Due to the epic scale of much of Wagner’s music there is a real danger for performances to be so earth-shattering that they often end up being ear-shattering as well. His operas can be so intense, too much for too long, that they can be quite difficult to engage with unless you are a card-carrying member of the Wagner fan club. One of the many advantages of Opera North’s four year plan to perform the Ring Cycle on a concert platform is that the venues are large enough for the musicians to ‘let rip’, as it were, without losing a sense of focus and clarity. Indeed, so much of Wagner’s creativity lies in the effect it has on one’s imagination. Without the complication of dangerous sets, as in Robert Lepage’s production at the New York Met last year, the listener is allowed to be transported to their own image of the sound-scape which Wagner creates.
Richard Farnes and the orchestra of Opera North were electrifying. From the opening tremolando violins and sinister cello lines to the shimmering brass in the closing moments of the opera, the intensity and sensitivity of Farnes’ direction guided the audience through the rich tapestry of themes, textures and colours. The orchestra took up almost the entirety of the stage of Leeds Town Hall and looked simply glorious. Particularly insightful was to have the three harps slightly to the side of the stage, separated from the main body of players. This helped them to cut through an otherwise very dense texture. The expansive layout of the players across the stage echoed their playing: the sheer magnitude of the music was palpable, without ever being overwhelming. Credit, too, must be given to Leader David Greed for an inspiring performance of leadership and to Sally Pendlebury for a series of heart-breaking cello solos. The brass section, in particular, must be commended for the expressive nature of their playing: from dark, sonorous hues to bold and bright (but never brash) tones. Although there was more than one occasion when the orchestra made a thunderous noise, there were no major issues with balance. The odd word was lost here and there, but generally speaking Farnes kept the orchestra at a supportive volume. Without such sensitivity, many of the somewhat less experienced singers’ voices would just have been swallowed by the orchestral accompaniment.
This sensitivity to balance was particularly important for the young American-born tenor Erik Nelson Werner, playing Siegmund. Blessed with a richly resonant instrument, Werner’s sound was perfectly suited to the middle-low pitched phrases (unsurprising, given his origins as a baritone) but it does not yet have the power to cut through a thick orchestral texture. Still relatively new to the Heldentenor repertoire, it is understandable that the top felt a little strained at times. It was only ever really noticeable on the longer, higher passages in which I could really have used a little more ‘welly’. He also seemed a little reserved on stage in the opening scene, both vocally and in terms of characterisation. Perhaps this was first-night nerves but it did feel a little lacklustre at points, despite his best efforts. Nevertheless, it was a strong performance and I look forward to seeing and hearing him grow into this repertoire. His “Winterstürme” was deliciously well-sung: definitely one to watch.
Alwyn Mellor made a fine Sieglinde, with a focused, well-rounded and powerful voice with excellent diction. Her long and high notes were particularly impressive; ringing yet commanding. However, as with Siegmund, she too seemed a little uncomfortable on stage in the opening scene. It is undoubtedly difficult to develop and maintain the impression of a fiery, passionate love for such a prolonged period of time, especially in a concert format. However, there was an embrace in Act II which was lukewarm at best, and I would have liked a little more chemistry between the two. Mellor definitely grew into the character, though, seeming much more at ease portraying the distressed/anguished Sieglinde of Acts II and III than the love-struck damsel in distress in Act I. Her husband Hunding was played by the intimidating vocal force of Clive Bayley, whose command of the stage and vocal presence were stunning.
Moving on to the gods, Fricka was played by Katarina Karnéus, making her Opera North debut. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Her warm, clear and well focused voice enveloped the room and her characterisation was most engaging. Béla Perencz made an excellent Wotan; he brilliantly conveyed the frustration of the god caught in a trap of his own making. When singing full-pelt his voice was open and round and a delight to hear. However, the rest of the time it had the tendency to sound rather nasal. His final scene with Brünnhilde, although not something to rival Terfel or Tomlinson, was truly wonderful all the same.
Unfortunately, the original Brünnhilde, Annalena Persson, had lost a battle against a throat infection, and so Kelly Cae Hogan took up the mantle. Despite being sorely disappointed not to experience Persson’s interpretation, there is no doubt that Hogan’s performance was exhilarating. From her first entrance she embodied the strength, defiance and wisdom of Brünnhilde with an implausible ease. Clearly a stage animal, the fact that she had to take on a score for many of her scenes (completely understandable, given that she had only flown into the UK that morning) never disturbed her performance. Hogan’s balmy, and on occasion fiery, timbre soared through the hall from the floorboards to the rafters. Equally impressive were her eight Valkyrie sisters, all of whom had a ferocious presence, both vocally and in character. Together, Miriam Murphy, Katherine Broderick, Jennifer Johnston, Emma Carrington, Meeta Raval, Madeleine Shaw, Antonia Sotgiu and Catherine Hopper made a fiercely resonant sound which carried over the orchestra, even when they were playing with all their might.
Huge praise must be given to Peter Mumford for his imaginative staging in a concert format. The characterisation employed brought the characters to life whilst still allowing the audience’s imagination to do much of the work. Turning attention to the multi-media used, this has caused some debate amongst critics. Although it was criticised by some (at Das Rheingold) as unnecessary, I believe that the use of three large screens to project the surtitles on a series of scenes which reflect the drama of the music and poetry only enhances the experience. There were those that considered it condescending to have extracts of text which fill in the gaps of the story, but it is actually rather helpful to those who might not be able to remember all the exact details of the plot. Moreover, it cannot be seen as a bad thing to incorporate a series of technological devices which make Wagner’s work (which can often seem rather intimidating) more accessible, and expanding the experience without compromising artistic integrity. There were a couple of typos in these projections, although hopefully these first-night glitches will soon be corrected.
The cast included a range of experienced singers and those who are relatively new to the Wagnerian repertoire. Thanks to the expertise of Dame Anne Evans, the Artistic Consultant for the project, these singers are making an incredible impact on the Wagnerian platform. Yes, there are undoubtedly aspects of these singers which will need time to develop and improve, but the over-all impression of the cast was not one of inexperience. On the contrary, a plethora of talent was on display, with the slightly younger performers being supported and encouraged by those who were more practised in the art of performing Wagner.
Otherwise, it was a most impressive production which engaged the listener throughout. In five and half hours of Wagner, there was not a single moment of boredom - and no large ladies in horned helmets. Instead, there was a sleek and sophisticated production of one of Wagner’s greatest operas. If you can’t make it to one of the performances in Leeds, Salford Quays, the Sage Gateshead or Birmingham, make sure you tune in to BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday evening for the live broadcast: don’t miss out!