Opera North introduced each of the operas in its presentation of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen individually between 2011 and 2014. Now it is performing the four together in various venues across the United Kingdom, and this week it brings the tetralogy to London’s Royal Festival Hall. Peter Mumford’s ‘production’ is not fully staged, but in Das Rheingold at least his considered approach to rendering the opera’s dramatic elements made it feel more dynamic and emotionally engaging than many that are.
Three screens stood in front of the Royal Festival Hall’s organ, providing images of water, mist and gold, as well as surtitles and even a little narration. With some exceptions, the performers acted out their parts to the full, facing the audience rather than the person they would have been interacting with. So, for example, Alberich often wrestled with the Rhinemaidens (Jeni Bern, Madeleine Shaw and Sarah Castle) from a distance, while Donner (Andrew Foster-Williams) and Froh (Mark Le Brocq) prevented the giants from taking Freia away, even though they never physically blocked their path. Mime responded to the jibes that Alberich delivered into thin air, although this also revealed how he could not see his brother who was wearing the tarnhelm.
When the majority of figures simply stared out in Wotan’s first scene it was as if they were gazing entranced upon Valhalla, while the overall approach enabled characters to adopt stylised gestures that really stamped out their thoughts and feelings. This does not mean that the acting was hammed, but rather that it was utilised to shed light on the hierarchies involved. When Loge first appeared the giants stood with their arms folded, being unimpressed with his arguments and the delay he was introducing. However, in their body language, Donner and Froh displayed a similar contempt that this demi-god should be having the ear of Wotan instead of them.
As we saw the gods sport dinner jackets, the approach seemed reminiscent of Patrice Chereau’s 1976 production for Bayreuth, in which class struggle was highlighted as Wotan became the archetypal Bourgeois figure who cared little for those beneath him. Here he laughed as Mime described his misfortune, while the fact that the giants wore plainer suits with red ties hinted at them being part of the labour movement. Fafner’s killing of Fasolt was rendered more effectively than in many fully-staged productions, and after striking the fatal blow he pulled Fasolt’s red handkerchief from his top pocket and threw it on the ground. If this represented the brutal act of ripping his heart from his body, then only slightly less disturbing was the sight of Loge toying with the handkerchief as the gods prepared to ascend to Valhalla. Props were kept to a minimum with the ring, tarnhelm and spear only ever being alluded to through actions, although Nothung did briefly appear on the central screen.
From among the strong cast, the giants stood out in particular. With his excellent bass and strong presence James Creswell, despite there being nothing to make him look taller, felt every inch the gentle giant, Fasolt. In direct contrast, Mats Almgren utilised his own rich bass to personify the greedy, malevolent Fafner, and the interaction between the pair was excellent. Michael Druiett displayed a very firm and pleasing tone as Wotan, and although his voice gave way just before the end this was probably attributable to an off-night as opposed to any underlying weaknesses within it. With his resonant tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was a superb Loge who fluttered his hands in time with his leitmotif before making them look as heavy as lead as he ever so reluctantly pushed the gold into place to cover Freia.
Yvonne Howard was an excellent Fricka, possessing a refined manner on the one hand and an expectancy and allure on the other that made it easy to see why Wotan had fallen over backwards to give her everything he could. With his brilliant bass-baritone Jo Pohlheim was a tremendous Alberich, made all the more frightening perhaps by feeling so human, free of the ridiculous dwarf costumes that dog so many portrayals. Richard Roberts was an extremely sweet Mime. Such a depiction works for Das Rheingold where he is downtrodden and simply wishes to return to the carefree days of yesteryear in Nibelheim, and it will be interesting to see how Roberts develops the character in Siegfried where he becomes more scheming and manipulative. Giselle Allen brought a sumptuous tone to her performance as Freia while Ceri Williams was a superb Erda, revealing an exceedingly rich and vibrant sound.
Richard Farnes conducted extremely well. It was pleasing to hear the sound generated from an onstage orchestra where the music had more space to breathe, and the Valhalla leitmotif was rendered with a warm tone that also alluded to the mystique of the fortress. The orchestra’s layout ensured that the opening in E flat major worked its way along a back row of brass and then across the various string sections as the sound grew, and it felt fitting that, without us actually seeing the gods cross to Valhalla, the evening began and ended with us focused solely on the playing. A Ring Cycle should never be judged only by its Rheingold, but this performance certainly gave confidence that the other three operas will be rendered just as effectively.
Opera North’s Ring Cycle continues at the Royal Festival Hall until 3 July with Die Walküre on 29 June, Siegfried on 1 July and Götterdämmerung on 3 July. The operas are also being screened live in the Southbank Centre’s Clore Ballroom for free (no tickets required). For further details on this and the other related events taking place visit the Southbank Centre website.
After this week Opera North’s Ring Cycle travels to the Sage Gateshead where it will be performed between 5 and 10 July.