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Review: Götterdämmerung at the Sage Gateshead

The final instalment of Wagner's operatic masterpiece played to a full house at the Sage Gateshead

*****
Clive Barda 2014 Eric Greene as Gunther and Mati Turi as Siegfried in Opera North's GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG
Eric Greene as Gunther and Mati Turi as Siegfried in Opera North's GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG

A four-year journey came to a triumphant end in a packed Hall One at the weekend with an appreciative audience on its feet amid a bedlam of applause.

Richard Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle, comprising four operas, is a massive undertaking for an opera company so Leeds-based Opera North have performed it over four years, one per year.

It began with Das Rheingold, back in 2011. As a Wagner rookie, I was hooked immediately by the depth and power of the music and by a larger-than-life story of fantasy characters and a stolen gold ring which bestows terrible powers.

After two more epic instalments, Die Walküre in 2012 and Siegfried last year, the finale began at 3.30pm on Saturday and ended at 10.10pm, albeit with two intervals.

It didn’t seem that long. This was an audience hanging on every note – and there was barely a cough, which is unusual.

In the end the Rhinemaidens, whose precious ring was pinched back in 2011 by the dwarf Alberich, had their stolen goods returned but only at a terrible price.

The heroic and jovial Siegfried, now in possession of the ring, is murdered by Alberich’s evil and deceitful son, Hagen.

Only by throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre can Brünnhilde, the valkyrie, bring an end to spite, jealousy and tumult in the world and engineer the return of the ring to the Rhinemaidens.

This was a concert performance which is to say there were no sets or costumes and the orchestra was fully visible on the stage behind the singers.

Three large screens above the stage carried epic visuals, including flames, forests and a fast-flowing river, and the running translation from German.

 

This worked well. In fact, I can’t imagine how a fully staged production wouldn’t look rather silly. Although this was largely a mature audience, the enterprise seemed tailored to those more familiar with screen entertainment in all its modern manifestations than with grand opera.

And why hide such a wonderful orchestra in the pit? Richard Farnes, the Opera North music director, has been rightly acclaimed for these productions. On Saturday his massed musicians – six harps, no less – didn’t miss a beat and on occasion, with the brass and percussion sections fully deployed, the noise hit the solar plexus with a thump.

There were quiet moments, too, the more dramatic for being momentary lulls in the storm.

And while there were no costumes, there was plenty of good acting.

Alwyn Mellor as Brünnhilde and Mati Turi as Siegfried made us believe in their devotion by their gestures as well as their voices and Mats Almgren as Hagen projected such toxic badness that you almost felt like booing every time he gave vent to his rumbling bass voice.

The ending came almost too soon. It was a case of redemption through martyrdom, which echoes uneasily in modern news events, and it seemed a pity that a woman’s sacrifice was needed to realise a hopeful new dawn.

But if the morals jar, we have to accept that this was a 19th Century composer trawling ancient legends for his subject matter and with no regard for 21st Century political correctness.

Those, like me, who have been awe-struck by these performances will have been pleased to hear Sage general director Anthony Sargent say at the outset that Opera North plan to present all four operas during a week in 2016.

He didn’t say the Sage would definitely be party to this ambitious enterprise but he said ways were being looked at to make it happen. Cost, clearly, must be a factor.

Next year, meanwhile, Opera North will return with a concert version of another Wagner opera, The Flying Dutchman, which was first performed in 1843. Bring it on!

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