It's difficult to know exactly why Opera North's semi-staged Ring Cycle, which has now reached Siegfried, is the triumph it undoubtedly is.
The singers without exception give committed and intelligent performances, the cast is very well balanced, but they are not necessarily the greatest Wagner voices or the most experienced Wagnerians. The action is simple, props non-existent, though the performance is much more dramatic than the traditional score-bound concert performance. The major factor in its success is certainly the inspirational conducting of Richard Farnes who gets powerful, subtle and superbly detailed playing from all sections of his orchestra. The narrative surtitles are surprisingly effective, too, making the action clearer than in many fully staged performances and, in the case of Siegfried, presenting us with a myth-cum-fairy tale that has a purity of purpose missing in a typical post-Freudian Wagner production.
Peter Mumford's stage direction/projections are slightly more literal this time, but still simple, the concentration on characters and relationships: two characters singing out front at opposite sides of the stage may tell us everything about their emotions simply by turning inwards.
Siegfried proceeds mainly by a series of intense duologues, Siegfried, the unworldly youth-hero, progressing from opposing his gold-hungry foster-father Mime to killing the dragon, Fafner, to freeing the sleeping Brunnhilde in the name of love, while Wotan (the Wanderer) winds through the narrative shaking off power while attempting to plot the future in confrontations or consultations with the Nibelungs Mime and Alberich, Siegfried and earth-mother Erda. I am sure the freshness with which these are explored is helped by the presence of several experienced singers who are relatively new to the Wagner repertoire.
Estonian tenor Mati Turi (Siegfried) is one of these. A choral singer for much of his career, with a solo repertoire heavy on Mozart and Bach, he is now an authentic Heldentenor. His voice may not be the most beautiful, but it is still powerful and compelling in his Act 3 duet with Brunnhilde – no stamina problems here. If Annalena Persson's radiant and passionate Brunnhilde and Michael Druiett's authoritative Wanderer make the case for experienced Wagnerians, Jo Pohlheim (outstanding as an incisive and beautifully sung Alberich) appears to list Wagner only under "recent roles". Richard Roberts' Mime is physically and vocally expressive, with Ceri Williams (Erda), Mats Almgren (Fafner) and Fflur Wyn (Woodbird) impressing in relatively brief appearances.
The directness of the performance and a leisurely provision of intervals mean that, though nearly six hours pass between the orchestral prelude and the final whoops of appreciation for singers, conductor and orchestra, the scale of the work never overwhelms.
- Ron Simpson