PPP Musiktheater, Bayreuth, Germany
There was a BBC Radio 4 series a few years ago In The Psychiatrist’s Chair. If only Dr Anthony Clare could have had the chance to ask, "So, Siegfried Wagner, how do you feel about your father?"
That being only fond fantasy, one might instead turn to Sonnenflammen (Sun bursts). Siegfried, only son of Richard and Cosima, took over the Bayreuth Festival from his late father and fearsome mother in 1906, but none of his 14 operas was ever performed there. Of these, Sonnenflammen is the one that most directly confronts a relationship that dominated his life, even though Richard had died when he was only 13.
Siegfried was a homosexual, forced into marriage to serve the dynasty. The central character in the opera is Fridolin, a 13C knight who has left his wife to go on Crusade, but broken his holy vow and remained in the dissolute court of Byzantium. "O were he like the warriors of which the sagas tell us," laments his would-be lover.
As for Fridolin himself, he confesses, "I wanted to wear his golden crown," and his last words are "Father, father, forgive your son." Too late: the old man has already departed, leaving only his curse.
As if one father fixation were not enough, the composer—who wrote his own libretto—is liberal with the paternal personifications: Gomella the jester (and Fridolin’s future boss) is widely famed for his artistry and is shrewd with his benefactor’s money, and the Emperor Alexios possesses a perfume that casts a spell on all.
Fridolin’s father, who appears only briefly, is described as a great Northern über-bear, in contrast to inhabitants of the sunny lands for which his son longs. That is the other great theme of the opera, North / South, darkness / sunlight, Franco-Germania and the Greek lands to which Siegfried’s real-life lover had retreated.
But is the opera any good? This production makes it hard to say. Instead of having an orchestra, music director Ulrich Laykam feeds a digital score through a computer programme, with the consequence that climaxes can be underwhelming, and the result sounds, for example at the start of act 2, like something from a rock group synthesiser.
Sadly, the production is cut-price poor, with a crude set, indifferent audio and video reproduction and choreography that looks like a sixth form rehearsal.
Despite all that, there is much to occupy one’s interest. Opera detectives will pick up many musical and dramatic references to Wagner senior, the suicides (Tristan), bird messenger (Siegfried), and the rich coloration that never sounds more Wagnerian than when pater dominates the stage. Listen also for the trumpet interjection as a soothsayer predicts the end of the world.
Above the actors, director Peter Pachl, whose PPP music theatre specialises in putting on Siegfried’s operas in downtown Bayreuth, runs video clips from around 1918, the time of the opera’s première, to current images of a dove of peace.
Julia Reznik as Gomella’s daughter Iris overcomes one of the most hideous hair-dos in theatre history through the conviction of her performance and secure execution in all but the highest register, and Rebecca Broberg captures exactly the ‘lurking’ quality demanded by the composer when she reappears as the dead Empress.
The part of Gomella was doubled following the death of the designated singer. This unfortunate necessity works surprisingly well, however. Dirk Mestmacher gestures jesterly in tights and androgynous pink fluffy stuff, miming mostly seamlessly to William Wallace’s lyrical off-stage tenor.
Giorgio Valenta as Fridolin has the imperious sound of a Heldentenor, but is sadly undemonstrative on stage. Uli Bützer nails the casual rascality of the Emperor Alexios, and displays an attractive if low-octane baritone burr—when one can hear it.
For an overall verdict: it’s not, as the good doctor said, that the thing should be done well, but that it should be done at all. We may have to wait a long time for the definitive performance on which to judge Siegfried’s most confessional creation.
Reviewer: Colin Davison