Saffron Opera Group’s Ring Cycle finally culminated in a direct, satisfyingly shattering Götterdämmerung, in which we felt the world change as the story left the gods behind, and brought the human love and tragedy of Brünnhilde and Siegfried firmly to the fore. As in all previous instalments, the Saffron Opera Group Orchestra filled the large stage, luxuriating in Saffron Hall’s superb acoustic, with singers generally singing at the front from music stands, with varying degrees of dramatic inspiration, but all with superb musicality. In this final instalment of a cycle which has been steadily delivered over twenty months, the singing was more perfectly consistent across the strong cast than ever before, and once again, we were treated to a musically direct, focused reading of Wagner which proved intellectually, as well as emotionally, engaging. The Saffron Opera Group Orchestra, conducted by Michael Thorne, generally negotiated Wagner’s myriad textures, moods and colours with warm accuracy; although timing was not always perfect, and the horn section still suffered occasionally from unfortunate problems which had previously surfaced for them in Siegfried, the crucial Funeral March was delivered with bitter magnificence, and elsewhere Thorne found many moments of fluid focus and melodic freshness.
It has been interesting to note how, throughout this cycle, the stark simplicity of a concert performance can shine fresh light on Wagner’s powerful inbuilt emotional dynamics; and, as the tide of leitmotifs began to swell and turn towards Götterdämmerung’s coruscating final scene, the connections, resolutions and contradictions of the whole cycle shone through the score, keeping my brain as busy as my ears. The miracle that Saffron Opera Group managed to achieve a consistency of cast, despite using busy international singers and performing each work months apart, allowed us to return throughout 2016 and 2017 to a recognisably coherent cycle, giving us an unusual chance to admire the professional focus of some singers: Elaine McKrill seemed able to pick up her magnificent Brünnhilde each time as if six months’ gap had been merely six hours, and Nicholas Folwell’s excellent Alberich reappeared in Hagen’s dream with identically superb nastiness and gloriously silken tone.
Elsewhere, we could notice steady evolutions in skill: Jonathan Stoughton’s Siegfried improved exponentially from Siegfried to Götterdämmerung. Stoughton’s tenor flowed, this time, from his very first notes with clean, flexible energy, and a real increase in his musical presence. Stoughton conveys confident, joyous command of his music, and when singing, his acting has also significantly stepped up, projecting a tenderly innocent, boyish Siegfried of immense charm and charisma, who went on a real and believable psychological journey through passion, magical blindness, and tragically misplaced, though honourable, confidence before his eventual betrayal and murder. Keeping his portrayal fully characterised when not singing is the natural next step for Stoughton in the ongoing development of an exceptionally promising talent. Nevertheless, this time Stoughton already felt a slightly better match for McKrill’s stunning Brünnhilde than previously, though the sensual connection between the lovers remained more imaginary than felt.
Elaine McKrill’s strong, noble and serene Brünnhilde, shining with innocence, was profoundly affecting as she first rejoiced in the glory of her experience of human love, then suffered the deep humiliation, both public and personal, of heartbreak. McKrill’s lyrical, agile soprano sailed skilfully through the demanding score, while her superb acting made for an utterly believable, naturally expressive heroine, capable of electrifying fury in her cry of outrage to Wotan, or her first realisation of Siegfried’s treachery. Poised and sympathetic, McKrill portrayed Brünnhilde as both devastated and enriched by her experience, finally speaking with the moral authority of suffering after Siegfried’s death (and his consequent moral exoneration, as the Gibichungs’ plot came to light). In a moving Immolation Scene, the themes of Nature’s regeneration were infused with overwhelming joy from the orchestra, while Brünnhilde’s sacrifice brought tears to more than just my eyes.
Julian Close’s burnished, brilliantly executed Hagen touched on the tragic dislocation of this character from the human world he has been forced to inhabit; unlike Siegmund, Hagen is fully aware of his role as a mercenary of Fate, and lives a life of unremitting, calculated cruelty, devoid of love even from the father who engendered him so callously. Close gave us some interesting hints of the pathos of Hagen’s inner desolation, whether bristling with aggression or smiling with dead-eyed determination, his thrillingly expressive bass both rich and clear throughout.
Gutrune, the sorceress whose actual level of evil we can never finally decide, given that she is so blind to the terrible eternal consequences of her momentary selfishness, was played with wicked charm, and sung with lovely softness, by Cara McHardy. McHardy’s excellent acting and admirable control produced a memorable Gutrune – and one to be reckoned with, projecting bags of malice and positively clucking with jealousy. At her side, Charles Johnston’s competent, full-voiced and well-drawn Gunther could only seem a little dull and inconsequential, because that is exactly how Wagner intends him – perhaps in memory of all those inconvenient husbands who had a tendency to get in the way of Wagner’s own (and thus, to him, far more interesting) romantic whims. It was, however, a great pity that Gutrune left the stage while Siegfried was expressed his magically-forced love for her, making Stoughton’s acting task exceptionally hard as his words referred, in direct terms, to someone neither he nor the audience could see.
Harriet Williams, as 2nd Norn, sent spines tingling with her fine tone and particularly skilled projection, while Catrin Aur demonstrated beautiful diction and plenty of vocal heft as 3rd Norn; Emma Curtis could sound a little vocally tense at times as 1st Norn, but the ripple of panic and fear from the Norns at the breaking of Fate’s rope touched us all. The Rhinemaidens (Rachel Chapman as Woglinde, Victoria Simmonds as Wellgunde and Niamh Kelly as Floßhilde) were a trio of well-matched sopranos, and nicely playful with Siegfried by the fatal riverbank. Deborah Humble made a brisk, tough but wonderfully sung Waltraute, her huge mezzo full of colour, though her control occasionally suffered.
Saffron Hall’s fabulous acoustic is undoubtedly designed for performances of this quality, but it is nevertheless a tribute to the determined vision, passion and commitment of all concerned in Saffron Opera Group, at every level, that such a fine Ring Cycle has been produced, outside London, to widespread acclaim in Wagnerian circles. Every performance has radiated with this group’s generous, sincerely committed and utterly infectious enthusiasm for Wagner and his work. It is therefore extremely heartening to note that, having burnt the world down for us with aplomb this year, they will be returning next year with a concert performance of Parsifal. No rest for the committed, then.