At the end of Opera North’s first performance of Das Rheingold, conductor Richard Farnes singled out the orchestra section by section (horns and Wagner tubas inevitably, rightly, first) for applause before calling on the singers. Such a reversal of the normal operatic order was entirely appropriate, not only because he had just led a hugely impressive orchestral performance of great balance, intensity and dynamic range, but also because of the concept of the Opera North Ring Cycle.
As with many an opera company, Opera North is building the cycle over four years. Das Rheingold, simply a “preliminary evening” though running two and a half hours without interval, gives the background to the dysfunctional family in Valhalla and their uneasy relationship with the Ring of the Nibelungs which was fashioned for Alberich from the gold he stole from the Rhine-maidens. Already, by the end of Das Rheingold, it has caused one murder; worse, of course, is to follow.
What is different about Opera North’s production is that it is semi-staged. A fully staged Ring Cycle is a near-impossibility, financially and logistically, for a medium-sized company touring to medium-sized theatres. Scottish Opera’s 2003 cycle was a magnificent achievement, but the three full cycles in only two theatres (if my memory is accurate) helped to push the company to the brink of financial melt-down. With Peter Mumford in charge of the visuals, Opera North has opted for a huge orchestra banked up below screens with impressionist images and rather poetic narrative (by Michael Birkett), an effectively dramatic lighting plot, simple identifying costumes and enough acting to realise the emotions of the music.
All of the admirably committed Opera North cast are adept at conveying character by gesture and expression and the semi-staging works well for anyone not seeking an 'interpretation'. Outstanding are Nicholas Folwell, who brings vivid singing and characterisation (and a wealth of experience) to the role of Alberich, and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke whose sneeringly cynical Loge is equally precise vocally and in gesture. Yvonne Howard’s Fricka and Giselle Allen’s Freia are both convincingly human and sung with affecting intensity. A strong American contingent includes James Creswell’s sonorous Fasolt and Gregory Frank’s dangerously unpredictable Fafner, plus Richard Roberts making much of little as Mime. Michael Druiett, Donner in the Scottish Opera cycle, is initially more lyrical than heroic, husbanding his resources to save something for his confrontation with the giants, and maintains an oddly human dignity even at his least admirable.
So there is much to look forward to in next year’s Die Walkure. Unusually, there are no carry-overs in casting, but the key elements in the success of Das Rheingold, conductor and orchestra, will, of course, still be in place.