United Kingdom Wagner, Siegfried: Soloists, Orchestra of Regents Opera / Ben Woodward (conductor). Freemasons’ Hall, London, 7.2.2024. (CK)
Director – Caroline Staunton
Assistant director – Keiko Sumida
Designer – Isabella van Braeckel
Lighting design – Patrick Malmstrom
Mime – Holden Madagame
Siegfried – Peter Furlong
The Wanderer – Ralf Lukas
Alberich – Oliver Gibbs
Fafner – Craig Lemont Walters
Woodbird – Corinne Hart
Erda – Mae Heydorn
Brünnhilde – Catharine Woodward
Cause for celebration: in staging Siegfried, as Regents Opera rightly claim, they are going where many attempts at a Ring cycle have foundered. As for me, I was not only experiencing slimmed-down Wagner for the first time; I was also seeing this opera for the first time. It was the Reginald Goodall Ring which made a Wagnerian of me, but I never saw this part of it.
An orchestra of 20 or so – including a dozen strings, single winds, no timpani and the organ – and a simple staging, almost in the round. Add in the acoustical properties of the Grand Temple, Freemasons’ Hall, and there it is – a Gesamtkunstwerk, diminished in scale but not in power. The gain in intimacy suits this opera particularly well, as Wagner’s drama consists almost entirely of confrontations between two protagonists; they don’t have to roam a vast opera house stage in order to find each other.
Act I plays out almost as kitchen sink drama. Mime’s cave is sparsely domestic: Siegfried uses the toilet as an anvil, splitting it in two with the finished sword. Wotan/Wanderer arrives as an electrician in a boiler suit to fix a dodgy lamp. As Mime, Holden Madagame is compulsive listening and watching – a fine and mercurial singer/actor with a distinctive timbre to their voice. Siegfried enters not with a bear on a rope but clutching a teddy bear: not so much a trainee hero as an overgrown boy who needs his parents. As the programme note points out, each character is trapped in his or her own narrative – except Siegfried, who is searching for his. Each character also has his own needs: when Wotan sings grandly of his spear, he falters as he realises that his hand is empty: he takes up the cloth in which the shards of the broken sword are wrapped, clutching it to him as Siegfried does his teddy bear.
The interplay between Siegfried and Mime is both touching and chilling with Mime’s claim to be all the parents Siegfried has gaining extra resonance from Madagame’s own transgender identity. Siegfried finally creates the answer to his own need: in forging Nothung he is also forging himself. Peter Furlong, a fine and tireless Heldentenor, doffs his coat (revealing a ‘Slayer’ tee-shirt) and gives a bravura performance of this climactic scene. As flecks of orange light raced up the walls of the hall I was reminded of Job’s wry remark: ‘Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward’.
Act II takes us not into the forest but into the Woodbird’s art gallery. She (Corinne Hart) is a gracious host. In the programme book Caroline Staunton, the excellent director, writes: ‘The central conceit of our Ring cycle – the gallery exhibition space as a place of infinite potential and transformation – is the space that represents the wider world’. I have to confess that I did not fully understand how this worked: it might have been clearer if I had seen the productions of Rheingold and Die Walküre. Sitting behind me was a real-life Wotan (retired) – a pupil of Norman Bailey – and he didn’t get it either. Some consolation there. He also said that in Wagner he generally preferred ‘park and bark’ to too much stage business. What a lovely phrase.
One of the exhibits in the Woodbird’s gallery is a large box in which Fafner could be dimly seen, coiling mysteriously, through the angry encounter between Ralf Lukas’s commanding Wanderer and Oliver Gibbs’s tetchy and pugnacious Alberich. The emergence of the dragon (Craig Lemont Walters) – dressed in a suit of gold scales, and with a suitably cavernous voice – is mesmerising, the movements of his head and body (and tongue) eerily ophidian. When he comes out to fight, he appears as a woman, I am guessing Sieglinde, so that the hapless Siegfried has to – in a sense – kill her a second time. The spat between Alberich and Mime is transmuted, in this gallery/performance space, into a music-hall routine complete with top hats and canes.
In Act III Mae Heydorn makes a very striking Erda – nobody’s fool, and certainly not Wotan’s: he seems in awe of her. When Siegfried has dealt with Wotan – rejecting his offered grandfatherly hug – we discover that Brünnhilde’s mountaintop is another of the Woodbird’s installations: but a beautiful and dramatically effective one, well-suited to the advances and retreats of courtship. It consists of a series of white hanging veils and a white floor on which the Woodbird scatters swan’s feathers: white not for purity, I think, but for a blank page: tabula rasa for both of them.
Catharine Woodward is a magnificent Brünnhilde. Her Heil dir, Sonne! is quite a moment; and her instinctive outrage when Siegfried first attempts to embrace her is both terrifying and glorious, simultaneously suggesting her fear of Siegfried, of her own sexuality, and the existential shock of her new mortality. Peter Furlong’s Siegfried matches her well: I could perhaps have done without the business of the sleeves of his jumper – absurdly too long for him, which he rolls up each time he attempts to graduate from blushing boy to manly lover, only to have them unroll again as he retreats. However, his is a fine performance and Furlong and Woodward generate considerable electricity and human tenderness as the scene unfolds. When their inhibitions finally give way they break into a Dance of the Several Veils, tearing some of them down before ending up cheerfully horizontal.
Plaudits to the hard-working musicians of the orchestra, shouldering the expressive demands of a score intended for an orchestra five times the size; to Francesca Moore-Bridger for delivering Siegfried’s fiendishly difficult horn call at the entrance of Fafner’s cave: and to Ben Woodward, the arranger and lively conductor of the music. I regret not having seen and heard Keel Watson, Regents Opera’s original Wotan, and in large part the inspiration for this cycle and the foundation on which it was to be built: his recent and untimely death has led to the engagement of the experienced Wagnerian Ralf Lukas.
Regents Opera are planning performances of Götterdämmerung and two complete cycles towards the end of this year. We can only wish them well and that the necessary funding will be forthcoming: this enterprise deserves nothing less.
Featured Image: Holden Madagame (Mime) and Oliver Gibbs (Alberich) © Steve Gregson