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Between Tolkien and Freud

by Susanne Daumann

Erl, 8 July 2023 - There has been a lot of talk about the Festival in Erl in Tyrol in recent years. It was unpleasant some years ago, and more recently, the talk was connected to a grand name. Enough to awaken our curiosity and so we cross the river and have a look. The festival is well-known for its Wagner interpretations, and this year, the program feature is Siegfried, followed by Götterdämmerung, both of them staged by Brigitte Fassbaender and conducted by Erik Nielsen. We hardly know where to begin: the work, Siegfried, is so rich, and so is the staging, full of references that we can read as a critique of capitalism, or as a family story; we can read it as a coming-of-age-tale, we can also just enjoy it, letting the music and the symbols of the libretto do their work. Since the venue has been built originally for the staging of the Passion of Christ, it doesn’t have a pit, and so the orchestra is sitting in the background of the stage, visible behind a discreet veil. Different video projections on this veil and on the walls to the right and left of the stage will replace the missing scenery.

Kaspar Glarner’s costumes and stage designs are sober and timeless, in keeping with the timeless story of olden times. Thus, Siegfried is wearing casual clothing, black trousers, turquoise polo shirt, with a fleece jacket; the dwarves, Mime and Alberich are wearing working overalls - they are blacksmiths; Wotan on the other hand is quite the dandy in a grey suit and coat, with a wide-brimmed hat, long silver hair and a short beard; the ladies also appear in elegant long gowns. It all begins with a reminder of the preceding episodes: Mime (Peter Marsh) is in his smithy, remembering how he took in baby Siegfried after his mother’s death. Siegfried, however, an unruly teenager, declares that he hates his foster-father and wants to leave him as soon as possible. In Siegfried’s absence, Wotan tells Mime to give up on the Nibelungen treasure, because in order to defeat the giant/dragon Fafner who keeps said treasure, the broken sword Nothung is needed to be reforged. Only a man who does not know what fear is can do that. Siegfried comes back and, unaware of what he’s doing, proceeds to remake Nothung. Meanwhile, Mime brews a poison for Siegfried so he can get his hands on the gold and the ring once the dragon is dead.

For Act II, we find ourselves in a forest: in a hovel made of old plastic sheets and palettes lives a homeless drunken tramp - it’s Alberich, Mime’s brother, waiting for an opportunity to get the treasure. Wotan turns up and tells him that he has given up his claims, the gold is now intended for Siegfried. The time of the gods is over, he says; here is another kind of ring: Wagner’s work influenced Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and tonight’s Wotan, imagined by Brigitte Fassbaender and Kaspar Glarner, made us think of Tolkien’s Gandalf, with his staff and this habit of turning up with ill tidings. And we remain in the realm of pop culture with the apparition of Fafner, a human form in a kind of armour that calls to mind Darth Vador as well as the Terminator, only that they don’t spit fire. The armour is worn by bass Anthony Robin Schneider whose enormous voice is impressive, making the hall tremble as it were. The fight between him and Siegfried isn’t long, and dying, Fafner tells Siegfried that Mime wants to kill him. We then witness a scene as Freudian as they come: Siegfried asks Mime if what he heard is true, and amidst his denials, Mime can’t help telling the truth. Finally, Siegfried is fed up with the fellow and kills him as well. Siegfried according to the libretto, is a very young man, often called or referred to as "child”. Vincent Wolfsteiner, who plays the part tonight, is a man in his prime, with a strong and clear tenor voice, and we have to admire the way he manages his strength throughout the piece - in the final duet, he sounds as if he had not been on stage for the best part of three hours. His acting and singing are convincing: his Siegfried is a youthful being, a bit naive, and full of benevolence toward his fellow-creatures. The deaths of Fafner and Mime are acts of legitimate self-defence. After the death of Fafner, Siegfried has accidentally put some of the giant’s blood on his tongue - now he can understand the language of the birds, he understands what the Bird of the Forest is telling him. The Bird is a young girl in torn blue jeans and red tainted hair (wait, haven’t we seen a Barbarina in the same outfit recently?). Anna Nekhames is a charming Bird of the Forest with a strong and generous soprano voice. She is accompanied by a mute character, a dancer as a second bird (Chris Wang) clad in pink and yellow, light and playful whose presence enhances the enchanting quality of the forest scenes. The Bird tells Siegfried to take just an invisibility helmet and the Ring from the treasure (no need to mention Tolkien again here), and Siegfried obeys. Now we have left the field of critique of capitalism behind us, the treasure is not important anymore, Alberich can have all the gold he wants. Siegfried has killed his father and is ready now to conquer The Woman (no need to mention Freud again). The Bird has told him of a woman asleep on an island, behind a wall of fire, waiting for the night in shining armour who will free her.

Act III takes place on an almost empty stage. Wotan arrives and a large bed appears from below. Erda, his companion (Zanda Švēde), is asleep and Wotan wakes her. They take counsel together but have to face the fact that they have no power anymore and separate for ever. Wotan encounters Siegfried and wants to prevent him from reaching Brünnhilde. But Siegfried breaks his spear and is on his way again. Wotan (Simon Bailey, magnificent with his warm and deep voice, paternal and sexy in turn, a very human god) has to admit defeat. Siegfried goes through the fire and comes to the rock where a human form is lying. He cuts through the layers of the Walkyrie’s armour and discovers the woman whom he gently wakes. In the beginning, the final duet expresses fear: the young man’s fear of the unknown being, woman, the woman’s fear, every woman’s fear of the violent side of the sexual act, the fear of the warrior who finds herself without armour, The fear will finally be transformed into respect and tenderness, love as they call it. Christiane Libor is wonderful as Brünnhilde, and this final duet is a moment of pure magic.

Thundering applause for the singers, and for Erik Nielsen and the Festival Orchestra and its remarkable soloists who have maintained the energy and the intensity of the demanding piece throughout. Bravi tutti and many thanks for a delightful evening! Tyrol has certainly more to offer than landscape and cows!


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