said is that he gets through the part, which is infamously challenging.
Keith Warner's staging continues to deliver a mixed bag of insight and head-scratching. A crashed fighter plane in the first act serves as a clever modern counterpart to the broken sword that Siegfried forges anew. Using the plane propellors to fan the flames of the forge is one of many chuckle-inducing touches. But at points the striving for effect becomes laboured, particularly in a very awkward scene involving a wolf's head. And making a ditzy-blond Siegfried forget the Tarnhelm (a magic helmet that goes with the ring) at the end of Act II merely underscores the essential problem with his character and the opera.
Walküre is a more even opera, but Siegfried has its moments — above all in Act III, composed 12 years after Acts I and II in the composer's more orchestrally-driven mature style. If you want to see this similarly patchy production, it will be performed again on 21 October (broadcast live on Radio 3) and 31 October. 23 day tickets will be released for each performance, along with returns. But we'd suggest Walküre instead, on 18 or 28 October.
Reviews by the same author, in the ROH Ring Cycle