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WAGNER  Siegfried Act III Hallé Orchestra and soloists. Conducted by Mark Elder CBE. The Bridgewater Hall Manchester, UK , 11.11. 2006 (RJF)

Mark Elder marked his arrival as Music Director of the Hallé for all opera lovers, in his choice of repertoire for the Abraham Moss Memorial Concert in January 2001. As this was the centenary of the composer's death it was an all Verdi concert. Since then Mancunians have had memorable concert performances of Falstaff and Cavalleria Rusticana from the Hallé and its choir under Elder’s baton. These have been memorable not merely for the standard of orchestral playing, choral singing and Elder’s interpretation, but also for the quality of the soloists he has tempted to Manchester. In Cavalleria Rusticana (review) we heard Dolora Zajick as Santuzza whilst Ambrogio Maestri took the eponymous role in Falstaff among a cast that could have graced any opera house in the world. These two soloists rank among the leading exponents of their roles in the world and their presence represented Elder’s reputation in the world of opera, which he continues to grace at the best addresses.

So it was on Saturday, when musical Mancunians were all of a buzz about Ben Heppner coming to sing Siegfied. Wagner dramatic tenors have not been thick on the ground since the days of
Lauritz Melchior and Wolfgang Windgassen and even then they had a rarity value. In the present world when, Domingo apart, we lack spinto tenors and the dearth of dramatic voices for the Wagner tenor roles is even more marked with Heppner standing vocally head and shoulders above the sparse competition. But Wagner did not only demand big dramatic voices of his tenors. He required big dramatic instruments and orchestras to bring reality to his vision, none more so than in his Der Ring der Nibelungen.


The prelude to the concert was a generous and informative fifteen-minute introduction to the Ring, and Siegfried in particular, by Mark Elder. He not only explained what had gone before in Siegfried but the gap in composition between it and its predecessor, Die Walküre. Pertinently, he also explained what we would see in the augmented orchestra of over ninety players including six harps, Wagner tubas and bass trumpet. Do we need to wonder about the need for big voices?


Mark Elder also touched upon the difference between the orchestra pit at Bayreuth, where the opera was premiered and having the players on the platform behind the soloists. I waited with some worry about how the Wanderer of Johan Reuter would cope since lower male voices do not penetrate through dense orchestral textures as the higher female voices. I need not have worried. This Wanderer was vocally strong toned with a good upward extension to his bass baritone and excellent diction. Elder let his large orchestral forces off the leash to give the textures their due without having to worry about audibility. As the Wanderer arrives to waken Erda we heard the glorious contralto tones of the tall elegant Swede Anna Larson. As with Johan Reuter, her secure tone, good diction and expression were there for all to hear. Although English surtitles were present above the stage, with the quality of diction it was easy to follow the printed words in the programme. 


In Scene two Siegfried arrives for his long somewhat contentious duet with the Wanderer who is intent, it seems, on thwarting his pursuit of the sleeping woman. This was the point when the audience discovered why Ben Heppner is renowned in this fach. His true tenor tone has no raised baritonal hue evident: instead he has the wholly appropriate tonal characteristic for the ardent and urgent Siegfried coupled with the vocal heft to power out the words without any spread or wobble. Heppner was vocally suitably off hand with the Wanderer in Scene two and tenderly ardent in his wooing of Brünnhilde in Scene three, being sensitive in his phrasing and legato as Siegfried approaches the rock at Im Schlafe eine Frau and then later with a fully a controlled soft Erwarche! full of entreaty as he sought her awakening.


The six harps earned their fees at the awakening and we hear the final soloist, Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde. Trained in Gothenbenberg and Copenhagen, Ms Theorin has sung a lot of Verdi including Elisabetta (Don Carlo), Desdemona (Otello), Amelia (Un ballo in Maschera) and the Trovatore Leonore as well as Tosca and Wagner’s Elsa (Lohengrin) and Senta (Der fliegende Hollander) She is currently singing Brünnhilde in the Ring cycle in Nuremberg. Hers is a very warm toned voice with a quick vibrato. She makes a very womanly Brünnhilde; perhaps lacking a bit of that Nordic steel in the vocal chords that can cut through and float above the orchestral textures. This was not a limitation in her rising to the orchestral climax as Brünnhilde covers her eyes at Schreken schreitet und bäumt sich empor after which Siegfied gently moves her hands. It was at this point, and only here, that the separation of the singers, either side of the podium, disturbed me. A simple hand touch was needed here. I hadn't look for the Wanderer to have an eye patch or a spear, or for Siegfried to carry a sword, but the lack of physical response between the soloists at this point was an error which detracted from the poignancy of the music and from Elder’s interpretation of it.


Elder’s pacing and support for his soloists was first rate throughout. He didn’t moderate the orchestral thunder to protect his singers and didn’t need to. If, to my ears the orchestra didn’t quite finish together then the lapse was forgivable. The rehearsal demands on a symphony orchestra, even one as disciplined and professionally competent as the Hallé now is, for a single performance must have been considerable. It says much for the mutual respect between Musical Director and players that an uninterrupted one and a half hours of Wagner writing could go so well.

Two years ago in the same hall, the BBC Philharmonic under Ted Downes and John Tomlinson as soloist, gave a very fine Wagner night to Mancunians (review). This Hallé evening was of a similar standard and the capacity audience were appropriately appreciative of Marc Elder, his soloists and the augmented orchestra. We will all look forward with eager anticipation to the next opera concert I am sure, but it will need extremely good soloists and orchestral playing to equal either this Siegfried or the previous Cavalleria Rusticana and Falstaff.

Robert J Farr



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)