|Orchestra of Opera North and conductor Richard Farnes in Leeds Town Hall. Photo: Clive Barda|
A RING TO TREASURE
Following Ring cycles at the Proms (2014) and at Bayreuth (2015), this reviewer headed to Leeds Town Hall last week with no sense that anything inferior was about to be served up by Opera North. Indeed, after the egregious nonsense of the Bayreuth production, the simple, semi-staged and beautifully lit production of Peter Mumford was a revelation of how effective the drama in the Ring can be when the music is allowed to speak largely for itself. Wieland Wagner would have approved heartily.
The four operas have been built up by Opera North over the last four years and have received hugely commendatory reviews in the process. This year the Ring is presented as a full cycle, in the traditional format of a week with days off in between. It is of course a totally different experience: the musical language develops and mutates over three nights, so that by Götterdämmerung every note derives dramatic and musical resonance from the events in the 11 hours that have preceded it. The same themes permeate the whole, but take on different colours and nuances as the story develops. The demands made of the audience are considerable, but so are the rewards.
The first word must go to the orchestra of Opera North and the conductor, Richard Farnes. The orchestral playing was of a very high quality, one or two minor lapses of concentration excepted. It is clear that the orchestra has benefited greatly from the incremental building up of the Ring over years, and the considerable technical demands of the music were met with aplomb throughout. What is also clear is that there is a huge commitment and level of enthusiasm about the project and the music. It is easy to see this when the orchestra is on stage, exposed to full view, but also in the corridors and on the steps of the Town Hall in the intervals, where cast, musicians and audience happily exchange thoughts and compliments. The majority of the orchestra was on stage 15 minutes before each opera started, and numerous players remained on stage after each lengthy act, practising for the one to follow.
|Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Loge. Photo: Clive Barda|
Mr Farnes’ conducting is a revelation too (to those who have not enjoyed it previously). In London it is easy to forget that other parts of the country boast conductors who really do understand Wagner’s music and have it in their blood. His conducting style is calm and his beat clear: no histrionics; no heaving and subsiding with the musical flow. In Das Rheingold, which overall was the least convincing performance, the music was sometimes a bit one-paced, without time to breathe on occasions, and without bite and zip when needed to lend colour to the black comedy being enacted on stage. The ensemble went awry for a while at the start of Scene 4, where the vocal lines and the orchestral commentary are at their most complex. But the difficulty of conducting with one’s back to the actors/singers must be considerable, and overall Mr Farnes achieved a wonderful sound and cohesion. A special mention for Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, whose Loge was beautifully judged and acted, a personification of flickering fire, volatility, insecurity and cunning.
In Die Walküre, the orchestral sound blossomed fully and the effect was powerful and beautiful in equal measure. Some lovely moments in the woodwind in the middle section of Act 2 (and later in Act 2 of Siegfried) will stay long in the memory. Leeds had a Siegmund (Michael Weinius) and Sieglinde (Lee Bisset) to relish, and each acted with great delicacy of expression and movement and sang to a very high standard. Indeed, one had to pinch oneself to remember that all this was being presented in Leeds Town Hall and not in the Metropolitan Opera. Reginald Goodall used to say, with only a hint of irony, that he was not sure that he had really mastered the end of Act 3 of Die Walküre. I have never heard it more perfectly judged and played than here: the beauty and colour of the music deliciously set off by the shocking personal tragedy happening on stage, for which equal credit is due to Kelly Cae Hogan (Brünnhilde) and Robert Hayward (Wotan). Ms Hogan sang wonderfully well: she is confident, technically secure, acts well, and produces a beautiful but well structured sound.
Siegfried is sometimes regarded as the weak link in the cycle. Not here. The orchestral playing was nothing short of superb throughout, with Mr Farnes finding space and colour for all the subtleties of the music. A great deal depends on the eponymous hero, of course, and Leeds was very lucky to have a recently-engaged Lars Cleveman, who sang to a very high standard, with lovely bright tones, clear diction, faultless intonation and considerable reserves of energy. His voice was well contrasted by the character tenor of Richard Roberts (Mime), whose acting skills were deployed to memorable effect as the evil, scheming dwarf. The musical high at the start of Act 3, with Wotan, Erda and Siegfried, suffered something of a fall when a different Brünnhilde was kissed awake. Ms Broderick unfortunately fell short of the very high standards of the rest of the cast and the musical intensity was lost, which was a great shame. (Ms Hogan will sing throughout in London.)
Götterdämmerung is and was the pinnacle of the cycle. A different Siegfried was with us, Mati Turi, who, while not reaching that heights that Mr Cleveman reached, let no one down, despite some dryness and lack of colour at the top of his range. The show was once again stolen by the orchestral playing and by Ms Hogan, whose scene with Waltraute (Susan Bickley) in Act 1 was exquisitely performed, a telling portrayal of human characters who were once godlike and close but who now live in different worlds and no longer speak the same language. A very well sung Gunther (Andrew Foster-Williams) and Gutrune (Giselle Allen) contributed to the awful denouement, manipulated almost to the point of success by the Hagen of Mats Almgren. Mr Almgren, with resonant deep bass voice and German pronunciation that seems to emanate from some primordial middle earth, had been a fearsome Fafner and was no less fearsome in this opera, bringing off a superbly chilling Rhine watch scene in Act 1 and the Siegfried’s Ende trio with Gunther and Brünnhilde at the end of Act 2. No one doubted that Ms Hogan would steal the show at the end, which she did, unforgettably.
So palmes d’or for the orchestra, Mr Farnes and Ms Hogan, and one other character who I have not mentioned so far, but who appears throughout the cycle. The anti-hero Alberich, who is cruelly abused by the gods and then disdained and dismissed by his son, who for the merely human misjudgement of preferring wealth to love sets the whole disaster in motion and is condemned to misery. It is a wonderfully ambiguous part, and in Das Rheingold has some of the best musical lines; here it was sung to perfection by Jo Pohlheim, whose lovely bass-baritone easily captured the true character of the villain-victim.
For those who missed it in Leeds, it is touring Nottingham, Salford, London and Gateshead. London sold out its cycle in May last year, within days of going on sale, such is the renown of this Opera North production and the dearth of Ring productions in the capital. For those lucky enough to have a ticket, this really is a Ring to treasure.