For Stefan Herheim’s Berlin Siegfried ‘The play’s the thing’ as Clay Hilley impresses in the title role

GermanyGermany Wagner, Siegfried: Soloists, actors, Orchestra of Deutsche Oper Berlin / Sir Donald Runnicles (conductor). Filmed (directed by Götz Filenius) at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in November 2021 and now available on Marquee TV. (JPr)

Iain Paterson (Wanderer) and Jordan Shanahan (Alberich) © Bernd Uhlig

Director, Set design – Stefan Herheim
Set design – Silke Bauer
Costume design – Uta Heiseke
Video – Torge Møller
Light – Ulrich Niepel
Dramaturgy – Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach, Jörg Königsdorf

Siegfried – Clay Hilley
Mime – Ya-Chung Huang
Wanderer – Iain Paterson
Alberich – Jordan Shanahan
Fafner – Tobias Kehrer
Erda – Judit Kutasi
Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme

For the introductory preamble to Stefan Herheim’s new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper please read the review of the first two operas (here). For the first act of Siegfried, initially there are piles upon piles of suitcases but none of the refugees (and they will not appear until Act III). Alberich’s make-up is a homage to Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker portrayal in the 2019 film. He seems to conjure up the piano from the depths and confronts the aged figure of the Wanderer. Threatened by his (glowing) spear-point Alberich is forced into playing the piano and there is the suggestion of a descent, but where to?

Mime at his anvil rises out of the piano and it could be his cave in the forest but with all the brass instruments dangling from the roof and glinting gold we could be back in Nibelheim. The bereted Mime (in what will later be revealed as a disguise) still looks like the aged Wagner and is at his anvil trying to put Nothung back together again. The pieces have been secreted in a score in the piano stool – but which one? – all we seem to see much of the time is that for Die Walküre. Up above the Wanderer is ever-present and Alberich is around for long stretches too. The long blond haired Siegfried drags in a reluctant Alberich as his ‘bear’ and is costumed classically with wolfskin and horn. He does have a nasty side in some of his dealings with Mime but mostly this Siegfried is a wide-eyed innocent, full of wonder, though something of a petulant, overgrown teenager when things are not going his way.

As the Wanderer introduces himself, Mime conducts with Nothung and mouths his words we hear sung. During the Mime/Wanderer confrontation there is some shadow play and other lighting effects (from Ulrich Niepel) some understandable (the giants) some not quite so explainable. When Mime loses, the Wanderer – who began his questions at the piano – drops the score into it and pages flutter about and Siegfried will pick some up when he returns and will do some conducting of his own.

Mime’s attempt to introduce the concept of fear has a visceral effect on Siegfried who soon sets to work on the broken Nothung whilst bowing to the audience before starting his demanding ‘Forging song’. High up we see some suitcases opening and closing like bellows, there is a lot of grating and simulating pouring a small amount of molten steel and very quicky the repaired sword is ready for its hammering which happens with Siegfried sitting on the piano stool. We had just seen the white cloth for the first time with flames projected on it and now it was back more elaborately showing images of a sky with lightning and a storm brewing and then the earth from space. At ‘So schneidet Siegfrieds Schwert’ too little happens, Mime has crowned himself with a pot sheared in two by Nothung before Siegfried just waves it about and the sheet just flaps around a bit before flying away with Siegfried, Mime and Alberich chasing it.

At the start of Act II Alberich’s hand is clearly troubling him, the suitcases are there as before and pages of the score are scattered over the floor. He appears to be hearing voices and pulls white cloth out of his mouth like a magic trick with his odd reptilian hands. He confronts Wotan who is at the piano and Fafner’s appearance from inside of it is nothing more than a huge brass instrument’s gold bell. Up to now Herheim’s production has been as traditional as is likely in 2022. However, for Siegfried’s passage ‘Dass der mein Vater nicht ist’ as he ponders on his parents they appear as angels. As Siegfried tries to communicate with the bird who is ‘singing’ to him, his ‘reed pipe’ is formed from some rolled up pages as the angels put their hands over their ears. There are good horn calls which a young boy in his underwear conducts, he is the Woodbird.

Clay Hilley (Siegfried) © Bernd Uhlig

Representing Fafner now the cases move about with a green scaley projection on them, we see two huge eyes and more gold brass bells as teeth manipulated by white shrouded figures. The aged Fafner emerges and dies (for the moment!) on the prompt box. Not for the last time he quickly comes to when Mime and Alberich are arguing before Mime bumps into Fafner and he collapses back down again. Before being killed Mime will remove his Wagner disguise. The act ends with Siegfried physically abusing the Woodbird who falls dead at the front as the Wanderer surveys the situation. (It must be admitted that Sebastian Scherer, a member of the Chorakademie Dortmund boys’ choir, was willing but rather screechy and so this proved a poor choice by Herheim).

Act III began with suitcases rising up and the Wanderer at the piano with some refugees who soon move to the back of the stage. Erda in her (music?) librarian guise comes out from the prompt box clutching (at last?) the Siegfried score. Alberich is an intermittent observer as more death comes to this Siegfried when the Wanderer despatches Erda by breaking her neck and by this point has the refugees cowering. Siegfried appears with a large white handkerchief and for a few brief moments brings back memories of Luciano Pavarotti. This will be soon tied round Wotan’s fedora that Siegfried is wearing. The two angels are now in black and watching on as the white sheet provides the barrier to Siegfried getting to Brünnhilde with the flames shown on it. Herheim has used strobe lighting at significant moments in the three operas so far and the breaking of the Wanderer/Wotan’s spear is one of the biggest. Alberich sees it happen and the Wanderer smiles in relief and they circle Siegfried at the piano as dawn appears to break.

Of course Brünnhilde rises from within the piano and the risible ‘Dass is kein Mann!’ moment is notable for the look of astonishment on Clay Hilley’s face as Siegfried. His singing was notable at this point for a long held top note and an exquisite diminuendo on his second ‘Erwache!’. This final scene was significant for the realisation that for Siegfried and the refugees ‘The play’s the thing!’ and it is the score that will determine how this opera ends. When Siegfried and Brünnhilde eventually embrace on top of the piano the onlookers applaud. He will launch a full-on assault her that she will resist by brandishing Nothung during ‘Brünnhilde bin ich nicht mehr!’ and the refugees scatter. This is marked by her symbolically throwing her wig at Siegfried and now looking as if the passing years have not treated the Valkyrie well. The refugees reappear and as Siegfried and Brünnhilde sings ecstatically on the piano and she tears pages out of the score, those round about strip off and pair up.

The singing was notable for Clay Hilley’s personable Siegfried and he was not the out-and-out bully he is sometimes shown as. His voice (through loudspeakers) sounded tireless, impressively lyrical whilst lacking just a little baritonal heft. He was unique in my recent experience of ending Siegfried sounding fresher than his Brünnhilde, since sadly, Nina Stemme’s voice was sorely tested by her final moments and throughout it had a prominent – and intrusive – vibrato. I find it difficult to praise Iain Paterson high enough because, unlike Stemme, there was never an ugly sound. His voice was smooth, even toned and there was no lack of authority when necessary. Paterson was the most vividly communicative of Wanderers and showed him as someone who was fully cognisant of how his part in what we were seeing would play out. Ya-Chung Huang resisted going over-the-top as Mime/Wagner and his performance was all the better for being subtly characterised and that equally applied to Jordan Shanahan who was now Alberich. Tobias Kehrer again was a sonorous Fafner and Judit Kutasi returned to repeat her ominous, even grand, Erda.

Well played by his Deutsche Oper Orchestra, Sir Donald Runnicles’s Siegfried sounded rampant at times and overall was fiercely dramatic and, for me, as thrilling and exciting as I can remember this – my favourite Wagner opera – being in recent years.

Jim Pritchard

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