Opera North’s concert staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle continued last night with Die Walküre, the “first night” proper of the cycle after the “preliminary evening” of Das Rheingold. Following the godly power struggles that play out in Das Rheingold, there is a change of emphasis in Die Walküre, which takes us into an intense family drama – of the fourteen singers, one is Wotan himself, then there are his ten daughters, his son and his wife: only Hunding, Sieglinde’s wronged husband, is outside the clan.

Béla Perencz as Wotan and conductor Richard Farnes © Clive Barda
Béla Perencz as Wotan and conductor Richard Farnes
© Clive Barda

An equally tense drama must have been playing out in Opera North’s offices on Saturday morning, when Annalena Persson was forced by illness to pull out of the role of Brünnhilde. Where to find a replacement soprano for this huge role at such short notice? American soprano Kelly Cae Hogan was flown in from Germany, and despite the fact that she had had almost no rehearsal, and was singing from a score, she gave an unforgettable performance. Her first war-cry entry, her arm raised high, was thrillingly demented, and absolutely secure and confident, a statement that if she was going to sing Brünnhilde at the last minute, she was going to do it properly, and with style. Her singing was incredibly exciting to listen to, and carried easily to the back of the hall, even when she was lying on the floor, propped on her elbows and looking down at the music.

There were strong performances too from the rest of the cast, many of whom were singing with Opera North for the first time: the only cast member remaining from Das Rheingold was mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston, who was part of the magnificent line-up of Valkyries. Alwyn Mellor was a warm and earthy Sieglinde, emphasising that whilst she may have been the daughter of a god, she was also human, and her scene with Brünnhilde when she learns that she is carrying Siegmund’s child was very moving. I also enjoyed Clive Bayley’s rather terrifying Hunding and Katarina Karnéus’ cool anger as Fricka. Béla Perencz sang the role of Wotan very well, and he was particularly good in Act II when he came across as a slightly bewildered family man, torn between the demands of his wife and his favourite daughter, but in Act III his performance lacked emotion, particularly during his great lament at the end as he says farewell to his beloved Brünnhilde.

The intimacy of the storyline makes huge demands on the singers, the central cast of six having to carry four hours of singing against that massive orchestra, and there were a few moments where voices got tired. The orchestra were on great form, and did a good job of putting across all the nuances of the story – even more important in a concert performance when there is minimal acting. They did sound as if they were running out of steam by the end though, particularly as the opera ends gently, with no final burst of fireworks to rouse tired arms and lips. After an initial wobble with the first statement of Wotan’s leitmotif, there was some truly excellent brass playing, in the quiet moments as well as in the noise. The overture, depicting Siegmund’s flight through the forest, was wonderful, full of menace and energy, giving a sense of panic, helped by the video screens which showed the runner’s-eye view of the trees rushing by in a confused blur.

Perhaps because there is less action in the storyline that needs to be put across, the projected sequences, on three large screens above the orchestra, were not always as effective as they had been in Das Rheingold. Sometimes the surtitled text was hard to read, and the whirling confusion of the fight scene made me feel slightly nauseous. Opera North’s production team had obviously decided that the projections should be suggestive, rather than actually contributing to the narrative; I think this was the right way to do it, although there was some debate in the interval about whether the sword should have remained so obviously embedded in the tree after Siegmund had triumphantly removed it.

Overall, this was a great performance all round, but Kelly Cae Hogan stole the show. If this is how she sings Brünnhilde when standing in at the last minute, she is a truly impressive singer, and I would love to hear her again. She fully deserved the rapturous applause.

***11