tue 26/01/2021

Das Rheingold, Opera North | reviews, news & interviews

Das Rheingold, Opera North

Das Rheingold, Opera North

The orchestra enjoys itself on stage in a thrilling concert production

After years of planning, Opera North's Ring cycle gets under way. The orchestra pit at the Leeds Grand Theatre is too small for Wagner's oversized orchestra. So this is a concert staging, to be repeated in the coming months at The Sage Gateshead, Birmingham's Symphony Hall and The Lowry in Salford. It's really a blessing, meaning that production staff don't have to grapple with Wagner's extravagant stage demands in order to make the impossible appear tangible. What Opera North have done is engage lighting designer Peter Mumford to create a concert staging.

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.

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.

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. The best reason for seeking out this production is the musical direction; a semi-staged performance means that you see and hear a wealth of detail that would go unnoticed in an orchestra pit. 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. For the record, the blood-curdling scream of the Nibelungs is, in fact, a chorus of Leeds schoolchildren. This is a long evening with no interval, but it flies by.

Comments

My first experience of Wagner - and what a night!! Totally agree with Graham Rickson's review, can't wait for the next installment. Thanks for explaining the 'screams'.

Never liked Wagner til I saw this production, wholeheartedly agree with everything that's said here. Bravo!

"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." You must've been in the expensive seats (the ones with the mobile phones left on!): no lack of chuckles in the cheap stalls. Otherwise an excellent review of a SUPERB production: thanks and congratulations to everyone involved!

Thanks NWC - I was near the front of the downstairs stalls and hearing others giggle would have made me feel less inhibited about doing the same, in what was, in essence, a story about a posh family having problems with the builders.

It was my first time at a Wagner opera (at 54!) and I was hooked, all this week it has been the only music that mattered. All the performances were thrilling and beautifully paced, and the applause at the end fully justified. I'm looking forward to the next three years.

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