Last Saturday, my Dad, stepmum and I took in some culture – to be specific, Siegfried, the third part of Wagner’s operatic meisterwerk, Der Ring des Nibelungen, aka The Ring Cycle. It started at 4.30pm and finished at 10.15. That’s what I call a culture hit.
It was a semi-staged production by Opera North, at Leeds Town Hall – an impressive Victorian edifice which dominates the northern part of the city centre. I was a touch dubious beforehand, as I hadn’t been that impressed by my only previous experience of watching semi-staged opera, Candide at the South Bank some years ago. But it actually worked very well – with the orchestra on stage, the singers in front, and a screen at the back showing projections of not only the surtitles, but also some narration and an array of suitable images. The singers acted well and there were some very nice touches – like Fafner the dragon removing his red tie as he sang his death aria, symbolising the blood pouring from his mortal wound. I found the lack of a set and on-stage action meant that the music took, well, centre-stage, making me really appreciate the way Wagner weaves together his leitmotifs and uses the orchestra to both express emotions and show actions.
I was expecting operatic fireworks, a great sweeping epic of music, and certainly got that, but I had forgotten how much humour is in there as well. The young Siegfried starts the opera as, to be honest, a bit of a douchebag; his stupidity provided quite a few laughs, as did his duplicitous mentor Mime.
The only drawback to the evening was that, sitting in a crowded theatre on the warmest day of the year thus far, it was absolutely roasting hot. And it didn’t help that the whole first act is set in a blacksmith’s workshop, and the screen showed pictures of flames and glowing coals. We could certainly feel the heat from the forge while Siegfried made his sword.
When I told the world about this experience, via the medium of Twitter, one of my friends commented that she ‘didn’t know I was a Wagner person’. Well, I suppose I’m a pretty softcore Wagner person, having never even contemplated entering the lottery to get on the ten-year waiting list to get tickets to the Bayreuth festival. But I have been one for a long time: my Dad introduced me to the Ring at far too tender an age – at, I recall, about the same time he read me The Hobbit, leaving me with a lifelong confusion as to when Wotan is going to turn up in Lord of the Rings, or Bilbo Baggins in Das Rheingold. So it’s all his fault how I’ve turned out.
It was the first Wagner I’d seen for many years, and I had forgotten how much better it is live. Sadly I’ve already missed Opera North’s productions of the first two parts of the Ring Cycle, but I’ll be back next year then for the final instalment: Gotterdammerung. Which is German for Twilight of the Gods. You don’t mess with that.
NB: Daniel Barenboim is conducting The Ring in the Proms this year: the first part, Das Rheingold, can be heard on Radio 3 this Monday at 7pm. If this post has in any way inspired you to check out a bit of Wagner, that would be a good place to start. And it’s only short – by Wagnerian standards (3 1/2 hours).