Das Rheingold

Richard Farnes
Opera North Orchestra
24 May 2016
Town Hall Leeds
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanMichael Druiett
DonnerAndrew Foster-Williams
FrohMark Le Brocq
LogeWolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
FasoltJames Creswell
FafnerMats Almgren
AlberichJo Pohlheim
MimeRichard Roberts
FrickaYvonne Howard
FreiaGiselle Allen
ErdaClaudia Huckle
WoglindeJeni Bern
WellgundeMadeleine Shaw
FloßhildeSarah Castle
The Guardian

Opera North’s back-to-basics Wagner feels like a liberation

This was a concentrated and riveting realisation of the first part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, with Jo Pohleim’s Alberich and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Loge particularly strong

During his visit to London in 1877, Richard Wagner was thrilled by what he saw of Victorian London from the river. “This is Alberich’s dream come true,” he enthused to his wife, Cosima: “Nibelheim, world dominion, activity, work, everywhere the oppressive feeling of steam and fog.”

The world dominion, the steam and the fog may be long gone, but Opera North has finally brought its much-praised semi-staged concert performances of Wagner’s Ring tetralogy to the same banks of the Thames, where this week’s keenly anticipated performances have been sold out for a year. And with what perfect timing, too, for Tuesday’s performance of Das Rheingold. To have this of all operas, this epic story of power, greed, deceit, lies and self-delusion, performed in the midst of Britain’s current political dog-fighting and economic turmoil – well, it doesn’t get any better or more resonant than this for us political Wagnerites. Art and life can rarely have been in a more dramatic synthesis.

What perfect timing to bring this epic opera about power, greed, deceit, lies and self-delusion to London this week

For Wagner purists, these Festival Hall performances may be a troubling experience. Not only is the full Wagnerian orchestra right there on the platform, but the stagecraft that is an essential part of the “total artwork” conception is stripped to a bare minimum of gestures and poses. And yet it is rare to encounter such a concentrated and riveting realisation of the work as this, with the story explained simply and the words translated on a triptych of atmospherically illustrated video screens behind the orchestra, and without any of the directorial pretension and visual clutter that weighs down so many stagings. This is back-to-basics Wagner, and in many respects it feels like a liberation.

It feels that way because, with some caveats, the musical and vocal realisations are so well prepared and executed. Preparation is the key to good Wagner performances, and it shows here time and again. Richard Farnes paces and moulds his Opera North orchestral forces with real mastery so that the singers are not overwhelmed – though Wagner is attentive to that, too – before letting rip for the self-deluding entry into Valhalla at the end.

Vocally, this Rheingold was dominated, as the work is so often, by an outstanding Alberich, Jo Pohlheim, who brought incisiveness and real authority to a character, who is in so many ways Wotan’s equal and opposite, and an authoritative Loge, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke. Michael Druiett, the first of the week’s three Wotans, sang with refined tone, though the Rheingold Wotan’s higher-lying music occasionally taxed him. Yvonne Howard was a noble Fricka and James Creswell and Mats Almgren a suitably imposing Fasolt and Fafner. Yes, there were blemishes, but it is already clear that the word from the north was right: this is a Ring cycle to treasure.

Martin Kettle | 29 Jun 2016


Dipping a toe into the Rhine: Wagner therapy from Opera North

Richard Jones has a lot to answer for. His cartoon-kitsch Ring for The Royal Opera back in 1994-5 scarred me so deeply that I’ve been reluctant to return to a staged cycle ever since. The mental picture of Rhinemaidens in fat suits and Brünnhilde in skeleton-print body-stocking still makes me shudder, not to mention Mime wearing a pinny as the dragon, Fafner. Opera North’s cycle offers a form of personal Wagner therapy: all four music dramas in concert performances, but with Peter Mumford’s carefully choreographed video and lighting effects. It was time to dip a tentative toe back into the Rhine.

In many ways, Das Rheingold is an easy start. It’s punchy, it’s witty, it’s got anvils! Also, it doesn’t last five hours. Wagner didn’t even count it as one of the ‘days’ in his cycle, but the ‘preliminary evening’. This action-packed tale of gods, dwarves and giants sets up the more human drama of the three evenings to follow. Wonderfully conducted by Richard Farnes, the performance had me gripped from the first grumbling E flat at the bottom of the Rhine to the glorious blaze of brass as the gods process along the rainbow bridge into Valhalla.

Opera North’s cycle of concert performances was initially born out of austerity. For a regional touring company to stage a full scale Ring is not only financially overwhelming, but physically challenging too. Many of the company’s usual venues simply couldn’t accommodate Wagner’s vast orchestration. Instead, the orchestra is placed centre stage, allowing the music to speak directly to the audience free from the shackles of directorial concepts. Their cycle has unfolded over the past four years, one opera each season, each meeting with such critical acclaim that this summer Opera North is presenting the full cycle not once, but six times. Even many major houses would only run to three full cycles at a time.

At Bayreuth, Wagner ensured you don’t see the orchestra at all, burying them in its pit. Here, squeezed onto the Royal Festival Hall’s platform, we could see nearly every inch of the orchestral tapestry. Six harps, huddled together, wove their filigree patterns, timps thwacked out the giants’ outsized footsteps and a dozen percussionists tapped and hammered the Nibelung anvils. There were a few querulous horns in the Rhine’s murk, but they truly snarled later as Alberich duffs up his brother, Mime. The best surprise came when Donner’s hammer blow was spectacularly rendered via a ‘Mahler 6’ hammer onto a wooden box from which dust – talcum powder? – mushroomed.

Above the orchestra were three video panels to display surtitles and to share narrative from the libretto, although it could do with losing the PowerPoint effects. Agitated waves, clouds, misty mountains and molten gold were conjured in video imagery, adding atmosphere rather than specific storytelling. Alberich turning himself into a giant serpent or a tiny toad would have seemed a prime opportunity to use video trickery, and although the serpent was suggested via a huge reptilian eye, toad-Alberich was created with simple green lighting on Jo Pohlheim’s face as he squatted on his haunches. No props were used – not even a ring – until Fafner ‘kills’ Fasolt by drawing the red handkerchief from his brother’s top pocket and letting it fall lifeless to the platform. Less really is more.

As Wotan, Michael Druiett’s frayed baritone never quite had the desired authority for a chief of the gods, but he was a good match for Yvonne Howard’s wiry mezzo as Fricka (the haranguing Mrs Wotan). Pohlheim’s gravelly bass-baritone made for an initially gruff Alberich, but he delivered a venomous curse. The giants Fasolt and Fafner were wonderfully contrasted basses, James Creswell steely and incisive, Mats Almgren softer and darker in tone, but implacable. The three Rhinemaidens were vocally and sartorially well-blended, dressed in matching turquoise gowns, and Giselle Allen’s Freia gleamed. Hands aquiver at every trembling string motif, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was a vividly brilliant Loge, quite the star of the show – oozing irony and relishing the text.

A thoroughly enjoyable Rheingold with clear, concise storytelling and glittering orchestral contributions. Not long to wait for my next therapy session.

Mark Pullinger | 29 Juni 2016


Opera North’s Magnificent Das Rheingold Comes to London

“A Ring for Everyone” proudly proclaims the publicity material. And so Wagner’s Ring should ever be. Viscerally bestowing its many-layered secrets and wisdom – this particular onion surely takes at least several lifetimes to unpeel – the Ring cycle melds our deepest links with the world of myth to inevitable corollaries with contemporary political events. Power-hungry “gods” acting only for their own interests; a Wotan whose Valhalla we know will crumble around him; and scheming everywhere certainly strikes home as the current series of Channel 5’s Big Brother unfolds. Oh yes, and there’s a Brexit going on, as well, with Westminster-as-Valhalla in freefall, the Abyss beckoning in much of the population’s minds. At least Cameron-Wotan fell on his own sword. Wotan’s rune-encrusted spear has other work to do.

And so in the spirit of education and enlightenment, this performance was made available to Transport for London workers, two London secondary schools (only two?) and a four-course dining experience (!) for first-time opera goers aged 25-40 on June 30 and July 2. The cycle is the backbone of the Power of Power Festival, exploring the Ring.

For Rheingold, three huge screens at the back of the hall showed scenes of Nature, translations, and action updates/stage directions. Peter Mumford’s excellent concept meant that at the front of the stage a platform for the singers provided space for the action. Lines were sometimes aimed at an unknown “other space” out in the distance as opposed to direct confrontations; this, in conjunction with the magnificent projected images, was a refreshing solution to the staging problem. The problem of invisibility with the Tarnhelm was managed by simply taking the spotlight off the singer. Having the orchestra on stage lent the whole a visceral quality; and in tandem with Richard Farnes’ x-ray conducting, lent the whole a vibrant transparency while losing none of the music’s chthonic power.

The superb horns of Opera North brought a sense of Ur-awakening to the famous beginning, as images of water saturated our vision. Throughout Farnes marshalled his forces superbly, regularly finding fresh-minted detail, careful to avoid (pardon the pun) drowning his singers, and injecting real urgency; yet tenderness was fully honoured. The scene-change between Scenes 1 and 2 was exquisitely, beautifully and affectionately rendered. A dozen anvil players on either side of the stage ensured Nibelheim was as clangorous as Wagner surely intended. And most importantly, perhaps, this Vorabend’s score emerged as just as powerful as those of the Trilogy proper.

Each Rhinemaiden had her own character, yet the three melded beautifully together: Jeni Bern’s Woglinde nice and light, Madelaine Shaw a solid Wellgunde and Sarah Castle a strong Flosshilde. Interacting with them was (arguably) the star of the night: Jo Pohlheim’s feisty, scheming Alberich, his Scene 1 denial of Love superbly strong – as was his Scene 4 Curse: even without translation, there was no doubting the meaning of “Verflucht”. His “slippery rocks” found him slip-sliding from one Southbank chair to the other, his firm voice not faltering one jot; the third scene interactions with Mime were beautifully managed. As the latter character, Richard Roberts was fully in character, one of society’s dumped-upon. Portrayed as something of a dolt, what was intriguing about this Mime was that Wagner’s lines occasionally seemed very close to those of the Simpleton from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.

It was a pity that Michael Druiett (Wotan) was having a bad night – one source has suggested he was ill, but no announcement was made so we were left to draw our own conclusions. In the second scene, it was his lowest register that gave the most obvious clue that all was not as it should be, despite physically exuding gravitas; and his voice gave out completely in the final minutes of the opera, despite or perhaps because of valiant efforts to bring dignity to these closing scenes. Wotan and his excellent wife, Fricka (the consistently vocally stunning Yvonne Howard) appeared in evening dress. Howard relished Fricka’s every line, and gave a lovely, nuanced account, wonderfully confident throughout. If only the same could have been said for Giselle Allen’s Freia. Miss Allen has one of the loudest voices I have come across; everything came across in a piercing fff.

The demi-god Loge must be such a fun part to play. Here, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke camped it up just the right amount, his hands flickering like the projected flames. His “Immer ist Undank” was a simply magnificent bit of character acting and singing. Fasolt and Fafner stood implacable, Opera North’s clear equivalent of The Management. Gray-suited with red ties and handkerchiefs (one of which was used to denote giant’s blood later in the music-drama), they made a great, convincing pair; their doltish, thuggish, greed-driven rivalry towards the end of the piece was eminently convincing. Both excellent vocally – with perhaps James Creswell’s Fasolt having a small vocal advantage over Mats Almgren’s Fafner – they were magnificent. The barefoot Erda, Ceri Williams was superbly resonant, her warnings almost impossible to resist (except for Wotan, of course). Perhaps she, and only she, really had her feet on the ground. Mark Le Brocq was an adequate Froh, while Andrew Foster-Williams really came into his own towards the close as a fine Donner.

We are told that the Nibelung’s scream was “recorded by Opera North Children’s Chorus”, and very effective it was too. This was a terrific evening, held together by the glue of the Opera North orchestra, excelling itself at every turn (those wonderfully watery six harps were a treat) and the incredibly intelligent, fluid conducting of Farnes. Magnificent!

Colin Clarke | Royal Festival Hall, London, 28.6.2016


Das Rheingold is, of course, the reddest in tooth and claw of all Wagner’s dramas – which is saying something.

The only path to denying its socialism would be never to have encountered it, or at least never to have listened to it. That, I can only assume, must have been the ‘non-expert’ path to enlightenment taken by Michael Gove, whose unpleasant presence I suffered in the row behind me at Bayreuth in 2014. Goodness knows what damage Frank Castorf’s post-dramatic theatre wrought to his back-to-basics ‘mentality’; maybe that is why, Alberich-like, he elected to destroy this country, this continent, the world. It is certainly no easy thing to imagine a Rhinemaiden falling voluntarily into his clutches. But then even Wagner did not quite possess the venom to invent Mrs Gove, Sarah Vine. With typical non-quite-even-handedness, he wrote of Lohengrin’s Ortrud: ‘a male politician disgusts us; a female politician appals us.’ Ladies and gentlemen of the Festival Hall, take your pick: the Conservative Party leadership election awaits.

I could go on, and on, and on, as someone once almost drawled. Opera North, sadly, could hardly have found London in more electrically receptive – ‘electrical reception’ is perhaps a concept better left to the ‘experts’ – mode than today. The Ring can be made, in some senses might even be claimed to be, about everything. (I once even managed to bring in Norman Tebbit; the pleasure was doubtless mutual.) As Wagner wrote to Liszt in 1853, ‘Yes, I should like to perish in Valhalla’s flames! — Mark well my new poem — it contains the beginning of the world and its destruction!’ It is, just as much as Marx’s Capital, to quote Maximilien Rubel, ‘a history of a world in the course of self-destruction, a pathology of an inhuman society’. And as we, like the gods in Valhalla, sit back in horror to watch the flames envelop us, we find ourselves, if anything, still more receptive than usual to an inquiry into where it all began, where it all went wrong.

A staging could help, of course, none more so than Patrice Chéreau’s legendary ‘Centenary Ring’. It is not necessary, though. Whilst every bone in my body resists both that conclusion and the admission that the two best Ring performances of my life have taken place in the concert hall, the desire to be a little bit more truthful than Gove, Johnson, et al., a little more scrupulous with my obligations than Wotan, means that I must. Strangely, both took place in the Royal Albert Hall, a less-than-ideal venue, to put it mildly. It mattered not a jot, though, whether under Bernard Haitink (Royal Opera, 1998: my first) or Daniel Barenboim (2013 Proms, see here , here , here, and here!) Nor has it here at the Festival Hall, at least so far. Direction from Peter Mumford and Joe Austin is clear, accomplishing a good deal with relatively little. Projections offer titles, a little atmosphere (the Rhine, clouds, etc.), and, for those who would benefit, a little additional background. Whilst we all await Stefan Herheim and Dmitri Tcherniakov’s stagings for different houses in Berlin, concert stagings continue to have much to offer.

A particular advantage of such concert stagings is the placing of the orchestra, literally, centre stage. It is, at least, an advantage with such excellent playing and conducting as we experienced here. One really had the sense of an orchestra that knew this music, an orchestra that had lived with it, an orchestra that was here reaching the climax of its involvement with it (although let us hope that there will be much more Wagner to come from Opera North). There was barely a blemish to be heard. More importantly, the ebb and flow, Wagner’s celebrated melos, was there to be heard, to be felt: nothing exaggerated, but flowing like – well, the mighty Rhine itself. Richard Farnes proved a sure guide indeed. If he is not Barenboim, then so what? Who is? Farnes’s evident knowledge and understanding of the score, of its twists and turns, of how to navigate them, and of how to maintain the musico-narrative thrust put the generally pitiful efforts of, say, Haitink’s successor at the Royal Opera to shame, likewise those fashion victims who have extolled those sorry attempts. If there were times when I felt the orchestra might have been encouraged to play out a little more, to sound still more as the Greek Chorus of Wagner’s æsthetic imagination, this was never mere ‘accompaniment’.

As Wotan, Michael Druiett looked eerily reminiscent of Donald McIntyre for Chéreau and Boulez. If he did not quite show that depth of familiarity with the work, there was little to complain about. Audibly struggling in the final scene, he lost his voice completely at one point towards the end, but that was clearly a throat problem rather than technical incapability. His was a thoughtful performance throughout. Jo Pohlheim was a properly malevolent Alberich; I look forward to hearing more from him in Siegfried. If a Loge does not steal the show, something will most likely have gone awry; Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke’s satirical edge, his vivid sense of theatre (even in the concert hall) certainly aided Wagner’s message to hit home. Mats Almgren made for a suitably dark Fafner, James Creswell lighter of tone than one often hears as his brother, Fasolt, but none the worse for that. Richard Roberts’s Mime was more than just wheedling. His words and their import registered strongly, likewise his character’s sheer misery in nostalgia for old Nibelheim. Yvonne Howard’s Fricka offered majesty but also vulnerability. The other gods and, especially, the Rhinemaidens made a good deal of their moments in the spotlight. If Ceri Williams’s intonation as Erda were not quite what it might have been to begin with, she soon made up for that in a dignified portrayal that did not lack mystery. As for the Nibelung scream, ‘recorded by the Opera North Children’s Chorus’: it ‘felt our pain’.

Mark Berry |29 Jun 2016

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 346 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (BBC)
A semi-staged production by Peter Mumford (2011)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.
Also available as telecast