Tuesday 6 February 2024

Clarity of musical purpose & remarkable intimacy: Regents Opera in Wagner's Siegfried

Wagner: Siegfried - Peter Furlong, Catharine Woodward - Regents Opera (Photo: Steve Gregson)
Wagner: Siegfried - Peter Furlong, Catharine Woodward - Regents Opera (Photo: Steve Gregson)

Richard Wagner: Siegfried; Holden Madagame, Peter Furlong, Ralf Lukas, Oliver Gibbs, Craig Lemont Walters, Corinne Hart, Mae Heydorn, Catharine Woodward, director: Caroline Staunton, conductor: Ben Woodward; Regents Opera at the Freemason's Hall
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 4 February 2024

Regents Opera reaches the third instalment of its Ring Cycle with a dramatic, intense and deeply intimate production of Siegfried

This was the third instalment of Regents Opera's ambitious and successful Ring - performed in the round at the Freemason's Hall (4 February 2024), directed by Caroline Staunton and with a brand new chamber orchestration by conductor Ben Woodward. Das Rheingold and Die Walküre [see Florence's review], the previous two operas in the series impressed enormously, both with their clarity of musical purpose, but also with the remarkable intimacy born from the scant metre or so which separated the singers from the audience, enabling every facial expression and gesture to be clearly seen, and every syllable and vocal nuance to be heard with an unusual immediacy.

From the very opening of the overture, Holden Madagame took advantage of this intimacy, drawing the audience into his world as he deftly conjured the character of Mime, the frustrated blacksmith, with his constant, restless activity, and brought vocal gymnastics to match his on-stage agility. Madagame spoke recently and extensively to Planet Hugill [see our article] about his experiences performing the part of Mime. 

He clearly understands the demands of the role go far beyond merely singing the notes, and this exceptional character tenor succeeded in that rare achievement of actually making Mime deep, multifaceted and surprisingly sympathetic, rather than the one-note villainous caricature which still appears far too frequently on our stages. This however, was a captivating performance of a complete and complex role, at turns expressive, plaintive, panicked and pleading – a masterclass from first line, to his utterly convincing death.

Wagner: Siegfried - Holden Madagame - Regents Opera (Photo: Steve Gregson)
Wagner: Siegfried - Holden Madagame - Regents Opera (Photo: Steve Gregson)

The casting of Peter Furlong in the title role raised a few eyebrows when it was first announced. Siegfried, one of the most demanding tenor roles in the repertoire, is notoriously hard to find the right voice for, especially if the director wishes to portray the hero's youth and innocence. In picking Furlong, a definite musical choice was made, with experience and vocal staying power favoured over youth, and his portrayal of Siegfried was anything but innocent. Possibly deranged, and almost certainly struggling with trauma, betrayal and loneliness, Furlong was vocally immense throughout the opera, vividly expressing a vast emotional range from driven rage and confusion, through bewildered anguish and triumph to final radiant, ardent yearning. Perhaps he began to seem a little tired, a little hooty, towards the middle of Act 3, as he faced off against Wotan, but his energy and power returned, fully renewed, once he emerged through the clouds to the heights of the final scene to encounter Brünnhilde.

Stepping into the godly shoes of the late and very much missed Keel Watson (who excelled in this role in the previous two instalments of Regents Opera's Ring, and to who's memory this performance was dedicated) veteran Wagnerian Ralf Lukas was a commanding and powerful presence as Wanderer (the disguised god Wotan). Both vocally and physically he wonderfully encapsulated Wotan's gradual transformation from the confident, domineering sovereign of Act 1, to the defeated, despondent outcast he is reduced to by the middle of the third act. Watson was always going to be impossible to replace, and Lukas brings a different kind of Wotan to the stage – it's going to be fascinating to see how he interprets the major roles from the earlier operas later this year when Regents Opera plans to present the complete Ring.

Wagner: Siegfried - Holden Madagame, Oliver Gibbs - Regents Opera (Photo: Steve Gregson)
Wagner: Siegfried - Holden Madagame, Oliver Gibbs - Regents Opera (Photo: Steve Gregson)

We've experienced the ringing heroic tones of soprano Catharine Woodward as the titular Valkyrie in the previous opera in this cycle. One of the great joys of this cycle has been seeing singers returning to reprise roles, and after the extended duet which concludes Siegfried, her reappearance in Götterdammerung later this year will be greatly anticipated. Woodward possesses a hugely charismatic stage presence, with the huge voice to match, and from the moment of her awakening, through to the end of the opera, hearing her powerful voice soaring over the orchestra was absolutely thrilling.

The minor, but characterful smaller roles were well filled out with returning favourites, Oliver Gibbs as a deliciously, extravagantly megalomaniac Alberich and Mae Heydorn's ethereal Erda, while the sepulchral tones of Craig Lemont Walters make him an ideally dragonic Fafner. The cameo role of the Woodbird suited perfectly the exquisitely sweet tones of soprano Corine Hart. The casting choices throughout this Ring have been superb in every regard, and the singers have taken full advantage of the reduced orchestration and close proximity to the audience to deliver intimate, almost chamber-style opera, in which they can afford to take dynamic risks for the sake of dramatic reward.

Wagner: Siegfried - Peter Furlong, Ralf Lukas - Regents Opera (Photo: Steve Gregson)

It's pretty much expected that any new opera production features a few directorial quirks and this production was no exception. Fafner appearing dressed as Sieglinde, complete with wig and dress, at the moment he is slain by Siegfried seemed to suggest some kind of Oedipal trauma, and certainly the way in which Siegfried was escorted off stage by orderlies in white coats would support some theory about his mental state, particularly also the way in which the trailing sleeves of his white sweater in the following scene recalled those of a straitjacket, and his frequent, writhing fits. There's surely also some deep symbolism to be discovered in the shaping of Mime's anvil as an enormous white toilet bowl, or in the inexplicable (but surely also deeply symbolic of... something?) inclusion of an extended top-hat-and-cane dance routine for Mime and Alberich in their Act Two duet, but, these theatrical quirks aside, this was a serious, heavyweight production featuring serious, heavyweight voices. 

The chamber orchestra, under the baton of Ben Woodward, was a source of constant delight, and the freshness of the orchestration revealed new facets of Wagner's score in almost every moment. The hyper-exposed writing, particularly the demands on the woodwind soloists led to a couple of slightly rough-edged moments, perhaps a consequence of the time pressure on rehearsals faced by all our London ensembles at the present time, but these were minor quibbles in what was in all regards a splendid, dramatic, intense and deeply intimate production.

Wagner: Siegfried - Ben Woodward - Regents Opera (Photo: Steve Gregson)
Wagner: Siegfried - Ben Woodward - Regents Opera (Photo: Steve Gregson)

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