Sunday, June 26, 2011


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46 years ago, I had just begun studying Aeronautical Engineering at Imperial College in London. Presumably as an attempt to expand the minds of the students and ensure that at least some of them ceased to be complete Philistines, they offered a set of lunchtime lectures on a range of subjects far removed from Engineering.

I soon found myself immersed in a series of talks on Wagner’s Ring Cycle. I learnt about leitmotivs together with a smattering about the German and Scandinavian legends which form the basis of the vast story. The main thing the lecturer wanted to explain however was the music, and the way Wagner moved the tonality of music on over the 25 years or so it took him to write it. Listen to music before him, and after him, and there is no doubt that Wagner changed the sound of music for ever.

Although I dutifully went to all the lectures, I’m afraid, at the age of 19, the lure of other student activities, mainly those involving the many pubs which littered Knightsbridge and Chelsea, took over my social life, and, as a result, the next stage in my exposure to Wagner’s Operas lay dormant for several decades.

Until, that is, last night.

I had booked to see the first of the four Ring Cycle Operas, Das Rheingold, which was being performed in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. Opera North, based in Leeds was taking on the enormous undertaking of performing the four works, one a year ending in 2014. It was described as a Concert performance, and I confess I didn’t quite understand how it was all going to work.

I had chosen a ticket up in the circle where the whole stage was laid out in front of me. The orchestra, which being Wagner, was definitely of the Full Fat variety and  completely covered the stage. He wrote his music for huge forces, and here laid out in readiness, as well as the normal complement of instruments, were six Harps, a hugely augmented Brass section and a range of anvils and other percussion which would be brought into play during the evening. In front of the players there was a narrow strip, maybe 8 feet wide which, I presumed, was going to be the “stage” for the singers.

Das Rheingold was the shortest of the four operas, although it lasts for about 160 minutes - Without a break.

The music is continuous for the best part of two and three quarter hours. It starts with one of those spine tingling moments when you’re not sure if the first bass sounds are actually there or not. One minute the Hall is in total silence, and the next there is a sound of almost "somethingness" which, Oh so gradually, emerges and becomes the orchestral Introduction and Prelude.

From that moment, I was swept away, only coming back to earth nearly three hours later. The orchestra played beautifully under its conductor Richard Farnes. The Opera company clearly faced a dilemma over how to stage it, without any scenery or any costumes. They solved it by dressing the cast up in varying forms of evening dress or lounge suits for the men and long, dark dresses for the female singers. Above the stage were three vast projection screens, onto which were fed various image sequences, suggesting the mood or location of the current action. We had water, clouds, high mountain peaks and underground caverns, as well as molten metal bubbling away. Also appearing from time to time was the odd caption imparting a bit of story telling information.

The singers were uniformly excellent, although I thought Fasolt (James Creswell), one of the two giants, who, to me at least showed a startling resemblance in both dress and manner to the Kray Twins, was exceptional. He had a voice which was both beautiful and strong and he came across as extremely “Giant-like”. The German Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke who played Loge as a devious character with more than a hint of Graham Norton about him on occasions, was also terrific to watch and listen to.

The Hall itself added greatly to the enjoyment of the evening. Every time I go there, I am astounded at the acoustics of the place. From the quietest, almost soundless passages to the enormous climaxes, where you hoped someone was holding the roof of the Hall on, the clarity and subtlety of the music was perfect. Every instrument could be placed individually, from the gentle harps to the “calico ripping” brass.

I thought Richard Farnes paced the music excellently. To my ears, it had an open feel to it, and it all flowed in an uncoloured way which allowed the textures to breathe and develop naturally. The climaxes were quite breathtaking and hit me almost physically.

I was worried that the sight of such a huge orchestra in front of me would impose itself and always be in your mind, but in truth, it just disappeared from your thoughts as you concentrated on the singers.

It’s a small gripe but I don’t think the large screens worked as well as they might. To me, the images were neither Fish nor Fowl, and when, sporadically, a piece of information appeared and disappeared, I found it all a bit distracting, in a Powerpointy sort of way. With the whole work being sung in German, there were half a dozen or so large LCD TVs littered around the Hall, displaying the English translation. Unfortunately, they were all mounted at the front of the auditorium, so the poor souls up in the Gods (ie me) were just unable to read them. There was clearly room for a couple of additional screens closer to the back of the Hall, and this would have been much more helpful. Personally, I would have been quite happy if they’d projected the words directly onto the centre of the three screens, and everyone (ie me again) could then have read them without difficulty.

However, that is a minor point. The time simply rushed past, and I was completely carried with it all away into another world for the evening. Beautifully played, beautifully sung, it was an absolute and utter triumph. Very powerful and quite overwhelming. 

I caught the last train home to Shrewsbury, after walking to the station in the pouring rain, with the music still driving its way around my brain. I’m writing this a day later, and it’s still there. I’m already onto the website to book early for next year. By the time the story is finished, it will be 50 years from the time I took my first steps at University to learn about this glorious music, so - Roll on 2014.



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