Mastodon Das Rheingold, Opera North, Review Summary - The Wagnerian

Das Rheingold, Opera North, Review Summary

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday, 21 June 2011 | 8:17:00 pm

Yes, it's that time again, talentless hacks with the inability to produce anything of their own (myself included on occasion), have been sitting in the best seats (while getting paid to do it to boot. Well all but me at least) and casting their judgement on something they couldn't dream of doing themselves - Nero like. But no simple thumbs up or down here. No, instead 1 to 5 stars and  a little, one hopes, elegant and witty prose to go with them. 

I jest of course, critics have tried to save me a few bob in the past by warning me of terrible productions. Of course I normally ignore them, based on the fact they were "only" critics, and wasted my money anyway - but such is life. However, as I have said before, any appraisal  is as subjective as any other  form of sense processing. And with that in mind I always look for the commonalities in reviews. When two or three people find  the same things then there is likely to be some truth in them to most, if not all, of us.  So, with that in mind let us look at the votes returned - unspoilt - so far.

Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Leeds Town Hall, Jun 18


Yes, I know it's "billed" as a concert performance but it seems Opera North have pulled in some sort of overall image for the "costumes"; done some fancy stuff with the lighting;  used three large video screens for effects and directed the vocal talent to act  (the last of which is something that can be a struggle to achive in fully staged productions with some performers). Indeed, designer Peter Mumford, has done enough for Ron Simpson at "Whats On Stage" to consider this production "semi-staged". But does this semi-staging "work"? I have seen enough to know that this is not always the case.

But no, everything is not only ok but it works wonderfully, says Graham Rickson at The Arts Desk:"
"Three large video screens are suspended above the orchestra platform and the singers do much more than just enter, stand up straight and deliver. You forget that you're in Leeds on a Saturday night, so engaging is the effect, and only occasionally do you notice the presence of more than 100 grinning musicians sitting behind the cast, visibly delighted at just how well the whole thing works. Wagner performances can feel a little like solemn religious experiences. There's a fair bit of sly wit in this Rheingold, and there were several moments where you wanted the capacity audience to loosen up a little and smile as much as they jumped at the thunderclap before the entry into Valhalla".
He goes on:
"Mumford's screens are deployed for narration and scene-setting, making use of classy, ambient images of mountains, rippling water or molten metal. There's effective, unobtrusive lighting, as in the warm yellows which cover the Rhinemaidens when the sun strikes the gold, or the brilliant white light into which Alberich is dragged, blinking, after he's been captured. Mumford's gods look and behave like an upper-class dysfunctional family and it's hard to feel much pity for Michael Druiett's world-weary Wotan as he tries to wriggle out of his property-related deal with the giants Fasolt and Fafner, both stiff, sinister figures in immaculate grey suits wanting immediate payment for having built Valhalla."
 However, remember our comment about no two people perceiving things in the same way? All that nonsense (no pun intended) about subjective sense perception? Well, just as if to prove there is work for research psycholgists the breadth and width of universities everywhere, along comes Rupert Christiansen at the Telegraph:
"My only reservation relates to Peter Mumford’s rather feeble attempt to provide a rudimentary mise-en-scène. A little lighting does no harm, but the three screens above the platform offering video of rippling water, volcanic sludge and snow-covered mountain-tops verged on the naff.
Nor am I persuaded it is good idea to add to the surtitles once-upon-a-time passages from Michael Birkett’s well-meaning attempt to re-tell the Ring saga as a kiddies’ bedtime story: it underestimates both the audience’s intelligence and Wagner’s dramatic skill."
How can two people find things so different in a production?.  Ok, so lets look to our third critic to settle the matter - two out of three wins it? Enter Ron Simpson at Whats On Stage:
"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".
Settled!. It seems the trophy, rather than the slow walk home, does indeed go to Peter Mumford's vision.

Next to the lions goes the cast.


Despite his reservations about the design, Rupert Christiansen, was highly impressed not only by the cast but the coaching of Dame Anne Evans and Martin Pickard:

"... its casting was exceptionally canny. A team without weakness had been assembled, and coaching led by the great Wagnerian soprano Dame Anne Evans and Martin Pickard meant that everything was sung accurately and cleanly, without barking or shouting. The German enunciation was noticeably above the usual standard, too."
And what about individual memebers of the cast Mr Christian? Any worth singling out?
"An enchanting trio of Rhinemaidens got things off to a sparkling start. Michael Drueitt made an authoritative Wotan, with just the right hint of pomposity, in sharp contrast to Yvonne Howard’s cool and elegant Fricka. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was a sly, crisp Loge, Nicholas Folwell a lightweight but effective Alberich. James Creswell’s imposing Fasolt bodes well for his Dutchman at ENO next season."
All good so far but what does Graham Rickson at the Arts Desk have to say:
"Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke's Loge steals the evening; it's his dubious advice which has led to Wotan's problems, and Ablinger-Sperrhacke is compelling to watch, with his virtuoso display of shifty body language, fussy hand gestures and insincere facial expressions. The biggest cheers of the evening deservedly went to Nicholas Folwell's Alberich, a charismatic pantomime villain inviting both sympathy and scorn, especially during his scenes with Richard Roberts's wretched Mime, a perfect physical match for Folwell. There's a lovely moment when Alberich is carried by Wotan and Loge, his body contorted and wriggling frantically like a small child being dragged furiously to bed.
For the female characters in Das Rheingold there's less to do once the Rhinemaidens have lost their gold, but Yvonne Howard impresses as Fricka and Andrea Baker as Erda makes time stand still during her brief scene."
Wow! Not a bad note in the house it would seem. Based on our two out of three rule the cast wins also, but lets still check-out our third reviewer Ron Simpson, of Whats On Stage:
"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"
Sounds good. Again, anyone you would point out for special mention Mr Simpson?
"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."
Thanks for that - just what we were looking for.

Orchestra and conductor:

And finally to the orchestra and conductor. I think, as you may have guessed by now, things are looking favourably on both:

Robert Rupert Christiansen pointed out that the night had been an outstanding success with rapturous applause from the audience at the end. And the main responsibility resides with?
"The chief medium of this alchemy was the conductor Richard Farnes, relatively new to this repertory but already a master of its narrative ebb and flow. The pace never dragged, and the entry of the giants, the descent into Nibelheim and the march into Valhalla provided thrilling climaxes.

The resonant acoustic may have flattered the orchestral sound, rounding out the string tone and beefing up the brass, but the playing was always alert and sensitive."

And The Arts Desk - anything to say?
"Richard Farnes's inspirational conducting is perfectly paced and he's not afraid to let his augmented forces let rip and fill the hall with sound, whether it's with 10 clanking anvils, six harps or contrabass trombone. It's skilfully balanced, and the singers are never overwhelmed.
Oh he also points out as a matter of interest: "
 "For the record, the blood-curdling scream of the Nibelungs is, in fact, a chorus of Leeds schoolchildren"
Love it! and now last but not least Ron Simpson at Whats On Stage:
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.
High praise indeed. There is still time to catch this performance - details at Opera North. Don't miss it would seem to be the conclusion..

But, let me leave you with a few final comments about the performance overall - just in case you are still undecided (To find out who-said-what, read the full reviews by following the links below (well except for the Times who want to charge you to read the full review - that one I will cite):
Beg, borrow or be like Wotan and steal a ticket for this show as it tours the northern England. And if you miss out, make sure you catch the rest of Opera North's Ring as it unfolds over the next four years"
"Even more admirable is the quality of the performance. Farnes has done many fine things at Opera North, but his pacing of this 150-minute sweep of music, his care about balance...and the sumptuousness of the orchestral textures - all this constitutes a massive achievement." Richard Morrison, The Times
...the massive applause that erupted at the performance’s end proved that yet again Wagner has worked his magic as both composer and storyteller.
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.
This is a long evening with no interval, but it flies by.
There was a distinct air of trepidation outside Leeds Town Hall as the audience gathered for the first leg in Opera North’s four-year project to mount the Ring cycle in concert form: running at two-and-a-half uninterrupted hours without the visual distraction of scenery or costumes, would Das Rheingold prove more penance than pleasure?  
The answer came emphatically no: the massive applause that erupted at the performance’s end proved that yet again Wagner had worked his magic as both composer and storyteller


I thought the Guardian was this weeks "also rans" but it seems they were simply slow off the mark. Perhaps Tim Ashley couldn't get a signal on his Ipad tilll he got to London and thus he was late submitting his review? Maybe he left his Blackberry in Leeds? Maybe he was simply overwhelmed by the performance and couldn't write for a while? Who knows, but better late-than-never, here is his review, in summary form:

"Images of water, mountains and molten metal are projected on screens above the orchestra, which also carry summaries of the plot drawn from Michael Birkett's The Story of the Ring. They sometimes prove distracting, though telling references to "middle earth" remind us of the often controversial similarities between Wagner and Tolkien.
Peter Mumford's semi-staging is strong on psychological interaction and moral probing..."
"...we're acutely conscious of how Nicholas Folwell's unusually empathetic Alberich and Michael Druiett's arrogant, if overly rigid Wotan are linked by greed and self-deception. Yvonne Howard is the classy, very manipulative Fricka, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke the camp, sinister Loge"
Orchestra and conductor:
"Much of its success is due to conductor Richard Farnes, who is meticulous as to detail, though he also has a tremendous sense of the ebb and flow of Wagner's vast musical paragraphs. The orchestra play as if inspired, and with an accuracy that often surpasses some ensembles that are ostensibly more familiar with this music"