Richard Farnes
Opera North Orchestra
27 May 2016
Town Hall Leeds
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedLars Cleveman
MimeRichard Roberts
WotanBéla Perencz
AlberichJo Pohlheim
FafnerMats Almgren
ErdaClaudia Huckle
BrünnhildeKatherine Broderick
WaldvogelClaudia Huckle
Stage directorPeter Mumford (2013, semi-staged)
Set designerPeter Mumford (video)
TV directorPeter Mumford

Opera North’s Siegfried Disappoints

This acclaimed Ring from Opera North began in 2011 and I wonder how much it would have taken over the interim years to enhance the presentation with a few props. A semi-staged Siegfried needs little more than an anvil, sword, small hammer, piece of reed, knife, horn, Tarnhelm, ring, spear and a shield for Brünnhilde. What do we see? … well, none of them! I have come to Opera North’s Wagner rather late for these last two operas and appreciate how much they have been praised for touring this version of Wagner’s Ring and introducing new audiences to it. This has been laudable and I hope those perhaps hearing it for the first time will now seek out a proper staging, something better acted, sung and possibly played. Perhaps they will go to Longborough, starting in 2018.

I know Opera North were on a shoestring budget but they would not have needed much more money for those props which would have spared me (and others?) lots of slightly risible miming at key moments. There were three large screens behind the orchestra on which was displayed an occasional commentary on the plot as if what was unfolding was a Grimm Brothers’ fairy-tale. (Often all we need to know is already there in the English translation of the libretto, which we can read.) There was also some eclectic videography which was often mismatched and not what we should be seeing at those points in the story. At the opening of the opera we hear the dragon Fafner in the music when we see flickering flames. From then on Peter Mumford, who conceived the staging and the projections, seemed very keen on flames! If it was not flames then we were often showed what looked like the Russian steppes or rippling waves.

The singers were restricted to a very narrow walkway in front of the orchestra. There were eight chairs in a row which they regularly made use of but they all knew their roles so there were (thankfully) no music stands. There was minimal interaction between the characters who would just walk to a spot on the platform and sing facing out to the audience. There are no special costumes and the singers seem to have been left to their own devices – some were dressed up whilst Siegfried was jacketless with an untied bowtie around his neck. Béla Perencz’s Wanderer looked for all the world with his fedora and overcoat like another Bela … Lugosi in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. There were some minimal lighting effects, such as a sickly green glow for the forest and when Fafner died he was bathed in light which was blood red.

The budget did not extend to singers of the best Wagnerian calibre either and I would expect to hear Siegfried better sung at Longborough and in Saffron Walden as they start or continue their way through their Rings. Richard Roberts is a known quantity as Mime but here was hyperactive and clearly trying too hard, overacting and unfortunately under-singing. The shaven-headed Lars Cleveman has sung Siegfried at the Met, but despite a solid technique and excellent stamina his voice was more elderly sounding and stentorian than bright and heroic. More importantly, it was a very small-scale Siegfried and he did not project far enough into the Royal Festival Hall. Béla Perencz was miscast as the Wanderer and he lacked authority. His soft-grained baritone (sounding like Verdi’s Germont père) would have been ideal as Alberich. As for Jo Pohlheim’s Alberich … his dark timbre was exactly what was needed for the Wanderer! Good singers, but singing the wrong roles in my humble opinion. Mats Almgren and Jeni Bern made the most of their few moments as Fafner and the Voice of the Forest Bird. Clearly yet another fine singer, Ceri Williams however lacked depth and resonance for Erda. As for American soprano Kelly Cae Hogan’s Brünnhilde I will reserve judgement until after Götterdämmerung, but I never heard the ecstatic radiance I should have and her voice did not seem entirely secure despite displaying a commendable dramatic intensity.

I don’t know quite what Richard Farnes thought he was conducting in Act I as he danced on the podium all the way through as if it was Vienna’s New Year’s Day concert. Act I was much too jaunty (a word I have never applied to Wagner before) and lacked atmosphere and threat. Things improved by the time we got to the Forest Murmurs in Act II and the intensity of that wonderful orchestral passage, the Prelude to Act III. Orchestral balance was fine but the volume tended to favour his quieter singers and the playing was generally reliable but the solo horn player was clearly out of sorts for Siegfried’s horn call in Act II.

Jim Pritchard | Royal Festival Hall, London, 1.7.2016

Huddersfield Daily Examaminer

Siegfried by Opera North shows its humorous side

Siegfried is often referred to as the scherzo of the Ring Cycle which implies a certain lightness of tone, writes Ron Simpson.

It would be foolish to over-stress this, writes Ron Simpson, but the presentation of the characters of Siegfried and Mime has its humorous side. Where Siegfried also differs from the other Ring operas is that it is a narrative about the development of one person and, despite dragons, magic swords and the like, that gives it a certain domesticity. Siegfried is all about Siegfried, finding out about his parents, learning how to behave, facing his first challenges, understanding the devious and dishonest people around him, falling in love.

It’s not that domestic, of course, he doesn’t meet his beloved at the tennis club or the local hop but on a mountain top in an enchanted sleep surrounded by a ring of fire.

Siegfried is constantly described as a boy. He is the wild youth rejoicing in his own strength who makes such a noise storming through the forest that Mime hides from what he assumes is a dragon. It’s here that there is a problem with the third instalment of Opera North’s magnificent semi-staging of the Ring Cycle.

Opera North and the audience have every reason to be grateful to Swedish Heldentenor Lars Cleveman, a highly experienced Wagnerian, who took the part of Siegfried at short notice. In a stalwart performance he finds heroic tones for the forging of the sword Nothung and the Act 3 confrontation with Wotan and, with Katherine Broderick’s soaring Brunnhilde, the right rapturous note for the closing pages of the opera. However, in some of the quieter, more lyrical passages, his voice lacks colour – and looking like the oft-mentioned wild boy is an impossibility for him. Oddly enough, this registers more in a semi-staging, with no makeup, wigs or costume.

One of the delights of this remarkable series of performances over the past four years has been the number of fine Central and European singers who debuted with the company and then returned. Jo Pohlheim’s definitive Alberich and Mats Almgren’s cavernous bass as Fafner have comparatively little to do in Siegfried, but Bela Perencz’s authoritative Wanderer (Wotan) illuminates all three acts.

Richard Roberts as Mime may not have the richest Wagnerian voice on display, but he probably has the most expressive. His acting, too, within the limits of a semi-staging, is outstanding. Like Mats Almgren, Jeni Bern (Woodbird) and Ceri Williams (Erda) prove that there is no such thing as a small part.

So much has already been written of Richard Farnes’ inspired conducting and Peter Mumford’s intelligent and liberating semi-staging and projection design, that it’s just worth noting – along with the superb orchestral playing from all sections – that Siegfried is an opera of horn calls, here splendidly played, with Robert Ashworth immaculate in the Long Call.

Ron Simpson | 16 MAY 2016

This, alas, was where I had to sign off. A weekend conference on Parsifal (including, on the Saturday, a showing of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Parsifal film) mean that I missed Götterdämmerung, skipping straight to the sequel.

Perhaps I shall find out some day how it all turned out. Very well, I should expect, at least performatively. For, if I did not find that this Siegfried quite attained the heights of the Walküre two nights previously, Opera North’s remained an achievement that put a good number of larger companies to shame.

It helped, of course (to put it mildly!) to have Richard Farnes continue his excellent work, not in the pit, but at the podium. As with the Walküre, I found some of the first act a little on the subdued side, the music only really igniting during the final scene, and only truly blazing with the extraordinary Second Act Prelude, in which the Orchestra of Opera North once again showed that it had nothing to fear from the most exalted of comparisons. Perhaps that is Farnes’s way, wanting to leave something in reserve. However, in this particular drama, especially when seen and heard without a full staging, something more immediately arresting would not have been a bad thing. I also felt that the intensity of the third act might have been more consistently maintained. It was certainly not a case of failing to understand, or indeed to communicate, its contours. However, between the Prelude to the Third Act – the Prelude to the Ring’s very peripeteia – and a shiver-inducing final duet, there was, at least for my taste, perhaps a little too much placidity. That said, Farnes’s conducting and the orchestral playing will, I am sure, long be spoken of warmly, both in London and in the earlier venues of the Opera North tour.

Béla Perencz’s Wanderer sounded suitably resigned, without that implying any lack of attention to the particularities of words and music. If I have heard more imposing portrayals, there was a humanity here that most would have warmed to – and I did. Jo Pohlheim’s Alberich was a definite strength of the Rheingold three nights earlier, and so again it was here. Less pitch-black than some, this was a dwarf who very much retained character of his own. So too did Richard Roberts’s Mime, especially noteworthy for fine acting within the constraints (or should that be liberation?) of a ‘concert staging’. Mats Almgren proved a properly stentorian Fafner. Lars Cleveman offered laudable staying power in the title role, at least until the earlier stages of the final scene. (It is quite understandable that he should have been tiring then!) However, his voice was decidedly less than ingratiating; such, alas, is the way with almost all Siegfrieds. It was nevertheless a committed performance, and that is worth a good deal. Ceri Williams’s Erda was again somewhat insecure. However, the other two ‘female’ roles were superbly taken, Jeni Bern a veritable breath of fresh air as a lively Woodbird, and Kelly Cae Hogan fully living up to the promise of her Walküre Brünnhilde in a blazing performance at the close. Again, if only I knew how it all turned out …

If only the nuances of verbal meaning had not too often been ironed out in translation. (Sometimes, it was spot on; at other times, overly generalised. Surely Wagner’s poems deserve near-literal translation in such circumstances, for this was not a singing translation. Fafner’s Proudhonian ‘Ich lieg’ und besitz’ loses far too much, indeed almost everything, as ‘What’s mine is mine’. Possession, one might say, is if not nine tenths, then at least half, of the rentier meaning. But such niggles, and ongoing concern-cum-irritation over increasingly screensaverish projections, remained just that, niggles, in the face of Opera North’s magnificent achievement. More Wagner soon, please!

Mark Berry | 05 Jul 2016

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
1920×1080, 2.2 Mbit/s, 4.1 GByte (MPEG-4)
English subtitles
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.