Mats Almgren as Hagen - 'astonishing resonant, cavernous bass' - with Jo Pohlheim as Alberich (left). (C) Clive Barda/ArenaPAL

Just like Germans

Robert Thicknesse

Outside the Festival Hall, the billing for a conference: “The Establishment is amassing wealth and power, and there is nothing to stop it.” Had Slavoj Žižek and little Owen Jones broadened their horizons, they’d have noticed that Wagner addresses that matter in the Ring – and comes to a very different conclusion.

The Twilight of the Gods is the payoff you get for the relentless gags of Siegfried, and the last two acts in particular are non-stop, with music of you-cannot-be-serious loudness to match, plus choruses, ensembles and the very, very bad Hagen, one of opera’s most fun villains. The kicker is that Siegfried needs to do a very quick turnaround from obnoxious meathead to world-hero in order to earn Brünnhilde’s fulsome encomia and that posh funeral. Mati Turi replaced Lars Cleveman (you had to keep your wits about you over these four nights with all the role-swapping, doubling  and sharing) and was likeable enough, though hardly the “over-joyous” life-force Hagen calls him.

This final episode crystallised the pluses and minuses of Peter Mumford’s semi-staging. With all opera, people generally arrive and leave with their preconceptions intact, a fortiori with Wagner and his audience of obsessives. Mumford’s low-intensity interpretation facilitated this, which is fine by me, though by the end I was occasionally wishing for more directorial intervention – a matter of focus, really, indicating where you really think the point lies. Some scenes couldn’t be improved: Hagen’s gathering the clans (Mats Algren pretty much bawling the house down here with his astonishing resonant, cavernous bass), that tricky first meeting of Siegfried and Brünnhilde now he’s cosily set up with Gutrune. (And incidentally, Giselle Allen and Andrew Foster-Williams made a great deal of the weak, human, equivocal Gutrune and Gunther, pathetic figures lost in a game whose rules they have no conception of.) But a full production can intensify the awful atmosphere of Hagen’s Watch, for example, give the Norns a bit of the desirable numen a concert platform removes, highlight the lightness and tragedy of Siegfried’s meeting with the Rhinemaidens.

Richard Farnes’s orchestra was back where it wanted to be, the heart and motor of an astonishing performance. What I kept thinking about this band was: “They sound like Germans” – undemonstrative, serious, committed, intense, serving the music, beautiful… simply right, in the end, in a way that very seldom happens. And Farnes’s shaping of scenes and acts was back to speed after the bittiness of Siegfried, nothing better than Brünnhilde’s waiting for Siegfried’s return, the heart-pounding anticipation as he approaches followed by a sort of orchestral panic when the figure turns out to be Gunter’s. The grandiose stuff, too, left nothing wanting, the Gibichungs’ gathering and Siegfried’s Death fairly blowing the roof off.

I think it’s the love-story whose death we mourn rather than the hero: Götterdämmerung operates on a much more traditional, romantic emotional level than the previous operas. When Siegfried tells the story of his life and finally remembers Brünnhilde, the accumulated pathos is almost unbearable – particularly when conveyed through the ecstasy of Brünnhilde’s waking music. Turi was running out of puff here, but Farnes slowed and softened things to a tremulous caress that merely increased the violent, tragic nostalgia of the whole episode.

The ending and peroration, as they should, took things to another level of meaning and universality, Kelly Cae Hogan’s Brünnhilde and the orchestra attaining a transfiguring radiance. The logical meaning of the ending may be unclear, but the music takes over entirely: like Brünnhilde, now we know everything.

It’s hard to sum up the effect of any Ring, but Opera North’s “austerity Ring” is harder than most. The memories, unusually, are wholly musical, accompanied by occasional images but uncluttered by any outside dramatic intervention. I certainly can’t remember so many moments of purely musical rapture in any previous experience; having the orchestra on stage hugely enriched the whole thing. The result does vast honour to everyone: Opera North, its orchestra and conductor, the director, the singers, Wagner himself.