Richard Farnes
Opera North Chorus and Orchestra
29 May 2016
Town Hall Leeds
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedMati Turi
BrünnhildeKelly Cae Hogan
GuntherAndrew Foster-Williams
GutruneGiselle Allen
AlberichJo Pohlheim
HagenMats Almgren
WaltrauteSusan Bickley
WoglindeJeni Bern
WellgundeMadeleine Shaw
FloßhildeSarah Castle
1. NornFiona Kimm
2. NornHeather Shipp
3. NornLee Bisset

An outstanding Ring goes out in a blaze of glory

And so it ends: Hagen drowns, Valhalla burns, and the ring returns to the Rhine, while somewhere beneath – Wagner’s dawn trumpets sounding faintly in the distance – the dwarf Alberich continues his lonely scheming. It would be hard to find a more apt conclusion to a week of power-grabbing and back-stabbing than Götterdämmerung, and harder still to see its climactic conflagration as anything other than horribly prophetic. But where politics wreak chaos, so art must console, and this Ring cycle is consolation at its absolute purest and most ecstatic.

Opera North’s Ring has been such a triumph that it’s easy to forget that it was a project forged as a creative response to lack – an austerity Ring that has proved that less really can be more, if only you get your priorities right. Hopefully the powers that be at English National Opera have been taking notes from this ambitious distillation of Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk into a cycle of concert stagings where simple projections and superb acting fill the space where elaborate design and directorial concept would normally be.

The staging may be a concert one, but the performances are of opera house intensity and conviction Director Peter Mumford’s deft blend of symbols and landscapes, split across three giant screens at the back of the Royal Festival Hall stage, helps not only evoke but anchor the action playing out below. Short narrative summaries (written, oddly, in the past tense) also help, minimally intrusive in the context of so much musical drama. But none of this would satisfy if the cast couldn’t carry the show. The staging may be a concert one, but the performances are of opera house intensity and conviction. Delivered directly out to the audience, and at such close proximity, it’s Wagner with the whites of its eyes visible, gloriously, intrusively intimate.

From the three glassy-eyed Norns (thrillingly sung by Fiona Kimm, Yvonne Howard, Lee Bisset, pictured right) searching for meaning somewhere above the Stalls, to the brooding Hagen (Mats Almgren), enlisting the audience as co-conspirators in his plan, we’re complicit here are we never are in the opera house. The desperate glances of Andrew Foster-Williams’s increasingly disturbed Gunther fall directly on us, pleading for deliverance from a plan spiralling swiftly out of control.

Once again, conductor Richard Farnes plays a long game, only rarely letting Opera North’s brass section off the leash, and even deploying thicker brushstrokes of woodwind and chorus colour sparingly. While this approach (sensitive though it is to the needs of the singers) has drawn criticism earlier in the cycle, here, with such a climax to build to, it makes for deliciously deferred pleasure. It also goes a long way to solving both the issues of balance and acoustic clarity in this awkward space, drawing the ear consistently to the middle of the orchestra, in contrast to the dominant texture of tenor and soprano among the voices.

A large part of the pleasure of this cycle has come from Farnes’s world-class company of singers, often returning in different roles through the sequence of operas. Here Giselle Allen (a glorious Freia earlier this week) donned her third guise, this time as Gutrune. Passionate and awkward in equal measure, she discovered all the human warmth lacking in Foster-Williams’s exquisitely chilly and self-controlled Gunther (pictured left with Allen). Mats Almgren swapped Fafner’s greedy ambition for Hagen’s, prowling up and down the thin strip of stage with simian ease and matching the double-basses for chalky blackness of tone.

But Götterdämmerung belongs to Siegfried and Brünnhilde, and never more so than in the hands of Mati Turi and Kelly Cae Hogan. Where Lars Cleveman couldn’t quite match Hogan in Siegfried, Turi certainly can, and the result is an ecstatic, heavyweight battle of emotions and voices. Hogan’s legato spins evenly, uniting the sweetness and glow of the top of the voice with the dryer, more brittle bottom. Turi’s homespun, bonhomous hero gives her poised heroine plenty to bounce off, and there’s real poignancy in watching this Brünnhilde try to bridge the gap in the feminine softness of her Act I music.

Staged in the opera house, the Ring never travels light, laden as it is with historical, conceptual and technical baggage. Stripped of much of these, Richard Farnes, Peter Mumford and their team have discovered a lighter, more aerodynamic Ring for a new age and a new audience.

Alexandra Coghlan | 04 July 2016


Full immersion, total immolation: Götterdämmerung crowns Opera North’s magnificent Ring

Wagner would have made a dreadful Neighbours scriptwriter. His “Previously in The Ring” at the start of Götterdämmerung is hardly snappy, as the three Norns wind the rope of destiny and give a lengthy exposition of the story thus far. Concision wasn’t exactly Wagner’s strength and, I confess, it’s the length of this final work in the tetralogy that I find forbidding: the estimated duration for the Prologue and Act I in Opera North’s concert staging here ran to just a few minutes shorter than last night’s entire Trovatore at Covent Garden!

These Wagnerites clearly take such things in their stride, treating the endurance test nature of The Ring with the same relish and gritty determination as those addicted to running marathons. You can see how the bug takes hold. In the long interval at Siegfried on Friday, an elderly gentleman proudly told a neighbour how this was his 82nd Ring. Even on the basis of one a year since birth, that’s some achievement, even if did I ponder how much other operatic treasure he’s missed out on in his obsessive-compulsive pursuit of Nibelung gold.

Crowning this cycle came a truly magnificent performance of Götterdämmerung, centred very much on Richard Farnes and his trusty orchestra. The outgoing Music Director of Opera North couldn’t have gone out on a greater high than six Ring cycles this summer (one more to go in Gateshead next week) and his astute pacing and long-sighted vision of the work built surely and steadily to a pulsating Funeral March and a thrilling Immolation Scene. Some off-stage horn flubs in Siegfried’s Rhine Journey apart, the orchestra played as if possessed, the steerhorns used to summon the vassals to Gibichung Hall in Act II bloodcurdling, as was the male chorus, assembling at Hagen’s command.

Estonian Mati Turi was a much stronger Siegfried than Lars Cleveman. His burly Heldentenor – not a clarion voice, but evenly produced – has an immediately exciting quality, aided by an amiable stage presence. Here’s a wide-eyed, jolly Siegfried everyone would like to join for a pint down the pub. A big-hearted performance, Turi paced himself well and had just enough left in the tank for his narration before the dastardly Hagen stabbed him in the back. Kelly Cae Hogan, a dignified Brünnhilde throughout this Ring, sang tirelessly, in imperious voice for her Immolation Scene. I loved the slightly breathy, smoky quality to her lower register, and her top notes gleamed.

Swedish bass Mats Almgren was again in saturnine voice, this time as Hagen, Alberich’s son, bent on regaining the ring for the nibelungs. The only quibble with his singing is that his vibrato is so marked that his German diction veered towards the unintelligible. The scene where Hagen’s dreams were haunted by Jo Pohlheim’s creepy Alberich was the stuff of nightmares. Andrew Foster-Williams and Giselle Allen were fabulous as the Gibichung brother and sister Gunther and Gutrune, Allen in pearly voice, Foster-Williams giving a vivid portrayal of an utter coward. Heather Shipp’s urgent, vehement Waltraute impressed, while bewitching Norns, veiled in black, and nicely flirtatious Rhinemaidens in midnight blue completed a splendid cast.

Peter Mumford’s video panels continued to add a moody backdrop, culminating in ravens circling, raging flames and a becalmed Rhine rippling away at the close. I’ve found these atmospheric rather than obtrusive through the cycle, allowing the audience to focus on Wagner’s music, so brilliantly interpreted.

Experiencing these works in such a condensed timespan has been a wonderful Wagnerian immersion for someone who has approached this music tentatively. I doubt I’ll clock up 82 Rings in my lifetime, but Opera North’s magnificent achievement has made me hungry to hear it again soon, even in staged performances. Who’d have thought that a week ago?

Mark Pullinger | 03 Juli 2016


Götterdämmerung Brings Opera North’s Ring to a Triumphant Conclusion

I have had comments through Seen and Heard and direct that some readers were upset that I didn’t agree with other critics about Opera North’s Siegfried. It is a shame we cannot all be in agreement about everything – the EU, the leadership of our major political parties, for instance! I am also grateful for those who did agree with me. That Siegfried two days previously had not entirely gripped those watching was reflected by the two gentlemen either side of me snoozing gently as the evening entered its sixth hour. The one to my left was one of those critics who presumably had thoroughly enjoyed the performance!

To use a modern phrase that was so last Friday and now this was Götterdämmerung which indeed was a fine performance that I have very few quibbles about! There were a few singers reprising their roles from earlier in the Ring but, most importantly, there was a new Siegfried. It says a lot about the state of Wagner singing today when the same singer is not singing Siegfried in both operas. This is not just the case with Opera North but happens frequently elsewhere. I know it was another time – as much a part of history to some as WWI that we are currently commemorating – but in the 1970s the late Alberto Remedios sang Siegmund and both Siegfrieds in two Rings over two weeks! I was pleased to overhear many people talking fondly about him during the long interval.

What a difference two days make as well as better singers leading to a better performance. The Prologue and Act I were intensely gripping from first note to last. I must get my solitary gripe over first; the half-hearted semi-staging should have been re-thought, but it is too late now. For instance, after a dramatic encounter at the end of Act I when Gunther wrestles the ‘ring’ from Brünnhilde, both he and his alter ego Siegfried, who was beside him, hold up the supposed trinket. Of course, there was nothing in their hands and it was as if they had picked a loose hair off the singer’s evening gown! How difficult would it have been to have a proper ring, as well as, a spear for Hagen and something for Siegfried to drink from when he is drugged?

The Orchestra of Opera North was mostly on tremendous form and Richard Farnes had a better grasp of the opening of Götterdämmerung than anything he achieved with Siegfried. The urgency of his conducting carried the narrative along a wave of inevitability; his pacing seemed instinctive, there was ebb and flow and much interesting detail. The Norns were an experienced trio with Lee Bisset’s Third Norn clearly auditioning for the Brünnhilde she will undoubtedly become if she wants (Bisset is already a fine Sieglinde and Isolde). Clearly there was a dress code at the very beginning when this Ring was put together because Mati Turi’s Siegfried came on twice the size of Lars Cleveman (who sang the role in the eponymous opera) but still in open-necked shirt, waistcoat and untied bowtie as before … but all a few sizes bigger! Everyone else was in their best concert wear. Mati Turi – unlike Cleveman – is a true Siegfried if not a huge voice either.

Mats Almgren’s Hagen had hints of Kurt Rydl and was gruff, baleful and oozed a quiet menace. Hagen’s Ruf soon revealed the limitations of his voice, which is best suited to Fafner than evil incarnate. However, he performed with such conviction that I found it impossible to take my eyes off him when he was on stage, whether singing or not. Jo Pohlheim’s chilling cameo as Alberich was mightily impressive without the thought fleeing my mind that his voice is ideal for Hagen as well as the Wanderer. In far more prestigious stagings I have heard far worse Gibichung siblings than Tom Hollander-lookalike Andrew Foster-Williams and Giselle Allen as Gunther and Gutrune. Heather Shipp as Waltraute sang with a real sense of her character as a scared Valkyrie sister. Kelly Cae Hogan’s Brünnhilde seemed to have been warmed up by Siegfried and she sang with strength, security, ardent fervour and blooming radiance to assuage the doubts I had before. She was more womanly – if I am allowed to write that these days – than some and reminiscent of Anne Evans rather more than her compatriot Deborah Polaski who was a genuine warrior maid.

The best was left for the very last. Act III worked surprisingly well from the well-choreographed appearance of three appealing Rhinemaidens in blue singing attractively and often in perfect unison, which is not always the case. Apart from that annoying lack of a minimal number of props, Peter Mumford’s semi-staging did not botch any of the key moments of the story through Act II and until the (non-existent) ring is kept out of Hagen’s clutches. Even the video images and captions were not as annoying, mainly because I mostly ignored them all. There was much more interaction between characters despite them hardly ever singing to each other and facing out to the audience. I found Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music very emotional not least because we have recently lost Alberto Remedios.

Mati Turi was the star of this performance, sincere, open-faced, relaxed, with a voice more lyrical than stentorian, he was as good a Siegfried as I am likely to hear in 2016. The other stars were the resonant and powerful voices of the Chorus of Opera North and last on this occasion but no means least, there was Richard Farnes and his musicians. The burnished brass despite some fragility – which surely must have been avoidable – underpinned a rich and deep orchestral sound.

It was all so much better than Siegfried and I finally understood what all the fuss was about concerning Opera North and this Ring!

Jim Pritchard | Royal Festival Hall, London, 3.7.2016

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 613 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (BBC)
A semi-staged production by Peter Mumford (2014)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.
Also available as telecast