Consistency in casting of CD Ring cycles is a well known problem (well, if you're a collector of such cycles it is). Take Solti - Wotan, Fricka, Mime, Faffner and Erda, to name but five, all change during the cycle. Karajan's cast is arguably even less consistent.
This problem is generally avoided with your live Bayreuth recordings, or live recordings generally. It was, therefore, something of a surprise when picking up the cast list last night (which is not free at Deutsche Oper, somewhere Covent Garden has an edge). For this third instalment there was a new Wotan, Brunnhilde, Mime and Faffner. Almost everyone, in other words. In the case of Wotan this was a blessing; in the case of Brunnhilde it was absolutely not.
However, it seems odd, to say the least. Surely when putting together a cycle you book a cast all the way through. I know that isn't what Gergiev does, but he does the operas on consecutive nights rendering consistent casting impossible. With several days between Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung, it is inexplicable.
Still, consistency aside (of which more anon), how did this third instalment turn out. As with the previous operas, Gotz Friedrich's production is generally strong; indeed, Siegfried is up with Rheingold in being the strongest of the cycle to date. The set for the forge looks the part (leaving aside that initially it does appear to be in a tent), though the backdrop conveying the forrest setting is perhaps a little cartoony. Burkhard Ulrich's Mime was superb, perfectly conveying the put upon and bullied smith. Stefan Vinke had plenty of force in the title role, though suffering from a cold his voice had a slightly odd tone. He was one of two singers for whom the management had craved our indulgence (neither we, nor the people sitting next to us, for whom German was their native tongue, caught the name of the other). He reforged the sword with great aplomb.
The first big change, however, was the Wotan of Egils Silins, replacing the wooden and underpowered Mark Delavan (interestingly, I picked up a flyer suggesting he is doing the part with Runnicles in San Francisco next year - very odd given Runnicles' generally excellent ear for good opera singers). Silins too could have had more power. However, in his case it mattered less because he could act. He found the necessary authority for the role and his confrontation with Mine was a treat. Similarly, he managed to make his presence felt when stalking onto the stage and hovering in the background.
For act two, the production's generic tunnel set was bedecked with nets, vividly creating the forrest. From beneath these, Alberich seemed to burrow up, appropriately emerging from the depths. Tomasz Konieczyn, one of the few unchanged cast members, sang well, though at times he did over-act slightly, doing a rather strange dance. Generally his confrontations with first Wotan, then Mime, were very well done.
Ante Jerkunica, replacing Andrea Silvestrelli as Fafner, was solid enough, but not quite so good. It didn't help that the dragon didn't quite work. Nets were pulled back to reveal a vast armoured tank of a monster. This actually looked pretty good, but the main problem was Siegfried seemed to slay it without even hitting it with his sword.
The biggest disappointment came with one of my favourite moments of the entire Ring: the woodbird. There were some nice touches - when only appearing orchestrally, the bird was portrayed by a light dancing through the trees. However, after Siegfried tasted the dragon's blood, Burcu Uyar was flown in. Not inherently an issue, though I can't really see why she needed to be topless. The problem was her singing. As written, it is an achingly beautiful moment. What a shame then that her voice was ugly, wobbly and not always as accurate as one would like.
That said, another of my favourite moments, as Siegfried hears what Mime is really thinking, and thus his plans to drug the hero and bash in his head, was wonderfully carried off. Also, Daniel Adam did a good job providing Siegfried's horn calls, though the co-ordination between Vinke's action on stage and the sound was a little off.
Act three brought another recurring theme of the cycle: smoke. I don't mind a bit of it now and then, indeed it can very nicely add atmosphere to a production. But when it's used this often in these quantities it gets a bit tired. Not to mention that as the floor lifted up to reveal Erda, and the smoke poured out and promptly down into the orchestra pit, I wondered if they could see Runnicles or, indeed, their music. And if we thought that was too much smoke, it was nothing next to that which accompanied the rather excellent fire surrounding Brunnhilde.
Erda herself, Ewa Wolak, and one of the few unchanged cast members, sounded rather different than she had in Rheingold. Her voice seeming bigger, much less ethereal and, to these ears, much less fitting. It didn't help to me that she was below Wotan on a two level staging removing any interaction.
Just about my favourite line in all opera, "Das ist kein mann", was nicely amusing, though as ever it begs the question of just how much of an idiot Siegfried is: everyone has been telling him to go up this mountain and meet a woman, why then would there be a man there? Sadly, Brunnhilde then opened her mouth to hail the sun. The feisty and well voiced Evelyn Herlitzius was replaced by Janice Baird. Her voice was not especially nice, having far too much vibrato and reminding me of nothing more than Eva Marton, whose voice, so unsoothingly akin to a fire alarm, utterly ruins Haitink's EMI recordings. In fairness to Baird, she wasn't quite that bad, but only because she lacked to volume to be.
It did not help that she seemed to have little chemistry with Siegfried, though in part this was down to blocking that put them apart as much as possible. And while the decision to have her remove some of her clothes at the end was doubtless fitting, having them pick up the already removed battle garb just so they could dramatically fling it from the stage, made much less sense.
Overall, though, it was not at all bad. I gather, too, that Herlitzius returns for the finale (why on earth she was absent is therefore doubly baffling), meaning it has the potential to be the strongest of the bunch.
The playing of the Deutsche Oper orchestra, especially their strings, and the drama and sense of structure provided by Donald Runnicles' conducting remains a clear highlight of this cycle. Indeed, during the forest murmurs I almost wished to do away with the singers (those who haven't should pick up his Dresden disc of Wagner chunks which does just that, and provides a wonderful fresh view of that section).
One final note, unrelated to artistic quality. There are many areas Deutsche Oper is superior to Covent Garden, not least price. However, on one it falls far behind: coat check. Huge long desks, with no obvious queue and not enough attendants, are not the way to run these things. I also prefer the UK practice of saving all the curtain calls for the end, rather than having them after each act.