Opera North Ring Cycle, Siegfried, Leeds Town Hall

Saturday, May 14, 2016

THE buzz of anticipation inside Leeds Town Hall is palpable. A contingent of trumpets and trombones announces the ten minute call with with Siegfried's leitmotif. The thrilling sound rings around the ornate vestibule and encourages everyone to find their seats before the house lights dim.

Wagner never surpasses the vivid orchestral scene painting in this, the penultimate music drama of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Opera North's dramatised performances place the huge orchestra centre stage as a visible "character". This reinforces the premise that impressionist instrumental detail and vocal portrayal are equally important strands of Wagner's music dramas. The friendly Woodbird which guides Siegfried towards Brunnhilde's Rock is defined as much by the exquisitely wrought canvas of woodwind and softly rustling strings as by soprano Jeni Bern's stratospheric floated silvery headnotes. Fafner, the fearsome Dragon, is typified as much by a rising crescendo of sinister brass leitmotifs as by the dark sepulchral tones of awesome Swedish bass Mats Almgren.

Siegfried is the hero born of Sieglinde whom Wotan, King of the Gods, has decreed will penetrate the protective circle of fire and awaken Brunnhilde from her deep sleep. Wagner's vision of a god-like but insolent youth is difficult to realise on stage. The herculean vocal demands of the killer title role are beyond the resources of all but a handful of the world's most experienced heldentenors. Lars Cleveman (born 1958) is a recent Metropolitan Opera Siegfried and he undoubtedly belongs to this elite clan. Cleveman's clarion high notes were rock solid and his tone, although lacking an appealing honeyed quality, never wavered. The Swedish tenor seemed Inspired in his extended Act 3 Duet with Katherine Broderick's opulent sounding Brunnhilde. I could almost feel the electricity flowing between the two singers, orchestra and conductor.

Wotan, now roaming the world in his disguise as The Wanderer, is given his greatest lyrical outpouring in the long Act 3 scene 1 Narration. Hungarian bass baritone Bela Perencz, the third of our Wotans, is in dominant vocal form and sovereign tone. The Wanderer's confrontations with Jo Pohlheim's malevolent Alberich and his equally repellent brother Mime, incisively projected by American character tenor Richard Roberts, are wonderfully nuanced by Perencz. His scene with Ceri Williams' rich golden-voiced Erda, the earth goddess and fount of all knowledge is imbued with tenderness.

Richard Farnes carefully layers the orchestral textures and bathes them in the gleaming acoustic of Leeds Town Hall. Siegfried may be the stuff of fairy tales; Opera North's Ring Cycle is already the stuff of legend.

Geoffrey Mogridge