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Michael Weinus as Siegmund and Lee Bisset as Sieglinde
30 Jun 2016

Die Walküre, Opera North

A day is now a very long time indeed in politics; would that it were otherwise. It certainly is in the Ring, as we move forward a generation to Die Walküre.

Die Walküre, Opera North

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Michael Weinus as Siegmund and Lee Bisset as Sieglinde

Photo credit: Clive Barda (2016)


I had two principal reservations for the ‘first day’ proper of the trilogy ‘with preliminary evening’, the odd minor niggle, and otherwise nothing but praise. Opera North continues to put many starrier, yet in no sense superior, companies to shame.

Robert Hayward’s Wotan was for me the weakest link. It was not a bad performance, and his facial expressions conveyed a great deal (at least for someone as lucky as I to be seated towards the front of the Stalls, or indeed for those watching on the big screen in the Clore Ballroom, for which many thanks should go to the Southbank Centre). His vowels were often odd, though, and there was less of an expressive range than one might have hoped for. Otherwise, there was little to complain about in the cast, and, as I said, much to praise. I have heard more heroic Siegmunds than Michael Weinius, but his was a thoughtful, eminently musical performance throughout. Siegmund’s love for his sister-bride was palpable. And how could it not be, given so fine a performance as we heard from Lee Bisset? For me, she was the star of the show: no mere victim, but a woman with agency, however much circumstances - and bourgeois society -might have repressed her. I cannot instantly recall a more compleat Sieglinde ‘in the flesh’, perhaps because I have not heard one.

Yvonne Howard’s triumphant - though for how long? - Fricka was again pretty much everything it should have been. Her dialectical path to victory over her husband chilled as it must, not least since the orchestra (on which more soon) told so very different a story, a story of, in Wagner’s celebrated phrase, the ‘purely human’. Her vassal, Hunding, was in the excellent hands - and voice - of James Creswell. Brutal authoritarianism is the character’s stock-in-trade; so it was that of his interpreter. Latent slavery in the family,’ we learn in both The German Ideology of Wagner’s contemporaries, Marx and Engels, and in Hunding’s treatment of Sieglinde, ‘is the first form of property. … Division of labour and private property are, after all, identical expressions.’ And Wagner never had any doubt that marriage was slavery; nor did we. Kelly Cae Hogan made for a wonderfully impressive Brünnhilde, her transformation as witness to the truest of love both plausible and highly moving. Hers, moreover, seemed to be a staged performance in all but name; this was certainly an artist who lived the role. All of the Valkyries were on excellent form. One might have taken dictation from them individually, and yet their ensemble was equally excellent. I doubt I have heard finer.

That other reservation was Richard Farnes’s conducting of the first act. It certainly was not anything to which anyone could reasonably object. However - and mine seems to be very much a minority report here - I did not really find that it caught fire until toward the end of the final scene, just, actually, as fire began to blaze as part of the (now somewhat irritating) projections above the stage. As soon as we returned after the first interval, there was, by contrast, no letting up. It is the mark of a great Wagner conductor that he can weld the second act of Die Walküre together as not only a convincing whole, but perhaps as the most profoundly moving act in the entire Ring (at least until one comes to the next, and the next!) Amongst conductors I have heard ‘live’ in this work, Bernard Haitink and Daniel Barenboim have proved themselves true masters in that respect. Farnes now joins their company. There was, both here and in the third act, an almost infinite variegation of tempo, without ever losing sight of the whole.

Orchestral balances were just as fine, likewise the often wondrous playing of the Orchestra of Opera North. If I found the strings a little subdued in the first act, they were, by the time of Wotan’s Farewell, not far off a match for a great Central European orchestra, with a sheen to match. The otherworldliness of what we heard during the Annunciation of Death could scarcely have been outdone, brass and timpani playing their roles as the characters-cum-commentators they are. As Ludwig Feuerbach wrote, in his Thoughts on Death and Immortality, a crucial, acknowledged influence upon Wagner: ‘Only when the human once again recognises that there exists not merely an appearance of death, but an actual and real death, a death that completely terminates the life of an individual, only when he returns to the awareness of his finitude will he gain the courage to begin a new life and to experience the pressing need for making … that which is actually infinite [death] into the theme and content of his entire spiritual activity.’ The orchestra was not the least of Wagner’s instruments on this evening in having us realise the full truth of that message. And so, Siegmund’s heroism proved to be as much that of the orchestra as his own - which is just as it should be.

Mark Berry

Richard Wagner, Die Walküre

Siegmund: Michael Weinius; Sieglinde: Lee Bisset; Hunding: James Creswell; Wotan: Robert Hayward; Brünnhilde: Kelly Cae Hogan; Fricka: Yvonne Howard; Gerhilde: Giselle Allen; Ortlinde: Kate Valentine; Waltraute: Heather Shipp; Schwertleite: Claudia Huckle; Helmwige: Katherine Broderick; Siegrune: Sarah Castle; Grimgerde: Fiona Kimm; Rossweisse: Madeleine Shaw. Concert Staging, Design Concept, Lighting, Projection: Peter Mumford; Associate Director: Joe Austin. Orchestra of Opera North/Richard Farnes. Royal Festival Hall, London, Wednesday 29 June 2016.

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