Well, I’m certainly no better disposed towards the aggravating and plainly unnecessary literary glosses that pop up with monotonous regularity on the screens during all of the (depressingly numerous) passages when this concert presentation either can’t or won’t show us what’s supposed to be happening scenically at the time. After the opening half-an-hour of back-story already embedded in the sung – and far-too freely translated – text of Act I, no sooner has Hunding gone off leaving Siegmund alone than the Godforsaken intertitles get going again, telling us, just in case we either couldn’t see, weren’t paying proper attention thus far, or suffer from brain-damage, that “Siegmund slumped, exhausted, and weaponless. Then he remembered something his father had told him”. And so on and so on, mentioning the sword in the tree and ending with the epoch-makingly bathetic banality of “Surely this was the hour!” This isn’t a guide, it’s glutinous garbage, and since yesterday I’ve discovered by a perusal of the (very) small print in the cast-sheet that the “textual material used in the projection sequences [is] taken from “The Story of the Ring” by Michael Birkett, by kind permission of the author”. He would in my view have done us all a much greater kindness by withholding it, as would this cycle’s progenitor Peter Mumford by not wanting to include it in the first place.
And again, the latter’s projections are poorly shot and miserably badly executed, often occluded by light pollution from the orchestra’s lamp-lit desks, and with endless looped repetitions of the same ripples of water, driftings of cloud, and surfaces of rock and wood, usually just with a central image and the outer left and right ones no more than right-to-left reversals of each other. He’s also got a tin eye for the pictorial mot juste, well enough encapsulated by his decision to launch Act III and its Walkürenritt with out-of-focus, slow-motion, close-up images of, er, eagles wheeling around ad nauseam, rather than the specified horses laden with warriors. Speaking of “out-of-focus”, I’ve lost count of the people I’ve overheard complaining to the house management and FOH staff about the actual surtitles’ nigh-on illegibility for whole tracts of the opera, when what are in any case very blurry letters indeed (I’m close enough in the Stalls to see just how poorly the actual font is formed) are fuzzily projected in white – of all things – onto off-white backgrounds. There is also the fact that, in quiet musical sequences (in which this score abounds), all you can hear is the high-pitched whirr and whine of the special coloured spotlights they’ve stuck up in the acoustic canopy’s lighting rig, where the cooling fans and the motors that move them are all too damagingly audible. And still for some reason, so I’m informed, this wretched mish-mash, neither-one-thing-nor-the-other presentation has been universally acclaimed. Truly, the inmates have taken over the asylum.
Meanwhile, on the musical front, I have to say that Richard Farnes and his orchestra engaged with this score far more purposefully and positively than they did with last night’s slightly subfusc opener. He trudges a bit dutifully through the Act I prelude – which benefits either from being taken rather slower with much greater bass bite and menace, or faster with more sense of flailing hysteria – but thereafter a sure sense of command began to emerge, and the playing rose by several notches, so that Act III, which I last heard played live in the theatre by the Met band under Levine (with Kaufmann as Siegmund, and Terfel as Wotan) was as near as dammit on a comparable level, no mean achievement (and certainly better than the ROH’s last outing under Pappano). Of course, where both Covent Garden and the Met score is in their conjoint casting of Terfel as all three Wotans, whereas Opera North has to resort to the expedient of fielding three different ones, neither of the first two of which I have to say strike me as quite what’s wanted. If Michael Druiett yesterday lacked both scale and focus in the role, it would be only fair to say that today’s Robert Hayward has plenty of both. He’s also a better stage performer, and might – properly costumed and propertied with his spear – make a perfectly valid theatrical impression. But more-or-less stranded, as here, on a three-foot deep strip of stage, without any of the necessary accoutrements – he’s supposed to be one-eyed, Mr. Mumford – and almost wholly denied physical interaction with those with whom he engages in lengthy dialogue (Fricka, Brünnhilde) the poor man looks a bit lost, and we’re willy-nilly forced to concentrate on the only thing he can do under these circumstances, which is sing. Alas, the voice is prone to a kind of pitch-blurring and all-pervasive throb that at times verges on a judder, and which renders the juicier lyric outpourings such as “Der Augen leuchtendes Paar” in Act III (after he’s softened to Brünnhilde’s entreaties) as rather grey and gruff, rather than warm and caressing. But there we are: there aren’t many Terfels to go round, and Hayward certainly never once stints himself in giving everything he’s got. The long Act II narration was compellingly delivered, if without much sense of deeply-felt anguish à la Terfel, or indeed Norman Bailey’s unique ability (in my experience) of starting out virtually inaudibly and treating the whole sequence as one vast, terrifying crescendo. I just wish I liked Hayward’s voice more.
His nine stage daughters were, on balance, the most formidable array of sopranos and mezzos I’ve ever heard assembled in one performance. The eight Walküren were almost without exception individually excellent: put together they were sensational, as you might expect given that Katherine Broderick was Helmwige – she who gets to sing the same Bs and Cs’ capped “Ho-jo-to-ho”s as Brünnhilde in Act II – and Giselle Allen, Gerhilde. Ensemble passages involving them all that invariably come to grief in the vast majority of live performances here passed off with almost defiantly insouciant ease (not so much the art that conceals art as that which bespeaks endless rehearsal and preparation). And then there was Kelly Cae Hogan as Brünnhilde, the first I’ve heard since Lisa Gasteen who can replicate Rita Hunter’s legendary ability to nail her opening battle cry absolutely cleanly, the Bs and Cs perfectly placed and sounded out, without the merest trace of the pitiably comic “whoopsing” scoops and yowls in the general direction thereof we usually get to hear. She was very unflatteringly costumed, like all the women – except Yvonne Howard’s soignée Fricka – in a rather too clingy and ill-proportioned black evening gown, indecorously slashed (in poor Sieglinde’s case right up the front) and blurring all distinctions of rank or even race (Brünnhilde is a junior warrior goddess, Sieglinde a hut-dwelling peasant human). But somehow Ms. Hogan managed to overcome pretty much everything that this unhelpful “staging” throws in her direction – even including the director’s bizarre obsession with treating all the intimate dialogues between two people as solos delivered thirty feet apart out to the audience rather than in proximity to each other – and crowned her performance with a thoroughly involving, plumb-in-tune account of Brünnhilde’s defence.
Yvonne Howard got to the heart of Fricka’s poisonous Act II encounter with her errant husband – given when this was written, in the early 1850s, isn’t this scene the most astonishingly Strindbergian avant-la-lettre dissection of a bad marriage? – and though I’ve certainly heard the role more sumptuously sung (by Stephanie Blythe in New York, for one) none got closer to the drama, though even here, yet again, the ill-judged “staging” forbids the character from doing what all Frickas ought to when saying to Wotan “Sieh mir ins Auge!” and grabbing his jaw to turn his face to hers, since they’re here 30 feet apart at the time. God, “directors”! Can’t live with them, can’t kill them. (Yet.)
Lee Bisset’s Sieglinde was good, reminding me very much of Eva-Maria Westbroek in the role, with the same sympathetic innate dramatic response and vulnerability, as well as, alas, some of the same heavy throb in the tone, which sounds alarm bells for me in someone so relatively still youthful. But unlike Westbroek, the tone shows no sign of spreading any further above the stave, so perhaps this is simply how her voice is. It’s used with assurance and a fair amount of spinto gleam, and if I wouldn’t in the last resort call it attractive, exactly, it’s certainly womanly and thoroughly effective, and she was quite rapturously received at the curtain call, to her evident delight and genuine surprise. James Cresswell, whom I’ve decided should throw repertoire caution to the winds and start learning Wotan himself soonest, sang an exemplary Hunding, brutish and nasty, an amazing achievement for such an inherently beautiful, and beautifully produced, voice.
But as ever, I save the best until last. As I mentioned above, the last Siegmund I caught live was Kaufmann, from which you could intuit that I’ve heard the best we currently have (and given that decades ago I heard Vickers in the role, I’ve heard the best that existed back then as well). So I wasn’t expecting too much by way of vocal excellence from a singer I confess to not having encountered before, Michael Weinius. Since he is of, shall we say, generous proportions and in his mid-40s, his entrance – like everybody else, in preposterous black evening dress (albeit tie-less) – aroused no great hopes. And then he started to sing. Well, people, that is a voice. Tireless, with perfectly even emission, flawless sense of pitch and a really silvery (as opposed to baritonal) Heldentenor-ish ring to it, he reminded me of the sound that Simon O’Neill used to make when he first emerged, but without the pinched nasality at the top. That, trust me, is a winning combination. And despite not much visual verisimilitude for the role of Siegmund, it transpires that not only can he sing fabulously well, he can actually act too, and did so, quite remarkably movingly. Sometimes you just have to wait until your luck coincides with your talent: on this basis, I’d say that Mr.Weinius’ time has finally come (as, in many ways, has Ms. Hogan’s too). Lucky them. Lucky us.
All this lifts the rating for the musical side of things to 4½*
The “staging” however remains where it belongs: 0*
Stephen Jay-Taylor © 2016