Usually, a Ring Cycle hits you as a sudden burst of musical and philosophical intensity, its four huge evenings sprawling across one week. In practical terms, your own life ends up on hold for the Ring as a result: real life pauses while the Ring is stolen, forged, wielded, misused, tricked away, traded, hoarded, misunderstood, given as a love token, and finally rescued and returned to Nature. Rejoining the real world after a complete Ring Cycle can feel strange: we notice greedy Alberichs, vengeful Frickas, world-weary Wotans, ruthless Hagens and callous Gibichungs staring back at us from newspapers, the television, or even perhaps across the office floor, as the cumulative effect of all four nights hits us with one final, enlightening punch. However, when a Ring Cycle is delivered over a series of months, rather than days, its effect is different. The Ring makes a brief incursion into our consciousness with one quarter of its story, then retreats, leaving those problems to linger on in your mind until next time introduces fresh questions. Our own life experiences, in that extended interim, may change our reactions and responses to the next instalment of a story which, if seen half a year earlier, might have struck us rather differently. Saffron Opera Group’s slow-burning Ring (which began in February 2016, and will finish with a Götterdämmerung in September 2017) offers us the chance to incorporate the Ring steadily into our lives over two years, with performances (so far) of admirable quality and thought-provoking intensity.
Eight months ago, we had their first instalment, a vivid concert performance of Wagner’s preparatory evening (or Vorabend), Das Rheingold; on Sunday we had our first night of his music drama proper, Die Walküre. Often the favourite of the four, thanks to its searing themes of love, violence and self-sacrifice, Die Walküre easily stands alone as a powerful piece of drama, and in Saffron Opera Group’s sensitive reading I found myself in tears at the crucial moments of all three acts. Elisabeth Meister’s luminous, vulnerable Sieglinde was the emotional heart of the evening, an innocent victim of Wotan and Hunding alike, hungry for love, yet almost too damaged to hope or trust anyone for long. Meister’s elegant and supple soprano lets her achieve a delicate, almost fragile softness which brought out the sheer beauty of Sieglinde’s lines, always well supported by the vocal strength and command needed to express any Wagnerian female, especially a child of Wotan, and the mother of the world’s greatest hero. Her final appeal to the Valkyries to save a mother (“rette die Mutter!”) was heartbreakingly direct, while her gradual recognition of her long-lost brother came across with all the ecstatic joy of a lifetime’s quest, with Sieglinde finally collapsing into tears of relief as Siegmund drew Nothung from the tree. Both children of chaos, neglected and terrorised by life, Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love felt immediate, intoxicating, and desperate.
Michael Bracegirdle’s passionate and determined Siegmund was another outstanding contribution, navigating sensitively between the assured conviction of a proven hero, and the tragic uncertainty of a man abandoned by a father he never truly knew, constantly finding himself embroiled in quarrels he can neither justify nor solve. From an authoritative and mellifluous start, Bracegirdle went on to deliver a superb Siegmund full of integrity and honour. Bracegirdle’s lyrical tenor was well up to the challenge of the role; the Winterstürme duet came across beautifully as Bracegirdle settled into its phrasing, and his cries of “Wälse!” had a fantastic sense of urgency.
Julian Close gave us a fabulously surly Hunding, conveyed with a wonderfully rich and dark bass, and a good sense of ugly menace towards both lovers. The quality of Close’s contribution was furthered by the orchestra’s excellent horn section, representing Hunding with panache at other key moments in the score. Sarah Pring, reprising her queenly Fricka from February, again endowed Wotan’s bitter wife with more nobility, and a more palpable sense of duty, than I have ever seen before, making a superb case for Fricka as a guardian of Destiny, rather than a quarrelsome hindrance to it. Pring’s luscious mezzo, magnetic stage presence and superb diction made Fricka a real force to be reckoned with, leaving Wotan looking like a cheap sophist by her side.
Elaine McKrill, fresh from a very successful Elektra at Theater Magdeburg, gave us a beautifully clear Brünnhilde with a lovely sense of girlish joy and energy, her voice well up to the role’s stratospheric challenges, never faltering in delivery or poise. In her final scene, McKrill’s soprano still sounded as lithe and supple as her first entry; her Brünnhilde made an exciting transformation from idealistic adolescent to incipient wisdom as she marvelled at Siegmund’s strength of love.
Andrew Greenan’s fine bass gave an assured and powerful musical account of Wotan, with moving cries of rage at Fricka’s interference in his plans to recover the Ring. However, his acting did not bring out the many subtle complexities (and contradictions) of this most intriguing character. Wotan began as a rather jolly Father of the Gods, only to become more and more withdrawn and inanimate as his plans went wrong; less of the checkmated philosopher king, more an old man plunging into a long and silent tantrum. This is certainly one way of playing Wotan, but it did make his long dialogue with Brünnhilde in Act 3 rather less exciting, or illuminating, than it might have been if Greenan had allowed himself a little more animation. Still, his final farewell (“Leb’ wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind! Du meines Herzens heiligster Stolz!”) did show a little fatherly love momentarily breaking through the dull crust of his resentment.
We were treated to a glorious cohort of Valkyries, whose fabulous evening dresses alone would have struck the toughest of heroes into dumbfounded admiration, headed by the exceptional Kristin Sharpin (Gerhilde); Cara McHardy (Helmwige); Melanie Lodge (Waltraute); Emma Curtis (Schwertleite); Catrin Aur (Ortlinde); Emma Carrington (Siegrune); Mae Heydorn (a bright, engaging Rossweisse); Magdalen Ashman (Grimgerde). Setting out on their “Hojotoho!” chorus with infectious enthusiasm, the Valkyries sang with relish and skill, delivering shining battle cries, as well as conspiratorial banter, with lovely tone and slick timing.
Michael Thorne, conducting the Saffron Opera Group Orchestra, again achieved some wonderful moments. The orchestra generally sustained and supported the singers with confident enthusiasm throughout the evening, constantly contributing tension and colour. A very fine cello solo when Sieglinde offered Siegmund water was a particular highlight. The revelation of Nothung, the sword left by Wotan for Siegmund, felt utterly magical, conveyed entirely by the orchestra. However, I still felt (as in their earlier Rheingold) that timings occasionally went awry; the violent rhythms of the opening storm seemed more than normally wayward, even sludgy, and the fire music seemed only ever set to smoulder away, rather than blaze up fiercely, to finish. Nevertheless, Saffron Opera Group’s generally triumphant and assured Walküre promises very well for their whole cycle – which will continue with Siegfried (12 February 2017).