United Kingdom Wagner, Siegfried: Soloists of Fulham Opera, Benjamin Woodward (piano accompanist), St John’s Church, Fulham, London, 12.2.2013. (JPr)
Siegfried: Phillip Modinos
Mime: Peter Kent
Woodbird: Emma Peaurt
Alberich: Robert Presley
Wanderer: Ian Wilson-Pope
Brünnhilde: Zoë South
Erda: Rhonda Browne
Fafner: Antoine Salmon
Stage Director: Max Pappenheim
Lighting Designer: Elliot Griggs
Musical Director: Benjamin Woodward
Photo Credit: Matthew Coughlan
I come to praise Siegfried, not to bury him. I think that was a quote from somewhere. If not, it’s out there now and I am pleased to leave all my critical faculties mostly in hibernation and go with my ‘gut reaction’ that this was one of the best Wagner evenings I am likely to be at this year. I expect it to be equalled; after all I am in Germany next month for Götterdämmerung and Parsifal with much more to follow (hopefully) in this anniversary year. But for the ‘exceeding of expectations’ this concert engendered it will be hard to beat.
My last Siegfried was a rather lacklustre affair during the recent cycles at Covent Garden. Underdramatised, undersung and underprepared it was the complete antithesis of what happened here in Fulham, presented by an opera ‘company’ whose shoestring budget made the very most of those shoestrings. It followed their splendid Die Walküre last May (review) that nearly made my ‘Best of 2012’ list. I cannot take any credit, of course, for the apparent improvements to the costumes and St John’s Church that I previously described as ‘not the most prepossessing of venues’, but I was pleased some important work has been done to address both these issues.
As Ian Wilson-Pope’s informative programme notes concluded ‘In keeping with the first two operas … director Max Pappenheim links into the updated scenario created in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. Siegfried is set in an isolated US community far from the Texan oil-fields and glittering Hollywood backdrop of the first two operas … Wotan has left the glittering lights of Hollywood and Valhalla behind him after his disastrous attempt at making the movie on Siegmund; he now travels under the guise of The Wanderer, but he’s been checking in on Mime and Siegfried from time to time. Meanwhile, Alberich keeps watch over Fafner’s cave, keeping a diary and the last remaining copy of the abandoned film on Siegmund’.
Max Pappenheim’s staging imaginatively filled the nave of the small church from altar to rear doors and beyond, with the audience seated on either side. With atmospheric lighting and well-thought-through effects most ofthe opera’s big moments were splendidly realised. There was some very realistic sword forging, I’ve seen many less plausible representations of a dragon – Siegfried did seem in some real physical danger from a pole that repeatedly tried to hit him on the head – and the Wanderer effectively made out he was battling a storm for his encounter with a suitably spectral – and gauze enshrouded – Erda. To be honest, Brünnhilde should already be asleep on her rock and to see her enter and be seen to lie down (again) with what appeared to be a dustbin lid on her, was not entirely in keeping with all the good things we had otherwise seen. Then again, such was Siegfried’s evident confusion about what to do with the sleeping figure before him – and so believable was Philip Modinos’s acting at this point – that the notorious ‘Das ist kein Mann!’ moment passed without any of the usual nervous laughter – particular from those who do not know their Wagner as well as the Fulham Opera audience evidently did. Full credit here and elsewhere must go to the excellent translation clearly projected allowing those unfamiliar with the opera to follow what was happening.
Initially, the downside to the whole enterprise seemed to be Benjamin Woodward’s piano accompaniment. In Act I there seemed some jarring musical passages as if his fingers were slow to recover from all the preparation that had obviously gone into the first of these three current performances. One of the innovations this time was the use of a horn player (Jon Cooley) and flautist (Carla Finesilver) in Acts II and III to add some variation in the musical colours against the basic piano sound. However, such is Benjamin Woodward’s talent that as Siegfried passed through the magic fire to awaken Brünnhilde I realised by this point I wasn’t actually missing the orchestra! It really does seem impossible for two hands to play all the necessary notes in so short a time.
If I described last year’s cast as ‘solid’ then ‘exceptional’ would be a better description this year. I went on in my previous review to state ‘Usually something like this will have more than one weak link but there really wasn’t any. Maybe some are not the finished article or may never achieve “greatness” but no one switched off and they were all enthusiastic and committed to the task in hand. This is a great credit to all concerned. To be a very “picky” would be unreasonable.’ This maxim holds good this year too!
Mime and Alberich are strongly portrayed by two experienced singers – Peter Kent and Robert Presley – who look so similar as to intriguingly suggest their characters are twins. The ‘Wagner 200’series of anniversary events devised by Barry Millington and Mark Eynon will dwell time and again on the issue of Wagner and the Jews that leads some commentators to blame the composer for all the ills of the twentieth-century. They especially will be pleased that through Max Pappenheim and Peter Kent this Mime eschews any sense of caricature and is just an unpleasant, irascible, and devious individual. It is not the place to elaborate here but if intentional (probably) Wagner’s caricatures are perhaps most uncomfortable to us now because of our modern PC sensibilities – but none of his operas are actually about Jewishness! People will of course mention Parsifal but for me you need a very vivid imagination to discover anything anti-Semitic in his final opera.
I digress, Emma Peaurt roamed the church wearing a hijab as a forthright Woodbird; this was her Wagner debut and I expect her to be back for more soon. Antoine Salmon’s Fafner was darkly resonant and Rhonda Browne was an imposing Erda who employed a confused mien to bring significant portent to her utterances. Zoë South enhanced the fine impression she made as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre. At ‘So lang lieb ich dich, Siegfried!’ this powerful singer went very affectingly from defiant warrior-maid to displaying the depth of her growing ardour for her ‘saviour’. Ian Wilson-Pope’s Wanderer was strongly sung and well-characterised and he shows him acutely aware that his fate is not in his own hands. Again, there was something quite touching about his demeanour and never more than at ‘Weisst du, was Wotan will?’ at which point his life’s work – the Siegmund film – unspools in this hand during the subsequent long pause.
Finally the birth of new Siegfried is a significant event and Philip Modinos is a genuine prospect. As an actor he is still a little wooden but that is not a problem of course; most importantly he shows that it is not as impossible to sing as some ‘experts’ would wish us to believe. He had all the ‘heft’ necessary and a winning lyricism in the quieter passages, most of all his stamina was never in doubt and it was all sung with the bright tones that the role requires. I hope this is just a first Siegfried for him in a burgeoning Wagner career.
I repeat what I have alluded to before and that is I know how difficult this all is. Over a decade ago I helped present something called ‘Brünnhilde’s Awakening’ at the Linbury Theatre that involved Siegfried Act III with piano accompaniment. To our shame I think we spent more on some fancy pebbles for that staging than probably – in today’s money – Fulham Opera have spent on these last two instalments of Wagner’s Ring. Maybe I exaggerate a little, but when it seems virtually impossible for any of our major British opera companies to perform Wagner’s operas, for Fulham Opera – founded only in 2011 – to be succeeding so well is an outstanding achievement. If you were not there … do go if you still can, or go next time! If you were there, perhaps try and help them raise the funds they need to continue with their ambitious plans for Ring cycles over six days in 2014.