Sunday, 15 June 2014

Fantastic Mr Farnes

Götterdämmerung (Opera North, Leeds Town Hall and touring) 

When Richard Farnes turned around last night, at around ten pm, to look at the audience in Leeds Town Hall, he did so with the look of a man who knew his exhaustion was occasioned by a job well done. Had he been in any doubt, the audience would have removed any element of uncertainty.  The audience scrambled to their feet with a rapidity I can’t recall elsewhere. The only disappointment of the evening was that the cast wouldn’t come back on stage.  

After four years, Opera North’s Ring had reached its end. A serious undertaking for any opera company; to have reached such heights of perfection is no mean feat. The terse ruminations of the Norns at the start are startling: so many musicians but astonishingly quiet music-making. First Norn, Fiona Kimm, took a while to get going. Against great expectations, momentarily my heart sank: Opera North were going to fall at the last hurdle; but Kimm warmed up quickly. Farnes had, at all times, the orchestra and choirs sprawling over the stage, under precise and immaculate control. Never was it too loud, or too quiet. The pace was exact. This could be the idealtype to show others, in order that they imitate it. The Trauerzug, perhaps the most thrilling moment in the saga (or even all opera), was done so well it bordered on overwhelming. Where a fairly young orchestra might have been tempted to leap in to this with excessive enthusiasm, tight control exerted maximum thrill from this without being bombastic. 

Familiar voices from the Ring and some other excursions of mine returned. The End is all about the leading lady, and Alwyn Mellor pulled off the trick of being both fearsome and tender at once. Her Minnie delighted in La Fanciulla del West in March. In the face of scorn, both righteous and forgiving, this was a Brunnhilde for whom we all felt. Mati Turi was the perfect, amiable Siegfried that modern audiences need – the old kind of unfeeling hero won’t hold water. Turi made him amiable too: the humorous wooing of the Rhinemaidens was well-judged without veering towards the pantomimic. This wonderful pair held together the drama. 
Of course villains are needed. And Eric Greene’s Gunther – an ambitious monarch even one with a conscience, and Mats Almgren’s Hagen did this with much success. Almgren was positively menacing and shone throughout. In his immaculate suit Greene looked grasping and aloof – which did echo his role in Khovanschina (Birmingham Opera Company) in this way. Jo Pohlheim returned as Alberich with much success. 

The Rhinemaidens: I can only ever think of Anna Russell’s description of them as ‘a sort of aquatic Andrews sister’; and even if their movement flowed less smoothly than the Rhine, their singing was as clear as its waters. Characterization appropriate – they seemed thrilled to have their gold again – but then that is rather the purpose of the thing.  

The semi-staging Peter Mumford has developed for Opera North has been an undoubted success. The background images functioned to enhance the piece and increased its coherence considerably, and it would be worth revisiting the earlier episodes in 2016 before the complete Rings. The costumes actively added - Turi as an almost happy-go-lucky fellow in crumpled shirt and open waistcoat; sharply-sinister suits for Gibichungs; glittering blue jewels for the Rhinemaidens. These are in no way to be described as concert performances; they are almost-staged. And not having a ring probably makes sense: what would it need to look like to convey its meaning? 

There is a moral imperative for the recordings made and broadcast on radio three to be released on disc. This is a skilful interpretation. The Arts Desk review suggested that the (albeit clear) semi-staging gives the singers freedom to concentrate on singing whilst contextualizing.  The orchestra, choir and singers soar, as if propelled by magic fire. I had booked to see it again; I wonder if twice will be enough. 

Overall: the audience was privileged to have experienced this; it knew it. Nothing less than a thundering achievement.

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