I first sang Alberich in English with ENO and then went to Bayreuth and did it all in German – every year for five years. It was interesting that in the same work you can have two completely opposed approaches.
Phyllida Lloyd at ENO took the investigative approach. When you’re singing Alberich you could be asked to do it just as a simple amphibious creature that comes up from the bottom of the river. But the point is, as Alberich, you know there are certain things he says which point to a back-story of relationships with other characters. So, for instance, when I meet Loge later on, and he tries to get around me, he says, ‘Remember I was your friend when you were hiding in a hole, I gave you fire and light?’ So, as Alberich, you think, ‘Right, when was that? When was I lying in a hole, and why was I hiding there?’
In Bayreuth the director adopted a very ‘face-value’ interpretation of the piece. As each scene in The Ring unravelled, he simply took each event as it happened and presented it, as opposed to stopping to ask questions about the background to each particular dramatic moment. Although Wagner used mythological characters, he intended the audience to recognise human characteristics, human jealousies and envy – it’s what makes it more meaningful for us. So in a way, it was really quite a shock when I went to do my first German Ring to find that we didn’t have an investigative approach at all, we were simply asked to play it at face value.
The dynasty of Alberich and Hagen completely saturates the whole Ring. The interesting thing is that Wotan is almost as much a villain as Alberich, because he only wants the gold for his own ends, and he can be just as deceitful. Alberich, on the other hand, knows that he’s bad and says that he’s bad – he’s almost proud to say it. There’s that wonderful scene at the beginning of Act 2 of Siegfried, where Wotan challenges Alberich to summon Fafner out of the cave, but Alberich hasn’t the courage to do that, and so they have a meeting of minds. There’s a feeling in the words and in the music that Wotan is almost admitting, ‘Look, we’re probably both as bad as each other here, and we’ve both got to accept that what will be, will be’. And that is Wotan and Alberich meeting almost on equal terms. It’s a very meaningful and powerful scene. There was one famous production in Germany from which there’s a photograph of the two of them sitting side by side in raincoats and hats. Almost identical, but not identical.
Wagner colours each character very distinctly. I think the quality of the musical style is very clearly differentiated. It’s not just the motifs that are associated, but the orchestration that goes with those motifs, so that the whole colour of the music changes according to the character who is singing. Or if a character is being sung about, you’ll hear that quality of music again. Alberich’s music is uncompromising. Even before his first entrance in the Rhine, you can hear him lumping along, the music going up and down and trilling, and deep down you hear this ‘ba-doom, ba-doom’, so you can hear him approaching before he arrives.
The thing about Alberich’s music is that it’s not all bombastic, violent stuff – I mean, there is a lot of raging and shouting, but in the moments when he’s ironically describing the life of Wotan and the gods, exalted up on their cloud of happiness, what he sings there has quite a legato lyricism to it and is very enjoyable to perform. It’s well written for the voice. There are those who would say that my voice hasn’t naturally got the darkness that some people would prefer to hear in the part, but there’s nothing I can do about that. I feel that my voice encompasses the range and I feel very much alive with the music when I’m singing it. I learnt it over such a long time really. It was a long process and, as I already said, in English first of all.
A lot of people say when you first learn a role, learn it in the original language. I’m not so sure about that, because if you’re an English-speaker, learning to sing it in English first means that you’ve got an absolute grasp of the meaning of the words. And when it comes to learning it in German, while you do have to learn the new text and all the variations and shifts in emphasis, it means that you already have an internal grasp of what you’re singing about.
I feel I understand the role very clearly but I always look forward to working with a new director who will force me to rethink ideas and make me consider things that hadn’t occurred to me before. As an opera singer you’re very often repeating roles you’ve done many times before, and of course you find good solutions to interpretation and you feel you’ve found the secret to a role. But you always hope for a really brilliant director to come along and make you think of something else.
This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone magazine and the Gramophone Reviews Database, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe