Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Siegfried review – the latest instalment in Regents Opera’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Freemasons’ Hall

4, 7, 10 February 2024


A production that is as insightful as it is innovative. 

Siegfried

Peter Furlong & Catharine Woodward (Photo: Steve Gregson)

Following performances of Das Rheingold in November 2022 and Die Walküre in May 2023, Regents Opera now presents the third opera in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. While its predecessor Fulham Opera produced the complete Cycle with piano accompaniment in 2014, this time it is employing a reduced orchestration, in which Ben Woodward has reduced the score from around 100 instruments to just over 20, including the organ.

The arrangement for Siegfried proves to be particularly effective, and the orchestra, also conducted by Woodward, ensures it shines in every way as extremely beautiful and precise sounds emanate from the strings, wind and brass. The strong sense of intimacy that is generated by the size of the orchestral forces is replicated in the staging as, in the Art Deco Grand Temple of the Freemasons’ Hall near Holborn, the opera is staged virtually in the round. With the audience seated on three sides of the central performance area, many spectators are literally a couple of rows from the action, and in an opera that only ever features two characters at a time, the chance to witness their interactions in close up is a most welcome one.

The production moves away from portraying Siegfried as ‘a brainless sword-wielding hero who slays the dragon and gets the girl’. Rather, it suggests that his apparent rudeness and oafishness in Act I derive from him feeling certain sensations without actually understanding his emotions as a consequence of having been raised in ignorance of his past, his family and love. This manifests itself from the start as the bear he runs on with proves to be a teddy bear with a black hood, which remains on stage for the remainder of the act. Far from constituting a comedy gesture, this shows how his affinity with the things of the forest equates to his subconscious yearning for a proper childhood and sense of belonging. Peter Furlong effectively captures the character of Siegfried, and the transformational arc he undergoes over the course of the opera, while revealing strong and accurate singing that never flags over this most challenging of roles.

It takes two to make a scene, however, and the effectiveness of the interaction between Siegfried and Mime is equally down to Holden Madagame as the latter. The underlying strength of their voice enables them to focus on asserting Mime’s character at every turn, and their acting is powerful as one can feel the Nibelung’s single-minded determination as a constant, no matter what expression they are actually showing at the time. This Mime can smile with the greatest charm, but when Siegfried learns of, and laments, the death of his mother, the dwarf’s face reveals no more than a slight regret that the truth has come out. The manner in which Mime looks rattled after The Wanderer has answered two of the three questions correctly, and totally lost after he has uttered just the first line to the third, is highly skilful, and it is easy to pinpoint the exact moment at which the Nibelung realises The Wanderer is actually Wotan. 

These performances of Siegfried are being dedicated to the memory of Keel Watson, a Fulham and Regents Opera regular who sadly died last November. He played Wotan in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, with his performance in the latter being particularly emotive. Now, Ralf Lukas pays what might be seen as the greatest tribute to Keel by delivering a similarly strong performance as The Wanderer. His bass-baritone is rich, powerful, clear and precise, and his own transformation across the three acts quite notable. The Wanderer first appears as a workman who has come to mend Mime’s lamp before Siegfried has even departed the scene. Every time the dwarf asks him a simple question, Lukas gives a huge sigh since the Nibelung is not taking the chance to elicit what he needs to know, but also, it seems, because it means he must now spend the next few minutes reeling out a bog standard answer. When The Wanderer asks his own question about the children who Wotan loved so dearly but treated so badly, it sounds like a confession on his part, and there are many other interesting touches. We only see Wotan’s spear in Act III, so when Lukas refers to the object in his answer regarding the gods and Valhalla he makes a point of noticing that he is gripping nothing.

“…it is employing a reduced orchestration… from around 100 instruments to just over 20…”

Siegfried

Holden Madagame & Oliver Gibbs (Photo: Steve Gregson)

This production, like the entire tetralogy, is directed by Caroline Staunton. The notion of the transformative power of the gaze runs through this Cycle, while each opera has found unique ways to consider the importance of art. In Das Rheingold the ring was equated with a priceless work of art, where its worth ultimately derived from the value that people placed on it. In Die Walküre the mortals carried by the Valkyrie became famous paintings that were then destroyed, recalling the burning of 5,000 artworks in Berlin in March 1939. Here we see Siegfried forge Nothung on a toilet basin bearing the name R. Mutt, which recalls Duchamp’s seminal Fountain (the basin presumably creating a more practical shape for an anvil than a urinal). 

Continuing ‘the theme of the self as both subject and objet d’art’, Act II takes place in The Woodbird’s curated art space, courtesy of designer Isabella van Braeckel. If on paper the idea sounds slightly pretentious, in the event it works very well. As television screens revealing art videos line both sides of the stage, The Woodbird (Corinne Hart who sings beautifully) shows Alberich and then other characters into the gallery, offering them drinks and nibbles. Alberich’s encounter with Wotan consequently seems to take place at a private viewing, with the similar hairstyles and stylish clothes they sport highlighting how the two are really cut from the same cloth. In fact, of the pair Wotan’s clothes are the more lavish and this suggests that, if we see Wotan in Das Rheingold as a Bourgeois figure, he is now parodying what he once was as he accepts the new world order. Oliver Gibbs gives a very powerful and accomplished performance as Alberich, and when he describes the ring as the fruit that Wotan dare not pluck he takes a pomegranate from a bowl while images of fruit appear on the television screens. 

In this context, the giant Fafner’s transformation into a dragon is rendered as a piece of performance art. His cave is a box at one end of the gallery, from which he emerges on occasions. When Alberich and Wotan first call him it could almost be as if he is living in isolation as some artistic endurance test and is therefore annoyed at being disturbed. Craig Lemont Walters, with his superb bass, is highly engaging as Fafner as he sports a golden jacket that represents both his dragon’s scales, and the gold he hoards. In his major confrontation with Siegfried he transforms his appearance to look like Sieglinde, so that after the hero stabs him he gets a huge shock. Of course, Siegfried does not know what his mother looked like, but earlier in the scene he saw images of her, as played by Justine Viani in Die Walküre, on the television screens. He may not have consciously known who he was looking at, but it is enough to disconcert him now, while the implication is that Sieglinde’s dress that Fafner wears is actually the tarnhelm. Alberich and Mime’s altercation is rendered as an all singing, all dancing ‘top hat and tails’ routine, which is made to work extremely well with the music, while Madagame’s ability to change expressions as Mime lurches between maintaining a facade and revealing his true intentions is highly effective. The sheer extent, however, to which the pretence cannot be maintained is revealed by the refreshment bottle that Mime offers Siegfried actually having ‘danger’ written on it!

Every character sports a different costume in each act, which helps to highlight the transformational journeys that Siegfried and Wotan undergo across the three. White has been used throughout this Cycle as a symbol of purity, with the fact that Wotan’s patch is represented by a white smear across the relevant side of his face suggesting that he surrendered his purity when he lost his eye. Conversely, Erda appears totally in white revealing how she has not gone astray like the other gods. Mae Heydorn, who has also played the earth goddess for Longborough Festival Opera, is highly persuasive as she reveals a rich and nuanced mezzo-soprano that can be extremely assertive on the occasions when it needs to be. It is interesting that Wotan revels so much in his sense of release when he claims he now wills the end of the gods that he does not notice Erda disappear, so that by the time he instructs her to return to her sleep she has already gone. 

White is also the dominant colour on the rock as a series of transparent hanging ‘net curtains’ grace the stage. The final scene proves to be a revelation as Catharine Woodward produces a tremendous sound that makes her a highly compelling Brünnhilde. During ‘Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich’ she literally puts Siegfried on a pedestal, and the sight of Furlong at this point is deeply moving. Siegfried is usually portrayed as struggling to hold his own against Brünnhilde’s intellectualism as she anguishes over her vulnerability, but Furlong reveals a sensitivity that makes it looks as if he is about to collapse in tears. If they were to come, however, they would be tears of joy as he has finally learnt emotions that were alien to him, and ultimately who he really is.

• Regents Opera will stage the entire Der Ring des Nibelungen between 10 and 17 November, and 24 November and 1 December, 2024. For further details and tickets visit its website.


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Siegfried review – the latest instalment in Regents Opera’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Freemasons’ Hall