There are even more corpses on stage at the cataclysmic conclusion of Wagner’s Ring Cycle than an episode of Midsummer Murders. The question arises in a dramatised evening dress concert format of what to do with the singer when his or her character has met a sudden and grisly end. Peter Mumford‘s concept for Opera North doesn’t perhaps find the ideal solution to this vexing question, since the four principal “corpses” slumped in their chairs in front of the orchestra as the music died away looked as though they had simply nodded off.
I make the point in a light-hearted vein. The ultimate strength of Mumford’s direction lies in the convincing interaction of the protagonists and in his ability to coax carefully drawn characterisations from the singers within the confines and formalities of the concert hall. Movement and gestures are even more sensitively nuanced compared to Mumford’s realisation of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and Siegfried, and facial expressions seemed even more telling. The look of shock and anguish on Brünnhilde’sface (after her abduction and enforced marriage to Gunther) the instant that she recognises Siegfried in the Gibichung Hall speaks volumes.
Some singers have clearly grown into Mumford’s concept, although not always in the same roles as previously. Estonian tenor Mati Turi, last year’s Siegfried, although not originally scheduled for Götterdämmerung, has returned triumphantly to his role due to the late withdrawal of Daniel Brenna. I was pleased to have the opportunity to experience the development of Turi’s characterisation. Although his stature to some extent still militates against the projection of youthful vigour, the singer compensates with a smiling expression and boyish gestures in the earlier scenes. One of Turi’s most memorable moments occurs when, disguised by the Tarnhelm as Gunther, Siegfried returns to penetrate the circle of flames depicted on the triptych of video screens above the orchestra to take Brünnhilde as his (Gunther’s) wife. With nothing but a change from smiling face and eyes to downward-turning corners of his mouth and the darkening of the honeyed timbre from the ecstatic love duet into a menacing tone, Turi managed to convey so much meaning. There is a return to the golden honeyed quality and a beautifully sustained high C in the Act lll hunting scene as Siegfried recounts his heroic exploits and love of nature to Gunther and Hagen.
This year’s Brünnhilde, Alwyn Mellor, was the gloriously sung, guilt-ridden Sieglinde in Opera North’s Die Walküre two years ago. Earlier this year she triumphed at Opera North in the “post-Wagnerian” role of the tender-hearted Minnie in Puccini’s La fanciulla del West. Mellor’s Brünnhilde, like her Minnie, combines abundant tenderness with the necessary glint of steel, as well as astonishing vocal stamina, a rich middle register and fearless, laser-like top notes. She is an altogether more human, and for me, a more complete Brünnhilde than either Kelly Cae Hogan or Annalena Persson (the Die WalküreBrünnhildes). The voice deliciously melds with Turi’s Siegfried in the Prologue’s love duet. “Zu neuen Taten”, in which she exhorts Siegfried to new deeds sounds appropriately radiant and heroic. Mellor’s profoundly moving Immolation Scene is not all high-tensile steel but conveys nobility, a serene inner dignity and sense of resignation. Hers is an astonishing portrayal that I feel incredibly lucky to have experienced.
The Swedish bass Mats Almgren as the arch-villain Hagen likewise delivers a performance that I feel lucky to have experienced – but for different reasons. Almgren sangFafner in last year’s Siegfried and was an unforgettably menacing Hunding in an Opera North 25th anniversary gala performance of Act I of Die Walküretwelve years ago. The shaven-headed and saturnine Almgren projects pure manipulative evil, moving his lips into just the hint of a smirk only at the downfall of each of his enemies. His dark, sonorous bass seems to emanate from the depths of Nibelheim; it is a huge voice, but precisely focused. The Act I monologue “Hagen’s watch” oozed with hatred and gloating. Hagen’s father Alberich mournfully reminds his son, in the chilling scene that opens Act ll, “You were bred to hate inexorably, Hagen my son”. In his all too brief ghostly cameo, the splendid German bass Jo Pohlheim‘sAlberich stands behind the sleeping Hagen, his gloved hands protectively around Hagen’s shoulders. Pohlheim colours his equally huge voice with malice and irony. Mumford’s eerie blue lighting of their sinister faces is a masterstroke.
The African-American baritone Eric Greene (Billy Bigelow in O.N’s Carousel in 2012) creates a handsome and charismatic Gunther, Lord of the Gibichung clan. An accomplished singing actor, Greene makes Gunther’s disintegration from deceptively friendly young ruler who has sworn blood brotherhood with Siegfried to weak and broken man almost upsetting to watch. Gunther’s ill-fated sister Gutrune is sung by Orla Boylan who creates a dignified and ultimately heart-rending figure as she pours forth her shock and grief at Siegfried’s death. Susan Bickley as Waltraute is electrifying as she pleads with Brünnhildefor the return of the Ring to the Rhinemaidens. Waltraute’s eloquently delivered narrative “Höre mit Sinn” conveyed both passion and despair. Fiona Kimm, Heather Shipp and Lee Bisset, initially mysteriously veiled, vividly project a sense of impending doom in their animated portrayals as the three Norns.
Katherine Broderick as Woglinde, Madeleine Shaw as Wellgunde and Sarah Castle as Flosshilde – the daughters of the Rhine – are just as mesmerising but more playful and seductive – luxury casting indeed. The 50-strong Chorus of Opera North are positioned high up above the orchestra for their appearance as Gibichung vassals in the Act ll arrival of Gunther and Brünnhilde.Their words are sung with compelling force and razor sharp clarity. The Chorus with the Orchestra of Opera North embellished by off-stage Wagner tubas, horns, trumpets and terrifying-sounding steerhorns (the additional trumpets are in the boxes at either side of the auditorium) create an awesome sonic experience in the spacious acoustic of Leeds Town Hall.
The one “character” constant throughout has of course been the Orchestra of Opera North, led by its music director Richard Farnes. Farnes generates a surge of momentum and urgency from his band of well over a hundred musicians spaced across the stage and upwards to the ornate organ casing. They have worked as hard as Nibelungs and played like gods for these momentous concert hall stagings of the Ring. The translucent quality of Wagner’s closely woven textures was again uppermost in my mind and my ear last Saturday evening; so too was the sheer volume and elemental power of the climactic moments. Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey were exquisitely drawn. Siegfried’s Funeral March was possessed of both grandeur and devastating force; but it felt as though the world was going to end after Brünnhilde’sfinal note as Valhalla crashed and the Rhine overflowed its banks. Everything though ended in glory, redemption and a sense that the world had been cleansed. Farnes lingered lovingly over the final radiant bars as though he could hardly bear to let go of the music. A precious pause of a few seconds followed before the deluge of cheers, bravos, and a standing ovation. This Ring will be the stuff of legend.
Götterdämmerung is sung in German with English surtitles. The production tours to Symphony Hall Birmingham, The Lowry Salford Quays and The Sage Gateshead, before returning to Leeds Town Hall for a final performance on Saturday 12th July.
(Photos by Clive Barda, via the Opera North website)