Siegfried [Second day of Der Ring des Nibelungen – Music Drama in three acts; libretto by the composer; concert performance sung in German]

Siegfried – Jon Fredric West
Mime – Volker Vogel
The Wanderer – Evgeny Nikitin
Alberich – Sergei Leiferkus
Fafner – Mikhail Petrenko
Woodbird – Natalie Karl
Erda – Qiu Lin Zhang
Brünnhilde – Olga Sergeeva

Orchestre de Paris
Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 16 July, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The annual presentation at the Proms of the complete ‘Ring’, continued with this distinguished performance of what was the original starting-point, dramatically speaking, of the whole cycle.

Less apparently ‘starry’ than the 2004 “Das Rheingold” (conducted by Simon Rattle) and last year’s “Die Walküre” (with Domingo and Terfel, conducted by Antonio Pappano), this “Siegfried” (the first complete performance at the Proms), perhaps inevitably, drew a decidedly less than capacity audience.

I had not previously considered Christoph Eschenbach as either an operatic or a Wagnerian conductor, nor was I aware that Orchestre de Paris has been participating in productions at the Théâtre du Châtelet since 1992. In fact, Eschenbach and his orchestra (of which he has been Music Director since 2000) were involved with Robert Wilson’s production of “Der Ring des Nibelungen” earlier this year at the Châtelet, as was several of this Proms’ cast.

The orchestral playing impressed right from the start; the musicians and Eschenbach conveyed the dark, brooding atmosphere quite superbly, aided by an excellent tuba whose insinuating lines were notable for their security of intonation and scrupulous observation of dynamics – the latter a feature of this performance as a whole.

One of the many pleasures of this “Siegfried” was being able to appreciate Wagner’s wonderful score – possibly the most ‘forward looking’ of the ‘Ring’ – without the visual distractions which often deflect attention from both the music and the composer’s intended dramaturgy. One need look no further than recent productions in London for instances of these. It is frequently the case that Mime is presented rather congenially, as a character that is ‘put upon’ and has to tolerate Siegfried’s uncouth behaviour. But the fact that Mime has reared Siegfried for purely selfish motives – namely the recovery of the ring – should not be overlooked.

Volker Vogel – the only German in the cast – suggested a more malevolent figure, frustrated and bitter to a degree. This he achieved through biting diction and firm delivery. His occasional resorting to half-speaking and -shouting odd phrases was not attractive, but at least he did not descend into the realm of caricature that often happens with this role.

As the eponymous hero, Jon Fredric West was a consistently fine exponent of this well-nigh-impossible part. His tenor has just the right weight – a real ‘Heldentenor’ sound, in fact – and he has the stamina to sustain the part throughout. West was also sensible in keeping something in reserve for the final scene with Brünnhilde. Many Siegfrieds have expired by this point – if not before – but West sang it uncommonly strongly and well, as if suggesting growing maturity on the part of the character. This made up for a less than ‘full-on’ climax to the Act One forging songs, well enough sung as they were. His ruminative moments were touching and one was genuinely caught up – and interested – in this Siegfried’s personality and predicaments.

Evgeny Nikitin presented a youngish sounding Wanderer (Wotan in none-too-subtle a disguise) but any lack of the sense of weariness was compensated for by fullness of tone and an authoritative delivery of the vocal lines. In his Act One exchange with Mime there was an unfortunate mistiming of some pre-recorded thunder. It was heard too early, thus spoiling the moment – the action, of course, intended to be co-ordinated with the music – when the stage direction indicates that a thunderclap is heard when the Wanderer’s spear hits the ground as if by accident.

I very much liked Eschenbach’s pacing of the drama. There was care for the shape of individual scenes, but a sense of inexorability led events onwards. The final pages of Act One were truly exhilarating – it was gratifying to hear the dotted rhythms in the trumpets so clearly articulated – rather than a mere quick dash to the double bar. Orchestra and conductor once again set the scene ideally for the opening events of Act Two.

Sergei Leiferkus suggested a resentful, fretful Alberich obsessed with the notion of the ring being returned to him. His is perhaps a lighter baritone than one sometimes hears in the part, but this made for a most effective contrast with Nikitin’s Wanderer and, later on, Vogel’s Mime. In these duets, there was good interplay between the characters again, fully engaging the audience’s involvement. Siegfried’s reflective passages in the forest brought forth some ravishing woodwind playing – flute, oboe and clarinet all first-rate – and expressive string sounds, with mellifluous violin and cello solos.

Fafner was first heard – very effectively – as a disembodied voice, and Mikhail Petrenko projected the character with appropriate dourness and menace. It was good to hear the ‘fight’ music without the moaning and groaning that are often heard emanating from whoever is playing Fafner – once more, Eschenbach was most effective at building to the climax of this scene – and in his death throes, Petrenko evoked genuine sympathy for the doomed giant.

I didn’t care too much for Natalie Karl’s singing of the Woodbird; something lighter and brighter was needed in place of her rather too forceful delivery. And her top notes did not sound effortless.

The stormy Act Three prelude was full of portent, and the Wanderer’s summoning of Erda authoritative. This is a very heavily scored scene and the orchestra was sometimes overpowering. This is probably a place where the ideal sound can only be obtained via Bayreuth’s ‘covered’ pit. Qiu Lin Zhang has a dark, contralto-like timbre and though her words were a little cloudy she nevertheless conveyed authority and wisdom in the few phrases Wagner allotted her.

The encounter between the Wanderer and Siegfried had all the feeling of growing tension that it should, both West and Nikitin relishing the text and engaging in effective interplay. The orchestral depiction of Siegfried plunging into the flames which surround Brünnhilde’s rock was truly cataclysmic, and Eschenbach realised a superb slowing-down towards its close, leading into the cooler, calmer airs when Siegfried emerges unscathed on the mountain-top. The violins were unimpeachable in their intonation and ensemble in this tricky passage.

Brünnhilde’s awakening, limned with delicate strings and harps (though only four, as opposed to the prescribed six) – found Olga Sergeeva conveying a warm, sensuous figure, initially resisting Siegfried’s protestations of love and finally capitulating. She and West sang the final moments with increasing ardour, backed by a sure and strong accompaniment. One or two odd infelicities apart (most surprisingly in the solo horn), the playing of Orchestre de Paris was consistent and responsive. A word of special praise must go to the bass clarinet whose extensive lines were most beautifully played, and caused one to reflect that Wagner’s writing for this instrument in the Ring was unprecedented.

But Christoph Eschenbach must take the ultimate plaudits for this very satisfying realisation of what is arguably the most difficult segment of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ to ‘bring off’ in performance.

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