Die Walküre at Opera North

24 Jun

My mother is a Ring novice.  She had been with me to the Opera North Rheingold last year and loved it.  This year, before going to Wallküre, we watched the DVD of the Chéreau Rheingold to remind her of the plot.  I hadn’t seen this before, though obviously I knew it by reputation.

I enjoyed it but was interested how, in lots of ways, it seemed almost old hat.  In 1976 it was fairly revolutionary for gods to be explicitly human and for a link to political theory and 19th century history to be made.  Now we’re used to it.  We also expect the level of detailed acting and the sense of liberation that you get when the character shrug off the traditional sort of costumes that you don’t believe anybody ever wore.  The singing and acting is really fine.  Indeed, I suppose the one thing that still strikes me as controversial are Boulez’s tempi – fast and I can understand why people feel they undercut the magnifiicence of the music – but shouldn’t we be questioning that, given what’s going on in front of us?

I wanted to write a bit about that because of the contrast that it provided with the Walküre, that we saw at the Sage in Gateshead the following evening (23rd June).  For those who don’t know, the Opera North Ring is a “concert staging”.  The action takes place in front of the orchestra with the singers in evening dress.  Behind the orchestra there are various projections intended to give some sort of background, together with a bit of narrative and the translation of the text.

Crucially, the singers have learned their roles and have been strongly directed. And decisions have been taken about what they do.  They sing straight out to the audience.  It is very rare for them to address each other directly, but they do obviously listen and react.  And because there are no props and this is a concert, there is no need to have elaborately staged fights.  At the end of Act II, Wotan gestured to the audience and Hunding simply crossed his arms as if in death and stood stock still before walking slowly away.  The fact that it was not a full staging allowed a simple, very satisfactory approach to a scene that so often looks a mess on the stage – there is a lot of music to cover not very much action.

There were some things missing.that you would get from a full staging. You don’t have the opportunity for the incredible opening image of the hydro-electric dam of the Chéreau Rheingold or, thinking of the Warner Royal Opera House production, of Wotan at the begnning of Act III of Siegfried desperately struggling against the storm.  The projections, of forests, water, rock and fire, provide fairly neutral backgrounds and don’t provide particularly thought provoking images.  The emotions are internalised and so you miss the opportunities that a staging might provide for Siegmund and Sieglinde to demonstrate their attraction to each other.

It enables you to concentrate on the text: the translations are readily and easily readable and, because there is less happening between the performers you can engage with those more easily. This can be a mixed blessing.  I’ve never been able to follow the Wotan/Fricka dialogue so closely and ditto Wotan’s narration to Brünnhilde, but, equally, I didn’t find that this helped me resolve those nagging questions like: “what are these treaties that bind Wotan?” “Why will letting Siegmund live mean the end of the gods”, as Fricka argues, and “How exactly is this superhero going to save the gods from Alberich?”.  In fact, I found these questions were accentuated and the dissatisfaction that I always feel with this aspect of the Ringincreased.  And where in the past I have felt that this may just be a result of my own intellectual inadequacy, I’m now pretty sure that it’s Wagner’s fault.  I’m also not sure that it really matters.

Anyway, my mother came out feeling that what she had seen was as good as any staging could have been and loving the way it enabled her to concentrate on the music.  I saw what she meant and there was no question that, as a performance, this was infinitely preferable to the Mariinsky version at the ROH a few years ago and also confirmed my view that there is nothing wrong with the ROH’s own production which halving the design budget couldn’t have solved.

The performances demonstrated what a fine orcehstra Opera North has, how intelligent a conductor Richard Farnes is and that you didn’t have to make allowances.  Alwyn Mellor was a beautiful Sieglinde and made me wonder why she isn’t used much more often in glossier houses.  Annalena Persson has the looks and intellgence for Brünnhilde and a large steely voice that works well in the earlier parts.  Erik Nelson Werner sounded marvellous as Siegmund in the first act – a really beefy, free heldentenor – but sounded tired in the second.  Béla Perencz seemed a tad under-powered for Wotan in the second act but was clearly saving his power for the third act where he produced a stream of untiring sound where many Wotans tire.  If anything, he could have been a bit more subtle there.  His voice doesn’t have the nobiliy of, say, Bailey or Terfel, but if I were an opera house manager, I’d be signing him up for Pizarro and Telramund straight away.  Katerina Karnéus was determined, beautifully sung Fricka and Clive Bayley an ideally black Hunding.  The Valkyries were strong.

Above all, there was a sense of sitting in an audience that was hungry for Wagner, that was engaging with the singers and the story and who did not for a moment feel they were being short-changed by this concert staging.  I don’t think that they were and it confirmed my admiration for the way in which Opera North turns its limitations into strengths and can produce an intensely satisfying experience.

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