While the Welsh were merrily slaying Belgians in Euro 2016, one dragon was on the receiving end at the Royal Festival Hall. In the third instalment of Opera North's Ring Cycle, the impetuous Siegfried – raised by the dwarf, Mime, to know no fear – enters the dragon's lair and slays Fafner, who guards the Nibelung gold. A slumbering crocodile filled the central panel of Peter Mumford's video screens. Lars Cleveman's Siegfried stabbed Mats Almgren's Fafner with an invisible sword from the other side of the stage, the latter unfurling his red pocket handkerchief and letting it drift floorwards.

Lars Cleveman (Siegfried) © Clive Barda
Lars Cleveman (Siegfried)
© Clive Barda

That's about as dramatic as this 'concert staging' gets, for at no point does Opera North claim this is a semi-staged performance. The screens provide us with surtitles and brief plot summaries which fill in the backstory much as Wagner does himself with leitmotifs punctuating the orchestral score. They also provide us with slow moving video imagery, to capture the mood rather than to illustrate much of the action. Shafts of golden sunlight beam through leafy branches during the 'Forest Murmurs', flames flicker when the sleeping Brünnhilde appears and so on. For anyone coming new to The Ring, it's a very accessible introduction, supported by a wide range of events at the Southbank Centre.

However, the singers seemed to have decided on different levels of dramatic involvement, leading to a curiously uneven concert staging. While Cleveman held a dramatic frozen pose down on one knee as Siegfried files the shards of Nothung to splinters and then plies the bellows to stoke the fire, Richard Roberts' frantically mimed Mime raced about grinding invisible herbs drawn from an invisible cupboard, stewing them in an invisible cooking pot: a strange visual mismatch. The Forging Scene suffered most from a lack of props, especially as Cleveman had to “air hammer” the anvil in time to a real percussionist on a real lump of metal a few feet behind him. One false beat – and it happened – makes it look a bit silly.

Richard Roberts (Mime) and Lars Cleveman (Siegfried) © Clive Barda
Richard Roberts (Mime) and Lars Cleveman (Siegfried)
© Clive Barda

Vocally, the performance was rather mixed too. Siegfried is an ungrateful role, an absolute killer on the voice. He sings for much of the evening and then, at the climax of Act III, he braves the ring of fire and awakens Brünnhilde, who – fresh as the proverbial daisy – joins him in an ecstatic but lengthy duet. It's an unsporting contest. Cleveman struggled from the off, with a foggy lower register and lack of projection, meaning that Richard Farnes had to rein in the excellent Orchestra of Opera North. Above the stave, Cleveman's tenor opened up quite nicely and his cry of “so strong is Siegfried’s sword!” as he splits the anvil in two was triumphantly delivered. Roberts' Mime was also underpowered, overplaying the fretful comic business and sometimes swallowing his words.

Béla Perencz (Wanderer) and Jo Pohlheim (Alberich) © Clive Barda
Béla Perencz (Wanderer) and Jo Pohlheim (Alberich)
© Clive Barda
Béla Perencz's gruff bass-baritone made for a sturdy Wanderer – by far the best Wotan this week. Wearing his fedora at a jaunty angle, there was a nice sense of irony in Perencz's game of 'Twenty Questions' with Mime, whereas his confrontation with Jo Pohlheim's swarthy Alberich became a titanic battle. Almgren's sepulchral bass made for a scary Fafner, almost sympathetic in his dying gasps, and Jeni Bern was an appropriately chirpy Woodbird.

During a twelve year hiatus between composing the second and third acts of Siegfried, Wagner busied himself composing Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger. (The RFH audience had an hour's interval during which I busied myself with a tasty duck burger!) Good things come to those who wait though. The Prelude to Act III finds Wagner at his symphonic best, concise and thrilling. Farnes and his orchestra gave a gripping account, thunder-sheet clattering, heavy brass – especially bass and contrabass trombones – majestic. And then, Kelly Cae Hogan's Brünnhilde awoke to the tenderest string playing to greet the day gloriously. There's some welcome steel in Hogan's upper notes, but also genuine warmth to her soprano which gave her Brünnhilde a vulnerable touch.

A stunning double rainbow arched the Southbank during the interval this evening, reminding us of the gods' procession into Valhalla at the end of Das Rheingold. Valhalla's walls will surely come tumbling down in flames by Sunday's Götterdämmerung, but for now – dragon slayed, bride claimed – Siegfried can rest easy.  

***11