United Kingdom Wagner, Siegfried: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North, Richard Farnes (conductor), Town Hall, Leeds, 15.6.2013 (JL)
Brünnhilde: Annalena Persson
Siegfried: Mati Turi
Mime: Richard Roberts
The Wanderer: Michael Druiett
Alberich: Jo Pohlheim
Fafner: Mats Almgren
Voice of the Forest Bird: Fflur Wyn
Erda: Ceri Williams
Concert Staging: Peter Mumford
Lighting / Projection Designer: Peter Mumford
Associate Director: Joe Austin
Year 3/Stage 3 and the juggernaut that is Opera North’s Ring Cycle rolls on its glorious way with Siegfried. The Company had set itself an intimidating standard with Rheingold and Die Walküre so expectations ran high. No worries, however. Orchestrally, vocally and dramatically this production is a triumph.
Opera North’s home, Leeds Grand Theatre, does not have a pit large enough to contain Wagner’s huge orchestra so the performance was transferred to Leeds Town Hall (known for the international piano competition), the building of which began in the year Wagner started writing the music for The Ring. With its ostentatious grandiloquence, not to mention the biggest organ of its type in Europe, it seemed an appropriate match for Wagner’s ambitions.
Peter Mumford’s simple yet imaginative rendering is somewhere between a semi-staged and concert performance. Above the Orchestra there are three large, square screens on which are projected relevant images and semi-abstract landscapes as well as English subtitles and some narrative commentary. There is not a stick of scenery, nor anvil, hammer sword or horn. Singers stand on stage in front of the orchestra as the floodlit focus of attention with the main house lights down. Most of the singing in Siegfried is in the form of dialogue between two characters but in this production they rarely interact directly. The protagonists usually stand well apart and project directly at the audience members as if to dialogue directly with them. Surprisingly it works really well.
Thus singers and orchestra are always coming straight at you, often to devastating effect. Scenes that some can find tedious longeurs – such as the scene 2 dialogue between The Wanderer and Mime that proceeds at a speed much slower than real time – come vividly alive. In this case Richard Farnes and his magnificent orchestra generated an excitement I would not have thought possible. Every instrumental and motivic detail was pointed with colour and clarity, every phrase beautifully pointed, every climax mounted with steady assurance. At the same time and overall this was a brisk interpretation that gave the narrative a strong, inexorable sense of propulsion. But Farnes also achieved the hardest thing of all: to give each of the three great arches that are the three acts the sense of proportion that Wagner intended, and to hold these within one single arch that is the whole work. This was architectural perfection: Farnes is emerging as a great Wagner conductor.
You might expect some balance problems with such a stage set-up but there were none. All singers were strong and never overwhelmed with one exception. Wotan was drowned out occasionally when the trombones blasted out his own spear motive with its dramatically descending scale. Personally, not only was this not a problem but the fulfillment of a longstanding desire to hear Wagner’s heavy brass come at you, full frontal instead of buried in a pit. To be pressed into the back of my seat by it was an immeasurable thrill.
As The Wanderer Michael Druiett resumed the role of Wotan that he sang in Rheingold two years ago. It was an authoritatively sung portrayal that conveyed the God’s increasing weariness, sadness and resignation. It contrasted with Estonian Mati Turi’s irrepressible Siegfried representing the future with youthful optimism. Macho both physically and vocally, he has a voice strong throughout its range. This is, I think, the first live Siegfried I’ve heard where the singer has not shown some signs of strangulated strain before the night was out. There was not a hint of exhaustion but then he did have the advantage of not having to charge about a stage forging swords, slaying dragons and rescuing maidens.
Richard Roberts as his adoptive father Mime conveyed a nasty character without resorting to the exaggerated over-portrayal of a twisted dwarf that is so common. He eschewed the kind of snarling interpretation that so often destroys the melodic line. Likewise Jo Pohlheim as his brother Alberich. Both of them showed that these dwarfs do have human attributes and the drama was stronger for it.
Mats Almgren similarly gave his dragon a sense of dignity that generated a tweak of sorrow for his fate at Siegfried’s hands. Flur Wyn flitted delightfully up and down her vocal range as the woodbird. Although the role of Erda is relatively small it is, as Wagner declared, “a role of exceptional importance”. Ceri Williams’ fruity contralto conveyed suitable motherliness and her scene with Wotan, as he clasped her to his breast in a rare moment of physical contact in this production, was moving.
Halfway through the last act it was difficult to imagine that things could get any better, but they did. Richard Farnes is on record as saying that one of his favourite passages is the transition to the last scene. The 1st violins slowly climb upwards as if reaching toward some unobtainable goal before sinking back down to earth. This is a frightening test of string intonation but it was carried off with perfection.
Then Siegfried woke Brünnhilde and we were introduced to Annalena Persson, a Wagnerian soprano of rare distinction. Having decided against a career in farming or the police in Sweden, she went to opera school and a year after leaving was singing Isolde – and is clearly a born Wagnerian. She and Mati Tuli took us into the home straight to blow our socks off with their final duet as Richard Farnes drove his orchestra in accompanying them to the final climax, Brünnhilde riding it with a climactic high C as solid as the rock from which she has just risen.
Come the extensive ovations, when each singer received the same volume of cheering as if in recognition of a team effort greater than the sum of its parts, Mati Tuli looked sufficiently fresh, after completing one of opera’s supreme feats of stamina, to launch into Götterdämmering after a short interval. We will have to wait a year for that though.
Roll on next year.