Sigurd - Victoria Hall Geneva, 6 October 2013
Ernest Reyer's best-known opera shares a plot with Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, excuse enough for the Grand Théâtre de Genève to revive it as part of their Wagner bicentenary celebrations. Musically however there is little common ground. While Wagner looks to the future, Reyer's template is grand opera, and his debt to his friend and musical hero Berlioz is here so great that Sigurd frequently curdles into pastiche.
Faced with a four hour score demanding monsters, elves and flaming lakes, Geneva wisely settled for a heavily trimmed concert version. The gilt-encrusted splendours of the Victoria Hall conjured a compensatory whiff of the opera's belle époque heyday.
There could be no shortcuts with casting though. Reyer wrote for big voices with staying power. The title role was taken by Andrea Carè (Ismaele in the recent ROH Nabucco), a "new Domingo" who deserves the label more than most. The natural beauty of Carè's voice is most evident in its lower reaches; high notes were flung out with will-he-won't-he panache. A strong Italian accent didn't conceal his attention to words and feelings.
Anna Caterina Antonacci was Brunehilde, the bride Sigurd must abduct for Gunther as the price of Gunther's sister's hand. Antonacci, who always takes a while to get going, was unfortunately faced with the opera's showpiece aria Salut, splendeur du jour as her opening number. It wasn't great. Once she'd settled in, her hot/cold combination of incisiveness and passion embodied the headstrong princess.
Boris Pinkhasovich made a strongly-sung but anodyne Gunther, though to be fair Reyer's score gives few opportunities for anything otherwise. His sister Hilda is much better written; the rivalry between her and Brunehilde is the opera's emotional high point. Anne Sophie Duprels made her wide-eyed and wayward most of the catfight. Marie-Ange Todorovitch as the wise old nurse Uta, and Nicolas Courjal as the Bard gave impressive performances too.
Frédéric Chaslin conducted with sweaty fervour - there was no doubt he, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and the chorus of the Grand Théâtre de Genève gave the discursive score their all.
For a brief period in the 1890s, Sigurd was one of the most frequently performed operas in Paris, and premiered all over the world (including Covent Garden). But without the smokescreen of a spectacular staging, its longueurs, flabby orchestration and under-developed characterisations are exposed. It is very much a testament to the tastes of an era. Even a performance of this quality and commitment can't quite convince that it deserves more than the occasional dust-off it now gets.
The performance will be broadcast on Swiss radio on 23 November. While there's no indication that the recording will ultimately be released commercially, my instinctive reaction is that what I heard was vastly superior to the only version readily obtainable at present, Manuel Rosenthal's 1973 version. Chaslin et al would be doing Reyer a service by making it available.
above: Vincent Lepresle/Grand Théâtre de Genève