Saturday, 18 June 2016

A full realization of Wagner’s monumental score (ON/Ring)

Wagner, Rheingold, Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Richard Farnes cond. Orchestra Opera North at the Theatre Royal Nottingham)
Since the incremental Ring in Leeds (Rheingold, Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung), it seemed to have become summer. In blazing sunshine, the faithful headed in to the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham a singularly unlovely building, which nobody ever thought beautiful, not even its architect for the Ring in a week (6th,7th, 9th and 11th June).
What’s changed? Not much, really, except it all stepped up a gear. A few cast changes, but none of them presenting problems. Here I deal with four operas in a single post, making comments on the benefits of presentation within a single week and of some particularly standout performances.
The standout performances were many. The criticisms would only be measly nit-picking. I’d still like a ring and maybe a sword.
In the Rheingold, the three Rhinemaidens, Jeni Bern (Woglinde), Madeleine Shaw (Wellgunde), and Sarah Castle (Flosshilde) started things pure and clear as the waters of the Rhine. These were as strong as they had been at the end of Gotterdammerung: moments of such clarity aided storytelling as well as musicmaking. Wotan (Michael Druiett) was superb, and so were the rest of the deities. The orchestra soared. Farnes looked, just a little relaxed. Not much had changed since Leeds, but everything seemed to gel more. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Loge) was still stealing the show. Ceri Williams (Erda) was more secure and her warning all the more terrifying for it. Indeed this was a singularly beautiful moment carried perfectly by her long lines. Mats Almgren remains utterly phenomenal. At the end Frohe and Donner propelled us through the air to Valhalla. It didn’t all seem just quite so implausible. This may be a concert performance but the drama and acting is so expansive, and the soundworld realised in its fullest, that it is starting to become real. After much applause they did return to the stage. Farnes looked ever so slightly relaxed (those reviews would have that effect). The highest compliment an orchestra can pay a conductor is to refuse to stand when bidden, and it was rarely better earned than at the Rheingold.
The Walküre was something close to psychological torture. This may not be full staging but it is full acting. Siegmund (Mark Le Brocq) took a little while to warm up to full volume but was consistently good and positively towered by the end. Lee Bisset as Sieglinde was stunning from start to finish and her plea for death was deeply haunting. I expect it to stay with me for a very long time. James Cresswell (Hunding) was perfectly terrifying. That noisiest of broods were tremendous. Every part of Susan Bickley simply was Fricka. The lady of the hour, Brünnhilde, was done magnificent justice by Kelly Cae Hogan.   The utter brutality of Wotan waving his hand across her face to secure her on the rock in slumber and deprive her of her immortality cannot be overstated: it was nothing but devastating.
The first act of Siegfried saw Opera North’s Orchestra sound the very finest I have ever heard it. The dramatic intensity this created converted one companion who was not previously entirely convinced by this third night. Richard Roberts (Mime) acted so thoroughly at all times as well as sounding fantastic that it was hard not to believe he really was Mime. Lars Cleveman in the title role was magnificent. Jeni Bern still threatened to take flight as Woodbird. Hogan however stole the show: at times the eroticism was so deep it was uncomfortable to watch. From the infectious energy of the start of the third act to the tenderness of the Siegfried idyll, this was tearfully beautiful.
The final evening, Götterdämmerung saw the world end in a blaze of music and flames. In the prelude three Norns: Fiona Kimm, Yvonne Howard and Lee Bissett presented music which was at once spare and lyrical. Howard was very fine but Bisset continued to occupy a realm which was nothing less than magical. Reliable Giselle Allen looked quite devastated and quite different than she had as Valkyrie or Freia; she paced waiting for her lover and belied the horrifying nature of her predicament. Alberich (Jo Pohlheim) was scary during his brief appearance. Mats Almgren, however, stood out for having produced characterization which did full justice to Hagen’s soulless amorality; with deep gravelly tones and carefully-controlled vibrato, the wickedness started in the roof of his mouth. Hogan as Brünnhilde was magnificent; Mati Turi was better than ever as the somehow unlikely but deeply human hero. In the final scene the orchestra ramped up the intensity of this and it was almost unbearable to watch. 
A musical hangover followed. I can’t quite explain how dreadful I felt on the Sunday afterwards. I felt like I had a rotten hangover despite not a drop having passed my lips. I had been deeply drunk on this sublime music, and no Alka-Seltzer could help soothe this. The full enormity of this soundworld and the monumental orchestration to deploy it had been shattering. Emotionally the forces at work were terrifying and humbling. Carefully the orchestra had, over fifteen hours, woven a kind of musical dreamscape. It was the immensity of the thing which overwhelmed the most. Was this a product of it being the second within a short space of time? Or was it that it was greedily guzzled in a week. Probably both, but so strong is the shadow cast by say the Walküre, the in a week business was vital to this.
This has been a towering achievement: a ‘provincial’ company lacking Metropolitan resources or particularly lavish funding presenting an outstandingly good piece of drama in an innovative fashion. By placing the orchestra centre stage this became as much about the orchestra as the principals. Itw as truly an ensemble piece. Farnes martialled these forces magnificently, slowly lengthening the leash. As he did the orchestra truly soared. Principals were at the very least impressive, and in many cases, offered career-defining performances (Bisset and Almgren jump to mind first here; I expect to hear and see more of them at the highest levels). 
It became clear too that this really is just one opera, not four. It was perhaps the scale which was most astonishing. What do you after such an earth-shattering display? Obvious, isn’t it? Book another.

The Ring will be on tour until the final performance at the Sage, Gateshead, which will be live broadcast on Radio 3 between 5th and 11th July.

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