Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Siegfried @ Hippodrome, Birmingham

8 November 2014

(Photo: N. Razina)

(Photo: N. Razina)

The Mariinsky Opera’s performance of Siegfried was not dissimilar to those of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in being distinguished far more by the singing and orchestral playing than by any production credentials. Since, however, the former elements were very strong indeed the evening as a whole proved to be highly memorable.

The staging mixed moments that worked well with others that undermined certain effects, although fortunately never seriously so. On this occasion the four giant monoliths, which are a permanent feature throughout the tetralogy, lay flat or at angles as much as they stood upright. The resulting levels these created formed an excellent backdrop to the forging of Nothung, and this episode prevailed handsomely by virtue of Gleb Filshtinsky’s excellent lighting designs, and a splendid performance by Mikhail Vekua as Siegfried. The figures who created the fire at the end of Die Walküre were also present, although to neutral effect overall. They added a certain sense of activity and dynamism, but their jerking from one fixed pose to another did prove slightly distracting.

In Act II Fafner was depicted by the monoliths (which moved very little considering they were portraying a fierce, fiery dragon) with Mikhail Petrenko’s voice only ever being heard from offstage. The amplification of it worked well enough, but the choice of staging did rob the scene of much of its drama. There was no real sense of confrontation between hero and dragon as the former simply ran around the stage slashing at the monoliths. Nevertheless, it made the point that this was an uneven battle that Siegfried was always destined to win, and with our attention focused upon the Wälsung’s reaction during Fafner’s monologue we saw something of his feelings as he showed respect, if not sorrow, for his dying prey. Act III’s staging worked the best, however, by being the most straight forward. A central slab formed an excellent platform for the confrontation between The Wanderer and Erda, before becoming the rock upon which Siegfried found Brünnhilde.

Amidst a strong cast, two performances stood out in particular. The first came from Mikhail Vekua who must surely stand as one of the world’s great Siegfrieds today. His voice not only possessed astounding stamina, but also immense warmth. It could be expansive and powerful, but had that element of lightness that still made the sound feel full rather than hollow. He also proved a fine actor, capturing Siegfried’s virility, confidence and arrogance, while at least hinting at some more sensitive traits. Their existence in turn enabled us to like, and hence want to go on the journey with, the hero.

The second came from Vladimir Feliauer who proved an outstanding Wanderer in what I believe was only his second appearance in the role. If his lower register was not quite so strong it hardly mattered, and his bass was possessed of immense darkness and power. Decked all in black (in this Ring Cycle the principal change in apparel for Wotan came between Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, not Die Walküre and Siegfried), he was a magnetic presence from start to finish. He answered Mime’s first two questions in a reclining position as if he could have recited them in his sleep, but when he came to the third he rose to his full height revealing how he still took some pride in thoughts of Valhalla and of himself as chief god.

His Act III confrontation with Erda was highly charged, while his subsequent encounter with Siegfried was perfectly pitched. Though revealing his pride in the hero, he still couldn’t hide his hurt at being treated so rudely by his grandson, and yet his challenge to try to break the spear was every inch a positive invitation to do so. His exit was also intriguing for feeling so unceremonious, as if this really was the end of his story so there was nothing left for him to do other than get off the stage. He was only let down by a huge laugh at the end of his encounter with Mime that broke the force field of wisdom and solemnity he had generated around him. All of his other laughs were in the original directions, but here only a smile is asked for, and such a silent gesture would have maintained his sense of mystery far better.

Andrey Popov was a strong Mime. If initially his gestures were too large even for a predominantly comical scene with Siegfried, he maintained strong interaction with Vekua and did settle over time. Act II was particularly well done, and when he gave away his true thoughts the manner in which he drifted from one mode of utterance to another, and then revealed his shock on learning what he had just divulged, felt highly natural.

As Alberich, Edem Umerov felt much more in command than he had done in Rheingold, while Mikhail Petrenko, despite being amplified and never seen, proved a tremendous Fafner. Zlata Bulycheva was a rich voiced Erda and Anastasia Kalagina a splendid Woodbird, producing a direct yet sweet sound. For my personal taste, Olga’s Sergeyeva’s voice felt a little too thick and heavy for Brünnhilde, which impacted on her flexibility to shape some of the sounds required of the role. By the same token, however, it meant that those sounds her voice was naturally suited to producing were terrific, and hers was by any measure a strong performance still.

The Mariinsky Orchestra, under the baton of Valery Gergiev, was on top form, and the one criticism I had of their performance in Die Walküre that the sound was sometimes too harsh and unsubtle could not have been levied here. Indeed, the opening to Act III proved to be as multi-layered as it was undoubtedly overwhelming, while the eerie beginning to Act II was imbued with a particularly dark edge.

The Mariinsky Ring Cycle concludes at the Birmingham Hippodrome with Götterdämmerung on 9 November. For further details and to book visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

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Siegfried @ Hippodrome, Birmingham