Siegfried with the Radio Symphony Orchestra, Berlin

Elizabeth Davis enjoys a concert performance of the third opera of Wagner's Ring cycle


Inexplicably, in Wagner's bicentenary year, I've managed not to hear Siegfried. It's always struck me as the awkward middle child of the Ring cycle – the one where not a lot happens and Wagner introduces an ego even bigger than his own: Siegfried's.

But seeing the opera live, performed by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductor Marek Janowski, made me see beyond the famously long half hours to the stunning orchestral writing and heart-melting melodies.
Although audiences in the UK have probably had as much Wagner as they can take, in Romania it's a very different story. This performance was part of the George Enescu Festival which, for the first time, included a complete performance of the Ring cycle. But the composer has such a low profile in this country compared to the rest of Europe, the festival screened a documentary about Wagner and his music to fill people in. 
The set-up wasn't ideal – the performance was in the cavernous Palace Theatre (which is so big it makes the Royal Festival Hall feel intimate) so all the singers were miked and there was precious little room on stage for the singers to stand, let alone act. 
And yet, this orchestra clearly knew the music inside out. The all-important horn playing was full-bodied and the strings were luscious, especially in the final love scene between Siegfried and Brünnhilde. 
Janowski himself has become something of a Wagner specialist since recording most of Wagner's operas for Pentatone (the Parsifal won the Technical Excellence Award at last years's BBC Music Magazine Awards). And this was a precious opportunity to hear an orchestra and conductor so well versed in Wagner's idiosyncratic work.
Tenor Stefan Vinke had just the right amount of wide-eyed innocence for Siegfried and tenor Arnold Bezuyen as Mime and bass-baritone Martin Winkler as Alberich hammed up the Nibelungs' roles brilliantly. Bass-baritone Egils Silins's Wotan was authoritative but crushed, as the king of the gods should be at this point, and soprano Catherine Foster's Brünnhilde, when she arrived, was show-stopping.
But what I hadn't realised was that, unlike Götterdämmerung, Siegfried has quite a few laughs. There's the scene in which Siegfried tries – and fails – to imitate a bird on a reed, there's Fafner the dragon, which is only ever a swish of a tale away from a stand-up routine. And there are the squabbling drawfs.
Despite the fact that this was a concert performance, Janowski and his cast managed to bring out the humour in the score, belying the oft-quoted fact that Meistersinger is Wagner's only comedy.
This was a far from ideal space, and I still think Siegfried really needs a staging to be completely understood and appreciated, but it was a joy to hear the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, a group of musicians who are clearly steeped in Wagner, playing some of his most gorgeous orchestral music.
As my companion said as we left the theatre, if only Wagner had devoted more time to symphonic writing... 
  • Article Type: | Blog |
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