Opera North Rheingold

6 Jul

The final complete cycle of Opera North’s much-praised Ring began at the Sage in Gateshead on 5th July.  It’s four years since my last complete Ring and it was high time for another.  On the evidence of this Rheingold it’s not going to be a disappointing week.

I often find Rheingold the hardest work of the four: it’s like a play: political, with dialogues and none of the lyrical love duets or vast monologues of the other operas.  It’s easy to feel, sometimes, that Wagner takes rather a long time as characters circle round each other and use that “hard will you find it O crafty but credulous god/nibelung/giant” formulation before actually getting to the point, while nothing that interesting happens in the music while they’re at it.  In a good performance, however, the politics and the tensions between the characters are fascinating and you begin to pick up the parallels with the sorts of political dilemmas between justice and self-interest, of emotion and intellect that are crucial to the cycle.

Opera North’s approach – an acted concert with images projected on huge screens together with surtitles and a very slightly arch narrative – gives you the essence of the piece and rather more.  The acting and characterisation is as good as you’d get in a full staging.  The closeness of the singers to the audience allows you to savour the words and see the expressions: it’s immediate, you’re not distracted by the additions that most directors feel they need to add and you can form your own ideas from the words and music.

So at this performance, I became aware of the fractured Wotan/Fricka relationship in a way that I’d never quite got before, together with that tension between the gods over how you treat the giants.  And, of course, the more I hear the score, the more I get the interplay of leitmotivs.

There are disadvantages.  There are times when you long for a stronger visual representation of Valhalla, of the Rhine, of the Rainbow bridge, where you would just like more space and more physicality about the performances and a a more concrete interpretation.

And it’s important to be honest that this isn’t a perfect performance.  The orchestral playing had its share of fluffs, the singers aren’t world class.  This Ring is limited by resources and by space.  What isn’t limited is the imagination and enthusiasm and these overcome any doubts.

Richard Farnes is central to this.  He has the orchestra expertly drilled and it makes a thrilling sound.  Those huge climaxes, the details sound glorious.  He paces the climaxes superbly and the playing and consideration to the singers helps you concentrate.  I was never bored or found my mind wandering.  The orchestra doesn’t disappoint.

And it’s a pretty good cast.  Only Michael Druiett makes a vocally dull Wotan, at the limits of his range and without the nobility of sound and sheer arrogance that you ideally want from a Wotan.  He manages, he’s acceptable, but I wanted a little more.

Otherwise, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacker is an outstanding, I would say world-class, Loge.  He seizes the dramatic opportunities, creating a cynical, dislikeable, but also sympathetic character.  His clear tenor sounds perfect for the role.  I loved the way he gentle played with the red handkerchief, representing the dead Fasolt, at the end.  Here was a Loge completely in control.

Jo Pohlheim was a powerful, clear Alberich.  Maybe I’d have liked a bit more intensity in the curse but he caught the craving for power and wealth and the hatred of the gods. Richard Roberts made a clear, servile Mime.

The other gods were strong: Yvonne Howard’s sensible, rather sad Fricka, Giselle Allen’s gorgeously sung, frightened Freia – personally, I wouldn’t have let Wotan near my golden apples after that experience.  Mark le Brocq and Andrew Foster-Williams were fine as Froh and Donner.  Perhaps I could do with a slightly darker, firmer mezzo than Ceri Williams’s for Erda, but she knew absolutely what her episode was about.

James Creswell made a clear, almost sympathetic Fasolt and Mats Almgren an ideally dark Fafner – the by-play between the two was marvellously clear and perhaps the only way in which costumes and a full staging might have helped could have been to accentuate the fact that the giants are, surely, rather terrifyingly powerful and have a strength that the gods just don’t.  Good, strong Rhinemaidens too.

A really good start.




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