It is difficult to do full justice to the scale of Richard Farnes’ final achievement as music director of Opera North, writes Ron Simpson.
It was the semi-staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, of which the last opera, Gotterdammerung, received a prolonged standing ovation at Leeds Town Hall on Saturday.
All four operas have been performed by Opera North over the last five years, but putting the full cycle together is quite a different experience. This is particularly true of Gotterdammerung which, musically and dramatically, sums up what’s gone before. Der Ring des Nibelungen is quite a sprawling affair, but by Gotterdammerung the theme of the destruction of the gods via the heroic deaths of Brunnhilde and Siegfried is clearly in focus. The text is full of reminders of what led up to this and the music is gloriously stuffed with motifs that represent themes and dreams from the earlier operas: Siegfried’s horn calls, the Valkyries, forging the sword, Valhalla and so many more. So the conclusion of Gotterdammerung is oddly reassuring after all the random slaughter: we finally know where we are and the old corrupt world burns.
When the project began, semi-staging must have seemed an intelligent response to the problem of a medium-sized opera company wishing to do The Ring in these financially straitened times. Now it seems much more than that: an exciting new approach to the operas that packs as powerful a punch as the best fully staged performances.
The first reason for the impact Opera North’s Ring Cycle has had is the inspirational conducting of Richard Farnes – detailed, subtle when required, unleashing exciting torrents of sound while pacing the whole thing with an acute sense of structure. Along with this goes the remarkable orchestral playing, probably even surpassing itself in Gotterdammerung. The chorus, hitherto unused, explodes into urgent life as the Gibichungs, seeking war or celebration with uninhibited vigour.
Peter Mumford’s staging and design are shrewdly economical, visually attractive and relevant, but in Gotterdammerung the quality of the acting is particularly impressive and Mumford’s staging of scenes such as Siegfried courting Brunnhilde disguised as Gunther is masterly.
Finally there is the quality of the soloists, all 12 in Gotterdammerung clearly relishing being able to sing out to the audience backed by a lithe and dynamic orchestra. Kelly Cae Hogan’s committed and passionate Brunnhilde, Mati Turi’s sterling loose forward of a Siegfried and, especially, Mats Almgren’s menacing Hagen, all low notes and even lower thoughts, stand out, but excellence is standard for the entire cast.
Andrew Foster-Williams’ cleanly and powerfully sung Gunther projects nervous unease with great skill, Giselle Allen’s sympathetic Gutrune matches Hogan for passion in their key scene, Jo Pohlheim is compelling in his one, very eerie scene as Alberich and Heather Shipp stepped in superbly for the indisposed Susan Bickley as Waltraute. And the Norns and the Rhinemaidens are beautifully sung and sharply characterised.
The second cycle of The Ring at Leeds Town Hall runs from May 24 to 29 – returns only. Later cycles at Nottingham, London, Salford and Gateshead.