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Stemme Shrinks Then Soars

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 29, 2013 at 8:58 am

Review – Götterdämmerung (BBC Proms, Sunday 28 July 2013)

Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Siegfried – Andreas Schager
Hagen – Mikhail Petrenko
Gunther – Gerd Grochowski
Gutrune & Third Norn – Anna Samuil
Waltraute & Second Norn – Waltraud Meier
First Norn – Margarita Nekrasova
Alberich – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Woglinde – Aga Mikolaj
Wellgunde – Maria Gortsevskaya
Flosshilde – Anna Lapkovskaja

Royal Opera Chorus
Staatskapelle Berlin

Daniel Barenboim (Conductor)

Nina Stemme performed a magic trick last night – over and above her stunning performance and that of her colleagues.

The Swedish soprano managed to shrink the Royal Albert Hall so that over five thousand people believed that they were alone with her and she was singing just to them.

Astounding.

There aren’t words to adequately describe this performance of Götterdämmerung. Or indeed the entire cycle brought to London by Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle.

From the opening bars of Das Rheingold, through the drama of Die Walküre and the closing ecstasy of Siegfried to the final Immolation Scene last night, this is a cycle that stands comparison with the greatest. In fact, personally it surpasses all too many of them.

A constant throughout the four nights was the superlative playing of the Berlin Staatskapelle. Never have I heard such precise yet flexible playing. Every note was imbued with colour, every phrase articulated to perfection, every dynamic not only realized but also chased down with unerring precision. And if the drama was played out in front of them, then the players realized the drama themselves. Last night alone I watched as the clarinetists swayed, as the Second Violins dug deeper than ever before as Barenboim urged them to ever grittier playing the Siegfried’s Funeral March, as the brass lit up the entire hall with some of the most accomplished, and assured ensemble and solo playing I have every heard.

Yet at no point did the orchestral overpower the singers. Marshalled to perfection, under Barenboim’s leadership they were the singers’ willing friends, lovers and accomplices throughout. No detail was too small to be brought to the fore, no texture too inconsequential to highlight. Lavish attention was paid to the inner detail of Wagner’s music, no section rushed through or simply played to get to the next tableau. For example the transition to Siegfried’s Rhine Journey was full of the expected panache and arrogance of youth, but the transition back before the incredible confrontation of Stemme and Meier managed to convey the familial gloom that was about to descend.

Rising above the Staatskapelle was a cast of singers that was nothing short of the perfect ensemble.

The Rhinemaidens – Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya and Anna Lapkovskaja – made a welcome return to the stage, delighting with their finely crafted ensemble singing. Margarita Nekrasova’s First Norn alongside her sisters was in possession of a darkly hued voice perfectly suited to the role and her attention to the words was telling.

Johannes Martin Kränzle also returned as Alberich for the dream sequence at the opening of the Second Act. The return of so many of the singers in the same roles delivered in spades in terms of characterisation. Kränzle‘s Alberich of the final opera in the quartet was a Nibelung that had surpassed greed and revenge and had reached desperation.

Anna Samuil improved on her initial outing as Freia as both the Third North and Gutrune. While her voice retained a slightly brittle and brassy tone and ventured a little wayward above the stave, her performance – particularly as she awaited Siegfried’s return – as the tragic Gibichung sister was never anything less than committed. And as her brother, Gerd Grochowski’s Gunther balanced some fine singing with strong acting skills.

What Mikhail Petrenko’s Hagen may have very occasionally lacked in heft he made up for in the malevolence of his characterization. Like Terfel in Die Walküre, Petrenko deployed his stage whisper with chilling effect and combined with his fine ability to sneer through his words, he made his Hagen eminently believable and dislikeable. And ranged alongside him as his cohorts and conspirators, the excellent chorus of the Royal Opera House.

But what a difference a Siegfried can make, and in Andreas Schager I think we finally have a Siegfried of note. Schager is the man who stepped into Barenboim’s Ring when the contracted Siegfried – Lance Ryan – did not turn up.

Lucky for us Schager set his watch correctly.

From the get go this was a Siegfried to be reckoned with. Vocally stunning til the end, Schager was not only technically stunning, but he also possesses a clear, bright tenor voice, burnished and even and – most importantly – able to deliver the broadest dynamic range with any drop in the quality of his singing. From his opening duet with Nina Stemme to his final monologue, Schager was Siegfried and this was only made more pronounced by his excellent acting. This was a Siegfried with swagger, exuberance and more than a little naïve arrogance.

So finally to the two leading ladies.

First, Waltraud Meier. I still remember her Ortrud in Munich and here, both as Waltraute and Second Norn, she once again demonstrated that she is, quite simply, a singer of incredible distinction, experience and authority with a voice that literally shines. And the audience showed their appreciation and veneration for Ms Meier at the end. Waltraute might be a small role but in Waltraud Meier it had both stature and nobility.

And Nina Stemme? Over the course of the cycle – from the exuberance of her opening Hojotoho in Die Walküre to her final Selig grüsst dich dein Weib! – this magnificent soprano took the entire audience on Brünnhilde’s journey from Immortal Warrior to Woman.

Stemme’s performance had everything. Vocally secure throughout, there was a steely sheen and gloss combined with a depth and weight in her voice that carried her both above and through the orchestra. And it was a Brünnhilde of great subtlety. Stemme displayed a stunning control of both dynamic range and colour that was thrilling. Her sense of horror at the end of the First Act was nothing compared to the white-hot rage as she realizes her deception by Siegfried and the resultant blood-curdling trio as she exacts her revenge. And all delivered with such passion, vitality and breadth of colour that the audience collectively held its breath.

But nothing prepared the audience for the final scene. Here the sweep of grandeur of Stemme’s voice, her total commitment, the sense not only of finality, but both justice and love was wrapped up in the most incredible Immolation scene ever heard.

And what a dramatic coup – placing her above the orchestra, above the audience. Amazing.

Her success was evident in the roar of approval from the audience. It was nothing short of any shout than can be heard in any sports stadium.

Finally to Daniel Barenboim. Genius. Simply genius.

Over four nights he brought Wagner’s music to life, painting a succession of scenes in both words and sound that was nothing short of perfection. And his short speech at the end, after all the cheering, was brilliant.

And his clear love of the Ring cycle was evident throughout. Not in the fact that he didn’t always need the score; or that he energetically exhorted the orchestra to dig deeper and deeper into the music; or that he coaxed and directed the singers, shaping their phrases with his gestures.

No. It was in those moments when he stood back against the podium and let the music sing out for itself.

This was a Ring cycle not of note but of history. And to be part of it was more than exhilarating. Or exciting. Or momentous.

It was humbling.

Brangäne und (Tristan und) Isolde

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 28, 2013 at 10:52 am

Review – Tristan und Isolde (BBC Prom, Saturday 27 July 2013)

Tristan – Robert Dean Smith
Isolde – Violea Urmana
Brangäne – Mihoko Fujimura
Kurwenal – Boaz Daniel
King Mark – Kwangchui Youn
Melot – David Wilson-Johnson
Steersman – Edward Price
Shepherd/Young Sailor – Andrew Staples

Cor Anglais – Alison Teale

BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra

Semyon Bychov (Conductor)

Personally it was an odd choice for Roger Wright to programme Tristan und Isolde smack bang in the middle of Barenboim’s magnificent Ring cycle at the Proms. With Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and Siegfried still fresh in the audience’s mind – unkindly or not – comparisons would have been made.

For the most part favourably I would imagine.

It also struck me – attending the Berlin Ring and last night’s performance – how many Prom debuts were being made as a result of the Wagner bicentenary. I just hope that the BBC – with its newfound commitment to ‘culture’ – doesn’t wait another two hundred years.

The beauty of the Proms is that they sometimes reveal to the UK audience a number of previously unknown remarkable performers.

Ultimately I think that this Tristan und Isolde will be remembered for the stand-out and utterly compelling performance of Mihoko Fujimura.

Her Brangäne even surpassed her mistress Isolde with an absolutely stunning performance. Ms Fujimura’s mezzo was both bright and warm with a depth and richness that was missing from her colleagues.

Ms Fujimura gave an impassioned, vocally secure and musically intelligent performance the likes I have not seen since Sofie von Otter for Peter Sellars or Sarah Connolly for Jurowski.

And the singer ensured that her Brangäne was no cipher. Her horror in the First Act was palpable and her interjections in the Second Act nothing short of mesmerizing. Even her final short interjections in the final act were wonderfully accomplished.

It is not surprising that Ms Fujimura was the recipient of the loudest cheer and applause of the evening. So why do we not see more of this mezzo-soprano in the UK?

Sadly Peter Seiffert cancelled as Tristan and was replaced by Robert Dean Smith. I have mixed feelings about this tenor. Having seen him previously successfully negotiating the the Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten and a splendid Bachhus in Ariadne auf Naxos, his Tannhauser disappointed – it was strained and one dimensional.

And sadly his Tristan was very much the same.

Even having drunk the love potion, this Tristan was emotionally flat and vocally disappointing. The strain of singing this role is most telling as Robert Dean Smith heads towards the end of a phrase – the tone tightens and more often than not the last note is clipped or snatched.

There was some fine singing – especially the opening of the exquisite O sink hernieder Nacht der Liebe – but it was rather a Tristan of individual moments, not a sustained performance. At times he resorted to barking above the orchestra – and pace Maestro Bychov, you weren’t always the most sympathetic conductor to you singers – and at points of the vital Third Act monologue completely lost. As a result the dramatic impetus of this marvelous scene was mostly lost on me.

But most distracting was the ever increasing ‘beat’ in his voice that became evident in the Second Act, undermining to an extent the duet.

Again it could be that the venue isn’t doing the singers any favours, but when the vast majority of other singers are managing and in fact overcoming similar challenges, that can only form part of the problem.

Violeta Urmana was by contrast an emotionally intense and vocally formidable Isolde. Her voice may adopt a slightly harsh and brittle tone at the top of her register but she uses it to her advantage. It was thrilling in the curse scene and her confrontation with Tristan in the First Act for example but in the Second Act love scene an added warmth infused her voice. And the Liebestod was both beautiful and dramatic. Rising above the orchestra, Ms Urmana powered up to the inevitable climax but then didn’t fail to float those final few notes perfectly.

Of the rest of the cast Andrew Staples, as the Young Sailor high above our heads after the opening was clear and bright. The remaining singers were passable without being notable. Kwangchui Youn was a solid King Mark – the notes were there if nothing else.

The gentlemen of BBC Symphony Chorus were in fine voice and the Orchestra found that balance between the sensuality and swagger of Wagner’s music. The opening of the Prelude and the final act were beautifully wrought and the fevered intensity of the opening of the second act was both articulate and transparent.

And extra special kudos for the eloquent and haunting playing of Alison Teale. Simply beautiful.

Semyon Bychov himself was a conductor of two extremes with – surprisingly – very little in between. Her drew some excellent playing from the orchestra – as I have mentioned the sensuality was there as were the crowning moments – but there was little of the ebb and flow that Tristan und Isolde should have and some of the tempos – in the duet and final Liebestod for example – felt slightly hurried. And at times the orchestra simply overwhelmed the singers.

It cannot be denied that by the end of the performance this Tristan und Isolde was ‘Proms perfect’ in that sense of a star revealed.

The audience got to hear and revel in the beautiful voice and memorable Brangäne of Ms Mihoko Fujimura.

Pseudo Siegfried

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 27, 2013 at 10:26 am

Review – Siegfried (BBC Prom, Friday 26 July 2013)

Siegfried – Lance Ryan
Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Wanderer – Terje Stensvold
Mime – Peter Bronder
Alberich – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Fafner – Eric Halfvarson
Woodbird – Rinnat Moriah
Erda – Anna Larsson

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (Conductor)

I suppose if I had paid attention at school, the law of statistics – or was it probability – would have told me that things cannot remain constant.

After an excellent Das Rheingold and a white hot Die Walküre that something had to give. It was also interesting to note that after the crush of the first two operas, there were noticeably a few empty seats. Personally I struggle with Siegfried at the best of times and it’s good to know that perhaps I am not alone.

That something was Siegfried. Literally.

That is not to say that Lance Ryan wasn’t a competent and in some parts, a formidable Siegfried – and perhaps it was the unforgiving acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall at times – but it wasn’t a consistent Siegfried.

He clearly has the vocal range for the role and there were moments in the Second and Third Act where he sang with both great authority and eloquence. Daß der mein Vater nicht ist was beautifully delivered as was his monologue before the appearance of Brünnhilde. And dramatically there were some telling moments – for example his confrontation with the Wanderer. But in the First Act and the final duet with Nina Stemme it wasn’t so much the strain of singing above the orchestra as the lack of heft and in some places – the Forging Song –it was very noticeable. Indeed there were times when Ryan didn’t seem able to follow what Barenboim was clearly seeking from him.

I am in sure in an opera house, with the orchestra in the pit, Ryan’s Siegfried is the whole package, but while in South Kensington it was both compelling and well acted, vocally it lacked that vital sheen and depth.

And just a note here on the acting. It faltered in Das Rheingold but in both Die Walküre and Siegfried the singers have literally inhabited the stage.

Barenboim drew some wonderful singing from the rest of the cast. The Mime of Peter Bronder might have fared better with stronger vocal characterisation and there were moments when I almost felt like he was shouting to be heard, but both Johannes Martin Kränzle as Alberich and the Fafner of Eric Halfvarson continued their strong performances from the opening opera of the quartet. Similarly, Terje Stensvold’s Wanderer was incredibly strong – both vocally and dramatically. His performance oozed a real sense of experience.

Anna Larsson returned as Erda sans the excessive vibrato of Das Rheingold and delivered the Earth Goddess with deep and velvety authority and the Woodbird of Rinnat Moriah was a delight. Perched at the top of the hall, her bright soprano literally shone and floated and whereas it is quite commons for the Woodbird to sound rushed, Barenboim indeed expertly made it all sound fluid, relaxed and birdlike without halting or slowly the tempo.

And Nina Stemme continued to enthrall the audience and delivered an incredibly strong, vocally secure and impressive Brünnhilde in the final act. She commands the stage as ever from her first appearance. It has been a long time since I have heard the Siegfried Brünnhilde sung with such a range of emotion and colour.

As ever Barenboim drew some incredible playing from the Staatskapelle Berlin. I have never heard the horn solo – or any of the instrumental solos in Siegfried – played with such aplomb and beauty. The brass were particularly impressive and I have never heard any performance where the players and conductor have created so many different colours and hues. The opening, so expertly controlled by Barenboim in terms of dynamics and tempo was chilling but it was the playing in the final scenes – Barenboim almost up from the podium to exhort the brass to ever greater brilliance – that was simply astounding.

The combination of Barenboim, the Staatskapelle and a cast including Stemme, Waltraud Meier and Mikhail Petrenko promises an incredible end to the cycle on Sunday with Götterdämmerung.

O hehrstes Wunder!

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 24, 2013 at 10:46 am

Review – Die Walküre (BBC Prom – Tuesday 23 July 2013)

Wotan – Bryn Terfel
Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Siegmund – Simon O’Neill
Sieglinde – Anja Kampe
Hunding – Eric Halfvarson
Fricka – Ekaterina Gubanova
Gerhilde – Sonja Mühleck soprano
Ortlinde – Carola Höhn
Waltraute – Ivonne Fuchs
Schwertleite – Anaïk Morel
Helmwige – Susan Foster
Siegrune – Leann Sandel-Pantaleo
Grimgerde – Anna Lapkovskaja
Rossweisse – Simone Schröder

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (Conductor)

Sieglinde’s O hehrstes Wunder said it all.

On the strength of the first two performances and if the BBC is smart it will find a way to issue this Prom Ring cycle on CD or download.

Clearly Das Rheingold was simply the warm-up because on the second night of the BBC Proms’ first ever complete Ring cycle, Daniel Barenboim, a second-to-none cast and the Staatskapelle Berlin delivered a Die Walküre of such intensity that I haven’t personally experienced either on stage or in concert performance.

The quality of the performances, the playing and the acting on that limited stage all came together in a perfect moment.

It brought back memories of that night in 2005 and a single, isolated performance of Die Walküre. However the emotional intensity of the Berliners performance exceeded even the emotional temperature of that evening.

And Bryn Terfel sung in both. I will admit, I have never truly been convinced by his Wotan – until last night.

Having also seen him at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan I have always felt that there was that final ‘something’ missing. Not so of his Wotan on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall. Perhaps it was because he was stripped bare of the distractions of a stage setting that his performance was incredible. Vocally he chartered the descent of Wotan from arrogant God to loving and distraught father. Every phrase was thought through and convincingly delivered – the words always clear, his voice marvelously shaded, the phrasing beautifully shaped, his singing always incredibly expressive. His was a Wotan worth reckoning with – from his incredible scene with Fricka to his final showdown and heartrending breakdown. His Leb wohl was both majestic and human.

As his wife, Ekaterina Gubanova continued her tour de force as Fricka. And my God from her first appearance, as she slinked down the stairs, she sounded and looked the part. I have yet to finish my review of Gergiev’s recording of this opera simply because I struggle to get beyond listening to the second act with Ms Gubanova. And here she displayed the same high level of musicianship, that beautifully rich and almost muscular mezzo that perfectly conveys the haughty grandeur required of Fricka. Throughout the scene this was a Fricka in control – not completely the woman still hopefully in love of Stephanie Blythe – but a Goddess. Yet, right at the end, once she had extracted the necessary promise from Wotan, there was a sudden and unexpected sign that this was a Fricka who still loved her husband as he sat broken.

At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum was Anja Kampe’s incredible performance Sieglinde. From the vulnerability of her opening scene with Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund and their burgeoning love, her distress in the Second Act to her final exultant and ringing O hehrstes Wunder, Kampe displayed a vocal authority that has definitely grown since I first saw her in this role. Her voice was strong and even throughout its range and again the colours she injected into her singing was tingling.

Opposite Sieglinde, Simon O’Neill was a credible and vocally secure Siegmund. I wonted for more drama in his characterization and perhaps at times greater depth to his singing but there was no denying his commitment in the role.

Hunding as bully was brilliantly portrayed by the deep and brutal singing of Eric Halfvarson. But his was no cipher in performance. Above the brutish and threatening vocal stance he adopted – and led by Barenboim – Halfvarson also uncovered the oft missed – and in many ways – more threatening ability to find those moments in Hunding’s music to sneer and patronise.

And Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde? Personally there aren’t sufficient superlatives.

Unlike in San Francisco, where she was head and shoulders above her colleagues, here Ms Stemme was equally matched by the rest of the cast and it strengthened and enriched her performance. Vocally secure throughout her Brünnhilde was simply stunning and spot on. Her eloquence in the role was simply mesmerising. She made you hear and feel everything – from Brünnhilde’s initial bravado as Wotan’s favourite to the wonder and awe as she witnessed true love to the anguish and fear of defying of father.

There simply isn’t a Brünnhilde like her today.

Even the Walküre – sometimes a hit and miss affair of competitive singing – were marshalled and made a thrilling ensemble. Vocally secure, each had a sufficiently identifiable vocal timbre that made them individuals as well.

So to Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin.

Simply genius.

Barenboim – conducting the first act without glancing at the score – seemed more involved than his measured conducting of Das Rheingold. Clearly this is an opera he loves dearly and it showed in his gestures to the orchestra. Never was this more noticeable than when he was driving the orchestra towards the final bars of each of the three acts. Or when he was exhorting the excellent brass section to greater – if it was possible – grandeur in their playing. Or threat and menace generated at the very beginning, when his physical gestures that had the strings digging deep from the beginning. Or when he motioned to the singers at critical moments in the drama.

And the Staatskapelle responded with deeply committed and passionate playing. Focused, attentive and engrossed in the music, each and every player was part of the drama that Barenboim unfolded on the stage.

I did not see the ‘altercation’ at the end of the Second Act but if performance is sometimes about artistic difference then it worked because I do believe that the playing in the final act even managed to surpass that of the preceding acts.

After a brilliant Das Rheingold, it was impossible to think that the ensemble could raise the bar with Die Walküre. But they did.

It makes the expectation of the Siegfried to come almost unbearable.

All That Glistens …

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 23, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Review – Das Rheingold (BBC Prom – Monday 22 July 2013)

Wotan – Iain Paterson
Fricka – Ekaterina Gubanova
Alberich – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Loge – Stephan Rügamer
Fasolt – Stephen Milling
Fafner – Eric Halfvason
Mime – Peter Bronder
Woglinde – Aga Mikolaj
Wellgunde – Maria Gortsevskaya
Flosshilde – Anna Lapkovskaja
Freia – Anna Samuil
Donner – Jan Buchwald
Froh – Marius Vlad
Erda – Anna Larsson

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (Conductor)

… is most definitely gold.

Daniel Barenboim, an almost excellent cast and the luminous Staatskapelle launched the BBC Proms’ first ever Ring Cycle with an incredibly dramatic and committed performance of Das Rheingold.

Even before he had raised his baton, an excited and enthusiastic audience greeted Barenboim. And he didn’t disappoint. Seemingly from out of nowhere he drew the opening notes from the Staatskapelle Berlin with both incredible precision and dynamic control.

Das Rheingold is not the most dramatic of the four operas that make up the cycle but from the onset Barenboim found an unerring sense of drama in both the music and the singing. Indeed, there was a muscularity to the orchestral playing that is often lacking from this opening opera and not once – despite the sometimes troubling acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall – did Barenboim fail also to point up the delicacy of Wagner’s orchestral writing.

And the orchestra responded in kind with some of the most luminous playing I have heard in a long time at the Proms or anywhere else. The strings – including the harps – had both depth and warmth, the brass was incredibly burnished and the woodwind’s beautifully pointed playing sparkled throughout.

And Barenboim kept a tight leash on the dynamics, not unleashing the full force of the orchestra until the very end as the Gods entered Valhalla.

I could easily have listened to the Staatskapelle perform Das Rheingold “ohne worte”, but above their incredibly and accomplished playing, Barenboim deployed an almost faultless cast. Glancing at the programme most of the singers have sung in this production it seems with Barenboim in Berlin and the sense of ensemble shone through.

And none of the singers was ‘lost’ in the hall’s acoustic either.

The three Rhinemaidens – Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya and Anna Lapkovskaja – not only sang their roles individually with great aplomb and vocal warmth but their ensemble singing was mesmerising.

The Alberich of Johannes Martin Kränzle was a strongly nuanced performance and his curse was chilling. For his short time on stage, Peter Bronder captured the sniveling character of Mime perfectly and I look forward to his return in Siegfried. Similarly the giants Fasolt and Fafner were nicely caricatured with Fasolt bringing at times an almost lieder-like delivery to some of his vocal lines. And while Jan Buchwald and Marius Vlad as Donner and Froh respectively gave fine performances, personally I found Anna Samuil’s Freia rather sharp with a distracting vibrato. Strangely it seemed to fit the goddess’s sense of hysteria but I hope that her Gutrune is less shrill.

I have always enjoyed Anna Larsson’s singing and her Erda – from above the orchestra – was thrilling. Ms Larsson has a rich and resonant mezzo perfectly suited to this role and again I look forward to her confrontation with Wotan later on.

But it was Fricka, Wotan and Loge who stole the evening vocally.

Stephan Rügamer was a perfect Loge. His light yet bright tenor rose above the orchestra to portray the character to perfection and put me in mind of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Loge for Opera North. From his initial appearance to his final – almost snarling – closing words as he left the Gods to their own devices, Rügamer made it clear that this Loge had nothing but contempt for his half-brothers and sisters. It was a shame to realize we won’t be hearing him again.

I enjoyed Iain Paterson’s Gunther in the Met’s production of the Ring and his Wotan for Barenboim showed great promise for a complete Wotan in a cycle at some point in the near future I hope. His interpretation of this Rheingold Wotan was both thoughtful and well sung. He displayed both Wotan’s godlike arrogance as well as his insecurity with some distinctive and shaded singing.

But for me it was Ekaterina Gubanova’s Fricka who gave the strongest performance. As in the recent Gergiev recording, she manages to find the balance between Goddess and Wife with a lustrous, well-rounded and even voice that digs into the words. Simply marvelous and her confrontation with her husband in Die Walküre should raise the temperature a few degrees.

There was always going to be a real sense of excitement and high expectation with this Ring Cycle at the Proms.

Barenboim, the soloists and the Staatskapelle did not disappoint.

Principally Flawed

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 7, 2013 at 9:59 am

Review – Siegfried (Opera North, The Lowry, Saturday 6 July 2013)

Siegfried – Mati Turi
Mime – Richard Roberts
Wanderer – Michael Druiett
Alberich – Jo Pohlheim
Fafner – Mats Almgren
Woodbird – Fflur Wyn
Erda – Ceri Williams
Brünnhilde – Annalena Persson

Vocal Consultants – Dame Anne Evans & Sir John Tomlinson

Staging & Design Concept – Peter Mumford

Orchestra of Opera North
Conductor – Richard Farnes

While Opera North’s Siegfried was an improvement on last year’s Die Walküre, it still remained far from a totally convincing performance on the whole.

It seems that the main impediment remains casting and like last year the strongest performances came from the singers in the smaller roles.

Jo Pohlheim’s performance as Alberich towered above the other male singers in the cast. His wonderfully dark, resonant base rose effortlessly above the orchestra and with diction was clear and precise making his characterisation of Alberich sharply etched. His repertoire includes both Wotan himself and Wozzeck and I would image that these would both be performances worth booking tickets for. Personally though, I didn’t get the gloves.

Fflur Wyn – who I admired in Opera North’s production of La Clemenza di Tito – continued to impress. She has a warm yet bright soprano with a vocal agility that made the role seemingly effortless as she glided through the Woodbird’s music. It’s a tricky role and perhaps Farnes could have given her a little more ebb and flow but it didn’t faze her at all. Definitely Ms Wyn is someone to keep and a look out for. Similarly Ceri Williams’ dusky and rich voice was perfectly suited to Erda and proved more than a match vocally for Wotan in the Third Act.

Problems with both intonation and diction marred what was otherwise a strong performance of Fafner from Mats Algrem who was of suitably pitch-black tone. Admittedly Fafner in Siegfried is a rather thankless role in Siegfried and I would like to hear either his Hunding or Hagen.

After Michael Druiett’s fine performance in Das Rheingold his Wanderer was disappointing. At the time I wondered if he had the heft for ‘later’ Wotan and sadly it proved he did not. A rather two-dimensional characterisation was not helped by a lack of both colour and depth in his singing on this occasion and more than once he was out-gunned by the orchestra despite Farnes’ sensitivity to an extent not suffered by the rest of the ensemble. Indeed at times the lower end of his range seemed to disappear altogether. Most tellingly, his confrontation with his nemesis Alberich left me wanting not so much a role reversal but two Alberich’s and no Wotan. His subsequent confrontation with his ‘grandson’ in the Third Act was only slightly alleviated by a slightly weaker than expected performance by Siegfried at that precise moment. Perhaps for the full cycle Opera North might consider casting Jo Pohlheim for the full cycle?

Similarly the reason for casting Annalena Persson as Brünnhilde continues to elude me completely. Even in this somewhat limited appearance, Persson was uneven in tone and distractingly shrill – almost squally – in her upper range. It seemed that she had forsake vocal accuracy for individual top notes that were less gleaming that brittle. Fortunately she is not cast in Opera North’s Götterdämmerung and having now seen two of her three Brünnhildes a year apart doesn’t fill me with confidence that this is a she should continue to sing.

And so to the two main protagonists.

I admired Richard Roberts’ original Mime in Das Rheingold. At the time I said it was no cipher yet in Siegfried while there were moments when that Mime re-appeared – for example just before his demise – for the most part it seemed to be missing for large parts of his performance. Vocally there wasn’t quite enough characterisation or colour and while his diction was good, he didn’t seem to revel in the particular German than Wagner scribed for this character much in the way that he wrote for Alberich.

And clearly Mati Turi has it in him to be a great Siegfried. One day. He received good notices for his performance at Longborough and there is no doubt that on the whole his Siegfried for Opera North was strong. However for me there was a question about his pacing of the role. Giving his all in the First Act, where his singing was full and round with beautiful phrasing and dynamic control, three quarters through the Second Act it did seem that his voice was tiring. And while the longer interval between the second and third Acts would have helped, his first entry in the final Act – his confrontation with Wotan – sounded for the most part snatched, almost as if he was deliberately saving himself for the closing scenes. And perhaps he was, because there was clearly a greater shine to his voice for most of his scene with Brünnhilde. Overall while his voice is clear and pretty even throughout its range, I did wont for a bit more light and shade and a more finely tuned interpretation of the role. All this I am sure is not far off and it’s a shame that he will not be singing Siegfried in next year’s Götterdämmerung.

Stage-wise, Peter Mumford continued with his smart – if now somewhat predictable – design concept. Seen a year apart they remain effective without being distracting, but I do wonder how quickly they will go from effective and non-distracting to tedious end-to-end when the complete cycle is performed over a single week or so.

But finally plaudits must go to Farnes and the Orchestra of Opera North. Farnes – bar a small slip in momentum during the initial meeting of the young lovers – had got to grip with the sweep and overall architecture of Siegfried. Tempos were well judged throughout and he pulled out the orchestral detail and allowed the leitmotivs to shine through without too much over emphasis. And this attention to detail resulted in some luminous playing from the orchestra and bar a single moment already mentioned, he was sensitive accompanist to the singers. And special mention must go to the Robert Ashworth for his exemplary solo in the Second Act, but throughout the ensemble playing was of the highest standard from start to finish. For example, the way Farnes singled out the harp line in the first act, and thebeautifully placed wind and brass chords just before Brünnhilde’s awakening.

Ultimately however this Siegfried continued to demonstrate similar fault lines – although not as deep – as last year’s Die Walküre. While Farnes’ grip of the third opera in the cycle was impressive, casting the principle roles remains Opera North’s biggest challenge. With Alwyn Mellor as their final Brünnhilde and Daniel Brenna perhaps they might have cracked it.

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