The first lesson I learnt from this evening’s stunning performance by Opera North of Das Rheingold to a completely full Hall One at the Sage is that however much you listen to Wagner's opera, absolutely nothing can prepare you for the physical and emotional impact of seeing a live performance, with the sheer power of the orchestra and the dramatic force of the music.

© Clive Barda
© Clive Barda

Opera North’s current concert production puts that massive orchestra right to the forefront, and cleverly incorporates the players into the drama. Three large screens behind the orchestra displayed abstract images; rippling water, of course, for the opening scene, mountainside behind rolling mists, splitting rocks, boiling lava, clouds - these were just enough to give us a hint, to nudge the imagination in the right direction before allowing the orchestra to flesh out the scene in our minds through Wagner’s incredibly descriptive music. The lighting also added to the effect; this mostly did what one would expect, but I particularly liked the way the massed harps were bathed in golden light as the gods crossed their rainbow bridge into Valhalla, when the more obvious thing to do may have been just to project a rainbow onto the screen.

The stars of the orchestra were undoubtedly the lower strings, providing a rich, rippling backdrop to the whole work, right from the opening bars depicting the waves of the river Rhein. The brass section too were magnificent, with good tone, never shrill despite the incredible volume. The moment when Alberich reluctantly hands over the Rheingold horde to the gods was, I think, the loudest orchestral music I have ever heard, literally pinning me to the back of my seat. With the huge orchestra right behind them on stage, instead of hidden in a stage pit, the singers had to work even harder than usual and although there were a couple of brief moments where they were swamped, and power seemed to come at the expense of diction, these were heroic performances from every single member of the cast. This didn’t feel like a concert performance, rather a very minimalist staged production. Clothes were carefully co-ordinated without actually being costumes (l particularly liked the Rheinmaidens’ long blue gloves), and there was enough movement and gesture to convey what was happening. In addition to the titles, there were also brief descriptive texts over the images on the large screens, although at times it was a bit distracting trying to read both.

It’s almost unfair to pick out favourites among the singers, but Nicholas Folwell’s Alberich really stood out; he was equally effective both as the figure of fun flirting with the Rheinmaidens and as the power-crazed monster corrupted by the lust for the Ring; the awful moment when he declares he will give up love was gripping. His German also stood out as he rolled his tongue around the consonants, particularly in the early scenes. Giselle Allen’s was glorious as Freia, her upper register ringing through the hall, captivating the audience right from her first hysterical entrance. And after so much excellent singing, there was one last treat in store with the appearance of Andrea Baker as Erda, who delivered her terrible prophecy to Wotan with a sublime lyricism.

The second lesson I learnt from this, my first experience of live Wagner opera, is that whatever went on outside his music, with his dubious politics and appalling behaviour, the listener is drawn in so seductively, that it really is possible to forget about all the baggage and just let the music speak for itself, and I think this was particularly brought out by Opera North’s production, both in terms of staging and performance. The story of Rheingold ends with mischievous Loge reminding anyone who will listen that the gods should not be so complacent as they make their way into Valhalla; with the forging of the Ring, the world has changed and the gods cannot hide from this fact. The story is not yet over, and whilst for the gods this spells doom, for the audience, it’s a delicious reminder that there’s more to come. I’m looking forward to next year’s Die Walküre already.

*****