Opera North’s Ring Concludes Apocalyptically with Triumphant Götterdämmerung

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Wagner, Götterdämmerung: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North / Richard Farnes, (conductor), Leeds Town Hall, Leeds, 14.6.2014 (JL)

Gotterdammerung Photo Credit Opera North
Photo Credit Opera North

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.

John Leeman

Further performances of Götterdämmerung  will be held at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, The Sage, Gateshead and the Lowry, Salford Quays.

2 thoughts on “Opera North’s Ring Concludes Apocalyptically with Triumphant <i>Götterdämmerung</i>”

  1. I saw one of the later performances of this production at the Lowry, Salford Quays. I think it was musically the finest performance of Wagner I have ever heard. The casting was (almost) universally superb, the orchestra and Richard Farnes’s conducting magnificent beyond praise – orchestral playing that, as the review puts it was ‘unimaginable for those who were not there’. I heard every detail of Wagner’s incredible orchestration with a clarity I have not experienced before, and had not realised was possible.

    So why did I feel so utterly let down by this Götterdämmerung? Because the ‘semi-staging’, supposedly so successful, was in my view a total disaster. The principals sang everything with their eyed glued to a monitor fixed to the front wall of the circle, never addressed or looked at each other (except when not singing), sat down on chairs for long periods, were not allowed even such portable props as swords and wine glasses (even the eponymous ring had to be imagined). Two ludicrous examples, out of the dozens we had to endure. As Siegfried’s boat approaches down the Rhine, Hagen, standing at stage right, watching its approach, peers out in the direction of the audience. But Siegfried, meanwhile, has already entered stage left and stands there awaiting his cue, with Hagen still staring at him in the wrong direction. And when the betrayed Brunhilde points her accusing finger at her betrayer, she points it, not at Siegfried, who is standing there on the stage to her right.

    I expected, and thought I had paid for, a staged production of one of the greatest of Wagner’s music dramas. I got instead a concert performance of the highest standard, but a laughable travesty of a production: no stage, no set, no props, not much acting, unnecessary and distracting video background, banal and oddly selective descriptions of the action we were supposed to be watching … The music was sublime, but the drama sadly deficient.


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