Der Ring des Nibelungen

Richard Farnes
Opera North Chorus and Orchestra
24 May 2016 (R), 25 May 2016 (W)
27 May 2016 (S), 29 May 2016 (G)
Town Hall Leeds
Recording Type
  live   studio
  live compilation   live and studio

Das Rheingold

Die Walküre



Opera North’s Ring Launched as Full Cycle to Glorious Effect

Five years in the making, Opera North has now performed its first full cycle of The Ring at Leeds Town Hall in four weeks . This unique concert hall staging will then tour to Nottingham, Salford, London and Gateshead in a more compressed six day presentation.

The reviews of the component operas over the last five years have ranged from complimentary to ecstatic. My review will consider the impact of the cycle as a whole.

Leeds Town hall was chosen because the Company’s usual venue, the Grand Theatre, was not grand enough in size to cope with Wagner’s vast orchestra. It was a happy accident because the enterprise then became affordable for a company that has nothing like the budgets of London’s two main opera houses. The Town Hall, built in the same era that Wagner wrote The Ring, is a grandiose example of civic ambition that well matches Wagner’s own pretentions in completing one of art’s most monumental creations. The stage takes the full orchestra – only just, but raised seating at either side provides room for the chorus in Götterdämmerung. Thus the orchestral sound comes at the audience full on in what is a fine acoustic. A narrow strip at the front of the stage offers enough room for the singers who are able to deliver directly into the auditorium without having to project over an orchestra pit. Behind hang three enormous screens that carry moving images and provide English surtitles although they mask the building’s pride and joy, one of the biggest organs in Europe.

Not a single prop is used but the singers wear mostly black and white dress that ranges in degrees of formality depending on the characters, from Siegfried’s shirt hanging out like an ill disciplined schoolboy to the Dragons’ smart suits with red ties, a metaphor for blood.

With such proximity to the audience the singers can act not only with their bodies but with their faces too, down to the hint of a smile to a raised eyebrow, something that at New York’s Met might require a telescope to spot for some of the audience. They have certainly been expertly coached for they all act their socks off in a way that contributes much to the generation of emotion. Combine that with orchestral playing and singing of power and distinction and the result is a complete cycle of unvarying and sometimes terrifying impact.

How has it been achieved? The answer I believe is teamwork. The sense of team effort is palpable with every shoulder to the wheel in realising the musical vision of conductor Richard Farnes and the theatrical presentation devised by Peter Mumford. Whatever egos may be involved, they appear to be sublimated to the cause. The recipe is the same that recently took Leicester City’s rank outsider football team to win the English Premier league title. The captain, when asked to explain the success, said that it was total commitment to a team in which there was no room for egos. In both cases the result is an operation with no weak links that well transcends the sum of its parts.

To pick out single singers for special mention would therefore be to miss the point. Nevertheless, any complete Ring cycle has tricky casting issues to solve from the availability of singers to the degree of stamina they can summon up. In this cycle we had three Wotans, two Brünnhildes and two Siegfrieds for example. This is a disadvantage in terms of continuity although in the case of Wotan the three singers brought out different aspects of the character. Michael Druiett in Rheingold was a dignified God of authority, whereas Robert Hayward in Die Walküre was best at bringing out his compassionate side when forced to punish his daughter. In Siegfried, Béla Perencz conveyed aggression, then the despair and irascibility that will lead him to a nervous breakdown. More stamina was required from Kelly Cae Hogan who had to carry off Brünnhilde in her major appearances in both Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung interspersed with up and coming Wagnerian Katherine Broderick in Siegfried. Much was demanded of Kelly Cae Hogan but she held the stage commandingly throughout with no weakening of voice, her high notes ringing rock solid right up to her dénouement at the end.

The portrayal of Siegfried by two singers was, I thought, more of a problem. Lars Cleveman sang the part in Siegfried, standing in for Daniel Frank who had dropped out at relatively short notice. As a veteran his performance had the confidence and strength that experience can bring but it contrasted starkly with Mati Turi’s portrayal in Götterdämmerung. It is a problematic part in that Wagner drew a character that stretches credibility so much that is almost impossible for any singer to convince in the role. First time around Mati Turi sang the part in both operas and I then thought him the nearest I’d ever seen to making Siegfried something of a believable character. He conveys the confidence, innocence and irrepressibility of a man who has never grown up but fulfils the role of hero, so much more convincing than the sword waving, pompously strutting Siegfrieds I’ve so often seen on the stage. Vocally he was a heroic tenor particularly strong in the lower and middle range where most of the notes lie.

This sharing of parts is offset by the inverse practice of different roles being played by the same person. This sometimes involved someone taking both a major role and a minor one. It made a real contribution to the sense of teamwork. Perhaps the best example was Lee Bisset who sang the role of Sieglinde in Walküre, who both looked the part and sang with searing passion, then reappeared in Götterdämmerung as the third Norn. When Katherine Broderick sang Brünnhilde she had already taken a turn as a Valkyrie. No room for egos here. Giselle Allen was magnificent in three parts: Freia, a Valkyrie and Gutrune. Special mention must go to Heather Shipp who leapt to the rescue when Susan Bickley, due to sing Waltraute in Götterdämmerung, became indisposed at very little notice. Heather, having sung second Norn, changed costume and returned in the same act to render a very moving Waltraute.

Finally, Mats Almgren who sang Fafner the Dragon in two operas returned in Götterdämmerung in the testing key role of Hagen. This was a great acting performance. As a Dragon he conveyed a fearsome command with a kind of static dignity. As Hagen he acted with every fibre of his body using a range of gesture and facial expression to convey a tortured, unsatisfied, sinister, amoral character lusting after power. With a bass voice to match this was a Hagen hard to beat.

Such interchangeability suggests that everyone, including players, chorus and behind the scenes support staff, is subjugated to the common good and that no one is indispensible. There are two, however, who are not indispensible. Peter Mumford’s original vision of the presentation (he does not like the term “semi-staged”) has been a major feature. I have talked to many people who have seen the component parts of this cycle and not one has suggested that they have seen a fully staged production that betters it in terms of dramatic impact. He has managed the realisation of the vision down to every detail including directing the singers and the lighting effects that are effective but not distracting.

Also indispensable, above all, is conductor Richard Farnes who directs the whole mighty project by recognising that the “central character” of the Ring is the music itself and decided, in his own words, ” to make a virtue of this, visually showcasing the orchestra”. In doing so every instrumental and motivic detail was pointed with colour and clarity, every phrase beautifully pointed, every climax mounted with steady assurance. Under his direction the players were superb throughout, from the dark rumblings at the start of Rheingold, via some devastating brass climaxes and immaculate wind solos to the strings’ soaring redemption theme at the end, finishing with a mesmeric pitch-perfect final chord.

Overall this was a brisk interpretation that gave the narrative a strong, inexorable sense of propulsion. But Farnes also achieved the hardest thing of all: to give each of the arches that are the four operas the sense of proportion that Wagner intended, and to hold these within one great, single arch that is the whole work: architectural perfection that can be clearly appreciated now we have the cycle in one go. Farnes is emerging as a great Wagner conductor.

After 12 years as music director of Opera North he now moving on. I cannot think of any performance of any work of art that could send someone off with a bigger bang than his own Götterdämmerung.

John Leeman | Leeds Town Hall, Leeds, 23.4.2016 – 21.5.2016

Opera North’s ambitious project to tour a complete Ring cycle is triumphantly fulfilled

A magical golden ring, good versus evil, desire, incest and betrayal, a sleeping beauty and a shape-shifting dragon, the rise of a hero and the twilight of the gods. The operas that make up The Ring of the Nibelungs contain all these and more across four evenings of scarcely imaginable power.

There are two ways to stage the Ring. You can recreate the literal panoply of Norse mythology from Nibelheim to Valhalla, which risks inevitable mirth when you attempt the impossible (‘Just ride your winged horse into that flaming funeral pyre, dear’), or you can let a director solve your problems by erecting a high-wall concept between what Wagner wrote and what the audience sees.

Neither option is entirely adequate. There needed to be a third way, one that retains all the work’s theatrical impact but places the music centre stage, and Opera North has created it. The Ring that’s just completed two cycles in Leeds and now travels to Nottingham, Salford, London and Gateshead is overwhelming, sprawling and sensational. It also affords the perfect introduction to Wagner’s epic, so newcomers start here.

Peter Mumford has conceived a staging and design concept dominated by a triptych of vast screens that offer not just surtitles and story outlines but 15 hours of animated projections that range from elemental landscapes and impressionistic fuzz to key images of swords and sorcery. Downstage, carefully costumed in variants on concert attire, a uniformly superb team of solo singers enact the saga with meticulously detailed engagement (Joe Austin is the associate director) and bring the characters to vivid life.

Richard Farnes is an undervalued musical hero

To identify individual brilliance from the four casts seems invidious since there isn’t a weak link anywhere, but some performances are off the scale. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Loge, the cynical god of fire, is the perfect foil to the majestic but flawed Wotan of Michael Druiett, perhaps the pick of the three fine singers who share this role. James Creswell, always an irresistible bass presence, is in glorious voice both as the giant Fasolt in Das Rheingold and as the vengeful Hunding in Die Walküre; Mats Almgren is baleful and brooding both as the murderous Fafner and, in Götterdämmerung, as the villainous dwarf Hagen.

Michael Weinius as Siegmund is first-rate, while Lars Cleveman lends a ringing heroism to the title character of Siegfried, a role taken in the final opera by Mati Turi who is exceptionally good at teasing out the character’s naïvety and vulnerability. Jo Pohlheim as the gods’ nemesis Alberich is the embodiment of evil in all three operas in which he appears.

The women are no less magnificent, from Claudia Huckle’s mysterious earth goddess Erda through a hair-raising team of Valkyries (one of whom, Katherine Broderick, lent her impressive dramatic soprano to the Siegfried Brünnhilde at the Leeds performances) to Lee Bisset’s tormented Sieglinde. Giselle Allen and Susan Bickley are compelling in multiple roles, but it is the Brünnhilde of American soprano Kelly Cae Hogan who makes you giddy with her technical brilliance (perhaps more so in Götterdämmerung than Die Walküre, at least in the cycle I attended) and a formidable sense of her complex and desperate character.

Behind them all, an augmented Orchestra of Opera North, complete with steerhorns, Wagner tubas, ten anvils and six harps, fills the steep tiers yet never overpowers any singer, despite not being covered by a pit. This virtuosic achievement of balance is just one of many feats by departing company music director Richard Farnes, whose swansong this Ring cycle is. He micro-manages the sound of every bar, discreetly reining it in under certain singers but letting rip with a glorious surge during set-pieces like ‘Siegfried’s Funeral March’. More than anything else, this extraordinary Ring glories in conducting of the utmost distinction and scarcely believable concentration by an undervalued musical hero.

Mark Valencia | 31 May 2016

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
1920×1080, 2.2 Mbit/s, 14.3 GByte (MPEG-4)
English subtitles
A production by Peter Mumford (semi-staged)
According to Opera North the performances were recorded in “Leeds, June 2016”. There were two complete Ring cycles given in Leeds, however in May 2016.