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Classical review: Prom 18, Wagner, Siegfried, Daniel Barenboim, Berlin Staatskapelle


The Proms’ Ring has reached episode three: Siegfried, the one where a fearless beefcake falls in love with his aunt. After the incestuous passions of Die Walküre it doesn’t seem so risqué. Its five-hour span moves from darkest foreboding to love music intense almost to the point of insanity, which Justin Way’s semi-staging matched by flooding the whole auditorium with pinky-gold light.

Act 1 introduces our brawny hero – Wotan’s mortal grandson – as a petulant adolescent, tormenting the dwarf, Mime, who has brought him up. In Act 2 matters brighten in the famous Forest Murmurs scene, a modicum of comedy (yes, actual humour) and a spot of dragon-slaying. But 12 years went by before Wagner finished the opera – he was busy with small matters like Tristan und Isolde – and the final act inhabits another world as Siegfried breaks through Brünnhilde’s protective fire to win her, even if his first reaction to her slumbering body is to be scared witless.

Wagner manipulates his magic web of leitmotifs through textures, transformations and aural visions evoking everything from Mime’s description of what fear feels like (the Magic Fire music gone mad) to Siegfried’s reflections about his mother’s fate. Daniel Barenboim, masterful in his control of the huge structure and the ebb and flow of its transitions, extracted every drop of colour from dragon’s den to mountain sunrise; the Berlin Staatskapelle, with rich lower strings and silky brass, responded to him as one. Plaudit to the concertmaster, Wolfram Brandl, for a breathtakingly gorgeous violin solo.

But Siegfried belongs to its Heldentenor. The charismatic Lance Ryan, from Canada, who sings the role at the Bayreuth Festival this year, seemed in his element, meeting its gargantuan demands with only a hint of tiredness near the end. Nor was he above horsing about with the horn player who came forward to deliver Siegfried’s personal fanfare (“Got any others?” Ryan quipped).

Peter Bronder’s Mime offered a touch of genius, infusing each syllable with character; add the world-weary, smooth-toned Wanderer of Terje Stensvold, the glittering Woodbird of Rinnat Moriah at the top of the choir seats, the incomparable Eric Halfvarson as Fafner the dragon, Anna Larsson’s deep-set lava of an Erda and a brooding Alberich from Johannes Martin Kränzle, and the performance was a glory.

Yet Nina Stemme as the awakening Brünnhilde raised even this to new levels, for behind her open-hearted, strong-centred voice and apparently calm presence lay a fervour that matched the cool exterior with equal parts of fire. Another hot evening in the hall, but worth every second.