‘These two characters are irritating even by Wagnerian standards’: Holden Madagame, left, as Mime and Peter Furlong as Siegfried.Photo: Steve Gregson
As if released from the starting blocks, SiegfriedWagner’s hero A ring, in a black hoodie with a teddy bear under his arm, speeds through the audience and leaps onto the stage for his first vocal entry, still holding his breath. Mim, Nibelung’s slippery ranger – green hair, woolen pixie hat – is ready to greet him. Then the god Wotan-Wanderer strolls in, disguised as a boiler-suited electrician with a toolbox, there to change a light bulb. All stages of A ring have directorial ideas. You can take them or leave them. Regents Opera, now in its third installment of the series, brings the epic to life with imagination, humor – including a tribute to Marcel Duchamp’s urinal – and the occasional but fixable.
Skilfully reduced to 23 orchestral players, in an austere and faithful arrangement by director Ben Woodward, this is a small-scale Wagner with big ambitions and high musical standards. The ear quickly adapts to the subtle sound of a dozen strings and (four horns aside) a single brass and woodwind. Directed by Caroline Staunton and designed by Isabella van Braeckel, the action takes place on a small raised platform in the Liberty Hall. Few appliances, all sets but not there. Were not all the lines in this glorious art deco building straight, you could say the staging was round. It’s definitely ready, the drama is immediate.
The sense of orchestra, choir and production team working as one was something to see and to enjoy – all the more considering their uncertainty regarding the future of the ENO.
The first act of the opera consists of a long space between Siegfried and Mime, and it can drag: these two characters are irritating even by Wagnerian standards. The two singers here, tenor Peter Furlong and tenor Holden Madagame, worked hard to build energy, both physically and vocally. Furlong was visible, determined and well able to jump through the vocal hoops of the role. Madagame, a trans activist who began her training as a mezzo-soprano, has spoken about the difficulties of finding a new voice type post-testosterone treatment. His tight musical and acting skills couldn’t always make up for a lack of tonal strength, but he brought an engaging vivacity to this unlikable character.
The rest of the cast – led by Catharine Woodward’s fearless Brünnhilde – were extremely successful, and the orchestra, fingers and lips were certainly raw at the end of this marathon work, with only brief turns. Ralf Lukas, a resonant and dignified Wanderer, was cleverly matched by Oliver Gibbs as his lookalike counterpart, Alberich. Craig Lemont Walters, sleek and subtle as the gold-clad Fafner, Woodbird, Corinne Hart’s bustle and Mae Heydorn, graceful in every way as Erda, skillfully contributed. The cycle started last year with Rheingold and the death of Walküre (with the late Keel Watson as Wotan). It will be completed later this year.
Last month’s planned strike at English National Opera was postponed in time for the revival The story of Bangor, by Poul Ruders, libretto by Paul Bentley, based on Margaret Atwood’s novel and directed by Annilese Miskimmon. Having seen the work three times now, I still struggle with its fruitless nature, brilliant orchestral colors and stirring choral outbursts notwithstanding. This performance, however, was the most convincing yet. Joana Carneiro, the director, revealed unnoticed subtleties in the score, and Kate Lindsey again brought insight and feeling to the central role of Offred. Avery Amereau (Serena Joy), Nadine Benjamin (Moira), Rachel Nicholls (Aunt Lydia) and Zwakele Tshabalala (Nick) led a well-rounded ensemble. The sense of orchestra, choir and production team working as one was palpable and gratifying – all the more so given their collective uncertainty about ENO’s future.
Less successful was the revival of the Royal Opera House Factors, where it was difficult to see how the casting happened. Neither Ausrine Stundyte in the title role nor Marcelo Puente as Cavaradossi were on top, although Stundyte – who recently stood in for Nina Stemme in Electra at ROH – performed well, reminding us of Tosca’s true horror when she herself was murdered. Karen Kamensek, conducting, showed a confident understanding of Puccini’s flowing score, played by the orchestra with appropriate professionalism. Jonathan Kent’s majestic 2006 staging is still in the works. The sudden appearance of Scarpia at the top of the steps in the basilica of Sant’Andrea della Valle, before the great Te Deum, chills and startles every time. Returning to the role, the baritone Gabriele Viviani was the outstanding performer of the night, finding Italian lyricism in this most exciting and brilliant role. Even in a decidedly non-vintage performance, the music seems more impressive. Puccini wins every time. What is a composer.
Star ratings (out of five)
The story of Bangor ★★★★
• The Lady’s Story at the Coliseum, London, until 15 February
• Factors represented at the Royal Opera House, London, until 21 July