In the programme for Die Walkure Kara McKechnie writes, “Opera North is making its own unique contribution to the hallowed tradition of Ring interpretations.” Surely it’s a bit much to think in terms of interpretations in a concert staging, yet, if an interpretation can be defined as a new way of looking at, and listening to, Wagner, the word is fully justified.
Staged productions of The Ring often strive to find a setting analogous to Wagner’s original, with political fashion shifting his world view to right or left. The decision to take The Ring to the concert hall was no doubt dictated initially by financial considerations, but conductor Richard Farnes and director/designer Peter Mumford have created a distinctive visual and aural language with a vital and well balanced performance that communicates as vividly with the audience as any staged production.
Of course the concert staging restores primacy to the music. The Orchestra of Opera North, swelled to a size way beyond the Grand Theatre pit, is ranked in tiers behind the soloists, playing with stunning impact, the power and precision impervious to even the Town Hall’s notorious acoustic. A telling example of what is lost and what is gained vocally comes in the Ride of the Valkyries: no equine cavortings, of course, but with the singers lined up across the front of the stage the individual vocal lines come through with unusual clarity to exciting dramatic effect.
A more surprising shift of emphasis places the narrative at the centre of the performance, rather than a certain world-view or political perspective. Peter Mumford’s designs consist of large screens which project images (some abstract, some scenic such as a rocky mountain top) along with narrative explanation and surtitles. The story is clear and the mythic elements dominate.
With movement at a minimum, vocal characterisation is all-important. Erik Nelson Werner (Siegmund) and Alwyn Mellor (Sieglinde), after a restrained start, communicate with real ardour, even when singing out from opposite sides of the stage, he rather more lyrical than the typical Heldentenor, she exhibiting fearless control and a deepening emotional range. Katarina Karneus’ coldly dominant Fricka and Clive Bayley’s dark-toned Hunding make the most of their single scenes, and Bela Perencz is a dignified, but very human, Wotan, his voice evenly produced throughout the range – and throughout the evening –, his personal agony finally very moving. At the first performance that had no little to do with Kelly Cae Hogan, the American soprano drafted in at 24 hours notice to sing Brunnhilde in place of the indisposed Annalena Persson. And there you have another advantage of concert staging! Despite singing for much of the time from a score, Hogan was excellent: not only in confident voice, but emotionally and dramatically convincing.