Since their affecting Das Rheingold and resplendent Die Walküre in 2016, the Saffron Opera Group’s Ring Cycle has become something of a talking point in Wagnerian circles. Using a local orchestra, but attracting international singing talent to the Saffron Hall stage, their concert performances of Wagner are reliably intense, engaging, and above all, beautifully sung. This Siegfried shone with joyful enthusiasm, supported by powerful musicianship from a stunning cast, with moments of lyrical beauty conjured by the orchestra; with an exceptional Brünnhilde from Elaine McKrill, and a tender young hero from Jonathan Stoughton, Siegfried once again confirmed Saffron Opera Group’s Ring as one to be reckoned with – and taken seriously.
Siegfried is undoubtedly the most cheerful component of the Ring Cycle, but (of course) it’s troubling too: Siegfried’s courage and virtue do not prevent him being callous and cruel to Mime, or aggressively insulting to Wotan, impulses with dark philosophical ramifications well beyond the merely Freudian. As Wagner weaves together the warp and weft of innocence and experience in his hero’s life, he plays with our sympathies constantly. Whether we see Siegfried as a brash young boy, a fool of fate (prefiguring Parsifal), or the true Nietzchean Übermensch in training, if Wagner’s underlying emotional structure is to work, we should feel able to cherish and chide Siegfried in equal measure, celebrating his victories while noticing (and, if we’re generous, perhaps forgiving) his mistakes. This isn’t always easy, and simply oafish Siegfrieds are too often an easy option for directors; by contrast, Jonathan Stoughton’s sensitive, compassionate and humble Siegfried was winning in every sense, and remarkably easy to love, seeming almost embarrassed by his instinctive loathing of Mime, and permanently hungry for true companionship. The sweetness at the top of Stoughton’s tenor implied boyish innocence, with his whole range well supported in terms of vocal strength, clarity and accuracy to survive this supremely demanding role. From his infectiously happy entrance, Stoughton promised well, and musically never failed to please; his acting could feel occasionally inhibited in early scenes, but his performance became progressively more relaxed and dramatically confident as he forged his sword, defeated Fafner, followed his Woodbird and faced down Wotan with teenage disdain on Brünnhilde’s mountain. Confronted by Brünnhilde, Siegfried’s fear seemed touchingly real, his responses to her disorientated, rather than determined, by his desire: while the final scene certainly lacked the compelling erotic charge of other versions, its anxious, almost sacred atmosphere had its own interest, pointing to the mystical significance of the couple’s (ultimately doomed) union. More physical fire is indubitably required by Wagner, who might have felt this was all a bit demure; but Stoughton’s performance entirely justified the value of an intelligent Siegfried, genuinely curious about the world and his place in it.
Elaine McKrill’s vocally shimmering Brünnhilde saw her once again take this role absolutely for her own. McKrill’s superlative control, not only of her voice but also of her gestures, allows her to achieve a magnetic combination of stillness and energy on stage: as Brünnhilde awoke, the whole audience seemed to be on tenterhooks; so exquisitely expressive and tender one moment, the next strong, defiant and wise, McKrill unerringly gets to the heart of this Valkyrie every time, with astonishing results.
Peter Bronder produced Mime with honeyed strength and a nice sense of attack, with plenty of vocal texture giving his characterisation grit, while his physical portrayal of Mime’s habits and tics was nothing short of superb: wringing his hands, working his mouth, and giving Siegfried sheepish smiles and poisonous sidelong glances by turns. Bronder made a playful Mime, whose own miserable hopes for himself were nevertheless infused with pathos, especially when squabbling uselessly with his far nastier brother: Nicholas Folwell’s vocally burnished, eternally bitter Alberich was a treat once again, magnificently dastardly and determined as he snooped around Fafner’s cave, awaiting developments. The key exchange between Wotan and Alberich here illustrates perfectly how, by this stage in the cycle, Wotan has surpassed his own existential crisis, yet Alberich remains permanently stuck in his, fixed by his obsessive desire for the Ring. Andrew Greenan’s urbane and vocally sumptuous Wanderer constantly impressed with wonderful strength and depth of sound; Greenan perfectly captured the unnervingly relaxed, half-carefree and half-cynical tone of this deliberately disengaged god, who pretends here to stalk his own story out of mere cosmic curiosity, yet still ultimately finds his vanity tragically stung by Siegfried’s arrogance as, this time, the hero’s sword breaks the god’s spear.
Donald Thomson was a superb Fafner, with an unfaltering, penetrating bass of almost incredible richness. Hilary Summers’s memorably clear, supple and elegant mezzo brought Erda to life, a performance uniting stateliness and existential pain. Talented young local soprano Agatha Pethers made a pleasing young Woodbird.
As in previous instalments of this Cycle, the Saffron Opera Group Orchestra made a wonderful sound. Occasionally, conductor Michael Thorne achieved sublime moments, such as the lovely sense of tension in the orchestra’s earliest bars, as the fervid low strings pulsate with Nibelung rhythms, while the sinuous, louring curves of Fafner coil upwards through the score. Siegfried’s battle with Fafner was visceral and immediate; the opening of Act 3, as Wotan summons Erda from her eternal sleep, was coherent and compelling; Siegfried’s journey up Brünnhilde’s rock was bursting with orchestral energy. However, elsewhere, particularly in the early parts of the Forging Scene, rhythms sounded more than intentionally wayward, and the Forest Murmurs weren’t all sweet nothings. One of the many dangers of Wagner is that, with so much going on, a few small slips of direction can result in major damage to the sense, and sound, all too quickly. However, the quality of the cast and orchestra tends to win through these patches, re-establishing fractured rhythms and relationships fairly quickly. The superlative acoustics of Saffron Hall, the magnificence of the singers, and the sheer intensity of such a simple, direct experience of Wagner, keeps Saffron Opera Group’s concert Ring on the must-see list; I can’t wait for Götterdämmerung.
Reviewed at Saffron Hall, 12 February 2017
Tickets for Götterdämmerung will cost £20-£30. Box Office: 0845 548 7650