ENO Siegfried (Barbican)

[Part Three of the Ring Cycle. Sung in Jeremy Sams’s English translation]

Siegfried – Stephen O’Mara
Mime – John Graham-Hall
The Wanderer – Robert Hayward
Alberich – Andrew Shore
Fafner – Gerard O’Connor
Woodbird – Alison Roddy
Erda – Patricia Bardon
Brünnhilde – Kathleen Broderick

English National Opera Orchestra
Paul Daniel

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 14 December, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The dark brooding opening of Siegfried – atmospherically evoked with creepy bassoons and reptilian tuba – places us in a location very far removed from that at the end of ’The Valkyrie’, where Brünnhilde was left asleep atop a mountain surrounded by a sea of fire. We are in a forest, and the music tells us that danger lurks – in the shape of the giant, Fafner, now transformed into a dragon by the magic Tarnhelm, which he acquired in ’The Rhinegold’, along with the ring and a store of treasure from Nibelheim.

Nervous, twitchy rhythms introduce the dwarf, Mime, brother of Alberich who stole the gold from which he fashioned the ring. Mime is one of the many ambiguous figures in ’The Ring’ whose motives are, to say the very least, questionable. Although he is determined to win the ring for himself, in the twenty years which have elapsed since the events of ’The Valkyrie’, Mime has undertaken the upbringing of Siegfried, having encountered Sieglinde in distress and subsequently witnessed her death whilst giving birth to her son. He must have had the patience of a saint to cope with the overbearing demands of the child he found unexpectedly entrusted to his care. John Graham-Hall was outstanding in this role. Firm of voice and convincing in character, he conveyed the dwarf’s malign intentions whilst not allowing us to forget the sympathetic, even vulnerable side of his personality, which Wagner allows to shine through from time to time. On occasions he even out-sang Siegfried, including a resounding top B towards the end of the first act.

The score of Siegfried teems with excitement and incident, as well as a remarkable capacity to convey mood and location. The first act in particular has an almost neurotic nervous energy about it which was convincingly borne by the orchestra which sounded even more confident than it had done previously. One consequence of this was a tendency for the playing to be too loud on occasions and almost all the cast were victims of this in places. Stephen O’Mara’s entrance, for instance, was all but inaudible. He is an artist I have had the opportunity of encountering previously in Siegfried – a concert of Act One a few years ago. He struck me then as well nigh ideal for this part, which requires appropriately superhuman strength to cope with its demands. (Recently he was an outstanding Waldemar on Robert Craft’s recording of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder.)

It therefore gives no pleasure to report a sense of disappointment on this occasion. He was often too restrained for the forthright delivery that is an essential ingredient of the character and music. The forging songs at the end of Act One (marvellously played – one could almost see and feel the steam and fire) lacked requisite heft and ringing tone. He may well have been saving his resources for the remainder of the evening – as well he might – and it is to his credit that he did not flag even in his final duet with Brünnhilde. On the positive side, his gentle musings in the forest (Act Two), especially when Siegfried is wondering what his mother was like and questioning why she died in childbirth, were touching. Perhaps when he has gained more experience in the role, he will acquire the additional strength to render such moments as the killing of Fafner all the more powerful.

Robert Hayward has grown in authority and maturity in his portrayal of Wotan – here disguised as the seemingly disinterested Wanderer. In his questioning and response to Mime in the opening act, his utterances were firm and magisterial – and he was implacable in the face of loud snoring from the audience at this point! With Alberich in Act Two, he was almost mischievous in his exchanges. Only in his summoning of Erda was he unable to muster the stamina to compete with the orchestra. One causefor concern is the spread in the voice, which was apparent from time to time and rendered words unclear and pitch uncertain. I hope this is a momentary difficulty, as he clearly has the makings of a fine Wotan.

Alberich, having been absent in ’The Valkyrie’, returns with a vengeance in the second act. Andrew Shore was, once again, superb. His almost manic pursuit of his goal was coupled with a sense of righteous indignation that it should have been taken from him. His vitriolic demeanour towards the Wanderer was understandable, and the character almost acquired a veneer of nobility.

It was good to welcome back Kathleen Broderick as a radiant Brünnhilde, whose awakening forms the final climax of the opera. Her relish of the words and music and her ability to convey personality were very affecting. In a comparatively short (in Wagnerian terms!) space of time, she is awoken from her sleep, greets the world around her, realises her new vulnerability as a mortal woman, tries to repel Siegfried and eventually capitulates to him “laughing in death”. All these many and varied moods and feelings found a ready response.

The other members of the cast were effective enough, although I prefer a darker-voice for Fafner and a less tremulous and agitated one for the Woodbird.

We now have to wait until November 2003 for the conclusion of ’The Ring’, and so this might be a suitable moment to take stock of ENO’s presentation thus far. It is a youthful cast, and none the worse for that. More experience will bring benefits, and already many of the principals are well into their roles. Paul Daniel, as I have previously observed, has a fleet-footed view of the music. There is undeniable excitement as a result, but also the occasional loss of repose and lack of weight – the latter is an important ingredient for the forthcoming ’The Twilight of the Gods’. The orchestra plays virtually flawlessly, with some especially telling woodwind and brass. I cannot muster much enthusiasm for Jeremy Sams’s translation, however. In places the words are inappropriate – when he has Mime say, in reaction to his accurate response to the Wanderer’s questions, “The dwarf’s on a roll”, or Siegfried to tell the Wanderer to “shut the hell up”. Such exclamations might be apposite for “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, the stage version of which Mr Sams is the author, but not for Wagner. Epithets such as these, and there are many others, will quickly date in a way which Wagner’s original – however convoluted – has not.

But it is good to have Wagner’s Ring in London again. With such fine artists as Andrew Shore and, above all, Kathleen Broderick (whose Brünnhilde will surely bring her international recognition) due to re- appear in Wagner’s cataclysmic climax to his tetralogy, I am already looking forward to November.

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