Posted July 08, 2014
Posted July 8, 2014
A semi-staged performance of Gotterdammerung is available on BBC3’s replay till July 14, 2014. Allwyn Mellor sings the role of Brunnhilde.
Lords of the Ring
Opera North’s bold semi-staging of Götterdämmerung has star quality
Hugh Canning Published: 29 June 2014
How is it possible that Opera North’s “concert staging” of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung — the final instalment of a Ring that will be repeated in cycles, budgets willing, in 2016 — is as overwhelming an experience as Daniel Barenboim’s Berlin Staatsoper performance at last summer’s Proms? The short answer is: Richard Farnes.
I am not claiming that Opera North’s music director, 50 this year, is as great a Wagnerian as the hugely experienced Barenboim, who has been conducting the Ring — as well as the other “Bayreuth” Wagner operas — for the best part of three decades. But in certain respects, their achievements are comparable. Conducting Wagner’s climactic Ring drama for the first time in public, Farnes has nurtured his ON band, which had never played the Ring before, into a Wagner orchestra to be reckoned with, alert to all the dynamic and expressive details of the score.
There are other factors, of course: I heard ON’s Götterdämmerung not on their home turf, Leeds Town Hall, but at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, arguably the UK concert venue with the most “alive” acoustic — infinitely preferable to hearing this music at the Royal Albert Hall, however wonderfully played or sung.
When the ON Ring was announced five years ago, I was disappointed that it would not be a full scenic presentation. But Farnes’s decision to semi-stage it in concert, with Peter Mumford responsible for staging, design concept, lighting and projections — discreet footage of flowing water for the Rhine, flickering flames for Brünnhilde’s rock — has been thoroughly vindicated. Performing in theatres would have involved musical compromise (the orchestra is augmented to full Wagnerian strength for these performances), and it is doubtful that the company could have cast the opera as strongly if weeks of stage rehearsals had been required.
The great orchestral passages — the preludes to each of the three mighty acts, Siegfried’s Act I Rhine Journey and his Act III Funeral March — are miraculously well played, and the evenness of the vocal casting outclasses even Barenboim’s far better endowed Staatsoper. That’s not to say that Alwyn Mellor is a superior Brünnhilde to Nina Stemme. They are quite different, in fact: the British soprano is more Italianate in style, as Wagner himself would surely have enjoyed, but is less secure at the top of Brünnhilde’s range (Bs and Cs here). She sings beautifully throughout, without forcing her big lyric soprano or blurring the words. This is her finest achievement to date — in my presence at least — and she crowns it with a rapt Immolation Scene, justly cheered to the rafters at her solo bow.
To have a Siegfried of almost equal vocal allure is almost unthinkable, but the sturdy Estonian tenor Mati Turi is a Heldentenor unlike any other I have heard before the public today. Darkly baritonal, yet fearless at the top, he flicks at the high Cs. Nearby Longborough Opera should take credit for spotting these singers’ Wagnerian potential in the run-up to its 2013 staged Ring, but the rest of ON’s casting is consistently effective, with Mats Almgren’s baleful, foghorn-voiced Hagen, Eric Greene’s dashingly charismatic Gunther and Jo Pohlheim’s stentorian, evil-looking Alberich. The trio of Norns (Fiona Kimm, Heather Shipp, Lee Bisset) and the Rhinemaidens (Katherine Broderick, Madeleine Shaw, Sarah Castle) were coached by a former Brünnhilde, Anne Evans (her Wotan, John Tomlinson, worked with the men), and her trademarks — attention to dynamics, long lyrical lines, crystalline diction — are all over their singing.
The dramatic highlight of the evening, however, was undoubtedly the scene in which the Valkyrie Waltraute begs her sister to save the Götter from their Dämmerung by returning the Ring to the Rhinemaidens. Susan Bickley brought tears to the eyes with her moving description of Wotan’s solitary, forlorn existence in Valhalla as he awaits the gods’ demise. She seemed to inspire Mellor to her most gripping singing of the evening — a staggering performance.
The image on this page is by the late Cal Pedranti who was an artist and a long-time member of the Wagner Society of Northern California.