Der Ring des Nibelungen: Siegfried performed by the Mariinsky Opera

Ziegfried © N.Razina (4)

The third instalment of the Mariinsky Opera’s Ring Cycle at the Birmingham Hippodrome is probably as enjoyable as opera gets. It’s a rare and wonderful thing to see such excellent playing, singing and acting all in one performance, but Siegfried had it all.

Much of the show’s success is down to the unbridled charisma of its leading man, Mikhail Vekua, a true star whose performance throughout is positively effervescent. Having previously stood out in Das Rheingold as the cunning Loge, Vekua takes to this new part with a matchless energy and enthusiasm, transforming a character who can all-too-easily come across as stupid and obnoxious into an endearingly happy child, his naive overconfidence made funny rather than irritating. Laughing and dancing around the stage, this is a Siegfried whose love of life and wonder at the world are irresistibly infectious. Another of his talents is understanding how to fill the gaps between singing, pulling the performance together as one fluid whole, rather than treating it a series of songs strung together.

Act I opens with a dramatic set, where Siegfried is being raised by Mime in isolation.  The jealous and embittered dwarf clinks away in his workshop to produce useless swords that our hero instantly and effortlessly snaps when he arrives on the scene. Andrey Popov returns to his role as Mime, giving a quality comic performance once again. His pantomime villainy stands in sharp contrast to the commanding presence of Vladimir Feliauer, the third in the series to take up the role of the ruling god, Wotan. Feliauer’s rich, powerful voice complements his powerful stage presence when he arrives at Mime’s workshop, blending comedy with a darker, more threatening aspect as he makes a wager with the treacherous dwarf. With Wotan here disguised as the Wanderer, he also gets to wear a fantastic, extra wide-brimmed, western-style hat that I’ll confess to being rather jealous of.

Valery Gergiev photo by Alexander Shapunov 1Popov’s comic timing also makes a great match for Vekua’s earnestness, and the two bounce off each other to hilarious effect throughout the first act, Siegfried bounding onto the stage with a bear in tow, brought to torment his wailing master. The act closes with a return of the dancing flames that surrounded Brünnhilde’s mountain prison in Die Walküre, serving now as the fiery furnace that Siegfried uses to smelt and reforge his father’s sword, Notung. Eagerly taking up the metal and responding to the blowing of Siegfried’s bellows, the dancers are even more effective in this context.

Act II sees the squabbling Nibelung brothers reunited, with Edem Umerov back on top form as the greedy Alberich. In this act, too, the creepy, giant statues that have populated the stage throughout the cycle become a stunning and deeply unsettling dragon, arranged like sections of an enormous, serpentine body that rise and fall in turn. Untroubled by the monster he faces, Siegfried engages in a cheery duet with a passing bird. Dressed in a delicate, feathered costume, Anastasia Kalagina is totally transporting as the Woodbird, her mellifluous voice bringing an ethereal beauty to the gentle, fluting melody. As glorious as the duet is, however, it also makes room for comedy: Siegfried’s early, futile attempts to communicate with the bird using his pipe and horn drew a few giggles from the audience.

Act III introduces a suitably majestic Erda in Zlata Bulycheva, who reels in dismay after Wotan wakes her from a long slumber, only to reveal what a dreadful mess he’s made of things while she’s been sleeping. Next to hers, Wotan’s supposed wisdom falls away, his lofty thoughts appearing little more than childish folly. The interaction between Feliauer and Bulycheva is gripping, and her despair at the news he brings her is visceral. Their scene together begins with a terrible thunderstorm, brilliantly realised by both the orchestra and Gleb Filshtinsky’s lighting.

Following straight after, the exchange between Wotan and his little-knowing descendant is highly entertaining, with Vekua managing to come out well even of the rudeness and insolence he shows to his disguised grandsire, and Feliauer convincing in his struggle to control his temper. More great lighting helps to build up drama as Siegfried snaps the Wanderer’s spear in two, yet Siegfried himself, oblivious to all this, gaily carries on his way to meet his sleeping lover.

Olga Sergeyeva, though quite different from her predecessor, makes an excellent Brünnhilde, rising to the huge challenge of conveying the character’s turbulent emotions upon awakening. Overjoyed to see Siegfried yet still horrified by the shame of her plight, she struggles to get over the (heavily symbolic) damage Siegfried has done to her armour, for all she insists that she loves him. His oblivious, adolescent ardour, meanwhile, makes for some of the show’s best comedy, surpassed only by his terror and confusion upon first discovering her (“This is not a man!” he cries, falling over backwards in shock). But despite a troubled start to their relationship, thanks to the great dynamic between Sergeyeva and Vekua, it’s a romance we could easily believe might have a fighting chance – if we didn’t already know better.

Though the Mariinsky’s Die Walküre has some wonderful moments, its Siegfried is on another level. There’s not a bad word to be said for it.

Look out for my review of the epic final part of the tetralogy, Götterdämmerung, to follow shortly.

Header image by N. Razina. Second photo by Alexander Shapunov.

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Der Ring des Nibelungen: Die Walküre by the Mariinsky Opera

Die Walkure © N.Razina (12)The Mariinsky Opera’s Der Ring des Nibelungen continued its run at the Birmingham Hippodrome last night with Die Walküre (The Valkyry), the tragic love story of incestuous siblings Siegmund and Sieglinde, and the renegade Valkyrie who disobeys the gods to defend them.

Once again, the show begins with a stunning set of epic proportions, though unlike in Das Rheingold, the prelude is played out before the curtain rises. This time, instead of suspended above the stage, the gigantic statues are integrated into the set, becoming at once the walls of Hunding’s house and the ash tree at its heart, the thick body of one of the figures statue standing in for a trunk. As in the previous show, too, Gleb Filshtinsky’s lighting is magical, with subtle changes in colour and brightness creating shifts in mood and atmosphere that beautifully complement the music.

B1y3rmxIgAAy6UhOnce the story begins, however, things take a little longer to get moving in Die Walküre, with chemistry seriously lacking between lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde. Though their singing was strong, the acting styles of Avgust Amonov and Mlada Khudoley were oddly matched, with the former remaining remarkably restrained even in the face of extreme peril, while the latter went the opposite way, overplaying the drama of her situation, perhaps in part to compensate for the lack of emotional display from her partner.

Act II opens on a glimpse of a far more convincing relationship: Ekaterina Gubanova returns to her role as marriage goddess Fricka, this time performing alongside the excellent Vitaly Kovalyov as the ruling god Wotan. Already strong in Das Rheingold, the Fricka/Wotan dynamic is noticeably improved by this pairing. As the couple bicker over Wotan’s infidelity and determination to undermine his wife’s decrees, their turbulent, troubled marriage feels totally real to us: this is a story we instantly recognise from much more contemporary fare.

Nevertheless, the most engaging of this production’s relationships is not romantic but filial. The mutual love of a father and daughter produces the most moving scenes in the show, and Wotan’s and Brünnhilde’s final farewell must have left barely a dry eye in the audience. Brimming with love and compassion, the mighty yet kind-hearted Brünnhilde is played magnificently by Olga Savova. Between them, Kovalyov and Savova largely carry this production, their spellbinding performances elevating it to heights it’s hard to see it reaching without them.

That said, Savova is certainly in excellent company among her fellow Valkyries: though surrounded by some questionably choreographed fighting, in their dramatic entrance, they command the stage so fully that the heroes they arrive to collect fade to virtual invisibility. With strobe lights flashing out beneath the curtain as it flies upwards, the carriers of the battle-slain appear, clad in black against a blazing red sky (and in case you were wondering, yes, it is impossible to get “Ride of the Valkyries” out of your head after seeing this show).

B1y2y4pIcAE1dgZAct III’s opening scene looks fantastic. Things get a little stranger, however, during the end section of the show, when the giant statues are relocated to the background, peering threateningly down on the action from all sides. This in itself is effective setting, creating a strong sense of foreboding and making even the great god Wotan look tiny as he moves towards his inescapable demise. What is more difficult to make sense of is the bizarre paraphernalia adorning the statues: seashells, tentacles, giant sperm cells and vaguely uterine-shaped animal skulls cling to their bellies and hang in the air around them, sometimes glowing bright red. Once Wotan and Brünnhilde get into full acting swing, it’s easy enough to forget about the weird stuff in the background, but during less emotional moments, they’re a curious and rather distracting presence.

On reflection, I wondered if they might be intended to reflect the themes of love, (in)fidelity and parenthood explored by the drama: there is, after all, something fitting about Wotan referring to his favourite illegitimate daughter as a part of himself while surrounded by such images. However, a quick search online offered a rather stranger explanation.

The giant figures themselves are, apparently, inspired by the myths of the Alan and Scythian cultures of the North Caucasus, where conductor Valery Gergiev was raised. So far, so logical: there are clearly a range of mythic influences involved in the design of this production – not to mention in the creation of the story itself. But set designer Georgy Tsypin had more to say about his work:

“The Ring was written during the Industrial Revolution, when it seemed that humanity would appropriate the secret of nature – the ‘Ring’. Now it seems we are on the verge of discovering the secret of life, so we created a ‘Ring’ that reflects our current preoccupation with cloning, mutations, artificial intelligence, discoveries in genetics and biotechnology.”

Such themes have served as excellent material for tragedy since 1818, and continue to dominate Hollywood sci-fi today. But while stories about scientific over-reachers may hold some parallels with those of their mythic counterparts in Der Ring des Nibelungen, it’s difficult to see what incorporating these concepts really adds to this particular story, or what new perspective it offers us on Wagner’s ideas.

B1y3KbyIUAA7K8KThe most effective use of any of the statues in Die Walküre is perhaps to serve as the mountain where Brünnhilde is imprisoned, put under a sleeping spell and left to await her future husband. Bulky and cumbersome as it is, it takes a little while to get the central statue into place, with black-clad figures flying from the wings to help with the awkward manoeuvrings. Yet the final image is impressive: against such a dramatic set, Brünnhilde’s new-found mortality and relative powerlessness hit home hard. It also serves as a reminder of how the whole thing started, recalling Wotan’s deal with the giants in Das Rheingold. Now, as before, there is an attempt to marry a woman off against her will, and now, as then, Wotan has cause to fear the consequences of his actions.

Just before the curtain falls, Brünnhilde’s resting place is surrounded by flames, a group of dancers emerging with glowing red headpieces in a warped reflection of the Prelude to Das Rheingold, where swaying green and blue lights mimicked the waves of the Rhine. Above them, the statues creak and and begin to tumble forwards, a touch of the ‘Ozymandias’ about them now.

The Mariinksy Opera’s Ring Cycle continues its run at the Birmingham Hippodrome with Siegfried tomorrow evening, and concludes with Götterdämmerung on Sunday. For more information and to book, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

Header image by N. Razina. All other photographs by @JohnVecchio via Twitter.