Peter Mumford built up Opera North’s Ring Cycle over four years – one opera a year – and I was fortunate enough to review the live performances at the Birmingham Symphony Hall for Musical Opinion. However I never encountered the cycle complete in one week – until now.
Over the Easter holiday we watched the cycle on YouTube and in many ways it is even more impressive than hearing it live.
This is far more than just a semi-staging. The cast are dressed appropriately for their characters and are at the very front of the stage. The full orchestra under Richard Farnes is banked up behind them, and above them are three large screens onto which are projected ambient vistas to reflect the action – fire, water, storm clouds etc – and a running story line, rather than a set of surtitles, which encourage the audience to listen rather than try to follow word for word.
This was the experience in the concert hall. For me, the TV/film experience was even better. The screen was frequently split into six sections. The top, smaller, three covered the conductor in the centre and the orchestra either side. The lower three were for the singers of whom there are rarely more than three protagonists at a time. Where necessary the screen images were bled behind the singers to create added atmosphere, frequently extremely effective – the fire in the immolation scene gradually engulfs Brunnhilde before the Rhine washes over her and Valhalla burns. It is rarely as effective in the theatre.
Then we come to the singers. Wagner took most of his life completing the cycle and managed to write Tristan and Meistersinger between the second and third acts of Siegfried. As a consequence characters develop and where an opera house mounting the cycle will understandably prefer to keep one singer one part, the slow build-up over four years enabled ON to match voices to parts with much more subtlety. One simple example; Wotan changes considerably across the first three operas. Michael Druiett’s young, pushy Rheingold god is clearly headstrong and careless of longer term outcomes, whereas Robert Hayward’s Walkure god is far more troubled and introspective, making his act two scenes with Brunnhilde very moving. Béla Perencz is a gnarled, worldly-wise Wanderer in Siegfried and one who is all too ready to see the end as inevitable and actually welcome.
Of the smaller parts Jeni Bern is a charmingly agile Woodbird, Claudia Huckle a very youthful Erda and Mats Almgren as black a Hagen as one could ask for.
Yet it is the Siegfried and Brunnhilde that were really outstanding. We had met Kelly Cae Hogan as the Walkure Brunnhilde where she certainly made her mark but she really came into her own in Gotterdammerung, radiant in act one, fierce as hell in act two and simply overwhelming in the immolation scene. Alongside her Mati Turi is as totally convincing a Siegfried as one could wish for, with his changes in emotion keenly felt at all times and the voice as heroic as one might wish for. This is a Ring to be proud of – any chance of a DVD!