Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Siegfried @ Royal Festival Hall, London

1 July 2016


Lars Cleveman
(Photo: Clive Barda)

If Opera North’s presentation of Siegfried, the third opera in Wagner’s tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen, did not quite live up to the standard set by Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, this probably says more about how strongly the other two operas were rendered. This Siegfried was certainly not poor, and the good moments as effective as any to be found across the preceding evenings, but on this occasion a few too many elements undermined the overall impression of the performance.

One of the difficulties may have been attributable to the opera itself. Director Peter Mumford’s semi-staging of this Ring Cycle has seen soloists acting out their parts to the full, only by facing the audience rather than each other. This has enabled them to reveal characters’ innermost thoughts on their faces, rather than only those that they wished their opposite to see. In Siegfried, however, there are fewer opportunities to reveal what would not be shown in a conventional staging. For example, when Mime is encouraging Siegfried to drink his specially prepared broth, he is revealing what he does not intend the Wälsing to know anyway. More generally, Mime for all his malevolence is still, in comparison to Alberich, something of a pantomime villain, and so there is little chance to explore sub-texts in his expressions.

To say there are fewer opportunities, however, does not mean there are none, and the Wanderer’s encounter with Erda was especially well rendered. Normally it is the line ‘Wirr wird mir, seit ich erwacht’ (I’ve grown confused since I was awakened) that shows us Erda’s initial response to the Wanderer’s news that he abandoned Brünnhilde on a rock. Before she uttered this, however, we saw Erda place her head in her hand in sorrow. It thus became clear that she had reached her conclusion before she even opened her mouth, and that her confusion arose solely from disbelief at what the Wanderer had actually had done, rather than from not knowing what to think.

Similarly, when the Wanderer confronted Siegfried he could reveal his sadness at seeing this hero in whom he placed all of his hope and pride actually being so rude to his grandfather. Following the breaking of the spear the Wanderer remained on stage as Brünnhilde entered so that he could reenact putting her to sleep, which was clever for two reasons. First, he knew when he said farewell in Die Walküre that it was forever as it was now for a mortal hero to find her, and so now he was thinking how that moment had actually arrived. Second, it helped to highlight the gulf between the fortunes of the old and the new order. Siegfried went on to wake Brünnhilde which resulted in great joy, in direct contrast to the Wanderer’s waking of Erda, which had led to the complete termination of their relationship, and him placing the earth goddess in an eternal sleep.    

The main element that undermined the overall level of performance was the standard of singing, which was more variable than in the previous operas. The title role is possibly the most demanding in the entire operatic repertoire and Lars Cleveman acquitted himself well, especially since he had replaced Daniel Frank at relatively short notice. He did, however, take a long time to warm up, and then in Act III seemed to tire, which lessened, though far from destroyed, the impact of his final duet with Brünnhilde. Nonetheless, he revealed some quite subtle acting, appearing to be far more sensitive than most Siegfrieds upon hearing the Forest Murmurs. Similarly, he looked genuinely bewildered as Brünnhilde sang of her shame at him robbing her of her defences, being confused as to what she was actually talking about as much as to how he might respond.

Béla Perencz as the Wanderer initially struggled to assert in the lower register, and to maintain power while moving between different registers in his voice, but he fared much better in Acts II and III. There are only a handful of singers who can play the part of Mime to a world class standard, because successfully conveying the character’s pinched tone and a fine operatic sound is no easy task. Given this difficulty, Richard Roberts delivered a reasonable vocal performance, and his focus on character was no bad thing, leading us to actually feel sorry for the dwarf as Siegfried repeatedly insulted him in Act I. During his encounter with the Wanderer he revealed he was not a great thinker by the ease with which he flitted between fear and merriment, when he thought he might actually have the measure of the god. He twirled around as he felt that the air was on fire following the Wanderer’s departure, but could just as easily sit cross-legged like a petulant teenager.

Several other performances were less equivocally strong, and included Kelly Cae Hogan’s wondrous Brünnhilde, Jo Pohlheim’s tremendous Alberich, Jeni Bern’s fine Woodbird and Ceri Williams’ excellent Erda. It would also be hard to imagine a finer Fafner than Mats Almgren, whose dying monologue made us genuinely feel for this once proud, fallen giant. Richard Farnes’ conducting was also outstanding, and the performance of the Orchestra of Opera North provided one particularly good reason for why we should look forward to the final instalment in the cycle, Götterdämmerung.

Opera North’s Ring Cycle concludes at the Royal Festival Hall on 3 July with Götterdämmerung. The opera is also being screened live in the Southbank Centre’s Clore Ballroom for free (no tickets required). For further details on this and the other related events taking place visit the Southbank Centre website.

After this week Opera North’s Ring Cycle travels to the Sage Gateshead where it will be performed between 5 and 10 July.

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Siegfried @ Royal Festival Hall, London