United Kingdom Wagner, Siegfried: Soloists and Orchestra of Opera North / Richard Farnes (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 1.7.2016. (JPr)
Lars Cleveman – Siegfried
Kelly Cae Hogan – Brünnhilde
Richard Roberts – Mime
Béla Perencz – The Wanderer
Mats Almgren – Fafner
Jo Pohlheim – Alberich
Jeni Bern – Voice of the Forest Bird
Ceri Williams – Erda
Peter Mumford staging, design & concept, lighting & projection designer
Joe Austin associate director
This acclaimed Ring from Opera North began in 2011 and I wonder how much it would have taken over the interim years to enhance the presentation with a few props. A semi-staged Siegfried needs little more than an anvil, sword, small hammer, piece of reed, knife, horn, Tarnhelm, ring, spear and a shield for Brünnhilde. What do we see? … well, none of them! I have come to Opera North’s Wagner rather late for these last two operas and appreciate how much they have been praised for touring this version of Wagner’s Ring and introducing new audiences to it. This has been laudable and I hope those perhaps hearing it for the first time will now seek out a proper staging, something better acted, sung and possibly played. Perhaps they will go to Longborough, starting in 2018.
I know Opera North were on a shoestring budget but they would not have needed much more money for those props which would have spared me (and others?) lots of slightly risible miming at key moments. There were three large screens behind the orchestra on which was displayed an occasional commentary on the plot as if what was unfolding was a Grimm Brothers’ fairy-tale. (Often all we need to know is already there in the English translation of the libretto, which we can read.) There was also some eclectic videography which was often mismatched and not what we should be seeing at those points in the story. At the opening of the opera we hear the dragon Fafner in the music when we see flickering flames. From then on Peter Mumford, who conceived the staging and the projections, seemed very keen on flames! If it was not flames then we were often showed what looked like the Russian steppes or rippling waves.
The singers were restricted to a very narrow walkway in front of the orchestra. There were eight chairs in a row which they regularly made use of but they all knew their roles so there were (thankfully) no music stands. There was minimal interaction between the characters who would just walk to a spot on the platform and sing facing out to the audience. There are no special costumes and the singers seem to have been left to their own devices – some were dressed up whilst Siegfried was jacketless with an untied bowtie around his neck. Béla Perencz’s Wanderer looked for all the world with his fedora and overcoat like another Bela … Lugosi in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. There were some minimal lighting effects, such as a sickly green glow for the forest and when Fafner died he was bathed in light which was blood red.
The budget did not extend to singers of the best Wagnerian calibre either and I would expect to hear Siegfried better sung at Longborough and in Saffron Walden as they start or continue their way through their Rings. Richard Roberts is a known quantity as Mime but here was hyperactive and clearly trying too hard, overacting and unfortunately under-singing. The shaven-headed Lars Cleveman has sung Siegfried at the Met, but despite a solid technique and excellent stamina his voice was more elderly sounding and stentorian than bright and heroic. More importantly, it was a very small-scale Siegfried and he did not project far enough into the Royal Festival Hall. Béla Perencz was miscast as the Wanderer and he lacked authority. His soft-grained baritone (sounding like Verdi’s Germont père) would have been ideal as Alberich. As for Jo Pohlheim’s Alberich … his dark timbre was exactly what was needed for the Wanderer! Good singers, but singing the wrong roles in my humble opinion. Mats Almgren and Jeni Bern made the most of their few moments as Fafner and the Voice of the Forest Bird. Clearly yet another fine singer, Ceri Williams however lacked depth and resonance for Erda. As for American soprano Kelly Cae Hogan’s Brünnhilde I will reserve judgement until after Götterdämmerung, but I never heard the ecstatic radiance I should have and her voice did not seem entirely secure despite displaying a commendable dramatic intensity.
I don’t know quite what Richard Farnes thought he was conducting in Act I as he danced on the podium all the way through as if it was Vienna’s New Year’s Day concert. Act I was much too jaunty (a word I have never applied to Wagner before) and lacked atmosphere and threat. Things improved by the time we got to the Forest Murmurs in Act II and the intensity of that wonderful orchestral passage, the Prelude to Act III. Orchestral balance was fine but the volume tended to favour his quieter singers and the playing was generally reliable but the solo horn player was clearly out of sorts for Siegfried’s horn call in Act II.
For more about Opera North visit https://www.operanorth.co.uk/.