Opera North's Ring Cycle

Das Rheingold

Leeds Town Hall

Saturday 23rd April 2016

THE eagerly anticipated visits to Leeds Town Hall for each instalment of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle have become an annual pilgrimage. Yorkshire audiences now have the opportunity to experience all four episodes of Wagner's "Stage Festival Play" within a single week, as the composer intended.

Wagner built the Bayreuth Festpielhaus specifically for his music dramas. The orchestral sound in that unique opera theatre swells from a deep pit invisible to the audience. Opera North's dramatised concert performances, on the other hand, place the orchestra of well over one hundred musicians centre stage. The singers are dressed in varying styles of evening dress to denote a hierarchical structure. They act their roles from the apron stage in front of the orchestra. High above the musicians, footage of misty mountain peaks, gloom laden cloudy skies, flowing rivers and the earth's crust is projected onto three large cinema screens. This striking visual imagery combined with a narrative English text invokes Wagner's mythical other-world of Gods and Goddesses, giants and dwarves. The music drama is sung in German but with the intricate storyline made accessible to an English speaking audience. This is an important consideration, particularly in respect of Das Rheingold. This three hour long "prologue" effectively sets the scene.

The house lights go down. Richard Farnes, Opera North music director, is given a hero's welcome as he walks slowly to the podium and raises his baton. The long, long, magical E Flat opening chord growls in the lower strings, is taken up by the violins, violas, gleaming brass and woodwind before swelling to an incandescent climax. Three voluptuous Rhinemaidens - Jeni Bern, Madeliene Shaw and Sarah Castle in their figure hugging blue gowns begin to taunt Jo Pohlheim's Alberich. He is about to steal their gold, thereby setting in motion a cataclysmic chain of events.

Pohlheim's dark and sonorous projection of pure malevolence is one of the abundant glories of Opera North's would class cast. Another is the magisterial Wotan of Michael Druiett - manipulative, guileful, and deadly in terms of the consequences of his decisions. The resplendent Yvonne Howard's carefully layered characterisation of Wotan's wife, Fricka, and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke's spidery portrayal of Loge likewise make triumphant returns.

The unique spatial qualities of Leeds' very own Festpielhaus, the famous Town Hall, allows the music to hang in the air, to swell and envelop the audience. The emotional impact of this Leeds Ring Cycle will be talked about for decades. It might be worth praying to the Gods for returned tickets.

Geoffrey Mogridge