Gerhard Siegel as Mime © Palace of arts
Gerhard Siegel as Mime
© Palace of arts
There are times in opera when the performance that lights up your evening isn’t one of the big romantic headline roles, or even the baritone villain. In last night’s Siegfried in Budapest, the performance that left me gasping was Gerhard Siegel’s Mime, the put upon dwarf turned into hapless, scheming, would-be murderer.

Apart from the fact that the cycle is named after them, the two Nibelung brothers get a pretty bad press in the Ring Cycle. Treachery, incest and casual violence are portrayed as sublime and noble when they come from the gods or the Wälsungs, while behaviour that’s not all that dissimilar is grubby and disgusting when it comes from Mime or Alberich. I’ve seen Siegel play Mime purely as a comic fall guy – but not here. For sure, he used his fast talking voice and comic mannerisms some of the time. But he also used a smooth singing voice, alternating boastful (false) hope with genuine despair: Mime has been given few advantages in life and no ways out of the predicament into which others have bound him, and Siegel’s voice earns him our sympathy as well as our contempt.

Gerhard Siegel as Mime, Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried © Palace of Arts
Gerhard Siegel as Mime, Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried
© Palace of Arts
As ever, Jay Hunter Morris is an engagingly cheerful and pleasant-voiced Siegfried. He’s at his best in Act II and the early part of Act III, as Siegfried revels in his new found power and freedom, and the joys of following the woodbird. Morris makes much use of a technique of starting a note very cleanly, just a shade on the soft side, and then growing the volume and thickening out the timbre so that the note swells in expressivity as it progresses. It’s thrilling to listen to, and was particularly lovely in the passages where Siegfried is singing about the imagined loveliness of the mother he has never met.

For all that, it seemed to me that Act I started slowly. Things began to come to life in the riddle scene between Mime and Egils Silins’ Wanderer, followed by a superb rendering of the passage in which Mime raves over his utter impotence in his self-inflicted trap. Another superb scene was when Mime tries to teach Siegfried the meaning of fear: the accompanying music is so portentous and tension-filled that everyone in the audience is filled with fear, while Morris’s Siegfried remains totally oblivious. By the time of the subsequent sword-forging scene, the orchestra were on full power and Act I ended on a high.

Hartmut Welker as Alberich, with Nibelungs © Palace of arts
Hartmut Welker as Alberich, with Nibelungs
© Palace of arts
Siegfried is a long opera with many contrasting scenes. In this production as in many, some came off better than others. One of the highlights for me was Alberich’s entry in Act II, followed shortly by the arrival of the Wanderer and their awaking of the sleeping dragon Fafner. As soon as the Wanderer arrives, Hartmut Welker’s Alberich shifts his voice from lyrical pensiveness to the harsh chatter that we heard in Das Rheingold, and we heard a marvellous blend of three low voices: Welker mixed with the smooth urbanity of Silins and the profound, somnolent depths of Walter Fink (singing through a megaphone, as Wagner’s stage directions specify). The later confrontation between Alberich and Mime was also especially powerful.

The start of Act III, often one of the highlights of the opera, was less successful. As Erika Gál’s Erda rises from the depths, she was required to sing the whole scene from behind the glass panelling above the stage. In her short scene in Das Rheingold, this technique worked well in creating a sense of other-worldliness. But this is a much longer scene and we need to hear Erda’s voice at full volume: the screen was far too great a handicap.

Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried, with dragon © Palace of arts
Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried, with dragon
© Palace of arts
The semi-staging was shorter on choreography and longer on video effects than either of the previous evenings. Blood red curtains impressed at the start of Act II, and a nice light touch was added by the giant cartoon dragon which pans across the stage (its snake-like body, emblazoned with runes along its side, is imagined to be considerably longer than the width of the stage). Another nice touch of humour was Siegfried’s hopeless attempt to play his pipes: the oboist was on stage next to him, with Morris attempting to help with various gymnastic exercises, sorting out of reeds, etc before kicking him offstage.

It’s considered impossible to sing Brünnhilde on three nights in a row, so tonight’s Brünnhilde was Petra Lang – a highly rated mezzo for most of her career but who has tackled various Wagnerian soprano roles in recent years. In her long closing scene with Morris’s Siegfried, Lang did not disappoint, with creamy richness of tone and the ability to generate swell and rapture. Wagner’s dialogue may be difficult to believe in for much of this scene, but his music is not, when it is sung with so much grace and attention to phrasing: Morris and Lang gave us a satisfying end to the evening.

You can read reviews from the other operas in the cycle here: Das RheingoldDie Walküre and Götterdämmerung.

***11