The Ring Cycle

Wagner aimed for the ‘total work of art’ with his Ring Cycle. Femke Colborne previews an ambitious production

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Der Ring des Nibelungen, the cycle of four operas by German composer Richard Wagner, is big in every sense of the word. Scored for a huge orchestra and with a plot worthy of JRR Tolkien, this epic 15-hour production is one of the most ambitious artistic creations of all time. But what if a production of the Ring Cycle included cinema screens providing visuals, background information and surtitles? Would the idea of watching the full cycle be a little less daunting?

Since 2012, Opera North has been attempting to answer that question with stripped-down, semi-staged versions of the four operas that make up the Ring. The results have been well received – the company’s productions of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung all won four and five-star reviews in the national press, with critics throwing around terms like “transcendent” and “tremendous”. Now, Opera North is bringing the full cycle of operas together to be performed as the composer intended, over the space of a few days. The action begins this month with two full cycles at Leeds Town Hall, and the full production will then tour to other venues around the UK.
This Ring Cycle is a curtain call for Opera North’s music director, Richard Farnes, who will step down when the tour comes to an end this summer.

“The Ring has historically always been staged in big, high-concept productions, and some people get frightened by that,” he points out. “They think they won’t understand it if they don’t know the piece well. We have made it as accessible as possible – it’s like going to the cinema, and you don’t even have to have seen the trailer. It has worked very well, and I think doing the whole cycle together will work even better.”

Born in 1813, Wagner had a dream of producing the “gesamtkunstwerk” – which translates as “total work of art”. As part of this ambition, he had his own theatre built in Bayreuth, southern Germany, with an orchestra pit beneath the stage so that the musicians were concealed from the audience to add to the sense of mystique. In Opera North’s production, however, the orchestra is fully visible. “The orchestra is actually the principal character of The Ring. No other character appears in all four of the operas. The orchestra carries the line and the singers jump on and off, like passengers on a train.”

The production team, including lighting and set designer Peter Mumford, have taken a minimalist approach to the staging. “We are letting the piece speak of itself,” says Farnes. “The costumes are very simple and there are no props. Everything is done through gestures and mime. That is crucial, because the music is so physical and powerfully descriptive that you can get away with it. Because of the leitmotifs and obvious thematic material, we almost know subliminally what is happening.”

Would Wagner have approved of such a radical approach to his magnum opus? “I think Wagner would have gone further and filmed the whole thing. If he’d been alive today, he would have been working in Hollywood – a kind of James Cameron character, but also writing his own music. I would very much imagine him embracing the whole thing.”

The Ring Cycle is at Leeds Town Hall from 23 April and the Lowry, Salford in June ( Find out if Femke Colborne can watch the full 15 hour production by following her live tweets from the Salford performance @bigissuenorth and her reviews at

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The Ring Cycle

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