Many opera companies would balk at giving a full Wagnerian Ring Cycle, but Opera North have been spending the time since April giving six Cycles as part of a tour, in an innovative concert format.
We caught up with this tour on its London stop at the Royal Festival Hall last week; and from tonight it makes its final stop at the Sage Gateshead and on Radio 3.
This was the first live Ring Cycle I had seen: and without props, sets or costumes to speak of, it really had to stand or fall on how well the acting and singing puts across the story. In this the production is helped by textual matter projected on screens and taken from Michael Birkett’s ‘The Story of the Ring’, explaining what we are about to see. This may be irritating to Wagner purists, but makes the four operas extremely accessible.
The ‘preliminary evening’ and the first, and shortest opera in the cycle, is Das Rheingold, which tells the story of how the gold in the Rhine was stolen by the evil dwarf Alberich, forged into a ring, and used to make an attempt to achieve world domination, and how he was tricked by the gods Wotan and Loge into giving up this power, only giving it up with a curse on whoever owns the ring. Wotan’s greed almost causes the goddess Freia to be given up to a duo of giants, Fafner and Fasolt, but the eventual passing of the ring causes them to turn on each other and to cause the cycle’s first shedding of blood (in this version, by the dropping of a red necktie to the floor).
Michael Druiett and Jo Pohlheim, photo copyright Clive Barda.
This evening’s entertainment presented the first of three Wotans throughout the cycle, in Michael Druiett a rather dry old stick (no match for Jo Pohlheim’s superb Alberich, who is quite the star of this production with a glorious bass baritone voice). Yvonne Howard was a decent Fricka, and Giselle Allen making the first of three different characterisations as Freia, bewildered by her misfortune in being exiled from the fruit gardens of Valhalla. As Loge, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was all flickering fingers and devious looks.
The second evening presented Die Walküre, which introduces not just the nine Valkyries, led by the vibrant Brünnhilde (played here in the first of three appearances by Kelly Cae Hogan, an excellent soprano and actress), but also the ill-fated twins and other children of Wotan (in his human guise as Walse), Siegmund and Sieglinde.
Lee Bisset’s Sieglinde is beautifully sung, and her act one interaction with Michael Weinius’ Siegmund is one of the highlights of the piece, with their incestuous love so incensing Fricka (Howard again), goddess of marriage, that she sets in motion the tragic events which cause Wotan (Robert Hayward here, whose vocal deficiency at times can be forgiven when set against his moving final act) to cause his favourite child, Brünnhilde, to be cast out of the sight of the gods forever, and imprisoned in a wall of fire only a man without fear can penetrate.
Robert Hayward, photograph copyright Clive Barda.
Hogan is again superb in both acts two (where she decides to defy her father and save Siegmund from his decreed death) and three (where she visibly reduces in stature as she is removed from her Valkyrie sisters – eight ladies with large voices and personalities – to face a life of eternal sleep until woken to live in mortality). Meanwhile, Hayward’s Wotan causes the destruction of his beloved Walsung son, and affects disinterest in the offspring of the twins.
The third opera in the cycle centres on this child when he is fully grown – Siegfried, who has been brought up by the dwarf Mime, brother of Alberich. We had first met Mime (sung by Richard Roberts) in Das Rheingold, but he has more to do here and successfully merges the evil with the comic (I loved the scene where Siegfried gains the power to read Mime’s thoughts, while the latter desperately tries to hide his true feelings), although some of his singing was lost in his early scenes, overpowered by the orchestra.
Lars Cleveman, photograph copyright Clive Barda.
As the ‘boy’ Siegfried, Lars Cleveman looked far too old but certainly had the lung power to carry the role after a shaky start, and his scenes when forging the sword Nothung from fragments, and combating the scary dragon Fafner (last seen as a giant, and sung powerfully by bass Mats Almgren), were excellent, as was his final act with Hogan’s still-stunning Brünnhilde.
In this segment of the Cycle, Wotan is disguised as the Wanderer, and in long coat and hat, Bela Perencz resembles a stylish lounge lizard. He is the best singer of the three to take on the role in this cycle, and his scenes with Cleveman’s Siegfried and Pohlheim’s Alberich are well done.
There is no family feeling here, though, and by the end Wotan’s power is spent, his spear shattered in a mirror image of the destruction of Siegmund’s sword in Die Walküre. (There are no swords or spears on stage, though, nor eye patches, armour, or anvils. The audience has to imagine them all, although we do see the woodbird hovering around in the choir seats before her few lines of song).
Finally, we returned to the cycle for Sunday’s Götterdämmerung, in which the gods face destruction, and the happy lovers Siegfried and Brünnhilde, left within the fiery rock in the throes of passion, find their union threatened by spells, portions, and intrigue, all in the name of taking control of the ring and the Nibelungen treasure.
There is a delightful scene at the beginning of act two which chills the blood as the sleeping Hagen (Mats Almgren, again, and exceptional) is visited by the slimy Alberich (Polheim again, outstanding) and goaded into hating anyone who is happy.
A change of casting as Siegfried brings the jovial Mati Turi to the part, and although I enjoyed his characterization, I felt his voice was more lyrical and less powerful than Cleveman’s. I see that Tuti has played the lead in Siegfried in earlier performances, and would have been interested to see his interpretation, but here he is simply the easily-led fool, not the great hero his prior mastery of the sword and despatch of the dragon might suggest.
Kelly Cae Hogan and Mati Turi, photograph copyright Clive Barda.
His scene with the Rhinemaidens who warn him of the future is very good, though, and well-sung, and the trio (Jeni Bern, Madeleine Shaw, Sarah Castle) are just as cunning in trying to get the ring back as they were when teasing Alberich back in Das Rhinegold before he snatched their gold.
The orchestra have been superb throughout this cycle, led by outgoing Opera North conductor Richard Farnes. He has led his company (including the Chorus in Götterdämmerung) through sixteen hours of drama, music and mythology, and rightly gained a standing ovation for both Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung.
The Opera North Ring Cycle broadcasts tonight, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday evenings on Radio 3.