Showing posts with label The Ring. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Ring. Show all posts

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Opera North's treasurable Ring: a guest review by Timothy Fancourt QC

Regrettably I haven't been able to attend Opera North's much-lauded Ring cycle myself, but a great friend and passionate Wagnerian Timothy Fancourt QC has, and he's offered us a guest review. Below, delighted to run it. JD
            
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. 
Timothy Fancourt

Friday, April 19, 2013

Proms 2013: Hear 7 Wagner Operas for £5 Each

You'll need sandiwches, water, strong shoes and even stronger legs - those operas are loooong - but where else in the world can you go to the complete Ring cycle conducted by Daniel Barenboim and starring Nina Stemme, plus Tristan und Isolde, Tannhauser and Parsifal, each with major Wagnerian superstars at the helm, and stand just a few metres from the performers, and pay only £5 a time? Yes, the Proms are back and this is one great whopper of a Wagner anniversary season.

There's some Verdi - though no complete operas (apparently this is down to it's-just-how-things-turned-out, rather than any Wagner-is-best conspiracy, before you ask). And a more than fair pop at Britten, including Billy Budd from Glyndebourne. Fans of Granville Bantock, Walton, Rubbra, George Lloyd and Tippett could also be quite happy with this year's line-up.

The glass ceiling is shattering nicely as Marin Alsop takes the helm for the Last Night, becoming the first woman ever to conduct it. Better late than never, and she is a brilliant choice for the task.

Guest artists on the Last Night include Joyce DiDonato and Nigel Kennedy. Nige will be appearing earlier in the season too, playing the good old Four Seasons with his own Orchestra of Life plus the Palestine Strings, which consists of young players from the Edward Said National Conservatories of Music. Lots of piano treats as well - soloists to hear include Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, the terrific duo of Noriko Ogawa and Kathryn Stott, Daniil Trifonov in the rarely-heard Glazunov Piano Concerto No.2 and Imogen Cooper and Paul Lewis playing Schubert's Grand Duo for piano duet in a late-night Prom.

There's one thing, though, that sent me into meltdown. Leafing through the listings, one turns to 6 August and out leap the words KORNGOLD: SYMPHONY IN F SHARP. I've waited 30 years for this. Erich Wolfgang Korngold's one and only full-blown symphony is coming to the Proms at long, long last. It is being performed by the BBC Philharmonic under John Stogårds. And guess what? I'm supposed to be away on holiday on 6 August. If that isn't the Law of Sod, then what is?

Meanwhile we're promised more TV coverage of the Proms than ever before, and plenty of stuff online, and the invaluable iPlayer to help with catching up. But really, there's no substitute for being there. If you've never been, get a taste of it in the launch film above. Book your tickets now.

Full listings here.








Thursday, July 19, 2012

Götterdammerung at Longborough

Wagner in the Cotswolds? Well, whyever not? Can-do attitudes aren't all that widespread at present anywhere else, so I trotted off to Longborough Festival Opera to see their latest Ring Cycle installment - and found myself moved to tears, something that doesn't often happen to me in Götterdammerung. At various other performances in the past I've longed for das Ende... At this one, I could have listened to the whole thing all over again right away. Because Longborough has a conductor whom I suspect may be the best-kept secret in the Wagnerian world, a lead soprano who can hold her own with the world's finest and an expert supporting cast - a cut-down scale doesn't mean compromising on quality. Here's my full review from the Independent.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

The ultimate Eurovision: Richard Wagner



Around 11pm yesterday, Richmond-upon-Thames was the scene of some strange nocturnal activity, besides the usual gaggles of drunken, semi-naked, apparently cloned teenagers. Along George Street towards the bus stops wandered small groups of dazed and bedazzled pensioners, many of them humming quietly, all of them wearing an expression that suggested they'd been at an ashram retreat and emerged with an altered sense of consciousness. The source? The Met Opera cinecast of Die Walkure.

I was lucky to be there at all, as our local Curzon sold out months ago - some friends had a spare ticket and called in the morning, so I dropped everything and ran. (I was one of just three or four under-60s in the place.) Of all the Wagner operas, this one is my favourite: its passions are the most convincing, its dilemmas the most interesting and its level of inspiration the most consistent. As you know, I have my doubts about opera in the cinema - too many tonsils - but with the prospect of Kaufmann, Westbroek, Terfel and Voigt in the Robert LePage new production...

It wasn't the tonsils that caused the problem - or even the occasional droplets of drool that came across too clearly on the big screen - but the volume. This was cinema volume, flattening out the dynamics at the uppermost level. Across a very big evening of Wagner this can leave you feeling assaulted. Just a notch down would have spared our heads and done the singers more favours - it is hard to get any idea of subtlety or variety of tone. Perhaps in future cinecasts this can be somehow addressed. But apart from that...

It's total surrender. How does one person, one bumptious little 19th-century man, create a work of art like this? How is it possible? Witness Die Walkure - especially in a performance like this - and you're left in no doubt that the potential of a human being is many thousands of times greater than we're usually allowed to believe, let alone aim towards ourselves. He creates a state of enhanced reality, a true raising of consciousness, a natural high that I'd defy any drug to match (not that I've tried any, but with Wagner around, who needs to?). Beside it everything else sounds...so small, so silly, such a waste of time.

Eurovision? You want Eurovision singing? Then see Wagner on screens in every country. Hear Eva-Maria Westbroek singing for The Netherlands as Sieglinde. Hear Bryn Terfel, fresh out of Wales, as the ultimate Wotan - the most powerful operatic performance I've ever seen, bar none. Hear Jonas Kaufmann compete for Germany in an oak-strong, desperate, tender Siegmund. And Deborah Voigt with her shining scimitar of a light-catching voice, flying through the high notes... And there is no need for anybody to win or lose.

Every argument is pallid beside this. All those fine words dissecting every word Wagner ever wrote, all those trendy debates about whether classical music is 'relevant', all the politically correct stuff, social engineering, box-ticking and dumbing-down - forget the lot. Just hear Die Walkure.

This is why we need music. This is the real thing. This is what it's all about. Showing us what a human being can truly achieve and share with others. Talk about Nietzsche if you like, talk about man and superman and Also sprach Zarathustra, but Wagner proves that something superhuman can come from humanity. And if it can, then it should. Don't tell me that anyone who can't hear it or doesn't 'get' it isn't missing out. Yes, they are. Wagner wanted this music to be for everyone. He wanted to reach the widest possible audience because he knew he had something vital to give them. He's still giving.

Down from the cloud, it's possible to dissect things a little more. Robert LePage's production hits many nails fair and square. Keeping a 'traditional' approach to the drama - naturalistic and rather prehistoric, complete with armour for Wotan and the Valkyries - does make the whole thing more engaging and believable than most tricksy updatings can. The set is extraordinary: a string of vast, tall panels, apparently weighing about 45 tons, according to the interval info, on pivots that shift, rotate and transform: they are a forest, a roof, a mountain and even the Valkyries' horses, dipping and plunging in the Ride: the girls dismount by sliding.

But the coup de grace is the final image of the sleeping Brunnhilde on her rock, watched from afar by Wotan: everything swings around until she is upside down, high up, a perspective evoking the sense that we're directly above her, looking down into the flames while rising into the sky with Wotan. My companions thought it might be a trick with a doll rather than the real Deborah Voigt, but if it was, it worked - the possibility never occurred to me. And if it was Voigt - she's brave. Have a look at the slide show of images from the New York Times.

We can pick holes, if you like. Voigt isn't the ideal Brunnhilde - at least not yet - though she may become one. Her middle voice isn't as strong as her high register, as she admitted herself in the interval interviews, with Placido Domingo and Joyce DiDonato as reporters, no less (they'll have Alan Titchmarsh out of a job if they're not careful). But it's her first run in the role - rare to be perfect first go - and in terms of personality and a strongly characterised tone, she more than carried it off. There were occasional things that we saw that we wouldn't have noticed on stage: moments when things get stuck, fail to cooperate or drip spectacularly. And the show started about 40 minutes late due, apparently, to 'machine malfunction'. We were glad to hear in the interval that this was stage machinery, not something inside James Levine, who looked unable to stand without support and didn't go up on stage for a bow. He has now pulled out of pretty much everything but this performance. A few raggedy bits in the orchestral playing, but only a few, in an opera in which scary amounts of stuff can go wrong, given half a chance.

Holes aside, this was the show of a lifetime. People speak of an aeons-gone 'golden age' of operatic singing, but I can only feel grateful to be alive to hear these guys. Terfel's Wotan is utterly superhuman, consumed with self-loathing and conflicting loyalties and with a voice that is a force of much more than mere nature. The way he kills Hunding took the wind out of everyone's sails. One word - "Geeeeeeeeh!" - and the character falls back as if struck in the stomach by a twelve-ton demolition ball. It will be a long, long time before anyone else can match the impact of Terfel's performance.

Westbroek is having one incredible year - first Anna Nicole, now this - and Sieglinde's ecstatic final blessing of Brunnhilde, wild and transported with joy, left us wondering whether it is she, in due course, who will become the next great Brunnhilde. Kaufmann, for all his assertions in his interval interview that he doesn't want to be a Wagner singer and nothing else, is going to be hard-pressed to escape more Wagner roles, so magnificent is his Siegmund. He has a German textual advantage, along with the fact that he was literally born into this music: in the interview, he recalled the days when as a small boy he sat at the piano beside his grandfather who was happily bashing through the piano scores of The Ring. Stephanie Blythe's Fricka was another huge success (in every respect) - every inch a match for Terfel's Wotan, she's a mezzo of glory.

Back to earth now. Let's slide down the Valkyrie horses...and get out to the shops before they sell out of rhubarb. Our fridge is mysteriously working again. Perhaps the energy generated in the cinema last night was enough to power everything up for miles around.