Is it possible to base a successful Siegfried simply on Erda and the Woodbird? Perhaps not, but Saffron Walden came close. It would have been worth the trip to this curiously inaccessible location, miles of travel from the motorway that passes so close, just to hear Hilary Summers and Agatha Peters in these two roles. Hilary Summers was the best Erda we have encountered in more than 50 years. With a voice of dark cream, ravishingly pure and free of oratorio wobble, a voice which brought glow to phrase after phrase, all exquisitely shaped, she was the Erda of our dreams. She looked beautiful and magnificent, tall and regal, a great lady, and nobody there had to be a second Sigmund Freud to understand why she had been Wotan’s old flame.
Much the same praise could be heaped on the Woodbird, an enchanting 16-year-old from Cambridge, making her solo and her Wagnerian debut. She had a voice of radiant promise, but her long notes up in the heights were already beyond praise, with an aching purity and a ravishing amplitude that was extraordinary. Perhaps she might look to Wagner’s warning that his singers should look after the little notes, because she ran through these too quickly for them to register the melody that they contain. At the opposite, lowest end of the scale was a third good surprise, Donald Thomson. Again, I have not heard a Fafner of such sonorous gravity since Josef Greindl at his best, and Donald Thomson had no need to force his voice downwards to plumb Fafner’s subterranean depths; they were his proper kingdom. He was left free to phrase the music, and give it feeling, the strange pathos of this vast and pitiless beast as it dies.
These were three happy surprises; but there was more to the occasion than these. It was just as inspiriting to find Andrew Greenan back on his proper, stellar form as Wanderer, just as he had been as Sachs. He made a magisterial Wanderer, but hints and flickers of humour were constantly breaking through, as happened with his quizzical smile at Alberich when twitting him outside Fafner’s lair. It was a sung smile and a literal, facial one. Yet when it came to “The Centre of The World Tragedy”, as Wagner described the momentous scene with Erda, how deeply Greenan made us feel for Wanderer! The portrayal was so splendidly sung and so consummately acted that one cannot but ask: how is it that so many world class opera houses should resort to feeble Wanderers, feebly and wobblingly sung, while rock-steady, compelling Andrew Greenan is palmed off with odd bit parts, the odd knight in Parsifal and so on? Why have the far too imperial and mighty Bryn Terfel for Sachs at Covent Garden when they could have had Andrew Greenan? Dire imprecations upon Covent Garden for giving him nothing at all!
Peter Bronder, as ever, made the most of Mime’s somewhat thankless role, thankless not because Mime is unlikable; so is Alberich; but because Wagner never succeeds in making Mime matter, not as he does Alberich or Wotan. Mime never seizes the imagination. As for our Saffron Alberich, Nicholas Folwell, it must be thirty years since he first shone in the role at Welsh National Opera, but as he already showed in the Saffron Das Rheingold, time has laid a light hand on his magnificent timbre. If anything, it is now richer but no less burnished than of old, and he is still outstanding in the venomous, fallen grandeur of Wagner’s most terrifying creation.
Jonathan Stoughton’s Siegfried was likewise terrific. He has the right tireless stamina. Having poured out his voice all evening and brought character to music of anger, expressiveness, excitement, reverie, anguish, golden enthusiasm, he was still fully equal to Brünnhilde when she wakes up fresh as a daisy, just for the end. As it happens Elaine McKrill seemed to be having a bit of trouble with Brünnhilde. Not that she did anything less than sustain the elevated level of the occasion. She brought such charisma and variety to her portrayal that her problems with the vocal challenges went for nothing, but perhaps she was wise to take her final C down an octave.
The whole occasion would have been nothing without the orchestra, an orchestra which goes from strength to strength with Michael Thorne at the helm. It sounds more and more like a very real orchestra, and demonstrates its new dimension in the increased tidiness of the playing, in its staying power and in some very soft contributions. There are far more pp markings in Wagner than ff, and a particularly responsive passage materialised at the opening of Act II, when the Contrabass Tuba meanders darkly downwards under an ominous string shimmer. This time the Tuba solo was very pp, and all the more sinister because of it, a shapeless, formless menace; magnificent! Magnificent too was the very different shimmer of the orchestra, green and golden, in the forest murmurs, made perfect when the ravishing woodbird of Agatha Peters added its keening purity. Inevitably the biggest fences brought some falls. Siegfried’s horn call in Act II is always a challenge and even the seasoned ENO used to import Alan Civil specially, so that it was no discredit to the first horn at Saffron Walden to have missed the mark. Yet even in these mishaps the performance revealed something distinctive, its unfailing sense of occasion, of excitement and discovery, a vital element such as can elude some more polished, better manicured bodies. The improved security of the Saffron orchestra meant that Michael Thorne, an unpretentious, self-disparaging figure on the podium, was no longer preoccupied with steering his forces through difficult territory; he seemed freed up to bring to Siegfried a sweep which had not been so much in evidence during Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. He particularly earned my gratitude for allowing the great orchestral exordium after Brünnhilde’s awakening to have its full breadth; how is it possible for so many musicians to follow the common rut with an unmarked, trivialising accelerando at this point. Anyway, Michael Thorne did not; he wanted nothing in grandeur and splendour even at the opera’s rumbustuous end. So on now to new deeds, on to Götterdämmerung, greatest challenge of all; please mark your diaries and book your tickets now for 17th September.