The Power Circle

Issue section: 
(291)

Review of 'Siegfried' by Richard Wagner, English National Opera

Siegfried is the third of four operas that make up Wagner's Ring cycle. Over a total 15 or so hours of opera we see the destruction of the ancient Norse gods and their home Valhalla - paid for with gold stolen by their leader, Wotan.

Wagner was one of the greatest composers of the 19th century, and his music makes the Ring into a monumental work, a mythic tale of the treachery of the gods and the destruction of the world.

Several years before he wrote the words of the operas, Wagner had played an enthusiastic part in the German Revolution of 1848. He was committed to utopian politics which sought to create a human society informed by the highest artistic ideals. This is not to suggest that the Ring is a political allegory - it's a complex artwork to be understood on its own terms, and in any case after the defeat of the 1848 revolution Wagner spent his life in retreat from revolutionary politics.

Nonetheless, the idealistic struggle of Wagner's youth informs the Ring in several ways. The gods bring about their own destruction through violence and an obsession with power - echoing German society as a decaying feudal elite gave way to the new horrors of capitalism. The alternative - a society which rejects power and violence - is symbolised by liberated sexuality, in particular the liberation of women's sexuality.

Class politics and sexual politics are thus part of the context in which the Ring developed, and contemporary relevance is played up in Phyllida Lloyd's production for English National Opera. Wotan was portrayed in The Rhinegold, the first opera in the series, as a property developer who gives Blairite press conferences. The set for the first act of Siegfried resembles a grubby bedsit. Some respond to this with plain snobbery: I overheard an audience member complain that 'I expect something beautiful from a Wagner production, but this was just Coronation Street'. While the Coliseum audience frets, however, the second act of The Valkyrie - the second part of the Ring - was rapturously received at Glastonbury, the Valkyries singing in leather trousers and dreadlocks.

This production of Siegfried should make a great work of art accessible to many new people - go and enjoy.