United Kingdom Wagner, Götterdämmerung: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North / Richard Farnes, (conductor), Leeds Town Hall, Leeds, 14.6.2014 (JL)
Brünnhilde: Alwyn Mellor
Siegfried: Mati Turi
Hagen: Mats Almgren
Gutrune : Orla Boylan
Gunther: Eric Greene
Alberich : Jo Pohlheim
Waltraute: Susan Bickley
First Norn: Fiona Kimm
Second Norn: Heather Shipp
Third Norn: Lee Bisset
Woglinde: Katherine Broderick
Wellgunde: Madeleine Shaw
Flosshilde: Sarah Castle
Concert Staging: Peter Mumford
Lighting / Projection Designer: Peter Mumford
It is three years since Opera North rolled its Ring Cycle into action in the dark, watery depths of the Rhine, and with this Götterdämmerung, three music dramas later, brings it (and the world) to its apocalyptic end.
So well reviewed were the previous Rheingold, Die Walküre and Siegfried that the company must have found it intimidating launching into the final stage having set such a high quality mark for itself. So far some critics have been ecstatic, one declaring, “You won’t hear better at Bayreuth”, and a year ago distinguished Wagner scholar Michael Tanner headlined his review with, “I am dreading the thought of Götterdämmerung if Opera North maintains the standard it has set with Siegfried“. He did not articulate the nature of the dread but maybe he feared the sheer power unleashed might incinerate him to destruction together with the Gods. As it turned out, he might have had some grounds for this.
One of the notable features of this Ring has been the success of the semi staging on the concert platform of Leeds Town Hall, the Victorian Gothic/neo-classic grandeur of which makes a good match for the monumentality of the Ring. Musically everything comes straight at you, the orchestra raked in such a way as to allow the elevated mighty brass section unimpeded sound lines into the auditorium. The singers, front of stage, costumed and often dramatically lit, face the audience, acting their parts but without any props. A great deal of the Ring consists in dialogue between two people but here, instead of looking at each other they stand apart and engage you, the listener, as if you were their interlocutor. The result is a musical experience impossible in the opera house.
Visually, there are three massive screens at the rear on which are projected moving images that generally suggest nature symbols such as rock, woodland, fire and so on. The words are superimposed on these.
This description of designer Peter Mumford’s vision may not sound much in print but in practice it all works remarkably well, providing a dramatic experience that could match many a lavish theatre staging.
There has been little casting consistency over the four dramas. Alwyn Mellor was not Brünnhilde in Siegfried but Sieglinde two years ago in Die Walküre. However, when Daniel Brenna, cast as Siegfried, dropped out some weeks ago the fact that Mati Turi,who sang the part a year ago, was able to step in provided a happy continuity bonus. He is my sort of Siegfried. Of stocky build he combines necessary machismo with the innocence of a cheeky, ill disciplined school boy, a characteristic enhanced by the wearing of his shirt outside his trousers in contrast to the formal contemporary dress of the other characters. Shut your eyes and you might detect a little strain at the top notes but this was of little consequence compared to the overall portrayal which was sustained with abundant exuberance.
A notable characterisation of the evening was that by Mats Almgren who, having been killed as the dragon in Die Walküre, rose again as Hagen. Lean, bald and darkly dressed with a lowering gaze he exuded menace. His splendid bass voice resonated throughout the hall, dominating as the driving force behind most that is to go wrong in the drama. Among those he manipulates are Gunther and Gutrune. American Eric Greene, who was a great deal less insipid than many Gunthers I have seen, was particularly effective in portraying a man mentally destroyed through the collapse of his self-esteem. As his sister, Orla Boylan’s Gutrune was commanding and vocally secure.
The six women who played the two trios of Norns and Rhinemaidens were all vocally and dramatically fine. There was one blip whereby one of the Rhinemaidens, whom I shall not name, seemed intent on upstaging the other two on the high note decibel front, giving an impression she was auditioning for Brünnhilde. She may well achieve that one day but this was not the context in which to demonstrate it and undermined the teamwork.
As Waltraute, Susan Bickley sang through one of the longer passages of relative repose with moving dignity.
The Vassals allow for a chorus in Act II and I do not think I have ever in my life heard a male voice choir deliver with such power and panache.
There is probably no other opera that requires so much collective stamina from players, singers and conductor. At the end of the first duet between Siegfried and Brünnhilde, Alwyn Mellor hit a roof-lifting high C that launched the orchestra into its “Journey to the Rhine” passage as if a rocket into orbit. This was a mighty climax but we were still in the Prologue in the drama and in Leeds it was only 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Surely, I thought, things have peaked too early. How can this be sustained? Well they were – and how.
Alwyn Mellor maintained her dominating presence throughout, vocally improving as the evening progressed, her multiple high notes soaring without, mercifully, excessive vibrato. She had to ride an orchestral sound louder than any you might ever hear in a Wagner performance. For some time now she has suffered the tag of “up and coming” as potentially one of the great Wagner sopranos of her generation. It is time to declare that she has arrived.
Come the ovations at around 10pm, the biggest cheer was for the orchestra. At least the singers get some respite. Not so the players. They were superb throughout, from the dark rumblings at the start, via some devastating brass climaxes and immaculate wind solos to the strings’ soaring redemption theme at the end. Under the total command of Richard Farnes they realised his vision of scale and momentum in such a way as to prove him a great Wagner conductor.
As Farnes took his bow with the whole performing team of over one hundred I detected a tear in his eye. No wonder. Here was a man who had just completed, with The Ring, one of, if not the, most monumental tasks in the performing arts, a project he had seen through from the start and just brought to a conclusion with a sonic power unimaginable for those who were not there.
Further performances of Götterdämmerung will be held at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, The Sage, Gateshead and the Lowry, Salford Quays.