Opera North’s presentation of Der Ring des Nibelungen concluded at the Royal Festival Hall with Götterdämmerung. As well as providing the climax to the entire tetralogy, the opera features one of the larger ensemble casts as well as a chorus. This automatically affected how director Peter Mumford approached his semi-staging, which had to take into account the greater levels of interaction that are required at so many points. As a result, there was more physical contact between characters so that the very first time we saw Siegfried and Brünnhilde in the Prologue they were locked in a deep embrace. This may not sound unusual for the context, but it did contrast with the rest of the cycle where such interactions were kept to a minimum.
While in Die Walküre Siegmund’s death was portrayed by each character playing out their respective actions to the audience, here we saw ‘Gunther’ (Siegfried in disguise) actually wrestle the ring (although the object itself remained invisible) from Brünnhilde’s finger. The vassals comprising the excellent Chorus of Opera North were situated above the orchestra in the side choir stalls, with the basses on one side and the tenors on the other providing us with true stereo sound. Mats Almgren’s Hagen stood below, whipping the men into a frenzy so that they sometimes broke out of their neat rows to laugh and gesture.
A few moments were less successful and on several occasions characters sat as they sang. This was generally in keeping with Wagner’s original directions, but in such a semi-staging it would have seemed more logical to let them stand to aid their singing. Still, the sense of drama that was sometimes brought about by the simple action justified the decision on a few occasions.
Mati Turi was not the most lyrical Siegfried, but he revealed a robust, sturdy tenor that nonetheless was possessed of a certain degree of warmth. If a few imperfections crept in as the performance wore on, by and large he stayed the distance well. His acting was also effective, and his chuckling to himself as he enjoyed the attention of the Rhinemaidens felt extremely realistic. As Gunther, Andrew Foster-Williams produced a pleasing, expansive sound and proved a very convincing actor, looking awkward to the point of feeling sick as he knew what Hagen was about to do in Act III. His sense of sorrow in Act II was also profound, deriving not only from the pain of believing his blood brother had betrayed him, but also from the knowledge that if he did not have Siegfried’s support he was absolutely nothing.
Giselle Allen was a sumptuously voiced Gutrune who revealed a certain precociousness and sense of expectancy from the start, but who tinged her glee with guilt at the thought that Siegfried would be hers as soon as she gave the hero the potion. Her scene of anguish before Siegfried returned (dead) was also realised well, as it really gave the impression of someone pacing up and down a cold, dark hall in the dead of night. Heather Shipp was an excellent Waltraute and this Ring Cycle was one of the very few to see the character played by the same person in Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung. Jeni Bern, Madeleine Shaw and Sarah Castle made an appealing trio of Rhinemaidens, while the Norns (Fiona Kimm, Yvonne Howard and Lee Bisset) were cast from strength.
Mats Almgren was an outstanding Hagen. At first it felt as if his dark, gravelly voice that was so well suited to playing Fafner might not be quite as appropriate for the son of Alberich, but any doubts were soon dispelled as he delivered the most storming performance. Even though he remained on stage for considerable periods when he sang nothing, he never once broke character, and it is hard to picture any portrayal embodying Hagen’s malevolence to such an all-consuming degree. Jo Pohlheim was as strong as he had been all week as Alberich, and his scene with Hagen was presented well as he appeared from behind his son’s chair and gripped his shoulders.
Opera North’s Der Ring des Nibelungen has been an immense success, and Peter Mumford’s approach to semi-staging it highly effective. By having soloists acting out their parts to the full, only facing the audience, they were able to present facets to their characters that could not have been shown if they had interacted directly with other figures. The act of semi-staging the work also paradoxically provided more scope to place scenes in their original settings. This is because portraying Siegmund and Sieglinde fleeing through the night across a mountain ridge did not require lavish sets, but rather a short scene description and a few supporting images. In fact, as the week wore on we noticed the images less and less (although the vision of water smashing through fire during the Immolation Scene left an impression), and this was a good thing. Had they been more obtrusive they would not have been serving their purpose, but with them appearing on three large screens behind the stage everyone would have noticed that there was an element missing had such visual support been absent.
The scene descriptions, taken from The Story of the Ring by Michael Birkett, that appeared on the screens alongside the surtitles also aided clarity, although the fact that they told the story in the perfect tense was not ideal. It made us feel as if we were witnessing events that had happened a long time ago, when it is much easier to be moved when we can believe that what we see is occurring in that very moment. Still, attempting to alter the narration to put everything in the present tense would probably have created more problems than it solved.
The two real heroes of the week were conductor Richard Farnes and Kelly Cae Hogan who sang Brünnhilde for the entire cycle. In her highly committed performances she proved a revelation, her voice being sumptuous and full, and her vibrant tones offsetting an almost metallic edge to her sound. The Orchestra of Opera North played extremely well and, in relative terms, introduced quite a light sound that enabled us to engage with all of the orchestral lines. This may have been partly attributable to the fact that the orchestra was onstage, making the sound feel less ‘pre-mixed’ than it would have done coming from any pit, let alone Bayreuth’s. However, this does not mean that the Immolation Scene had any less impact than usual, and while we should never see Opera North’s sound as a substitute for that which can be generated in the Festspielhaus, we should view it as a genuine alternative that can offer different things to the listener. There is now only one further venue in which to enjoy this Der Ring des Nibelungen, but even if a trip to the Sage Gateshead is not possible the performances can be enjoyed by tuning in to BBC Radio 3.
Opera North’s Ring Cycle now heads to the Sage Gateshead where Das Rheingold will be performed on 5 July, Die Walküre on 6 July, Siegfried on 8 July and Götterdämmerung on 10 July. These performances will also be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 with each then becoming available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days.