Venturing towards Valhalla
On the warmest day of the year so far, I sat on the rooftop patio of the Manchester International Festival pavilion bar fuelling myself with fish and chips and swilling down with a pint of festival ale in preparation for the heroic task ahead of me. I had volunteered to review Wagner’s Siegfried. Intervals included, it ran from 4.30pm until 10.30pm.
Why, oh why had I stepped forward to endure such Herculean hardship on a gorgeous day in a city starved of sunlight for so long? In short, I was a Wagner virgin. For too long I had lolled in the populist valleys of Italian romantic opera, grazing only on the safe ground of Verdi, Puccini and Bellini. Occasionally I would climb upwards to the heights of Mozart and Haydn but never to the mythic peaks of the operatic holy grail of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Many ages ago I had strayed innocently into a cursed Scottish Opera production of Beethoven’s Fidelio. As the leading lady collapsed with gastroenteritis, I clapped and shouted “Bravo”. Narrowly avoiding a lynching by hoards of disappointed Beethoven fans, I thought it was part of the performance. I vowed there and then never to go near a German opera again.
For nigh on 30 years that curse remained unbroken – until I encountered a mysterious woman known only as ‘The Editor’ who promised riches beyond my wildest dreams and an eternal place in the pantheon of opera reviewers if I broke that chain with tradition and ventured toward Valhalla. Or maybe it was a gin and tonic? Promise in hand, fear subdued, return ticket to MediaCity UK purchased, venture I did go.
As I left the MIF Pavilion, the beautiful Neneh Cherry smiled at me as if she understood what lay before me. Before you accuse me of pomp and fiction, I assure you it is true, though I suspect she myopically mistook me for someone famous/important/in need of cheering up. I fought my way through the armies of Nibelung suburbanites in search of Saturday night debauchery, battled roaming broods of hen parties looking for last night freedoms. I travelled long through strange and exotic places; Cornbrook, Pomona, Anchorage, until I arrived at the desolate plains of Media City UK and to the entrance of my quest, The Lowry.
While I refreshed myself with a glass of bubbly in the bar of the beast, I met another traveller, Morris from Donegal, who had journeyed far on winged bird (Ryanair I think he said) from a distant land to endure the trauma that lay ahead. Was he sent by the gods to reassure me or a wood devil to lure me toward my demise? No, as it turned out he was that curious creature, a ‘fan’. While he sipped from a devotional flat white, he smirked at my pretention and smelled my virgin blood. We bade farewell and I left the sunshine behind to enter the darkness. I closed my eyes and thought of Neneh.
The opera begins in a cave in the great forest as Mime, a Nibelung blacksmith, forges another sword for his insolent ward, Siegfried. The libretto opens with the line “Forced drudgery! Fruitless toil!”. My heart sank – would it be a night of forced toil and fruitless drudgery? Would Wagner be a review to far? Could I escape with my virginity intact? Would the mysterious ‘Editor’ still buy me that G&T? As Siegfried entered to mock Mime, a strange thing happened. I was seduced. In the blink of an eye, as I heard angel trumpets and devil trombones, my fear of Wagner was gone.
The performance was a triumph. The story of the young, heroic Siegfried as he fights the devious plans of Mime and Alberich to steal the Rhinegold, to slay the dragon, Fafner and to free the sleeping Brunnhilde is all a bit teutonic, but at its beating heart is a touching story of boy meets girl. Opera North’s staging, or semi-staging, was minimal as the orchestra is on stage and the singers sang directly to the audience with little interaction, save for slaying of Fafner and the final embrace of Siegfried and Brunnhilde. Peter Mumford’s design, the back projection and sharp costumes concentrated the mind on the performances. Mati Turi as Siegfried was full of fearless bluster as he defeats his enemies but melts when his eyes meets Brunnhilde, played with breathless wonder by Annalena Persson. Mime (Richard Roberts) sang sleazy scheming while Alberich (Jo Pohlheim) menaced with brooding paranoia. Mats Almgren as Fafner boomed as a dragon should.
The true star of the evening was the orchestra led by conductor Richard Farnes. From the playful friendship between Siegfried and the beautiful blonde woodbird (Fflur Wyn), through the battle as Siegfried defeats Wotan (Michael Druiett), to the gentle awakening of Brunnhilde, they were on fire.
I left the auditorium blooded, bewildered as to why I’d left it so long. I understood the lure of Wagner at last. I travelled as a boy and came back a man. Neneh would have been proud.
Review by Robert Hamilton
Where: The Lowry, Salford on July 6, 2013. Next performance July 13, 2013 at Leeds Town Hall
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.