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The Lowry
13-18 June

Day four: Götterdämmerung

If I were to compile a list of Ring Cycle dos and don’ts, it would probably begin with the following: do not attempt Götterdämmerung with a hangover.

I’d been out for a few drinks the night before and had a big, carb-heavy lunch, so by the beginning of Act 1, I was in the throes of a monumental afternoon slump (the start time for this one was 3.30pm). The Norns predicting the end of the world, the horribly cynical plotting of the Gibichungs and Siegfried’s awful betrayal of Brünnhilde – it would be enough to dampen the spirits of even the most sprightly concert-goer, but by the time I emerged into the daylight after two hours I was practically losing the will to live.

Poor Brünnhilde! It seems to me that she is the only character in the Ring who always acts with complete integrity, even if she tends to be swayed a little too much by her emotions at times.

Luckily, the first interval was an hour long this time so I had plenty of time to recover myself. Act 2, a mere snip at just 1h 10mins, rolls along at a good pace and sets the scene for the denouement. Highlights included the rousing sounds of the Opera North chorus as Hagen summoned them to battle, and Kelly Cae Hogan’s increasingly impressive Brünnhilde.

There was a palpable sense of excitement as the audience took their seats for Act 3. Everyone was waiting for the famous Immolation Scene, where Brünnhilde takes control and seals the fate of the gods and the universe. By now many of the faces around me had become familiar, and a few expectant smiles were exchanged. There’s a certain sense of camaraderie that develops between people sharing such an intense experience.

Spoiler alert: everyone dies. But the ring is returned to the bottom of the river where it belongs, so their sins are redeemed and a new world order can now begin.

As stories go, it could not get any more epic. I knew Wagner was ambitious but now, having experienced the full Ring Cycle, I find it frankly astonishing that someone could have the arrogance to produce a work of art that is not only so gigantic in scope but also so profoundly serious in its themes and messages. Wagner really must have been one of the most egotistical men who have ever lived.

But here’s the thing: no one would bother to keep putting on a show like this if it wasn’t utterly brilliant. And it is. The story, the music, the fact that every scene matters and contributes to the earth-shattering power of the ending – I have certainly never seen anything like it.

Earlier today, I met up with some friends to go for a Sunday morning run. They had chosen the route, and on meeting them I asked where we were going. Salford Quays – as if I hadn’t already spent enough time there this week.

As we jogged through the square in front of the Lowry, eerily empty now, I couldn’t help feeling that something really special had come to an end. What am I going to do with my evenings now that I don’t have Wagner any more?

It’s been an incredible experience and I would recommend it to anyone who loves music, drama and spectacle. I’ll see you in Bayreuth.

Day three: Siegfried
Thursday afternoon. While most of the country was watching England v Wales, I was on my way to watch a different kind of drama: the illegitimate grandchild of a god defeating a dragon and rescuing a warrior maiden from a ring of fire. Standard weekday evening.

I’d brought another packed tea, but when I arrived at the Lowry I realised with horror that I’d left my emergency snacks on the kitchen worktop. I bought a packet of Minstrels to compensate, scoffed down half the packet and took my seat. This one was only about half an hour longer than the last one. That would be fine, right?

Act 1 was basically about a sword. By now the plot has gone way beyond anything I can summarise in a blog post, but suffice to say this sword is really, really important. It’s broken, and no one seems to be able to mend it. There’s a lot of furnace action, accompanied by some cool sound effects in the percussion, and eventually the sword is restored to its former glory (by Siegfried, obviously, because his name is the title of the opera).

In Act 2, Siegfried takes his new sword, goes off exploring, kills a dragon and has a conversation with a bird in the forest who tells him to go and rescue the warrior maiden Brünnhilde from a burning ring of fire on top of the mountain. It’s all gone a bit Magic Roundabout at this point, and by the second interval I was in need of some fresh air.

Act 3 is basically an extremely long and drawn-out first date, as Siegfried fights his way through the flames, wakens the sleeping Brünnhilde and attempts to charm her into marrying him. She’s been asleep for 20 years so she needs a bit of warming up, but eventually she agrees and the opera ends on a note of love and triumph.

As with Die Walküre, Wagner left the musical highlights to the final act in Siegfried. It’s hard to put into words just how powerful this music is, but I found myself once again having to fight back tears as Siegfried and Brünnhilde battled their fears and vulnerability in the face of love. We’ve all been there.

On the tram on the way home, I overheard a woman saying: “It becomes so real, doesn’t it? It’s almost like the opera becomes your reality and your actual life isn’t real any more.”

I have so say I kind of agree with her. Between Acts 2 and 3, I came out of the theatre to discover that Manchester city centre had been flooded and Jo Cox had been murdered. It really did feel as though I had spent the past hour and a half in another world – not a better world than this one, because the world of the Ring certainly does contain suffering and pain and sin as well as love and beauty, but one into which I had truly and completely escaped, if only for a short time.

Perhaps that’s the appeal of the Ring Cycle – it’s so gigantic that you can’t help being completely sucked in by it. This is still the 19th century and we have not yet been introduced to the Verfremdungseffekt and ideas about theatre making the audience think and act, rather than merely be swept away into another world.

I am starting to see why people travel to all corners of the globe to watch this work again and again. The Ring takes over your life for a week – but maybe that’s the whole point.

Day two: Die Walküre

Leaving the house at 3.30pm to go to a concert felt rather odd. As I crossed the park towards the tram stop, the air was hazy and smelled of summer. People were walking their kids home from school and heading out for an ice cream or a game of football, and I was about to spend five hours sitting in a dark theatre. This had better be good.

I busied myself on the tram with a game of Wagnerite-spotting. It wasn’t very difficult – the men in particular seem to have a kind of uniform: a tweed or velvet jacket, floppy hair (or a bald head, depending on age), glasses and khaki trousers.

I had planned meticulously for the tonight’s two intervals, with a packed tea in my bag, a bottle of water and a banana in case of emergency.

Act 1 went by so quickly that I got a bit ahead of myself and had a glass of wine in the interval.

This was a grave tactical error, since by the end of Act 2 I was feeling prohibitively sleepy. After wolfing down my packed tea outside by the docks, I headed back inside to perk myself up with a coffee.

I needn’t have bothered with the caffeine boost, because the beginning of Act 3 is about as rousing a piece of theatre as I have ever seen. The exquisite music of the Ride of the Valkyries, plus the sound of nine women singing together on stage, sent shivers down my spine.

I’m not going to attempt to describe the plot of Die Walküre, because by this point things have got rather complicated. But I still feel confident that I know what is going on, so all credit to Opera North for the storytelling.

All I will say is that if Das Rheingold was a bit Lord of the Rings, Die Walküre is something like a cross between King Lear and The Sleeping Beauty.

If that sounds a bit epic, it is – and it’s made ten times more epic by the incredible music. I was properly welling up by the middle of Act 3, during the heart-wrenching exchange between Wotan and Brünnhilde.

The singers were all excellent but I must give a special mention to Kelly Cae Hogan, who brought a touching warmth and vulnerability to Brünnhilde, and Lee Bisset, whose anguished cries as Sieglinde soared piercingly above the orchestra.

The balance was very good throughout and the orchestral playing superb, particularly in the Ride of the Valkyries and the shimmering fire music that brings Die Walküre to a close.

We are only half way through, but I can already see that this is a work of art that really gets to the heart of love, sin and human suffering.

Follow @bigissuenorth where Femke Colborne is live tweeting the Ring Cycle and check back tomorrow for part three of her review.

Day one: Das Rheingold

Fifteen hours of opera. That’s two whole working days. Or a long-haul flight, but without the refreshments (and you’re not allowed to fall asleep).

When I signed up to watch Opera North’s Ring Cycle, my mind was filled with doubts. Would I understand the plot? Would I enjoy the music? Would my stomach rumble? Would I need to pee? Why on earth had I agreed to put myself through this?

Last night, the evening of the first opera (Das Rheingold) arrived and I found myself being driven to the Lowry in a taxi through the rain, filled with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

I had deliberately avoided doing any research about the plot or music. Opera North’s production claims to offer an introduction to the Ring Cycle, accessible even to those who have never seen it before. I knew the cycle included the Ride of the Valkyries (the music from Apocalypse Now), and that at some point there were women in horned helmets (I think). But that was about it.

(Disclaimer: I am not totally new to Wagner. I have previously watched a concert performance of Siegfried, and even sung in a concert version of Die Meistersinger a few years ago as a member of the Hallé Choir. That’s the reason I’ve always been curious about watching the full Ring Cycle.)

The first thing I noticed on arriving at the Lowry was that everyone in the audience looked pretty normal. I don’t know what I had been expecting – lederhosen and horned helmets? (Wagnerites have a reputation for being classical music’s most geeky fans – like Trekkies or Deadheads). It was also extremely busy – obviously there are plenty of people out there who are as crazy as me.

The lights went down, the orchestra started playing and I braced myself. This one was 2h 40mins with no interval, so I was going to have to get comfortable.

I needn’t have worried. The evening flew by, I didn’t switch off once and I think I even understood most of the plot. It goes something like this: a dwarf makes a ring from some gold he finds in a river. Whoever wears the ring will be granted eternal magic powers. (Think you’ve heard this somewhere before? You’re not the only one.)

Meanwhile, the gods, who live nearby, are having some trouble with their builders. The builders (who are giants) are demanding the goddess Freia as payment. The gods don’t want to give her away, so they ask if there’s anything the builders will accept instead. They’ve heard about the magic ring, so they demand that.

The gods go and try to steal the ring from the dwarf and there’s a big fight but eventually they bring it back to their house and hand it over to the builders. But then Mother Earth appears and tells them the ring is cursed and will bring death and suffering. As the opera comes to a close, Wotan, the king of the gods, can’t help feeling that something terrible is going to happen.

There! And I didn’t even fall asleep (although I’m pretty sure the guy next to me nodded off at one point).

It was also wonderful to hear the Opera North orchestra playing Wagner’s fantastic music, to witness the sight of six harps on the stage (and the rest), and to experience first-hand Wagner’s use of leitmotifs – themes in the music to represent the different events and characters. The plodding music of the giants (builders) was particularly striking, as was the soaring string motif to represent Freia.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the week – although Das Rheingold was the shortest of the four, so watch this space…

Femke Colborne

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