tue 23/07/2024

Das Rheingold, Opera North, Southbank Centre | reviews, news & interviews

Das Rheingold, Opera North, Southbank Centre

Das Rheingold, Opera North, Southbank Centre

Fiery demi-god and conductor eclipse any B-casting as a Ring comes south

Wotan (Michael Druiett, left) and Loge (Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, right) catch Alberich as toad (Jo Pohlheim)All images by Clive Barda

They promised Wagner for everybody at the Southbank Centre, and so far they're delivering. Community events cluster around a livescreening of each Ring instalment in the Clore Ballroom. We privileged few in the Festival Hall wondered how newcomers might be reacting out there, but there was no interval in the two-and-three-quarter-hour Das Rheingold to go and test the waters.

I'm hoping that Tolkein lovers enjoyed the mythological gimmicks of the tetralogy's "preliminary evening" opera even if it offers the driest speech-song and the least knock-out impact of the four in terms of human emotion.

One thing's for certain: there could have been no clearer delivery of the drama and the issues than Opera North's "concert staging" with its clever projections by the director, Peter Mumford. Helpful texts for first-timers, certainly, but sometimes too much background: hardcore Wagnerians might have been irritated by the past-tense summaries on the screen telling us what was going to happen, and in some cases what had happened, when Wagner's stage directions might have done just as well.

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Loge in Opera North RingThere was information overload at the start, certainly, when we just need to experience the orchestra rising from the depths of the Rhine – rippling surface only on the screen not quite right – and to trust to the narrative of Rhinemaidens guarding the gold versus dwarf Alberich deciding to grab it once repulsed in his advances. But after that so many of the effects got it just right: the descent from mountain top to Nibelheim via a sulphurous cleft in the rock and back again, the dark nature background for Erda's apocalyptic warning, and of course the final rainbow bridge which has nothing to do with Saturday's glorious Pride and homes in on the word of the week – delusion. Mumford wisely lets it fade to black pessimism on the screen

A strong if not entirely A-list cast of singing actors had a more difficult task on a narrow runway in front of the orchestra. The Proms Ring cycle conducted by Barenboim worked so well because the luxury of a full stage allowed singers already experienced in working with each other to relate; here, they were forced to express themselves mostly out-front, stinting a bit on the personenregie. One felt that each had brought his or her own dramatic style and gestures along rather than working as one.

So while Wagner the anti-capitalist revolutionary of the 1840s described all-too-corruptible chief god Wotan as "the sum of the intelligence of the present" – and that would seem to be our own present still – the sum of the intelligence of last night was unquestionably Loge the demi-god who stands apart from the rest in the riveting physical and vocal performance of Glyndebourne favourite Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (pictured above). Entering with flickering fire-fingers, he settled into the role of intellectual political advisor who gets the gold back from Alberich but then sees events spiral out of control and finally moves back to detachment. The pause before a highly original inflection of "who knows what I'll do" at the end was endemic of this man's performing genius. He's not just a character tenor, either; on this evidence we need him in Schubert Lieder much more than several of our over-promoted native choral-scholar weeds.Yvonne Howard as Fricka and Giselle Allen as Freia in Opera North RheingoldTop of their respective games, too, and welcome in Wagner anywhere in the world were the undervalued Yvonne Howard's poised, calculating Fricka and Giselle Allen, surely a Sieglinde in the making, acting her heart out, but never too much, as youth-and-beauty goddess Freia (both pictured above). Freia is distressingly ransomed to the mafia Fasolt and Fafner of James Creswell and Mats Almgren (I'd have given them black rather than red ties and breast-pocket handkerchiefs so Loge could have worn orange, but the colour brought off a singular coup as Alberich's curse claimed the first of its victims).

Cresswell (pictured below with fellow giant Mats Almgren on the left) would have made a more rock-solid Wotan than Michael Druiett, though this more humane of the two giants could have done with a bit more tenderness invoking Freia in the only real love music of Rheingold. Druiett gave us a Wotan somewhat past his prime, which perhaps matters less in Rheingold than Walküre, where we're getting Robert Hayward tonight (not sure that will work either, but let's see). To judge from the last-minute throat catch, he may have been ailing. (UPDATE: Mr Druiett informs us he was singing with tonsillitis; so he did heroically under the circumstances. An announcement should have been made.)James Cresswell and Mats Almgren as Fasolt and Fafner in Opera North RingAlso stretched to the limit, but pulling it off, was Jo Pohlheim's Alberich. In the first scene he played a funny, characterful and even rather cuddly dwarf to Rhinemaidens who sounded more like Valkyrie or Norns, not quite aqueous enough, but more blackness in the voice might have made us hate or fear him more than we did as master of Nibelheim, and bully to brother Mime (Richard Roberts, touching, but may be over-parted in Siegfried, when we need Ablinger-Sperrhacke to take over the role). The curse, though, was terrific and the voice held out thrillingly. There was a disappointing Erda, not nearly steady or pitch-firm enough, from Ceri Williams, but Mark Le Brocq and Andrew Foster-Williams delivered the goods as the ineffectual minor gods.

What carried the evening above all was the sumptuous but never indulgent interpretation of Richard Farnes; if we have to lose Mark Wigglesworth at English National Opera – and as in the political world, the fight's not over yet – Farnes would be the man for the MD post. He creates a similar depth of sound in Wagner to Wigglesworth, and if the biting violas are more conspicuously fine than the violins, just occasionally smothered by the brass from where I was sitting, the whole is a miracle of passion and precision. No nodal point missed its mark, special effects – including the 11 anvillists to left and right of the platform – were perfectly judged, and the final illusory pomp driven home almost frighteningly in sound and vision. Excitement is running high for the real human stuff which begins with Die Walküre tonight.

  • Further instalments of Opera North's Ring at the Southbank Centre are free for spectators of the Clore Ballroom livescreening. Full programme of events here.

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