When one mentions Wagner, Leeds, England, does not immediately come to mind. In fact, when one circumscribes the master’s works to The Ring Cycle, or one of its four operas, one thinks about the major opera houses of the world. Such is the magnitude of effort, financial commitment, singing and orchestral excellence required that only the largest houses can afford it and can attract the quality of performers who can take on this monstrosity of a work, or for that matter, any of his later works
My wife and I were travelling in England in June 2012 and had found that Opera North would be producing Die Walküre, the second of Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas, and for most people, the most popular. Not being a major house, could Opera North produce a credible performance?
Opera North came into existence in 1972 out of a recognition that there needed to be a significant opera company outside of London. Initially under the aegis of the English National Opera, Opera North found its independence a few years later, and currently produces nine operas per year with an annual budget of more than £11 million. This is more than twice as large as Edmonton Opera. It performs in Leeds, Birmingham, Gateshead and Salford Quays. This year, Opera North’s calendar calls for Don Giovanni, Faust, Otello, La Clemenza di Tito, La voix humaine and Dido and Aeneas, with more to follow in the summer program. Clearly, this is an adventurous company.
Its current general director is Richard Mantle, who in the early 1990s held the same position with Edmonton Opera. His reign was known for excellent productions, though not always appreciated by the locals. I remember a Julius Caesar by Handel done on a stage full of sand, and Caesar in a business suit and barefoot (because of the sand, you see). Another was Janáček's Jenufa, for which the tenor succumbed to some illness on opening day. At the last minute, Richard flew in a performer from Chicago who arrived five minutes before the performance was to start, sang the part and was put back on a plane to sing the same role the next night in Chicago. The latter company was furious when they heard what their tenor had done; he was supposed to be resting that day, but for us, it was a memorable performance.
Under-appreciated in the colonies, Richard moved back to his native country and has been producing great opera in Leeds and other centres in northern England ever since.
Richard said staging a full production of The Ring Cycle would bankrupt the company, but producing it in concert version, one opera per year, was achievable. We heard nearly 100 musicians perform Die Walküre, this year’s offering. Opera North has its own orchestra of 53 players, and supplemented this with freelance musicians from the region, making a total of 98, a respectable size for a Wagnerian performance. The violins may have sounded a bit thin at times, but the horns were spectacular, filling the hall with that typically bold, and occasionally overpowering, Wagnerian sound.
The principal singers were dressed in formal wear (their own, so the company saved even on costumes). They were excellent, with Brünnhilde especially standing out. Video and still projection behind the orchestra captured the mood of each scene, and occasionally told the backstory, for those not already familiar with this complex tale.
Other than the fact that the Town Hall is an old building with no air conditioning and it was insufferably hot, especially in the third act, it was a wonderful evening.
We were guests of Richard's at this performance (arranged by Sandra Gajic, the Edmonton Opera CEO) and enjoyed telling him about progress in Edmonton, about which both he and his wife seem to retain favourable memories. As well, we enjoyed the wine and subsequent dinner served during the second intermission. This was typically reserved for donors, but since it is the same people at all the operatic events in Leeds (we have the same situation in Edmonton), we were minor celebrities. People were amazed that we would have come such a distance to see an opera. We have travelled farther for opera and will likely continue to do so. Our dinner was in an elegant room with tuxedoed servers. Others, less privileged, were eating out of picnic baskets they had brought for the long intermission.
By the way, this habit of having one short intermission and one long is typically an English and German custom, and perhaps was dreamed up as an accommodation to the Wagnerian scale of operatic evenings. One cannot endure six hours without eating, so the second intermission is usually an hour or more, and people bring their dinner with them to the theatre, or make other more interesting arrangements. At Glyndebourne, they sit on the grass with their food baskets and bottle of wine, and enjoy the outdoors before going back in to see gods and nibelungs kill each other.
This concert format is something that Edmonton Opera should consider for a larger opera. We have never had the more ambitious works of Wagner here, and perhaps this concert version of the second Ring opera is possible.
Siegmund – Erik Nelson Werner
Sieglinde – Alwyn Mellor
Hunding – Clive Bayley
Wotan – Béla Perencz
Brünnhilde – Annalenna Persson
Fricka – Katarina Karnéus
Conductor – Richard Farnes
Gabe Shelley is a management consultant in Edmonton and an opera lover. He and his wife, Connie, travel the world for great opera. He has served on the Edmonton Opera board and continue to support its exciting future. Currently, he is a part of the artistic committee.