To play (or listen to) the entire Ring Cycle within just a few days is exhausting – but to repeat that experience six times in just four months represents an effort that is nothing short of stupendous. This is what Opera North and its Musical Director Richard Farnes have achieved. In the four months since April they have travelled to Leeds, Nottingham, Manchester and London, and played to none less than HRH The Duke of Kent. The performances in Gateshead bring this unique undertaking to a close, and will no doubt cause mixed feelings among the musicians as they play the final chords. To add to the poignancy of the occasion, these performances mark the end of Richard Farnes’ time with Opera North, as he leaves them after 12 years of musical collaboration.
The first thing that struck me about this production was the size of the orchestra, which completely filled the not-exactly-tiny stage. Above the orchestra were three screens, presumably for the subtitles. I wondered if the screens might also provide a narrative aid to the performance, especially as the actors would have limited space on stage, and virtually no props. However, the visual footage shown was more atmospheric, complementing the mood of the music rather than describing it. Among the flickering images were trees, flames, flowing water, mountains wreathed in mist, and birds swooping chaotically through the air. These natural elements contrasted with the man- (or god-) made elements of society and morality that were being sung about, and highlighted the fundamental conflict between man and nature that runs throughout Die Walküre. The overall effect was reminiscent of Expressionist film – and the screens provided an additional practical advantage of allowing the subtitles to be integrated into the performance with a minimum of distraction.
To say that the singers themselves gave a thrilling performance would be an understatement: with less scope for physical acting, they used facial expressions, body language and gestures to convey emotion. The reduced movement on a limited stage emphasised the opera’s psychological reality, which was augmented by the vague yet suggestive imagery on the screens. Instead of facing each other, the performers behaved as if standing opposite each other, and moved in response to each other, but faced the audience directly. This generated an extraordinary sense of intimacy that I have never experienced at the opera before. It seemed that the absence of scenery and props placed the focus on internal drama, and made it possible to feel the power and emotional intensity at a different, heightened level. The raw emotion when Siegfried and Hunding are fighting is palpable; crackling tension fills the room when Siegfried and Brünnhilde argue about his forthcoming death. The moment when Wotan pulls out Hunding’s heart (or soul?) with a single gesture is stark and intense.
For me, among the highlights of the performance were the astonishing power of Lee Bisset’s voice as she played Sieglinde, her vocal range, and the ease with which she soared above the supporting orchestral music. Michael Weinius gave a rather stern and serious performance as Siegmund, but nonetheless managed an endearing ‘chufty badge grin’ upon winning Sieglinde as his beloved. Robert Hayward’s Wotan was masterful and commanding, yet with a delightful touch of humour: he even drew a laugh from the audience by flicking his coat-tails peevishly over a chair after an argument. The energy and vigour of Kelly Cae Hogan’s first entry as Brünnhilde makes her vulnerability after disobeying Wotan all the more moving.
Artistic and musical accomplishment aside, however, the energy exuded by the performers was infectious. Here was an opera company inspired by what they were doing, and giving their all to the music. Fiona Love, violinist with Opera North, described her experience of playing on the tour as “wonderful, joyous, unbelievably rewarding. I can’t think of anything but superlatives to describe it. It has been absolutely exhausting, but worth every minute.” This sentiment was echoed by Daniel Wilcock, Events Co-ordinator for Opera North, who summed up the unique nature of this project: “It’s been absolutely fantastic to be part of such a unique, rare, and stupendously successful production. It’s a once in a lifetime experience, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.” I believe the audience who experienced Opera North’s concert-hall interpretation of Die Walküre would agree with this. For me, the evening was draining, but liberating, and, like Daniel, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
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