Opera North’s Ring Launched as Full Cycle to Glorious Effect

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North/ Richard Farnes (conductor), Leeds Town Hall, Leeds, 23.4.2016 – 21.5.2016. (JL)

Michael Druitt as Wotan, Jo Polheim as Alberich and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Loge. Photo credit: Clive Barda.
Michael Druitt as Wotan, Jo Polheim as Alberich and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Loge
Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Das Rheingold

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

Die Walküre

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
Rossweiss: Madeleine Shaw
Waltraute: Heather Shipp
Grimgerde: Fiona Kimm
Schwertleite: Claudia Huckle

Siegfried

Siegfried: Lars Cleveman
Brünnhild:  Katherine Broderick
Mime: Richard Roberts
Wanderer: Béla Perencz
Fafner: Mats Almgren
Alberich: Jo Pohlheim
Woodbird: Jeni Bern
Erda: Ceri Williams

Götterdämmerung

Brünnhilde: Kelly Cae Hogan
Siegfried: Mati Turi
Hagen: Mats Almgren
Gutrune: Giselle Allen
Gunther: Andrew Foster-Williams
Waltraute: Heather Shipp
Alberich: Jo Pohlheim
First Norn: Fiona Kimm
Second Norn: Heather Shipp
Third Norn: Lee Bisset
Woglinde: Jeni Bern
Wellgunde: Madeleine Shaw
Flosshilde: Sarah Castle

Production:

Concert Staging  and Design Concept: Peter Mumford
Lighting and Projection Designer: Peter Mumford
Associate Director: Joe Austin

Five years in the making, Opera North  has now performed its first full cycle of  The Ring at Leeds Town Hall  in four weeks .  This unique concert hall staging will then tour to Nottingham, Salford, London and Gateshead in a more compressed six day presentation.

The reviews of the component  operas  over the last five years have ranged from complimentary  to ecstatic.  My review will consider the impact of the cycle as a whole.

Leeds Town hall was chosen because the Company’s  usual venue, the Grand Theatre, was not grand enough in size to cope with Wagner’s vast orchestra.  It was a happy accident because the enterprise then became affordable for a company that has nothing like the budgets of London’s two main opera houses. The Town Hall, built in the same era that Wagner wrote The Ring, is a grandiose example of civic ambition  that well matches Wagner’s own pretentions  in completing one of  art’s  most monumental  creations.  The stage takes the full orchestra – only just,  but raised seating at either side provides room for the chorus in Götterdämmerung.  Thus the orchestral sound comes at the audience full on in what is a fine acoustic.  A narrow strip at the front of the stage offers enough room for the singers who are able to deliver directly into the auditorium without having to project over an orchestra pit.  Behind hang three enormous screens that carry moving images and provide English surtitles although they mask the building’s  pride and joy, one of the biggest organs in Europe.

Not a single prop is used but the singers wear mostly black and white dress that ranges  in degrees of formality depending on the characters, from  Siegfried’s shirt hanging out like an ill disciplined schoolboy to the Dragons’ smart suits with red ties, a metaphor for blood.

With such proximity to the audience the singers can act not only with their bodies but with their faces too, down to the  hint of a smile to a raised eyebrow, something that at New York’s Met might require a telescope to spot for some of the audience.  They have certainly been expertly coached for they all act their socks off  in a way that contributes much to the generation of emotion.  Combine that with orchestral playing and singing of power and distinction and the result  is a complete cycle of unvarying and sometimes terrifying impact.

How has it been achieved?  The answer I believe is teamwork.  The sense of  team effort  is palpable with every shoulder to the wheel  in  realising the musical vision of conductor Richard Farnes  and the theatrical presentation devised by Peter Mumford.  Whatever egos  may be involved, they appear to be sublimated to the cause.  The recipe is the same that  recently took  Leicester City’s rank outsider football team to win the English Premier league title. The captain, when asked to explain the success, said that it was total commitment to a team in which there was no room for egos. In both cases the result is an operation with no weak links that well transcends the sum of its parts.

To pick out single singers for special mention would therefore be to miss the point.   Nevertheless, any complete Ring cycle has tricky casting issues to solve from the availability of singers to the degree of stamina they can summon up. In this cycle we had three Wotans,  two Brünnhildes and two Siegfrieds  for example. This is a disadvantage in terms of continuity although in the case of Wotan the three singers brought out different aspects of  the character. Michael Druiett in Rheingold was a dignified God of authority, whereas Robert Hayward in Die Walküre was best at bringing out his compassionate side when  forced to punish his daughter. In Siegfried,  Béla Perencz conveyed aggression, then the despair and irascibility that will lead him to a nervous breakdown.  More stamina was required from Kelly Cae Hogan  who had to carry off  Brünnhilde in her major appearances in both Die Walküre  and Götterdämmerung  interspersed with up and coming Wagnerian Katherine  Broderick in Siegfried. Much was demanded of Kelly Cae Hogan but she held the stage commandingly throughout  with no weakening of voice, her high notes ringing rock solid  right up to her dénouement at the end.

The portrayal of Siegfried by two singers was, I thought, more of a problem.   Lars Cleveman  sang the part in Siegfried, standing in for Daniel Frank who had dropped out at relatively short notice.  As a veteran his performance had the confidence and strength that experience can bring but it contrasted starkly with Mati Turi’s portrayal in Götterdämmerung. It is a problematic part in that Wagner drew a character that stretches credibility so much that is almost impossible for any singer to convince in the role.  First time around Mati Turi sang the part in both operas and I then thought him the nearest  I’d ever seen to  making Siegfried something of a believable character.  He conveys the confidence, innocence and irrepressibility of a man who has never grown up but fulfils the role of hero, so much more convincing than the sword waving,  pompously strutting  Siegfrieds  I’ve so often seen on the stage.  Vocally he was  a heroic tenor particularly strong in the  lower and middle range where most of the notes lie.

This sharing of parts is offset by the inverse practice of different roles being played by the same person. This sometimes involved someone taking both  a major role and a minor one. It made a real  contribution to the sense of teamwork. Perhaps the best example was Lee Bisset who sang the role of Sieglinde  in Walküre, who both looked  the part and sang  with searing passion, then reappeared in Götterdämmerung as the third Norn.   When Katherine Broderick  sang Brünnhilde she had already taken a turn as a Valkyrie.  No room for egos here. Giselle Allen was magnificent in three parts: Freia,  a Valkyrie and Gutrune.  Special mention must go to Heather Shipp  who leapt to the rescue when Susan Bickley, due to sing Waltraute in Götterdämmerung, became indisposed at very little notice.  Heather, having sung second Norn, changed costume  and returned in the same act to render a very moving Waltraute.

Finally, Mats Almgren  who sang Fafner the Dragon in two operas returned in Götterdämmerung  in the testing key role of Hagen.  This was a great acting performance. As a Dragon he  conveyed  a fearsome command with a kind of static dignity. As Hagen  he acted with every fibre of his body using a range of gesture and facial expression to convey  a tortured,  unsatisfied,  sinister, amoral character  lusting after power.   With a bass voice to match this was a Hagen hard to beat.

Such interchangeability suggests that everyone, including players, chorus and behind the scenes support staff, is subjugated to the common good and that no one is indispensible. There are two, however, who are not indispensible. Peter Mumford’s original vision of the presentation  (he does not like the term “semi-staged”) has been a major feature. I have talked to many people who have seen the component parts of this cycle and not one has suggested that they have seen a fully staged production that betters it in terms of dramatic impact. He has managed the  realisation of the vision down to every detail  including directing the singers and the lighting effects that are effective but not distracting.

Also indispensable, above all, is  conductor Richard Farnes  who directs  the whole mighty project by recognising that  the “central character” of  the Ring is the music itself and decided, in his own words, ” to make a virtue of this, visually showcasing the orchestra”. In doing so every instrumental and motivic detail was pointed with colour and clarity, every phrase beautifully pointed, every climax mounted with steady assurance.  Under his direction the players were superb throughout, from the dark rumblings at the start of  Rheingold, via some devastating brass climaxes and  immaculate wind solos to the strings’ soaring redemption theme at the end, finishing with a mesmeric pitch-perfect final chord.

Overall this was a brisk interpretation that gave the narrative a strong, inexorable sense of propulsion. But Farnes also achieved the hardest thing of all: to give each of the arches that are the four operas the sense of proportion that Wagner intended, and to hold these within one great, single arch that is the whole work: architectural perfection that can be clearly appreciated now we have the cycle in one go.  Farnes is emerging as a great Wagner conductor.

After 12 years as music director of Opera North  he now moving on. I cannot think of any performance of any work of art that could send  someone off  with a bigger bang than his own Götterdämmerung.

John Leeman

1 thought on “Opera North’s <i>Ring</i> Launched as Full Cycle to Glorious Effect”

  1. Thank you for this fine review of an amazing experience.

    I don’t think I will ever forget this Ring cycle. It has been a privilege to have been there

    Reply

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