The Times, September 23, 2005

A Cornish bard for the Ring

Covent Garden’s new Siegfried tells Neil Fisher about his career’s Wagnerian quest

Everyone knows which of the operas in the Ring cycle you can get away with missing. The skimpy Rhinemaidens and growling giants of Das Rheingold? A walk in fairytale park. Skip Die Walküre and you skip the one tune everyone can hum. And anyone who welshes on the end of the world in part four’s Götterdämmerung simply hasn’t lasted the course.

Then there is Siegfried — the five-hour exploits of a testosterone-fuelled teenager as he forges his own WMD (the sword Nothung), slaughters his dwarf guardian (the whining Mime) attacks his grandfather (the world-weary Wanderer) and seduces his aunt (the formerly immortal Brünnhilde). Those who quixotically call it the “scherzo” of the cycle normally have to face facts the moment that the curtain rises on a middle-aged tenor trying to impersonate a moronic ASBO yob — the current “concept” of choice for the serious Wagner director.

But that’s not a role that John Treleaven is planning to assume when he becomes the first Brit since Alberto Remedios in 1982 to tackle the part at Covent Garden. “If anyone were to fry Siegfried for an idiot they would lose their fat without any doubt,” is his congenial conclusion, a homespun piece of wisdom that could only come from the murkiest depths of Treleaven’s native Cornwall.

Treleaven isn’t giving away many clues about Keith Warner’s new staging, but he does hint that the relationship between the usually thuggish title character and the slightly more repulsive Mime will be far closer than it is usually portrayed. “But it’s not a relationship without love!” he protests. “And there’s a moment in this production where you have got to be touched by the togetherness of two human beings trapped by this ugly, messy relationship.” And when the boy slaughters him? “He’s not a killing machine, but he’s learned about death in the forest — the killing of Mime becomes an inevitability.”

The other big question hovering over this production is: just who the heck is John Treleaven? The answer is that he’s probably the first real Cornish bard to sing opera’s only Cornish bard — the existentially anxious Tristan, a role which Treleaven took on to great acclaim in three concert performances at the Barbican between December 2002 and February 2003. If you doubt his credentials, argue with the venerable Gorsedd of Bards of Cornwell, who conferred the title on him in the Eighties. “I had a special name but I’m afraid I can’t quote it,” he laughs. “Something to do with the storming of London by Cornishmen 300 years ago.”

Don’t mistake the humour for disrespect, mind: his roots still run deep. If a chance encounter in a pub in his home village of Porthleven (nearest metropolis: Penzance) hadn’t led the 18-year-old Royal Navy employee to take singing lessons with a retired music teacher, that’s where he would have stayed. “I thought my life lay in Cornwall — and then I met someone who could teach me to sing an aria from Tosca . My parents were highly sceptical.”

But they were won over by the time that Treleaven’s teacher had arranged an audition at the London College of Music, where he was offered a place on the spot.

And that led to the greatest quest of his career: to take on the great Wagner heroes — if he could. It explains the tenor’s surprisingly long absence from the British stage. Now 56, he’s been based in Germ-any for 14 years — the platform from where his Siegfried, Tristan, Parsifal and Lohengrin have all sprung. “For almost all of my life I’ve harboured the hope that I might be able to sing this repertoire. But one is rushed into these massive canvases at one’s peril.”

Will he still be able to capture the essence of Wagner’s biggest problem child? “I’m not a boy any more — I haven’t been a boy for some time. But then Siegfried is a wonderful opportunity to find the boy in us all.” Now that’s one advert for the opera I’ve not heard before.