Opera North’s acclaimed presentation of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen began in 2011 with Das Rheingold and moved on to the other three operas, one a year, writes Ron Simpson.
Now, in the final performances of Richard Farnes’ remarkable 12 years as Music Director, he is conducting the full cycle twice in Leeds, followed by single cycles in London, Nottingham, Salford and Gateshead.
The 2016 Das Rheingold shows that Opera North’s formula has lost none of its magic, though the delighted surprise of five years ago has gone, to be followed by expectations fulfilled – slightly less exciting!
Staging Wagner’s Ring is a terrifying prospect for any opera company: an opening scene where three daughters of the Rhine swim around teasing a dwarf (and singing!) until he steals their gold sets the scene for a production nightmare. Many productions seek alternative scenarios that can be absurd or confuse the story-line.
The Opera North alternative is to make the huge orchestra central to the project. Wagner himself wished for a concealed orchestra, but wrote so magnificently for the orchestra that the Opera North approach works splendidly, with a semi-staged performance (some acting, hints of costume, virtually no props) and three screens combining atmospheric visuals with surtitles and narrative notes.
From the beginning the stunning orchestral performance has been matched by the clarity of the story-telling.
Das Rheingold was described by Wagner as “a preliminary evening” and it’s full of exposition of the background against which the later stories of Brunnhilde and Siegfried take place. The Rhine gold, constantly stolen and fought over, is clearly established as a curse on whoever owns it – but it gives power, so there is no shortage of claimants. The ambiguous ending sees Wotan, chief of the gods, smugly leading the way into his magnificent new palace, Valhalla, while the giant Fafner makes off with the ring of power, the Rhine maidens lament its loss and the shrewd Loge laughs at the trouble Wotan is stirring up for himself.
Though much the shortest of the Ring operas (2 hours 40 minutes of unbroken music), Das Rheingold has the largest number of individual characters. Michael Druiett’s powerful Wotan is a dominant presence physically as well as vocally. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Loge is a compelling performance, all fluttering hand gestures, insidious facial expressions and dramatically pointed vocal delivery. Jo Pohlheim’s Alberich, transformed from wheedling sexual predator to sonorous victim, is another to make a major impact, but fine solid performances run all the way through the excellent international cast.
With Richard Farnes’ command of Wagner’s musical idiom and total empathy with his orchestra, plus Peter Mumford’s intelligent design and staging, it’s worth joining the scramble for tickets for the three main operas.