This article represents the views of its author, G.B., not necessarily those of the C.C.S.

Das Rheingold
Opera North, dir. Peter Mumford
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Friday, 24 June 2011

Arts funding, as we're all aware, isn't exactly high on the list of most people's priorities when it comes to state expenditure. With jobs melting into thin air; with salaries bottoming out; with employment conditions deteriorating rapidly; the question of where the money comes from for yet another production of a Ring cycle is hardly the first one that springs to mind. Indeed, the last elections (and particularly the Labour party's embarrassing showing) demonstrated that there's a sizeable 'pro-austerity' constituency in the country. Most of the news coverage of labour unrest will at some point include a vox pop along the lines of: “I know we have to save money from somewhere, but my particular area is far too important to the long-term health of the economy to be subject to budget cuts.”

This particular production, by Opera North, certainly seems to bear the stamp of these austere times. There's precious little in the way of traditional staging—no sets, no stage dressing, no costume/make-up. There's little doubt that the costs of running this production must be significantly lower than average. That has to be a bonus for a company with extensive touring commitments (this particular production premièred at Leeds Town Hall on June 18th). Perhaps it would be churlish to mention in passing the list of corporate partners adduced by Opera North in the back of the programme notes...

The programme notes also describe this as a concert performance, but, as usual, this isn't quite the case. All of the actors appeared dressed for a cocktail party, as one would expect for a concert performance. But, whilst the actors were effectively confined to front-stage, they engaged throughout in various degrees of what can only be called miming. Alberich, for instance, when complaining of his inability to scale the rocks from which the Rheinmädchen taunt him, can be seen drawing his hand across an imaginary surface before examining his palm in bafflement. That, at least, was the presumed intention: in the event it looked more like he'd put his hand in some kind of unspeakable mess and was now trying to work out what it might have been. We also see the Rheinmädchen engaged at the start in something like a mimed maypole dance. The actors also entered and exited the stage as and when required, as if we were being treated to a regular staging.

This approach did provide some well-realised moments: Alberich transforming himself into a toad and then being carted off by Loge and Wotan was certainly a popular moment with much of the audience. But much of the rest of this mime show appeared faintly ridiculous. The weirdest and most annoying moments were surely Loge performing 'jazz hands' at every available opportunity, whether when describing the shimmering waters of the Rhine, the Rheinmädchen themselves, or the flames with which his character is associated.

The production notes inform us that director, Peter Mumford, "masterminded the employment of additional technology," and the use of video projections are clearly one of the big selling-points of this production. Video projections (sometimes they're described as video installations), it must be said, are the latest hit in productions of Wagner. For some, this is a sacrilegious intrusion of technology 'for its own sake' on material and on a medium that haven't any need of it (though video is rarely even referred to as technology nowadays, so passé has it become). Nonetheless, it can be of genuine service to a production, as seen in a recent production of Tristan.

Unfortunately for Mumford and Opera North, the video projections used here aren't merely utterly superfluous, they're also an onerous imposition. They include a handful of images—a mist enveloped peak and a placid water surface stick in the mind—that sit there unchanging no matter what shifts take place in either music or libretto. For example, when Donner summons a storm to disperse the clouds shrouding the way to Valhalla, the image on the large triptych of screens suspended above the stage defiantly persists in showing us a mist enveloped peak.

Worse still, the screens were used to provide occasional inter-titles culled from Michael Birkett's The Story of the Ring. On the one hand this was like sitting through a production intended for children, as it talked you through what was happening before your eyes; on the other hand (equally childish, in fact) it was like being tortured with a viewing of Star Wars—with inter-titles that were excruciatingly close to "Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away..." Given how weak the actual video material was, one might have expected the surtitles to appear on screen where almost the entire audience would presumably have been able to see them. For some bizarre reason, though, the surtitles were displayed on numerous very small screens strategically placed around the auditorium. They were exceptionally difficult to follow, and one couldn't avoid the impression of deliberate obstruction on the director's part.

Opera North have claimed that this, their first Ring cycle, "offers audiences the space to imagine Das Rheingold as they would like to see it," and, further, that this is "an interpretation of Wagner's call for an 'invisible theatre'." Hence the minimal staging. Such an explanation manages at once to be rather grand, and to operate on the level of an A- level art student (“it's whatever the audience want it to be...”). But if you're going to put forward such an explanation then you really should have the courage to offer a full concert performance with no staging at all. The singers should simply have been sat in a row at front-stage and made to stand when singing their respective parts.

Nothing would have been lost from this production if such a course had been taken, and perhaps something gained. As it is, Symphony Hall is better suited to a concert performance; lacking as it does an orchestral pit in which to hide away the players, opera performed here inevitably allows the musical aspects to assume centre-stage. The production notes anyway explicitly make this point, though the production itself does its utmost to refute it. The Orchestra of Opera North, meanwhile, played superbly throughout. Their pacing was immaculate, and they clearly had a firm grasp on the drama inherent in the musical score. The bank of tuned anvils (albeit very small ones) for the scenes in Niebelheim was a particular delight.

The singers almost matched the orchestra, though on one or two occasions they were drowned out by the sheer force mustered by the latter—again, we can probably ascribe this to Symphony Hall's lack of an orchestral pit. There were also a few occasions where the singing failed to make anything of the drama inherent in the libretto. In particular, Wotan's hailing of his newly built stronghold of Valhalla ("Vollendet das ewige Werk") merged seamlessly into what preceded and what followed it, where we would expect something more to be made of such a signal point in the narrative. An even greater failing in this respect was Alberich's first curse: "so verfluch' ich die Liebe!" is supposed to be a moment of genuine horror; in the best productions this renunciation is almost spat out. Again, here, it merged blandly into its surroundings.

Finally, that a Ring cycle is a gargantuan undertaking is a given. Opera North, then, must surely win an award for futility, electing as they have to perform what was intended as a four-day marathon not over four weeks, nor over four months, but—over a period of four years. Four years!


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