It seems a very short time since I interviewed Richard Farnes about Opera North’s planned Ring cycle, the dramas to be done one a year, semi-staged in an idiosyncratic way. In fact, it is four years, and now the complete cycle has been performed to universal acclaim, with the loudest cheers going to the conducting and the stupendous playing by the orchestra of Opera North, with some reinforcements — all six harps, and so on.
Farnes explained to me in the interview that he was studying the Ring, with which he had previously had no professional connection. I jumped up and down with envy and excitement, but it was clear that Farnes had no idea of becoming ‘a Wagner conductor’, in the way that some great figures of the past were, and that, say, Christian Thielemann is now. But actually many of Wagner’s greatest interpreters, including Wilhelm Furtwängler himself, were not specialists except in the sense that their performances remain among the most powerful ever given. And so it looks likely to be with Richard Farnes, who is hardly less diffident than the legendary Sir Reginald Goodall, but produces results of comparable magnificence, if at considerably less leisurely tempi.
Götterdämmerung, of which there are only a few more performances over the next week, in Leeds and Salford Quays, makes bigger, trickier demands on its performers, and on its spectators/listeners, than even the previous three parts of the cycle. Though it doesn’t contain any role that demands the stamina of Siegfried’s hero Siegfried, it nonetheless requires that the performers of its two leading characters, Brünnhilde and Siegfried, sing their long final solos with unforgettable expressiveness, ranging from the gentlest tenderness to the magnificently heroic. But whatever challenges the singers face, it is the conductor who has a task that few manage to discharge to complete satisfaction.
Götterdämmerung is not only the longest of the Ring dramas, it also makes very different demands from the other three. Its texture is a radical departure, as to a lesser extent is Act III of Siegfried. The tissue of motifs — many dozens of which come from earlier in the tetralogy, but some of the most important originate here — is often almost defeatingly dense, and plays a vital role in establishing the sense of foreordained catastrophe that is oppressively present from the opening bar. It is this constant sense of the past-in-the-present that motifs make possible, and which makes ever-closer acquaintance with Götterdämmerung more and more impressive, and daunting.
To make sure that pretty well everything is heard the conductor has to combine lucidity of texture with precision, and there is no question that Farnes achieves that. I have hardly ever heard a cleaner, more accurate account of the score. But at the same time there must be, always, momentum, and in Act I, which is episodic, with long interludes, the movement towards the end can easily seem subject to delaying tactics unless the conductor is as much of a master of transition as the composer was. It wouldn’t be surprising if a first performance of a production failed in this respect — in fact, surprising if it didn’t. And I did feel the lack of the grand sweep that experience alone can guarantee. There were times when Farnes seemed so fascinated by the sinister harmonies of the work, and its extraordinary orchestration, that he could hardly bear to move things along.
I can’t believe that later performances will lack the urgency that I felt this one did. For instance, Waltraute’s narration, wonderfully sung by Susan Bickley, and among the most moving things in the Ring, was so slow that one would hardly have concluded that she is conveying an urgent message. It falls on deaf ears, of course, and Alwyn Mellor’s lofty response to it showed this Brünnhilde at her best, with a soaring, ecstatic higher register. Unfortunately, in the many lower parts of her role she disappeared from ear-shot, so it was a bumpy ride. Her betraying hero Siegfried was competently taken by Mati Turi, but apart from his indefatigably cheerful expression he had little in the way of interpretation to offer.
The inadequacies of the two leads was underlined by the superlative qualities of all the other singers. The Norns and the three Rhinemaidens — quite a lot of acting from both trios, more than from anyone else — were resplendent: I can’t help singling out Lee Bisset’s phenomenal Third Norn. The Gibichungs all had highly individual merits, too, with Eric Greene as one of the most interesting Gunthers I have seen. Mats Almgren is a Boris Karloff lookalike, with an uncentred voice but a great presence. The chorus — alas, their only chance to sing in the Ring — were thrilling. And I repeat that the orchestra is astounding. I shall be surprised if soon the whole thing isn’t.
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