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Prepare to be left goggle-eyed

opera Das Rheingold/ Die Walkure Theatre Royal, Norwich
Among those responsible for bringing Norwegian State Opera's production of Wagner's Ring cycle to the Theatre Royal Norwich, there must have been a few first-night nerves as the house lights dimmed on Wednesday evening, for the sinister E flat bass pedal which begins Das Rheingold also heralded the start of the most ambitious project ever undertaken by that theatre. The tumultuous applause as the curtain came down some two and a half hours later must have seemed justification for their great initiative in bringing Mike Ashman's Oslo production here as part of East Anglia's Year of Opera and Musical Theatre.

If Rheingold is a foretaste of what is to come, then this is a production that is direct and accessible, allowing the story to unfold naturally without imposing itself too much on the music. Katherine Hysing's design is imaginative without being too elaborate, and with some inspirational touches, such as the gods descending from the sky in chariots, resplendent in 18th-century costume, like aristocrats belonging to what is a doomed ancien regime.

The singing was always well focused, the diction clear. Helmut Welker was a fine-voiced Alberich, if not quite a sufficiently menacing presence. Oddbjorn Tennfjord's rich bass made an eloquent Wotan, if not quite having the authority required of the chief of the gods. Carsten Stabell and Gudjon Oskarsson as the giants produced some sensitive singing, and Rosemarie Lang promises a fine Fricka. Itziar Martinez Galdos was a sweet-voiced Freia and there was excellent singing from the very sensuous and provocative Rhinemaidens. Alfons Eberz sang well as Loge, even if he looked more pantomime figure than demi-god in his flamboyant red and black stripes, and there was an excellent Mime from Hans Jurgen Lazar. Conductor Heinz Fricke paced the work beautifully; the balance was always perfect and lavish praise must go to the orchestra of the Norwegian Opera.

Saturday's Die Walkure re-enforced the virtues of a production that allows Wagner's music drama to proceed unencumbered by any excess of interpretation. If it had maintained the same standard as Rheingold it would have been more than satisfactory: in the event, it proved even better.

Gudjon Oskarsson's dark bass and commanding stage presence projected all the menace of Hunding, and it was clear from the beginning that Jyrki Niskanen and Kjersti Ekeberg were a fine Siegmund and Sieglinde. Just how fine we learned as the love duet unfolded, for here the music had an extra dimension, a truly inspirational quality that held the audience spellbound, the release of tension spilling out in thunderous applause at the end of Act 1. A fine Sieglinde and a truly exceptional Siegmund.

It was, literally, a hard act to follow. Nevertheless, what did proved to be all of the same quality. Rosemarie Lang was an authoritative Fricka, Oddbjorn Tennfjord gave a sensitive performance as the tormented Wotan. His long monologue in the middle of the act, a potential source of musical longueurs, was beautifully done; it proceeded naturally without any excess of stage "business".

Carol Yahr was a youthful and attractive Brunnhilde. She and her fellow Valkyries wear uniforms of armoured tops, short skirts and thigh-length boots. The Ride takes place in a pine-clad landscape, and its treatment is an example of the flashes of humour that run through the production. The maidens gaily load corpses of dead heroes onto chariots which are hauled up into the sky. They have goggles, in case of snow blindness presumably; after all, the Ring sources are partly Nordic, and it gets pretty cold up there.

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Frank Cliff