Superb Playing and Singing from Opera North in Die Walküre

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Die Walküre:  Soloists, Orchestra of Opera North, Richard Farnes (Conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 29.06.16. (RB)

Michael Weinus as Siegmund and Lee Bisset as Sieglinde;  Photo credit: Clive Barda.
Michael Weinus as Siegmund and Lee Bisset as Sieglinde;
Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Wagner, Die Walküre

Kelly Cae Hogan: Brünnhilde
Lee Bisset: Sieglinde
Michael Weinius: Siegmund
Robert Hayward: Wotan
Yvonne Howard: Fricka
James Creswell: Hunding
Katherine Broderick: Helmwige
Kate Valentine: Ortlinde
Giselle Allen: Gerhilde
Sarah Castle: Siegrune
Madeleine Shaw: Rossweisse
Heather Shipp: Waltraute
Fiona Kimm: Grimgerde
Claudia Huckle: Schwertleite

Peter Mumford:  Staging, Design and Lighting Director
Joe Austin:  Associate Director

The Royal Festival Hall was packed for Opera North’s second instalment of Wagner’s monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen.  Wagner’s vast mythic tale is populated by gods, dragons, dwarves and mortals and the action moves between earth, Valhalla and Nibelheim.  Much as in Homer’s Iliad the gods exhibit a seething mass of human emotions and they become increasingly embroiled in the tragic sequence of events.  The work is gripping as drama but it also contains some of the most inspired music to come out of the 19th Century.  It contains an incredible profusion of ideas including Marx’s ideas about the proletariat (or Nibelungs) becoming enslaved to the power of capital (the Rhein gold); Feuerbach’s ideas about Gods being reflections of human beings; and Schopenhauer’s ideas around renunciation of the will perhaps best shown by Brünnhilde’s final act of self immolation.

Die Walküre is the second opera in the cycle and it describes how Siegmund and Sieglinde fall in love and have an incestuous relationship (together with Parsifal this opera shows Wagner at his most transgressive).  This enrages Fricka who demands that Wotan allow Sieglinde’s husband, Hunding, to kill Siegmund in battle.  Wotan asks the Valkyrie, Brünnhilde, to ensure Hunding is victorious but she disobeys him and tries to save Siegmund.  Wotan shatters Siegmund’s sword in the battle and he is killed by Hunding who in turn is killed by Wotan.  Brünnhilde flees with Sieglinde and succeeds in hiding her but Wotan punishes her by putting her into a deep sleep surrounded by a ring of magic fire.  The scheming, the romance, the violence, the magic and the mythic fuse together to create a heady cocktail – a 19th Century version of Game of Thrones complete with some of the most inspired music ever written.

This was a semi-staged production by Opera North designed to make the opera readily accessible to those who had not already heard it before.  There were three screens at the back of the auditorium which provided updates on the action and English translations while at same time showing a sequence of visual images (forests, rocks, clouds, fire, water and so on).  There were chairs in front of the orchestra and the cast were not wearing period costumes or using props.  I was a little disappointed with the acting in the first Act:  Lee Bissett and Michael Weinius used some gestures to depict the unfolding action but for the most part they simply stood facing the audience and delivered their monologues.  The acting improved in the second Act when we moved to Valhalla:  I was particularly impressed with Robert Hayward’s complex depiction of Wotan (joker, schemer, philanderer, tyrant).  The scene where Brünnhilde delivers the news to Siegfried of his impending demise and the subsequent battle with Hunding was gripping in its dramatic intensity.  The Ride of the Valkyrie scene in the final act was well choreographed and the final confrontation between Wotan and Brünnhilde had an all too human tenderness.

I was very impressed with the singing throughout.  Michael Weinius brought a gorgeous sensual lyricism to his Spring Song (Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnenmond) and the subsequent duet with Lee Bissett’s Sieglinde.  I was not quite so convinced with his handling of Siegmund’s more heroic music and occasionally the tone sounded a little forced.  However, he was capable of producing enormous vocal power when required and at a number of points his voice soared against huge orchestral forces.  Lee Bissett’s diction was very crisp and clear at the opening of the opera although one or two of the subsequent vocal entries could have been a little tidier.  She brought a rich, lustrous tone to the Act 1 duet and I was very impressed with the opening up of the sound and power she brought to the final part of the Act.  Bissett moved from strength to strength and her singing in Acts 2 and Act 3 was  electrifying – this was absolutely sensational singing.  Having listened to this opera for many years this is one of the best performances I have heard.

Kelly Cae Hogan’s initial war cries in Act 2 were a little laboured and there were minor intonation problems but thereafter she delivered Brünnhilde’s monologues with power and passion.  She brought depth and conviction to the scene with Weinius’ Siegmund and a tenderness and vulnerability to the final scene with Robert Hayward’s Wotan.  Hayward is a very experienced performer and he gave an accomplished rendition of Wotan’s monologues although I would have welcomed greater vocal heft and power – on a number of occasions he was drowned out by the orchestra.  Yvonne Howard was rock solid in the role of Fricka presenting with us an imperious and unbending figure.  James Cresswell was also impressive in the role of Hunding and his deep sonorous bass rang out with menace in his confrontation with Siegmund in Act 1.  The eight Valkyrie delivered Wagner’s war cries at the start of the third Act 3 with gusto giving us electrifying top notes.

Richard Farnes did a wonderful job with Wagner’s complex score and much of the playing was a revelation to me.  He ensured the orchestral entries remained light (I was struck with how well he reined in the brass) and he kept the textures transparent.  The entries were exceptionally well coordinated and he brought an enormous degree of clarity to Wagner’ unfolding web of leitmotif.  I was struck by the extraordinary degree of sensitivity with which he accompanied Weinius and Bisset in the Act 1 duet and his careful attention to detail and control of dynamics.  Farnes’ pacing was superb throughout and it ensured the audience remained gripped by the unfolding dramatic events.  The Ride of the Valkyrie in Act 3 was stirring and inspirational while the Magic Fire music at the end of the same Act was fresh and imaginative.  The Orchestra of Opera North acquitted themselves superbly but I was particularly impressed with the inner strings who brought warmth to Wagner’s chamber music textures and brass who were working on full throttle.

This was an evening of superb singing and playing that was deservedly greeted with a standing ovation by the audience.

Robert Beattie    

Leave a Comment