Royal Festival Hall
Wotan – Michael DruiettDonner – Andrew Foster-Williams
Froh – Marc Le Brocq
Loge – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Fricka – Yvonne Howard
Freia – Giselle Allen
Erda – Ceri Williams
Alberich – Jo Pohlheim
Mime – Richard Roberts
Fasolt – James Creswell
Fafner – Mats Almgren
Woglinde – Jeni Bern
Wellgunde – Madeleine Shaw
Flosshilde – Sarah Castle
Peter Mumford (concert staging, design concept, lighting and projection)Joe Austin (associate director)
Orchestra of Opera NorthRichard Farnes (conductor)
|Rhinemaiden mechanics at the 1876 Ring|
Das Rheingold is, of course, the reddest in tooth and claw of all Wagner’s dramas – which is saying something. The only path to denying its socialism would be never to have encountered it, or at least never to have listened to it. That, I can only assume, must have been the ‘non-expert’ path to enlightenment taken by Michael Gove, whose unpleasant presence I suffered in the row behind me at Bayreuth in 2014. Goodness knows what damage Frank Castorf’s post-dramatic theatre wrought to his 'back-to-basics' mentality; maybe that is why, Alberich-like, he elected to destroy this country, this continent, the world. It is certainly no easy thing to imagine a Rhinemaiden falling voluntarily into his clutches. But then even Wagner did not quite possess the venom to invent Mrs Gove, Sarah Vine. With typical not-quite-even-handedness, he wrote of Lohengrin’s Ortrud to Liszt, in 1852: ‘a male politician disgusts us; a female politician appals us.’ Ladies and gentlemen of the Festival Hall, take your pick: the Conservative Party leadership election awaits.
I could go on, and on, and on, as someone once almost drawled. Opera North, sadly, could hardly have found London in more electrically receptive – ‘electrical reception’ is perhaps a concept better left to the ‘experts’ – mode than today. The Ring can be made, in some senses might even be claimed to be, about everything. (I once even managed to bring in Norman Tebbit; the pleasure was doubtless mutual.) As Wagner wrote, also to Liszt, the following year: ‘Yes, I should like to perish in Valhalla’s flames! — Mark well my new poem — it contains the beginning of the world and its destruction!’ It is, just as much as Marx’s Capital, to quote Maximilien Rubel, ‘a history of a world in the course of self-destruction, a pathology of an inhuman society’. And as we, like the gods in Valhalla, sit back in horror to watch the flames envelop us, we find ourselves, if anything, still more receptive than usual to an inquiry into where it all began, where it all went wrong.
A staging could help, of course, none more so than Patrice Chéreau’s legendary ‘Centenary Ring’. It is not necessary, though. Whilst every bone in my body resists both that conclusion and the admission that the two best Ring performances of my life have taken place in the concert hall, the desire to be a little bit more truthful than Gove, Johnson, et al., a little more scrupulous with my obligations than Wotan, means that I must. Strangely, both took place in the Royal Albert Hall, a less-than-ideal venue, to put it mildly. It mattered not a jot, though, whether under Bernard Haitink (Royal Opera, 1998: my first) or Daniel Barenboim (2013 Proms, see here, here, here, and here!) Nor has it here at the Festival Hall, at least so far. Direction from Peter Mumford and Joe Austin is clear, accomplishing a good deal with relatively little. Projections offer titles, a little atmosphere (the Rhine, clouds, etc.), and, for those who would benefit, a little additional background. Whilst we all await Stefan Herheim and Dmitri Tcherniakov’s stagings for different houses in Berlin, concert stagings continue to have much to offer.
A particular advantage of such concert stagings is the placing of the orchestra, literally, centre stage. It is, at least, an advantage with such excellent playing and conducting as we experienced here. One really had the sense of an orchestra that knew this music, an orchestra that had lived with it, an orchestra that was here reaching the climax of its involvement with it (although let us hope that there will be much more Wagner to come from Opera North). There was barely a blemish to be heard. More importantly, the ebb and flow, Wagner’s celebrated melos, was there to be heard, to be felt: nothing exaggerated, but flowing like – well, the mighty Rhine itself. Richard Farnes proved a sure guide indeed. If he is not Barenboim, then so what? Who is? Farnes’s evident knowledge and understanding of the score, of its twists and turns, of how to navigate them, and of how to maintain the musico-narrative thrust put the generally pitiful efforts of, say, Haitink’s successor at the Royal Opera to shame, likewise those fashion victims who have extolled those sorry attempts. If there were times when I felt the orchestra might have been encouraged to play out a little more, to sound still more as the Greek Chorus of Wagner’s æsthetic imagination, this was never mere ‘accompaniment’.
As Wotan, Michael Druiett looked eerily reminiscent of Donald McIntyre for Chéreau and Boulez. If he did not quite show that depth of familiarity with the work, there was little to complain about. Audibly struggling in the final scene, he lost his voice completely at one point towards the end, but that was clearly a throat problem rather than technical incapability. His was a thoughtful performance throughout. Jo Pohlheim was a properly malevolent Alberich; I look forward to hearing more from him in Siegfried. If a Loge does not steal the show, something will most likely have gone awry; Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke’s satirical edge, his vivid sense of theatre (even in the concert hall) certainly aided Wagner’s message to hit home. Mats Almgren made for a suitably dark Fafner, James Creswell lighter of tone than one often hears as his brother, Fasolt, but none the worse for that. Richard Roberts’s Mime was more than just wheedling. His words and their import registered strongly, likewise his character’s sheer misery in nostalgia for old Nibelheim. Yvonne Howard’s Fricka offered majesty but also vulnerability. The other gods and, especially, the Rhinemaidens made a good deal of their moments in the spotlight. If Ceri Williams’s intonation as Erda were not quite what it might have been to begin with, she soon made up for that in a dignified portrayal that did not lack mystery. As for the Nibelung scream, ‘recorded by the Opera North Children’s Chorus’: it ‘felt our pain’.