London Philharmonic 2019-20 Review: Siegfried
Vladimir Jurowski Gives Textured if Somewhat Uneven Reading of Wagner’s WorkBy Benjamin Poore
(Credit: Simon Jay Price)
Wagner’s biography and character are all over his operas, often transparently so: the wandering, embittered outcast in “The Flying Dutchman;” the revolutionary artist in “Die Meistersinger;” the sensuous hedonist in “Tristan und Isolde.” This may be one of the reasons that some people find his work overbearing and suffocating. Rarely is he identified with the dwarf Mime in The Ring of the Nibelung. There is a striking remark he makes at the opening of “Siegfried,” as Mime bemoans his failure to put the shattered sword Nothung back together: “if only I could stick together these mighty fragments together, that all my skill can’t seem to weld!”
Wagner’s project was to bring into unique and novel unity distinct artistic disciplines in his idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk through his craftsmanship and ingenuity. The frustrations of Mime’s wearying failure must’ve surely resonated with the strifes Wagner himself would face in trying to forge his new approach. In the theater these many components come together: design, dramaturgical innovation, poetry, lighting, and music. So semi-stagings or concert versions of his work, such as the one presented here by Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, present pitfalls but also the opportunity to look afresh at text and score alike.
Textured But Rushed
This Siegfried is the third installment of a Ring in process the last two years; it will culminate in a full presentation of these operas in early 2021. The prizes on offer are considerable in this concert hall presentation, and for the most part Jurowski and his colleagues grasp them triumphantly. It’s certainly his show as much as it is the singers. He is conductor of elegant but commanding gesture, absolutely punctilious detailing, and broodingly Romantic in manner – he even shares a hairstyle with young Liszt.
His “Siegfried” has the vigor and vim of a lavish symphonic poem. The orchestral illustration of the bellows in Mime’s forge have rarely been so vividly realized, nor have the double basses in the stygian opening of Act II sounded so serpentine and sinister. Pungent clarinets and bassoons were evocatively fungal, summoning the musty vegetation of the forest and cave with special potency. The LPO’s cellos brought an extravagant lyricism to a score sometimes treated as the knockabout scherzo of the Ring. No detail went unexamined. Even passages of Wagnerian recitative in which a pit orchestra would hold recede in our attention are full of carefully weighted chords and delicate shading.
Jurowski’s alacrity was perhaps the only issue. It was a performance so breakneck the audience were out fifteen minutes before the advertised end. There’s no doubt a brisk approach ameliorates the longueurs of the forging sequence and helps to sustain the work’s huge dramatic momentum. A swift two-to-a-bar in the Act three prelude brought out the music’s majestic arcs and imbued it with a tempestuous, fated thrust. Likewise the restless pace and neurotically edgy articulation at the outset of Act one articulated Mime’s frenetic if fruitless labors. Wagner calls for the orchestra in his works to be like the Chorus in Greek drama, and in Jurowski’s hands their commentary was pronounced and vital.
But there was a price to pay for this speed and movement. Jurowski’s symphonic sweep robs Wagner’s text of time it needs to land, partly in the way it raced through dozens of lines at a time – the cast did an extraordinary job of delivering the opera’s huge amounts of Wagnerian patter, particularly Adrian Thompson’s Mime. But he also snatched away the ends of phrases and critical silences where the impact of the text truly resides. In Wagner narration is itself a form of action; recollection the gateway to forms of self-knowledge or realization that give the drama its emotional and storytelling intensity, and its characters depth.
Wanderer’s teasing confrontation with Siegfried in Act three should inexorably build in tension and agitation until Siegfried realizes the truth, but Jurowski’s speeds seemed impatient to get the lavish orchestral interlude that followed. Similarly, the climax of Wotan/Wanderer’s entire arc across all three operas comes in Act three’s scene with Erda, where he realizes that he wills and accepts the end of the Gods. It is introduced by a rhetorical question of enormous intensity – ‘Weißt du, was Wotan will?’ – and followed by a long silence as the enormity of this realization settles. But it was one whose importance had no time to express itself in Jurowkski’s haste.
Exalting music nonetheless, even if it didn’t always touch the dramatic core of Wagner’s work. The video projections – a flock of birds, some swirling mists, and a cobra for the dragon Fafner – were rather desultory too; Rob Casey’s lighting, which plunged us into primeval darkness before a note was played, keyed into the atmospherics of the music much better.
A Solid Cast
Evgeny Nikitin’s guileful Wanderer, dressed in raincoat with walking stick, navigated the brutal tessitura of the role with fearless confidence; steely and assured top notes were riven with grim menace. However by Act three he had begun to audibly tire and some of his character’s most bravura moments – ‘ein Lichtmeer umleuchtet dein Haupt!’ springs to mind – got lost in the orchestra.
Robert Hayward’s lighter-voiced Alberich made a keen vocal contrast, though he was similarly deft in his handling of the demanding upper register; his scene with the Wanderer in Act two cemented the sense of their being each other’s doubles. Adrian Thompson’s Mime took a while to find his musical feet after a shouty opening, but the pantomime acting and bold gestures nonetheless worked well with Jurowkski’s equally extravagant orchestral canvas.
Smaller roles were well-executed too: Brindley Sherratt’s Fafner was characteristically inky, and Alina Adamski’s Woodbird had a surprising fullness where other sopranos will merely twitter. Anna Larsson’s Erda was prophetically lustrous, if a little clouded by some of the overwrought orchestral textures.
Torsten Kerl’s Siegfried was heroically untiring and admirably consistent – one wonders what more it is possible to achieve in the context of a live presentation of this enormously demanding role. There were only occasional flashes of the tenderness and vulnerability that this character needs to make him more than a bumbling neo-fascist bully-boy, and Kerl did deliver: ‘So starb meine Mutter an mir?’ had a rare fragility, as did his ethereal mountaintop reverie (‘Selige Öde auf sonniger Höh’’). More incredibly he even played the Cor Anglais himself to hilarious effect in Act two’s comic interlude.
An uncovered orchestra means that any singer would have to battle with the sheer volume, and Kerl sounded muddy and undefined in Acts one and two, but rallied for a thrilling final scene with Elena Pankratova’s Brünnhilde. Her appearance is a vocal shot in the arm for the whole opera: the final ten minutes of the work were exultant, luminous, and as sensuously thrilling as this music can be.