It is a daunting task to encapsulate briefly in one review my reactions to the final complex component of Opera North’s brilliantly successful four-year series of semi-staged concert performances of Wagner’s Ring. The capacity audience at the end of the opening night in the Victorian splendour of Leeds Town Hall (much more suitable than Leeds Grand Theatre) was on its feet for an extended, well-deserved, standing ovation, which I joined. It was a tribute not just to the talents and supreme stamina of the singers who on this occasion made such imaginative use of the narrow performance strip on stage, but also to the terrific Orchestra of Opera North in general, which has made the whole project such a joy, led by the inspirational Richard Farnes, and to Peter Mumford, who has been in charge of staging, lighting and design throughout.

Opera North's Götterdämmerung © Clive Barda
Opera North's Götterdämmerung
© Clive Barda

Mumford’s three enormous video screens carried surtitles and the same sort of elemental moving images as in previous years – flames, rocks, misty forests, endlessly gushing water, sunrise – which were once more carefully matched to sentiments and motifs, and which would produce a satisfyingly hypnotic effect on their own in some gigantic art installation. They are very much in tune with Wagner’s ideas on the integration of all arts forms for an opera. The necessarily minimal staging, despite tight restrictions, was surprisingly effective: many sequences involved slow, stately walking, the Rhinemaidens moved elegantly from one tableau to another, characters loomed, almost motionless, for many minutes, and the bow-tied chorus in Act II seemed to materialize behind the orchestra out of thin air. Gunther and Siegfried had a kind of basic mirror act, and Hagen thrust an invisible spear into Siegfried’s back, causing a token stumble and a gasping expression. Props would have been superfluous: we knew about Brünnhilde’s immolation because of what she was singing and because the concise on-screen narrative told us that she was leaping into the flames on her horse Grane, to make sure. It was more than enough.

Alwyn Mellor (Brünnhilde) © Clive Barda
Alwyn Mellor (Brünnhilde)
© Clive Barda

Alwyn Mellor, a born Brünnhilde, previously seen as Minnie in La fanciulla del West, was engaging, technically brilliant and fresh throughout, from her duet with Siegfried in the Prologue’s love scene to the final conflagration, when she gave a performance which was volcanically passionate. I was particularly impressed by the interaction in Act I with Susan Bickley as Waltraute, her Valkyrie sister. Bickley gave a wonderfully subtle, intelligent and moving account of their father Wotan’s brooding existence, conveying sublime melancholy. Her warnings were quite gripping. Mati Turi as Siegfried must now be fixed in the minds of Leeds audiences as the definitive Siegfried, his powerful stage presence, that of an amiable bear, going well with a powerfully heroic, sweet-tinged voice. He has plenty of charm for a character we know as a naïve bully, a fact which came out in Act III as he told the story of how he despatched Fafner. He was particularly strong in scenes with Gunther.

Eric Greene was a superbly unpleasant Gunther, but did not exude as much murderous nastiness as the Hagen of Swedish bass Mats Almgren (Fafner in Opera North’s Siegfried last year), who captured the audience’s attention even when he was not employing his rich voice, an embodiment of evil. The dark scene at the beginning of Act II in which Jo Pohlheim’s extremely sinister Alberich, lit with reds and greens from below, clutches at him in a dream, was really disturbing. Irish soprano Orla Boylan was a convincingly emotional Gutrune.

Sarah Castle (Flosshilde), Madeleine Shaw (Wellgunde) and Katherine Broderick (Woglinde) © Clive Barda
Sarah Castle (Flosshilde), Madeleine Shaw (Wellgunde) and Katherine Broderick (Woglinde)
© Clive Barda

To choose a couple of orchestral delights, Siegfried’s Funeral was stunning, as most of the audience probably expected it to be, and the tone poem in the Prologue (known in separate concert performances as Dawn) was exceptionally beautiful.

Opera North is now planning to use the same team and their experience for more complete cycles in 2016, the 140th anniversary of the first cycle in Bayreuth. ‘Epic’ is the adjective which springs to mind, but until then the Wagner element will be provided by The Flying Dutchman in 2015. 

*****