The third instalment in Valery Gergiev’s Birmingham Ring Cycle came off with a superb dramatic intensity and richness of characterisation, with a stellar performance from Mikhail Vekua in the title role. If the supremely high quality of Siegfried is anything to go by, joining this Ring at its halfway point may well prove to be one of my greatest regrets of the year.

© N. Razina | Mariinsky Opera
© N. Razina | Mariinsky Opera

The role of Siegfried, the young hero who is to redeem the world, is one of the most taxing in the repertoire. Vekua thrilled in every facet of the job. He let rip frequent outbursts of enormous power, fully creating the required sense of heroism, with no sign of vocal strain or tiredness at any point. Whilst forging Notung, one could almost feel the heat from the stage. His was also a very dramatically engaging Siegfried, however, with fine acting and very natural movement around the stage. His relationship with Mime was complex: dysfunctional in the extreme, but such was Vekua’s impetuous and physically violent treatment of the dwarf that it had a strong whiff of being a troublingly abusive relationship. He also showed a pleasing development through the opera, though, starting from a subtle pang of soft regret at the death of Fafner and growing further after having finally learned fear from Brunnhilde. With this maturing came a softer edge on his sound, though no less projecting. Vekua deserved every decibel of his roared ovation.

Andrey Popov as Mime, for all his cringing and skulking, also threw his impressive vocal weight behind his arguments with Alberich and the Wanderer. The higher parts of the role suited his tessitura far better than the lower passages. In extremis, his shrieks of terror, for instance when faced with Siegfried’s bear, fully embraced the comic aspects of the opera. Alberich (Edem Umerov) was richly characterised in his rage at Wotan.

The Wanderer himself (Vladimir Feliauer) carried good weight and fullness of sound in his bass, and was touchingly accepting of his fate after being swept aside by Siegfried. In the same scene, Mikhail Petrenko’s Fafner was perhaps needlessly amplified from offstage. This dampened the effect of his residing deep in a cave, and I suspect his tone would have been every bit as menacing without amplification. The dragon itself was a fairly literal creature, ingeniously created from one of the four house-sizeed monolithic statues which have been towering over the stage through the cycle. Greg Filshtinsky’s lighting gave good dramatic support to the dragon scene, and subtly helped sculpt the mood of the each scene through the opera.

© N. Razina | Mariinsky Opera
© N. Razina | Mariinsky Opera

Olga Sergeyeva’s Brünnhilde grew steadily from somnolent beginnings to passionate conclusion. There was a real sense of weight behind her saluting of the sun, and her energy on stage grew through the final act to match the steady increase in intensity provided by Gergiev in the pit. Similarly well supported was the Woodbird (Anastasia Kalagina), whose memorably graceful and light tone matched the fine control and expression of the principal woodwind players.

The Mariinsky Orchestra were on top form throughout, demonstrating particularly luscious, thick string textures alongside highly polished, rich brass colours. The horns and Wagner tubas deserve special mention, the former for some heroic solos and the latter for providing such rich shading to the orchestral sound. Gergiev, for his part, directed with all the assurance one would expect, maintaining a very satisfactory balance between stage and pit. He perhaps allowed the pace to slacken somewhat in the third act, but on reflection this perhaps added weight to the Siegfried- Brünnhilde relationship. Not all orchestral entries were quite razor-sharp, but the resultant sounds were invariably gorgeous.

This is quite a literal Ring. When Wagner calls for a bear, a bear appears. It was the peripheral features – the dancers, lighting and to a large extent Gergiev’s pacing – which gave such character to the performance. Tatiana Noginova’s costumes, inspired by the conductor’s native Ossetian culture, were an ongoing source of fascination: generally rustic but never simple, and often spectacularly elaborate.

The real visual spectacle, though was George Tsypin’s monumental set, a vast, towering set of structures which could be manipulated to seemingly limitless purposes. It gave every phrase added weight, leaving the most musically dramatic passages seared into the memory.