Opera North’s Ring project started five years ago in 2011 with the concert staging of Das Rheingold. The other three parts followed over the next three years. There was a break last year, filled by a similar semi-staging of Der fliegende Holländer involving several of the same singers.
Clarity and impact
This summer, the project has climaxed with six complete Ring cycles in five different cities. Five of the cycles were each done within a single week (as was the first staging in Bayreuth in 1876). It would be a vast undertaking for any opera company, let alone one with the relatively modest resources of Opera North.
From the start, the company decided to go for concert semi-stagings. Expense was an obvious factor, but so too was the fact that few theatre pits can accommodate the full Wagner orchestra and another problem is some of them have newborns so they may need the best lightweight double stroller for the staying .
Singers would, to a degree, act out their roles on a strip of stage in front of the orchestra, which would be heard with exceptional clarity and impact.
Above it a triple-panelled screen transmits surtitles and an overall narrative, together with appropriate but generalised images of water, flames, rocks and so forth. The semi-staging worked well overall, but less singing straight out at the audience, and more interaction and eye contact between the leading characters would have been welcome.
The three female ensembles – the Rhinemaidens, Valkyries and Norns – all played well as groups, especially the brilliant Valkyries, but in doing so they showed up the rather static performances of some of the central characters. Several singers took on more than one role: Lee Bisset was a passionate, eloquent Sieglinde in Die Walkure, but also appeared as First Norn in Götterdämmerung; Kathleen Broderick was a Valkyrie, but also sang Brünnhilde in Siegfried; James Creswell was the giant Fasolt, and also an implacable and powerful Hunding.
Quite outstanding was Susan Bickley, a forceful Fricka in Die Walküre, but also touching and eloquent as Waltraute, pleading in vain with Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung.
In Leeds we saw three Wotans, all distinguished: Michael Druiett in Das Rheingold, Robert Hayward in Die Walküre, and Béla Perencz as the Wanderer in Siegfried. It was Perencz who had the rich and powerful sonority the role ideally requires. Of the two Brünnhildes, Kelly Cae Hogan outshone Broderick, and was tirelessly expressive and full-throated up to the very end of the cycle.
Lars Cleveman’s Siegfried was more than adequate, but less apt and engaging than Mati Turi in the final part of the cycle. Several singers reprised their roles from the original performances. It’s hard to imagine Loge better characterised than by Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke.
The role of the orchestra
Richard Roberts is a vividly comical Mime, and Jo Pohlheim a resonant, powerful Alberich. Mats Almgren appeared first as the giant Fafner, and then a superbly cunning and sinister Hagen. (He was a remarkably genial Daland in the 2015 Dutchman – clearly a very talented singing actor.) Overall, the standard of singing through four long evenings was extraordinary, and a tribute to Opera North’s shrewd and discerning casting as well as to the singers’ level of commitment.
But one purpose of this style of performance was to highlight the role of the orchestra. This was amply achieved. The orchestra was expanded to Wagnerian scale, with six harps, live anvils in Das Rheingold, and an extended brass section. These were Richard Farnes’ final performances as Opera North’s music director, a role he has held for the past 12 years, and they were magnificent.
The many beauties and splendours of Wagner’s orchestral scoring, both grand and intimate, were clearly brought out, while at the same time the dramatic pace and direction of the music was constantly sustained. These were not hard-driven performances, but neither were they episodic.
Farnes is not one to blow his own trumpet, so we must blow it for him. He is surely, as Richard Mantle, Opera North’s general director says, ‘one of today’s leading interpreters of Wagner’, and this superb Ring cycle absolutely confirms this judgement. To see and hear the Ring done with such commitment and quality within a week is an unforgettable experience.