The Hong Kong Philharmonic’s concert presentation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle over four years reached its third instalment, Siegfried, on Sunday. Joining Music Director Jaap van Zweden were some familiar faces who had appeared in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in the same or different roles, and new faces appearing for the first time. The combination, shorn of the trappings of a fully staged performance, nevertheless delivered an afternoon of exhilarating and powerful musical drama that more than vindicated the orchestra’s ambitious plan.

Simon O'Neill (Siegfried) © Cheung Wai Lok | Hong Kong Philharmonic
Simon O'Neill (Siegfried)
© Cheung Wai Lok | Hong Kong Philharmonic

Of the three acts of the opera, the first is the least exciting. A good part of it is a parade of Siegfried’s abusive and contemptuous treatment of Mime as he recounts how he came to bring him up as a “foster” parent, sprinkled with plenty of unsuccessful sword-making. Not that Mime deserves any sympathy, as he has his own ulterior motives, but against Siegfried’s gratuitous hostility and disdain he does cut a pitiful figure.

Simon O'Neill has a fine and expressive voice but perhaps a little light for the truculent Siegfried who knows no fear, hardly evoking the revulsion the character deserves. He struggled to project above the carpet of insistent humming on low strings, brass and woodwinds. David Cangelosi, returning to the role of Mime, carried the day. Dramatic and compulsive, he either deflected or returned Siegfried’s volleys of insults and derision and even gave the overbearing Wotan, now disguised as the Wanderer, the occasional run for his money. His single-minded focus on recovering the ring seemed a source of persistent inner strength.

David Cangelosi (Mime) © Cheung Wai Lok | Hong Kong Philharmonic
David Cangelosi (Mime)
© Cheung Wai Lok | Hong Kong Philharmonic

Matthias Goerne, the mainstay of all three operas so far in the cycle, has a dark tone certainly fit for the role of Wotan. Loitering in the low register, his delivery verged on being heavy rather than authoritative. Although this might have done little justice to Wotan the blustering, all powerful deity, it was nevertheless appropriate for the Wanderer.

The opening of the second act is rather grim, replete with suspense as Alberich lurks outside the cave in which Fafner, in the form of a dragon, is resting. Bass-baritone Werner van Mechelen portrayed Alberich well – small-minded and obsessive, perhaps even neurotic – providing an effective counterpoise to the Wanderer.  O’Neill came to his own with smooth lyricism, showing a glimpse into the tender and vulnerable side of Siegfried, as he yearned for his mother against the bucolic background of chirpy woodwinds and gentle horns.

Falk Struckmann as Fafner and Valentina Farcas as the Woodbird both looked in only for a short time, but added colour and variety. Although Struckmann didn’t quite breathe fire and fear, his commanding boom rang in the auditorium from the back of the stage, briefly slowing Siegfried’s advance. Farcas was delightful and vivacious, vocally soaring and diving at will with ethereal lightness.

Heidi Melton (Brünnhilde) © Cheung Wai Lok | Hong Kong Philharmonic
Heidi Melton (Brünnhilde)
© Cheung Wai Lok | Hong Kong Philharmonic

The third and final act was what brought home the bacon. Wotan the Wanderer (and bully) made a nuisance of himself waking up Erda to seek her advice. With steely nerves and a solid voice to boot, Deborah Humble targeted his questions with offhand but forceful ripostes. After recklessly bidding Wotan not to stand in his way, Siegfried found Brünnhilde. Heidi Melton seemed to be standing a long time waiting for Siegfried to finish his soliloquy, but boy did this heighten the impact of her entry! She broke through rippling harps and tremolando strings in an earth-shattering and majestic cry of “Hail to thee, Sun!” From here on, this velvety sound box commanded our rapt attention until the end, throwing us up in the air with high emotion, and bringing us down with gentle lament.

Jaap van Zweden kept the orchestra on a tight rein, doling out clear gestures to signal the effect he wanted. No detail was left to chance, nor any phrase misjudged. Orchestral colours were superb and balance among the various parts was well maintained. Integration with the singing was seamless and the artistry of the players was evident. With the help of set and props, this would be close to what Wagner conceived as Gesamtkunstwerk.