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Reviews

03 Feb 2020

Vladimir Jurowski conducts a magnificent Siegfried

“Siegfried is the Man of the Future, the man we wish, the man we will, but cannot make, and the man who must create himself through our annihilation.” This was Richard Wagner, writing in 1854, his thoughts on Siegfried. The hero of Wagner’s Siegfried, however, has quite some journey to travel before he gets to the vision the composer described in that letter to August Roeckel. Watching Torsten Kerl’s Siegfried in this - largely magnificent - concert performance one really wondered how tortuous a journey this would be.

Siegfried: Vladimir Juroswki conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Adrian Thomson (Mime) and Torsten Kerl (Siegfried)

Photo credit: Simon Jay Price

 

If the Ring operas which surround Siegfried are monumental, or tragic, or in the case of Die Walküre even gloomy, then Siegfried is designed as an heroic comedy. There isn’t really a distinguishing line which suggests otherwise - scenes of farce abound, Siegfried encounters obstacles which are edgily comic, there are scenes where identity is never certain. In another sense it is a simple fairy tale - a story about a boy who could not learn to fear intertwined with the mythological stories of his youth and birth.

Siegfried is the only character who can really be said to make a journey through the opera and it takes a singer of some stature to convince us that happens. Unfortunately, Torsten Kerl wasn’t the man for it. There is only so much slouching in chairs, hands in pockets, eyes screwing like pinballs, and flaying of arms one can take - at the level we got it here, it did little to convey the rowdiness of the early Siegfried. Even in Act III where he should be moving into something more nuanced, Kerl seemed unwilling to deviate from his earlier youth. His threats to Wotan missed by a country mile, and “Das ist Kein Mann!” - that singular moment of great epiphany for Siegfried - remained an illusion, a journey incomplete. Kerl may have reached the summit of the mountain, and passed through the circle of fire to awaken Brünnhilde - and achieved the last of his physical tests - but this was a Siegfried who couldn’t exactly give us the shock or terror - that learning of fear - which allowed him to awaken her and pledge his love.

If Kerl’s Siegfried is shallow on depth, it would be unfair to suggest the comedy isn’t there at all. His misfortune, however, was to have a Mime in Adrian Thompson. I’m not sure I have seen any singer in a concert performance bring such energy and sheer range to the character he is portraying. Thompson’s skill isn’t to make us entirely forget that Mime is fundamentally evil - though perhaps, we got rather more deviousness than outright evil on this occasion. Thompson doesn’t exactly skimp on the comedic elements of Mime, however. His constant whinging that he cannot forge a new sword from the smashed fragments of Notung, his howls tempered with groans are all emphasised. Unlike Kerl’s Siegfried who really doesn’t act any of his comedy, Thompson simply revels in his. The danger with Mime is that one risks us having sympathy for him and with Thompson it was difficult not to do this. There was indeed something tragic, although it’s highly comic too, when Mime transforms himself from failed forger into a cook simply frying eggs. What was also so notable about Thompson’s Mime was the quality of the singing. Here we had a tenor with clarion high notes and a solid bottom register - a remarkably complete performance of the role.

The mystery of Siegfried is that its comedy masks a much darker side. The balance between Mime’s humour and his true motives and insidiousness is a thin one. Possessed by greed for the Ring, and his deceit of Siegfried whom he has plotted to poison after he has killed Fafner, it identifies him as a pantomime villain. It is something which Adrian Thompson was able to beautifully master. Wotan, on the other hand, is disguised as the Wanderer but given a crooked hat and an eye-patch to add to his comedy, when this is largely unnatural for him. Evgeny Nikitin was imposing in the role, a bass of majestic sweep and tone. His Act II ‘Riddle Scene’ with Mime was thrilling, lacking none of the narrator’s theatricality which this scene often does. His renunciation in Act III had overtones of tragedy and in his scene with Erda, Nitikin managed to sway us into believing he was simply wiser. I’m a little unsure why the audience seemed rather cool towards his performance - in many respects Nitikin brought a fascination and complexity to the role. The ‘Riddle Scene’ - as well as being beautifully sung - managed to combine the contradictions of omnipotence and ordinariness with considerable deftness. Mime’s questions - which are largely unknowable - trick the dwarf into a failure of recognition. One could see the comic side of this, but both Thompson and Nitikin layered it with effective skill.

Evgeny Nikitin Wanderer.jpg Evgeny Nikitin (Wanderer). Photo credit: Simon Jay Price.

Fafner - literally, and somewhat appropriately as it happens given where this dragon rests - was sung cavernously by Brindley Sherratt. For some reason (heaven knows why) he was represented as a cobra. If his slaying seemed more memorable for Sherratt’s voice and the power of the orchestra than Kerl’s Siegfried, this was, I suppose, because the scene can seem like farce. Only when Sherratt warned Siegfried of the treachery of Mime did it seem to rise above that. Robert Hayward’s Alberich in his scene with Wotan veered between submission and triumph, a polarity of power culminating in a magnificent Curse. If Nitikin’s Wotan had the weight to tower over Hayward in the early part of their scene Hayward would turn the balance to his favour - the voice becoming dark and menacing.

Turning to the female roles, Alina Adamski’s Woodbird was slightly darker in tone than one usually hears. The notes were there, almost in robust fashion, but when compared to the rather small birds flying on the screen behind her she seemed outsized. Anna Larsen’s Erda was majestic. There is, of course, no comedy here and the richness and plushness of Larsen’s mezzo betrayed all the seriousness of her earthiness.

Initially, Elena Pankratova’s Brünnhilde somewhat nerved me since it appeared she needed a music stand for her very long scene with Siegfried - and she did indeed flip pages here and there, though evidently she never actually looked at them. But it was a distraction. Having said that, as Brünnhilde wakes, which Pankratova managed with a certain amount of tension, and hails the light - held with the penetrating sharpness of a blazing ray from the sun - and asks who has awaken her, it becomes evident that hers is a powerful and thrilling instrument. The notes are mostly there (a high C astray once) this is a voice that rides effortlessly above the orchestra. As she recalls Grane, her shield and her armour it is not so much a literal reading of the libretto but a transfiguration of a soprano who can bring meaning to them as we listen to her. If her Siegfried in Torsten Kerl doesn’t exactly swell with the passion of their love, Pankratova expresses the ardour of it with the freshness of someone who has awakened to a new discovery. It’s the case of a soprano who effortlessly soars her emotions and a heldentenor who struggles to express what he feels.

VJ Siegfried.jpgVladimir Jurowski. Photo credit: Simon Jay Price.

If this concert production really achieved a level of true greatness it was provided by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski. The playing of the orchestra was simply staggering. They opened the first act in complete darkness, then a single light shining on the woodwind. Almost the first thing one notices is that there are no risers (except for the last desks of the violins) - a masterful stroke because the sound we get from the orchestra is completely luminous, every phrase and detail crystal clear. The sound that emerges from the double basses - arranged across the back of the orchestra - is as full as you could want, even when playing at pianissimo. Jurowski’s tendency to linger - mostly during the orchestral music - might be problematic, but it actually isn’t. The effect is loving, as if he is caressing the score, teasing music from it, allowing solos to emerge like voices. In every sense this is a true operatic orchestra and Jurowski’s mastery of the score absolutely complete.

The opening of Act III might have felt slightly weightier, less visceral than in some performances I have heard, but it swirled majestically - to an accompanying Blitzkrieg on the screen behind the orchestra. Some of the music during the Brünnhilde - Siegfried scene was charged with an erotic intensity that recalled Tristan. Those magnificent tubas could be grotesque, or they could be magnetically dramatic, plunging us into orchestral bleakness. The Forest Bird music transitioned into literal shapes rather than sounds; the heft of the brass and strings during the Fafner motif was exhilarating. John Ryan’s principal horn, moving to the front of the stage during Siegfried’s horn call, was a sublime reminder of the quality of this orchestra.

A slightly underpowered hero aside, this was a magnificent Siegfried and bodes well for the complete cycle to be performed next year.

Two complete concert stagings of Der Ring des Niebelungen will take place at the Royal Festival Hall between 25th-31 st January and 5th-10th February 2021.

Marc Bridle

Siegfried - Torsten Kerl, Wanderer - Evgeny Nitikin, Brünnhilde - Elena Pankratova, Mime - Adrian Thompson, Alberich - Robert Hayward, Fafner - Brindley Sherratt, Erda - Anna Larsen, Woodbird, Alina Adamski, Conductor - Vladimir Jurowski, London Philharmonic Orchestra

Royal Festival Hall, London; Saturday 1st February 2020.

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