The journey from Croydon up to Birmingham and back just about exceeds the running time of Die Walküre, by the time one and a half hours of intervals have been added in. However, it was worth the trip for a great night at Symphony Hall, where Opera North’s forces put on a top notch performance of this most engaging of the operas of Der Ring des Nibelungen.
The concert approach, which has been toured to Leeds and Gateshead and arrives at Manchester/Salford on 14 July, included large projection screens above the orchestra, which had atmospheric stills and animations as well as the surtitles. The animations weren’t too ambitious, and whilst that meant that they were not therefore too intrusive, there were also a number of opportunities missed to heighten the drama. The changing lighting was perhaps a greater contributor to atmosphere than were the projections, bringing back memories of the excellent ENO semi-staged Ring performances. It was good that the surtitles ‘followed’ the singer’s position (roughly) and the small snippets of back-story and narrative update helped keep us engaged (if that was needed…)
The orchestra gave the score a gritty, dramatic sound, rising to a fearsome characterisation of Wotan’s anger. Richard Farnes led an expansive reading, but wholly coherent, if lacking a bit of the depth and intensity that Pappano conjures up. There was a spectacular ‘clunk’ at one point, that seemed to make everyone jump, as (I think) a viola string broke, lest anyone in the front stalls was nodding off.
The vocal stand-out was, by unanimous agreement between me and the Other Half, Alwyn Mellor’s Sieglinde. I know that she has set out on the Brünnhilde/Isolde journey (the former at Longborough Opera amongst others, with plans for Seattle’s centenary Ring production in 2013; the latter at Grange Park), but she seemed to possess the jugendlich dramatisch ideal combination: a warmth and roundedness of tone combined with tremendous vocal strength and surety. Surprisingly, Opera North’s run was her Sieglinde debut, but her dramatic conviction would never have betrayed such a recent adoption of the role. She covers Brünnhilde for Susan Bullock in the Covent Garden Ring in October, whilst hojotoho’ing her way through Gerhilde, so we’re in safe hands should anything untoward happen to Ms Bullock (which we fervently hope not, I might add!)
Her voice was in marked contrast to that of Annalena Persson as Brünnhilde, where the emphasis was firmly on the metal in her tone. She could produce some fine soft singing, but under pressure her tone seemed to become slightly wayward with a wide vibrato, and she seemed less able to inject character into her singing than did Mellor. Consequently, despite dramatic engagement with the role, the result was a little flat by comparison. She stayed the course well, though, and her best certainly came in the confrontation with Wotan in Act 3.
That Wotan was quite a revelation. Hungarian bass-baritone Béla Perencz had a large, resonant voice and bags of dramatic oomph to lavish on the role. His anger in Act 3 was as formidable as his farewell was touching. Katarina Karnéus started out seeming slightly underpowered as Wotan’s hectoring but entirely reasonable wife, Fricka. However, by the time of her hymn she was launching a fearless attack on him, relishing the drama of the confrontation, and thoroughly enjoying her triumph over Brünnhilde. Clive Bayley had the equal measure of Hunding’s bluster and danger, using a voice of quite astonishing size to project it to the furthest reaches of Symphony Hall (and had a door been left open probably most of the West Midlands). Siegmund was Erik Nelson Werner and it was a joy to have the lead principals completed by so strong a performance. Dramatically a little more stilted, he was nevertheless consistent, with a warm, dark tenor that he deployed confidently. His last line of Act 1 might not have come off entirely successfully, but his Wälse! cries were joys to behold, and his duet with Brünnhilde was wonderfully done. The cast was completed by a spectacularly strong line-up of Valkyries, lined up on the curtain call photo, below (Clive Bayley and Katerina Karnéus having scuttled off at the interval…)