Das Rheingold - Opera North, Symphony Hall Birmingham, 24 June 2011
Musically speaking, there was little missing from Opera North's superb Das Rheingold, which toured to Symphony Hall on Friday night. The semi-staging didn't quite stretch to frogs or dragons, so by way of consolation, here's Birmingham's least missable tourist attraction - the life-sized jelly bean bull in Selfridges basement.
In place of a full scale production we had a gowned and suited cast singing without scores, and a giant video triptych suspended behind the orchestra. Explanatory intertitles from Michael Birkett's The Story of the Ring were projected over stock footage of water and gold and so on. This might have made a terrific introduction for an audience of operatic virgins. As it was, most of the tickets sold early on to doughty subscribers and itinerant Wagnerites, so it proved more of a distraction than an aid.
That aside, the evening was a massive success. Who would have guessed Opera North's music director Richard Farnes would prove such a natural Wagner conductor? Sensitive enough to allow voices (mostly on the light side) to travel, yet able to pull out all the stops for some barnstorming Zwischenspielen.
He paced steadily enough to let the music breathe (so much so that I had to slip out five minutes before the end to catch my train) yet without any loss of the inexorable momentum that is so essential. A pity the 'anvils' sounded more like chime bars, but that is the only blot on an otherwise thrilling interpretation.
Imagine Gerald Finley as Wotan and you have an idea of Michael Druiett's unusually lyrical portrayal, tending naturally to contemplation rather than bluster. His pairing with Nicholas Folwell's sympathetic Alberich rescales the story to more human dimensions.
Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke's camp Loge assumed the comic position more usually occupied by Alberich and Mime (Richard Roberts, wonderfully whiny). Jeni Bern, Sarah Castle and especially Jennifer Johnston were as fine a trio of Rhinemaidens as you could expect to hear anywhere. Peter Wedd and Derek Welton provided a sharply-characterised Froh and Donner, but it was Giselle Allen's lusciously-voiced Freia who impressed me most. I'm not quite sure what Dame Anne Evans (credited in the programme as a consultant) actually did, but whoever pulled this improbable bunch into such a perfectly-balanced and credible ensemble deserves a medal.
Incidentally, I cannot recommend Symphony Hall's side circle seats (see below) for anything with individual singers. The orchestral sound rose beautifully, but the more directional vocal sound seemed distant and churchy, a problem I've never suffered in the stalls. The view is slightly restricted too, not that it was a huge problem. At least I was able to sneak out without disturbing anyone, but it's back to the posh seats next year for Ring Part Two, Die Walküre.
Photos below: Opera North
Richard Farnes explains why Opera North decided to stage the Ring, and why they settled on a concert version: