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.

Der Ring Des Nibelungs: Das Rheingold Performed by the Mariinksy Opera

Das Rheingold © N.Razina (16)Last night, Mariinsky Opera’s take on Wagner’s epic masterpiece, Der Ring Des Nibelungen, opened at the Birmingham Hippodrome with Das Rheingold, a mythic prelude to the epic story of Siegfried, Brünnhilde and the ultimate overthrow of the Norse pantheon that occurs across the rest of the tetralogy.

The Mariinsky’s Das Rheingold is a beautiful thing to behold from start to finish. The curtain lifts to reveal a group of performers draped in glowing blue cables, swaying, wave-like, around a series of strange, dwarfish statues in a mesmerising dance sequence that builds slowly along with Wagner’s stunning, ethereal prelude. Beautiful music washes over the audience as lights flicker across the stone figures, like sunlight seen underwater. Thus we are transported to the watery world of the Rhinemaidens who, to our surprise, eventually emerge from the rocks where they have been resting onstage all the while, revealed by light that slowly brightens like day dawning. Once we’ve seen them, we wonder how on earth we could have missed them: dressed in pearly gowns with striking, otherwordly hairstyles, everything about them announces them as magical beings before they ever open their mouths.

047These fantastic – in both senses – costume designs are matched elsewhere: the gods are styled in a brilliantly bold and bonkers fashion, vivid and colourful in every sense. Alexander Timchenko as Froh, for example, manages to pull off flowing, rainbow-coloured locks without losing any of his divine dignity. Wotan and Fricka are magisterially dressed in long, white, Grecian gowns, while Donner shimmers in appropriately silvery robes, a glittering, lightning-blue streak flashing through his hair. When Loge finally emerges, he is a vision in fiery red with a sharply peaked hairline. Freia’s golden dress, meanwhile, matches both golden apples of youth she tends, as well as the mound of Rhinegold she is eventually exchanged for, serving as a constant reminder of how she is valued and the shame of Wotan’s transactions with the giants.

Beyond the characters, the design of the set itself is magnificent and massive in scale: Valhalla glistens gloriously, even as huge, giant-like figures hover ominously in the air above it. The creepy statues present right from the opening are most striking of all in the Nibelungs’ mines, where their faces glow a bright, warning red.

Despite all these impressive constructions, however, the whole thing is played out against a completely plain backdrop, designed to emphasise the show’s complex lighting that in many ways does a better job of setting scenes and immersing us in the story than any flat, painted background ever could. This is one of few productions I’ve seen where it’s impossible not to be constantly aware of the lighting design, which becomes almost as important in creating mood as is the music itself. Through shifts in colour and brightness, we travel from the depths of the Rhine to the shining Valhalla, and away again to the fiery furnaces of the Niebelungs.

097The dwarfs, too, look wonderful, with fat bellies, bulked up shoulders, spindly fingers and inflated heads. For all their exaggerated, inhuman features, however, we still feel for them – especially Mime, who is played by Andrey Popov with a brilliant mix of comic timing and genuine pathos.

Elsewhere, Willard White portrays a complex and commanding Wotan, and Alexander Timchenko is charming as the gentle, soft-hearted Froh. Evgeny Ulanov’s Donner is considerably more powerful and interesting than certain recent interpretations of Norse myth have led us to expect the God of Thunder to be, though the thunderstorm he conjures towards the end could perhaps have been a little more dramatic. Overall though, it’s difficult not to be taken most with the trickster fire god, Loge. Mikhail Vekua makes a deliciously mischievous and cheerfully crafty Loge, swelling with conceit in his own cleverness and guaranteed to disappoint hundreds of teenagers besotted with Marvel’s mopey, misunderstood film version of Loki.

Wagner’s music, imagination and capacity for storytelling offer perhaps the perfect route in to opera for contemporary audiences: as Neil Brand explained in his Ringside talk, it is his musical style, radically different to anything that came before, which has been largely responsible for shaping our understanding of film scoring to this day. The Prelude to Das Rheingold makes it immediately clear that this is unlike anything you might expect from an opera by almost anyone other than Wagner, and the rhythms and dramatic beats of his compositions will be immediately familiar to the modern movie-goer.

088Overall then, an exciting start to the series, which promises to be something very special. More thoughts on the story of Das Rheingold to follow, as well as a review of Die Walküre which is showing at 5pm tonight.

For more information and to book tickets for The Ring Cycle, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

Header image by N. Razina. Other images taken from the Birmingham Hippodrome blog.