Wagner, Das Rheingold and Walküre (Orchestra Opera North cond. Richard Farnes)
It is hard to imagine another regional company in the UK brave enough to tackle the Ring; less still one which appears to pull it off with such aplomb. Opera North’s cycles started on Saturday 23rd April with Das Rheingold and 30th April with the Walküre in Leeds Town Hall. 600 hours of rehearsals apparently, for the project. Even for a fifteen-hour piece, this is a serious commitment (of 35h work weeks, for example - you can do the maths here). And it is a revival after all. Or four.
It started about five years ago, with the four parts provided incrementally on an annual basis; plus the Dutchman last year. Finally, it is come round at last. A glittering prize for Opera North, Richard Farnes, and perhaps most importantly, the importance of opera produced outside of London.
Orchestrally, it isn’t just that Farnes has his band up to the task, but a fairly sensible, clean reading of the music is given urgency and immediacy here that represents perfect space for the drama to unfold; perhaps one or two moments from the bass sounded not-quite-right at the Rheingold, but at nearly three hours without a break, this might be unfair. Moreover, the brass became better and stronger on each subsequent evening, so that by Gotterdammerung, it was almost too much to bear.
Vocally this was little less than stunning. Perhaps it isn’t the first-choice cast for that desert island; but maybe some of these singers should be. In the Rheingold, Michael Druiett as Wotan had the gravity: the tired old god desperate for “Das ende” was apparent from the start. Those two words don’t come until the second night, but they are the most important in the whole tetralogy. If it has a single meaning, it stems from this.
Desperate and perhaps bewildered, Wotan reaches to scheming Loge; a right-hand political magician who makes Machiavelli look like a lovely square-dealing fellow. And it was on this trickster than the drama hangs. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke did it perfectly, shaking fanned hands with correspondence to the music as if the music actually came from him. Leitmotivs at work, I suppose. Ablinger-Sperrhacke stole the show.
As Fafner, Mats Almgren was terrifying and superb, and his voice seemed to warm over the whole cycle. Giselle Allen, whom I don’t really think of as a Wagnerian voice was a perfect harassed, terrified Frieja. The emotion was as real here as her unforgettable Ellen Orford some years ago for the same company. I still have goosebumps from Jo Pohlheim's renouncement of the power of love.
So it isn’t a fully-staged production; but it does have maximum drama. The story, by some way the most important aspect of the Ring, is foregrounded and the intimacy of the concert hall brings this to fever pitch. The so-called austerity ring uses adapted eveningwear: green and silver buttons for Froh and Thor; for Wotan a silvery-gold waistcoat. You can tell the rotters later on, as they wear lounge suits.
The Walküre is the beating heart of the ring cycle. It is here that emotion rather than sheer music alone overwhelms. Wotan’s clan contains enough family discord and disharmony to keep Jeremy Kyle going for years. But his relationship with his daughter is toxic stuff. Brünnhilde herself was sung magnificently by Kelly Cae Hogan, who gets better and better as the story progresses. Her sisters, as the late Anna Russell put it, are a noisy brood. Doesn’t do it justice really.
Fricka was fearsome from Susan Bickley. As Wotan, Robert Hayward was stunning, and his plea in act two for ‘das ende’ sent shivers down my spine. He was a tired, confused old man. The most human of the gods. By the third act, it was almost too much to bear. I don’t always find that last act heart-breaking. These aren’t people to whom we can relate, but actually here the humanity of the father-daughter business in the second act gave a coherence to the conclusion. Opera North favourites or stalwarts included Susan Bickley and Fiona Kimm. Both have grown in to these parts (Fricka and Grimgerde in this instalment respectively).
Were we at Bayreuth? Heralded in by the brass section. Alas my camera work did not match the superb brass section.
Now they are doing complete cycles, the orchestra seems to have gelled even more (a decade of Farnes and critical acclaim will do that I suppose). With the confidence to lessen the leash slightly, the music has been even more thrilling than I might have hoped from the individual operas. The brass section, seeming to strengthen by the minute, might have rent the skies. Barely a note out of place. This music encourages little more than an orgy of hot tears and cold shivers. Quite how those going within a week will cope is beyond me. This is Wagnerian music making at its most Tristanite: it doesn’t require deep study or reflection. Or psychology. Or modernism. Simply, the music does all the work and will overwhelm you; in large quantities, it can be quite dangerous. But it is worth the risk.
Conductor - Richard Farnes
Concert Staging and Design Concept - Peter Mumford
Lighting and Projection Designer - Peter Mumford
Associate Director - Joe Austin
Wotan - Michael Druiett
Loge - Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Alberich - Jo Pohlheim
Fricka - Yvonne Howard
Mime - Richard Roberts
Freia - Giselle Allen
Fasolt - James Creswell
Fafner - Mats Almgren
Erda - Ceri Williams
Froh - Mark Le Brocq
Donner - Andrew Foster-Williams
Woglinde - Jeni Bern
Wellgunde - Madeleine Shaw
Flosshilde - Sarah Castle
Brünnhilde - Kelly Cae Hogan
Sieglinde - Lee Bisset
Siegmund - Michael Weinius
Wotan - Robert Hayward
Fricka - Susan Bickley
Hunding - James Creswell
Helmwige - Katherine Broderick
Ortlinde - Kate Valentine
Gerhilde - Giselle Allen
Siegrune - Sarah Castle
Rossweisse - Madeleine Shaw
Waltraute - Heather Shipp
Grimgerde - Fiona Kimm
Schwertleite - Claudia Huckle