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.
Popov’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.