`Siegfried' in `not too bad' shock

Classical Music
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The Independent Culture
THE DEVELOPERS have moved in on Brnnhilde's rock since we left it at the end of Die Walkre last autumn. An office tower has risen to the right, the arch of La Dfense frames the perspective; and in case you don't quite get the message, an enormous cockroach (on elastic) bounces up the factory chimney that supports Brnnhilde's sleeping body. Time has passed. A pastoral myth has been supplanted by an urban allegory as the old regime of gods and nature has surrendered power to men and cities. And to that extent Richard Jones's new production of Siegfried at Covent Garden tells it like it is. Siegfried is indeed the pivotal instalment of the Ring cycle, where Wagner's focus reduces from gods to men. From Pana- vision, if you like, to television.

But the problem with this Ring is that the scale has been televisual, and the temper urban, from the start: a cartoon-style retreat from Teutonic macho into purse-lipped irony. To be fair, this is what directors do with Wagner now. Teutonic macho is a bruised ideal and nobody believes in heroes any more, so you could say that Jones's Ring is Of Our Time. But opera with its guts removed in the attempt to be contemporary is parochial. The Rheingold and Walkre were exactly that. I loathed them.

I loathe the Siegfried a lot less. Like Brnnhilde's rock it has developed. The sets (Nigel Lowery) still have the look of something made from yoghurt cartons on a children's TV show, and the costumes still sniggeringly undermine the authority of their occupants. The woodbird is Walt Disney, the dragon an all-purpose bogeyman, and too many of the visual gags feel optional rather than necessary to the piece. But there are strong ideas too. Mime's hut becomes a canteen kitchen where Mime and Siegfried cook up their futures side by side. Siegfried's brusque vitality (often a stalling point) nicely translates into German-on-the-beach manners, with our hero in lurid sun shorts. And Wotan the Wanderer turns out to be a mirror-image of Alberich, which I read as a statement of directorial neutrality. Here is a world where good and evil aren't clear-cut, where gods can wheeler-deal and dwarfs assume nobility. That Alberich and Wotan are both costumed as the archetypal Wandering Jew (or something out of Fiddler on the Roof if you prefer) gives a peculiar resonance to the scene where Wotan is humiliated by his grandson. Siegfried's brutal gestures seem to come out of the cinematic archives of the Holocaust.

But the thing of genius in this production is Mime: an andro-gynous interbreeding of Struwel-peter with a bag-lady, brilliantly delivered by the British tenor Graham Clark who for years has been a star of Bayreuth but neglected here at home. Agile of voice and movement and alive with personality, his qualities should have been noticed by the Garden long ago. This is his Royal Opera dbut, grossly overdue.

Two other British Bayreuth stars get some belated Covent Garden dues from Siegfried: John Tomlinson, whose Wotan is enormously impressive, big (as usual) of voice but with more light and shade than in the past, and scouring out the text for meaning; and Anne Evans whose Brnnhilde may not the most electrifying in the business but is probably the most musical, with clean and truly song-like lines. No squall. You really hear the notes.

With Siegfried Jerusalem masterfully pacing himself in the title role and managing to sound as fresh as Brnnhilde in the final scene (the great killer-match of opera in that he has been singing for the past four and a half hours while she hasn't sung a note), this is a cast of true distinction - and, as it happens, the cast of the recent Teldec recording from Bayreuth under Daniel Barenboim. An issue with a rich and glamorous appeal.

The conductor at Covent Garden, though, is Bernard Haitink, and the sound is not so glamorous: the orchestra in fact sounds dry, the textures over- separated. But I wouldn't want to undervalue his achievement. Haitink brings a magisterial strength of purpose to this music. Where he lacks the penetrating depth of Goodall or the bite of Solti, you still sense a firm, commanding hand steering the score through its out-sized dimensions. I just wish he could inspire his orchestra to richer and more lubricated sounds.

The sounds, perhaps, of Haitink's old orchestra, the Concertgebouw, who were in Britain on Tuesday for a night at the Barbican. It was standard repertory - Beethoven and Richard Strauss - under the Principal Conductor Riccardo Chailly, and it left no doubt where Chailly's strengths lay. In the Strauss. By comparison, the Beethoven was over-blown and heavy-going, blissfully without regard for period style. But that said, it was playing of uncommon tension and excitement, fiercely rhythmic. And the string sound was a dream, cushioned and radiant as gold brocade. Still more remarkable was the sound of Maria Joao Pires, soloist in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 3 and a lady whose small, bird-like frame comes as a surprise to British audiences who know her better from recordings than from life. You'd never guess it from the driven force or the dimension of her playing, which is huge, emotionally gripping, and distinctive.

Gripping isn't the word for the stage music of Michael Finnissy. A year or so ago I saw his touring chamber opera Therse Raquin and marvelled that something so devoid of profile, interest or basic theatricality could make it into production. But it did; and Mr Finnissy is back again with another touring opera - better only for its brevity - which opened at the Blackheath Concert Halls this week. The title Shameful Vice was promising, as was the subject: the life and loves of Tchaikovsky, recollected in something less than tranquillity by the composer as indignant voices of morality drive him to suicide. The libretto (Finnissy's own) follows the generally accepted theory that Tchaikovsky died not from cholera but from poison, taken under threat that otherwise his homosexuality would be exposed. A topical tale.

But nothing short of a guest appearance by Peter Tatchell could have saved this piece from tedium. The writing has occasional finesse but no immediacy, no strength, no life. The staging is inept. And the performances aren't good enough to rise above the poverty of the material. That Shameful Vice is being toured around the country with Arts Council funding raises serious questions. For example: what is this disaster costing? Who decided to support it? When do they resign?

`Siegfried': ROH, 071-304 4000, continues Tuesday.

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