Review: Die Walküre, Opera North (Saturday 14 July 2012)
Siegmund – Erik Nelson Warner
Sieglinde – Alwyn Mellor
Hunding – Clive Bayley
Wotan – Béla Perencz
Brünnhilde – Annalena Persson
Fricka – Katarina Karnéus
Valkyries – Miriam Murphy, Katherine Broderick, Jennifer Johnston, Emma Carrington, Meeta Raval, Madeleine Shaw, Antonia Sotgiu & Catherine Hopper
Artistic Consultant – Dame Anne Evans DBE
Concert Staging, Lighting & Projection Designer – Peter Mumford
Orchestra of Opera North
Conductor – Richard Farnes
Perhaps my expectations were too high after a near perfect Das Rheingold, but Opera North’s return for Die Walküre at The Lowry on the banks of the Manchester ship Canal was not as satisfying. In fact, if truth be told it was more than a little disappointing both in the casting department and the overall sweep – or lack of it – from Richard Farnes.
And at the end of the evening, the two strongest and most memorable performances were actually those that are traditionally seen as minor characters – Hunding and Fricka.
I have most recently seen Clive Bayley as Daland in the ENO production of The Flying Dutchman and as I said at the time, his was an impressive, strongly characterised performance. And it was the same here. His Hunding was vocally rich and resonant, smooth and consistent throughout his range. And his diction was perfect. The way he sneered “Wölfling” summed up not only the way he viewed Siegmund but his very approach to life – brutal and arrogant.
And every time I see Die Walküre I am forced to reassess Fricka as a character. Twice before – in New York with the incredible human performance by Stephanie Blythe, and in Hamburg with the formidable wife of Wotan played by Lilli Paasikivi – I have seen Fricka portrayed not as an incidental character as she is so often considered by directors (and conductors) but as a pivotal role in the unfolding story.
And at The Lowry Theatre, Katarina Karnéus delivered an excellent performance. Unlike the other characters, from her first appearance she inhabited the stage, striding around her husband and before she exited stage left, sneering at Brünnhilde. And as she left, having secured her hollow victory – for had she not succeeded who knows how the Ring would have unfolded – that simple wave of her wrist said it all – Fricka was a woman of significance. And vocally, bar a few minor problems of intonation – which I have commented on before – it was a strong, characterised performance. Karnéus revelled in Fricka’s words and they were delivered with steely conviction.
Alwyn Mellor was similarly a strong Sieglinde. Her voice rode above the orchestra with ease and what it lacked perhaps in colour it made up for in richness. Her singing in the First and Second Acts was incredibly strong but by the final act she was clearly tired and her O hehrstes Wunder! Herrliche Maid! sounded a little tight. But I see from the programme that she is scheduled to sing Brünnhilde in Paris in 2013 and, if she can resolve her pacing, that would be worth seeing.
Siegmund sounded like a role just ever so slightly outside the reach of Erik Nelson Warner. While he was a pleasant voice – although again without much sense of colour or dynamic inflection – it felt that even the First Act was just a little beyond his stamina. However he did recover admirably in the Second Act. As with Ms Mellor, it might just be a question of pacing himself correctly.
But it is a shame that the two major characters were such a disappointment overall.
The Brünnhilde of Annalena Persson was ultimately flawed. This is – pace Wotan – the principle role in The Ring cycle and it requires a soprano not only with heft, but one who has an iron grip on their technique. Persson’s voice can clearly cut through an orchestra and while she has a strong lower and middle range, as she moved above the stave her voice became uneven, shrill and suffered significant and uncomfortable intonation problems. And this was compounded as she forced her volume. It was a shame because literally in her closing moments I thought I caught a glimpse of potentially an amazing Brünnhilde. But I think it is a role she should in future approach carefully and perhaps with more study.
Wotan is certainly as big a casting challenge as his daughter and in my opinion it isn’t a role that Béla Perencz. While it was clear – as outlined in the programme’s biography – that he has had belcanto training – his voice was quite Italianate and there was no faulting his sense of legato or vocal colouring – he didn’t have the stamina. By the final scenes of the act he was vocally exhausted and as well as having quite significant intonation problems personally I found his verismo inflections – at Leb’ wohl for example – almost too distracting at times. If he does attempt this role in the future – and perhaps after some careful consideration – I hope he will be more Nordic god and less Pagliacci.
And for me the Valkyries were overly strident. The fact that they made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up wasn’t from an electrifying and compelling performance but rather that they seemed – almost to a part – to sing everything at the loudest volume all the time and with little vocal finesse.
After the loving and careful attention to detail from the cast of Das Rheingold I had to wonder if Dame Anne Evans was as involved as in this Die Walküre.
As for the staging, it was very basic even for a concert production. Unlike Das Rheingold, Peter Mumford didn’t seem to have developed anything other than the most basic ideas. The projections were for the most part uninspiring as was the lighting. And a small niggle, why ravens for the Valkyries? The ravens serve a different and unique role in Wagner’s Ring and they are definitely not designated as dead-warrior-carriers as far as I am aware.
So finally to Richard Farnes and the Orchestra of Opera North. As in Das Rheingold the playing of the orchestra was of an incredibly high standard. The strings were warm in that very European way, the woodwind were beautifully light and pointed and the brass suitably punchy.
Yet Farnes did not deliver a clear and cohesive performance and didn’t always pull out the orchestral colour and depth as he had in the first opera. The First Act was taken at quite a deliberate and measured pace. There is nothing wrong with that. Listen to Mark Elder’s recent recording for example. The Second Act was brisk enough with Farnes returning to a more measured tempo for the final Act. But personally it felt like Farnes was conducting a series of highlights with music in between. For example, in the First Act the closing section with all that wonderful music for Siegmund and Sieglinde seemed a little mechanical but more disappointingly, Wotan’s monologue in the Second Act seemed rushed and unarticulated with little attention to detail. Although I think for this Perencz must share some of the blame. And the closing scenes of the opera suffered too. Leb’Wohl was taken at what seemed an inordinate canter before Farnes slowed down the music to such an extent that the orchestra for the only time in the entire evening sounded messy at the cadences.
But when Farnes was in his stride the moments were glorious. The dialogue between Brünnhilde and Siegmund was both dramatic and otherworldly as it should be, and those moments with just Brünnhilde and the wind sections in the closing scenes were achingly poignant in terms of the colour and transparency he elicited from the orchestra. It was at those moments that you could glimpse Persson as Brünnhilde. Nowhere else.
After such a magnificent Das Rheingold perhaps it was inevitable that Die Walküre would disappoint. It’s a giant-sized leap from the opening opera of the quartet and I feel that this Die Walküre needs more work and attention to detail. I hope that this happens before Opera North perform the complete cycle – rumoured to be in 2015/2016 – but also earlier than that, before Farnes tackles Siegfried.