Saturday 30 July 2016

Long bow: Sieben returns

Just over a year ago, Matt Howden - under his usual songwriting/performing alias Sieben - released a digital EP called 'Lietuva'. That was the seed of a project that now comes to fruition with an astonishing two-CD set, 'The Old Magic' and its companion compilation 'The Other Side of the River'. What happened in between is best described as a brilliant sequence of ongoing, shifting musical invention and creativity. One quality that helps to make Matt's work unique is that his only real influence seems to be himself, constantly examining and re-casting earlier ideas and projecting them into a kind of sonic future - making me sometimes wonder if he might be the first and only artist to build up a forward catalogue.

Where to begin? Well, for those of you who haven't read any of my earlier posts on Sieben (for shame!), Matt Howden writes songs for voice and violin, feeding both into a loop station to build up layers of sound. At even the most fundamental level, his work links acoustics and electronics, as he creates beats by striking his fiddle, or even scratching his stubble against it for a 'shaker' effect. He makes backing vocals sound distant by chanting 'into' the violin rather than the mic.

One of the most satisfying aspects of Sieben for me, is that Matt shows signs of an obsessive thoroughness, a determination to create 'complete' artworks, which I think you can trace through from the earliest records to the ones I'm going to write about here. Finding his signature sound against a kind of 'dark folk' (or neofolk, if you must) background, Matt produced arguably three utter masterpieces of the genre in sequence: 'Sex and Wildflowers', creating a new floral language around the loops, 'Ogham Inside the Night', delving deeper into Celtic runes and pagan themes, then 'High Broad Field', a fully worked-through mystery play, with parts taken by a line-up of great vocalists - and even an accompanying film.

But then, it was as if something snapped, and Matt left genre work behind. Turning the focus on himself, he produced the blistering, lustful 'Desire Rites', and re-recorded some of his older work in similarly sharp, honed fashion on 'As They Should Sound'. Each album seemed to newly express an iron will to produce something radically different from the previous release - even though, the occasional guest musician notwithstanding, he never 'cheated' against his violin/voice template. The reflective 'Star Wood Brick Firmament' gave rise to the restless, sinister propulsion of 'No Less Than All', which then led to the confident, intimate 'Each Divine Spark', which brought together the best atmospheres from both its predecessors.

It's worth going over a bit of Sieben history (I know it's not the first time I've done so) because it's always relevant to the current material. After 'Each Divine Spark', Matt upgraded his kit and vastly increased his palette of sounds, giving the violin a range of new orchestral guises. Suddenly, there could be more noise, more layers, and the Sieben approach again began to shift. Matt (re-)discovered a ritualistic element, allowing the songs to stretch, develop, change, evolve. The two new numbers making up the backbone of 'Lietuva' ran to about 10 minutes each. Moving to digital-only releases, Matt was no longer constrained by how the music best 'fit' onto CD or vinyl. Alongside the two epics, the EP included 'self-covers' of two older tracks, re-recorded using the new equipment, given a new (re-)lease of life. 'As They Could - now - Sound.'

This set the pattern for two further EPs, 'Norse' and 'Briton', freshly-minted epics nestling alongside re-animated classics. Along the way, two things happened. For the listener, as we followed the EPs' audio-tour of old Europe, the folk-world leanings detectable in 'Lietuva' gave gradual ground to something more gritty, solid, relentless. Closer to home. For Matt, at some point, the realisation must've set in that this was, after all, an actual album forming - with its own coherent theme, somehow coalescing into a seamless whole.

Inevitably, though, as much archaeologist as musician, Matt kept digging. To assemble the new album, 'The Old Magic', he went to the trouble of re-working three of the new tracks, 'Old Magic' itself, 'Ready for Rebellion' and 'Black Moon Rise Again'. On the original EPs, each one was relatively bright, expansive, spacey, long. Here, they are shorter, honed and earthier - the rhythms pound harder, the layers mesh more tightly, the songs no longer give any quarter. They all show greater strength, and radiate a kind of sensual power - more groove, more intent.

The title track - a masterpiece in both its incarnations - undergoes a spellbinding transformation. The sheet lightning violin lines that danced on hot coals through the original are now combined so closely, they sound more like an continuous, wavering pulse, fizzing against the grinding bassline. 'Ready for Rebellion' - previously a trance-like call to arms over nearly nine minutes - is now barely a third of that length, but still with nine-minutes' worth of energy. It too has an extended electric shock of a violin riff pulled forward in the claustrophobic mix and distorted, powering the song forward at breakneck pace.

Other songs make it from the EPs to the album unchanged. They've all, to some extent, been conceived as 'singles' of sorts (or 'double A sides', he writes, suddenly feeling quite old) - with no hiding place - and as a result, the track listing consists of nothing but highlights. 'The Other Side of the River' (new title, but originally the stand-out 'Užupis' from 'Lietuva') retains its full 10-minute majesty - I imagine because it's impossible to cut a second of it. It now forms the glorious climax to the CD, its message of simultaneous affirmation and denial - very appropriate for an artist who stands proudly apart - ringing loud and clear over its push-and-pull lead and bass lines.

Made by a songwriter and performer who tackles his past head-on - whether to push back against it through new work or re-make it to fit his present - 'The Old Magic' succeeds layer-upon-layer, just like the music. It nods to those original genre flourishes - perhaps the 'old magic' themselves, in part - as we hear trace elements of the mid-2000s Sieben: not just the pagan/folkloric themes, but also the blurred edges neofolk shares with martial/industrial sounds. It's as if they've been lying dormant until Matt generated the sheer sonic heft needed to resurrect them. (Even the Ogham tattoo - familiar to longer-toothed fans - makes a prominent re-appearance on the artwork.) At the same time, more recent Sieben approaches fit seamlessly into the overall scheme: 'Come, Raven King' and brand new track 'A Hart for St Hubertus' weaving the 'Each Divine Spark' characteristics of calm and space into the overall maelstrom.

The second CD has a practical purpose - it gathers up the original versions of the EP tracks re-worked for the album, along with the older song 'covers' that accompanied them. For the long-term Sieben listener, hearing these updates together is like meeting old friends, remembering all over again why you loved them, but realising they've changed for the better, even matured. Pleasingly, there's no sign that anything was 'wrong' or 'lacking' with the old versions. Matt has resisted any temptation to 'blast' songs like 'Loki' and 'Knudlustysummer' into the stratosphere, instead allowing the new wider range of sounds to spruce them up and dust them down. Pacier tunes like 'We Wait' and 'Cult of the Fallen' already lend themselves to the 'Old Magic' treatment, digging their rhythmic heels in deeper than before.

Taken together, these albums are possibly the best 'entry point' for Sieben you could wish for. The companion CD, 'The Other Side of the River', is a great selection of songs from various points in Matt's career, but sounding here like they've always belonged together. Be warned, this disc is limited to its first pressing, so don't hang around before buying the double set. (Handy link to appropriate shop here.)

'The Old Magic' itself is surely his finest achievement to date. Its slightly odd, drawn-out creation perhaps helped make each individual song such a jewel. But more than that - as so often with Sieben albums - it manages to bring together the best elements of what you already love about Matt's music and somehow combines them with something brand new: always looking back, always moving forwards.

Sunday 24 July 2016

Commercial break: a fantasy about ENO

Regular readers (thank you, darlings, thank you) will know by now how I feel about the situation at English National Opera - in particular, the move to make the chorus part-time as part of the cost-cutting exercise. For any new visitors, though, allow me to re-cap slightly (I will cover some of the ground I've written about before).

Early in 2015, the Arts Council placed ENO under 'special measures'. This meant that instead of providing funding in the usual three-year cycle, the Council scaled it back to two years' worth on condition that ENO puts its financial house in order. What lay behind this decision to increase rather than help relieve the financial pressure on ENO is somewhat obscure (depending on what speculation you come across and where, it could be any or all of bad politics, bad business or bad blood).

However, the board's current course of action seems rather short-termist - as cuts so often are. There may be instant savings to be had, but over time, at a much greater cost. For example, ENO is under orders to fix itself - so when it does recover and return to 'full operations', what then? Re-hire the talent it cut? Recruit far less experienced personnel - who won't have bonded over years to the near-telepathic level the current choristers demonstrate?

What does seem clear is that the actions make no artistic sense at all. The chorus were recently shortlisted for Bachtrack's Best Chorus award for 'The Force of Destiny'. They won the Chorus Award at this year's International Opera Awards and, together with the orchestra, won the 2016 Oliver Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera (recognising three productions, 'The Force of Destiny', 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' and 'The Queen of Spades'). To say they are performing above and beyond expectations would be an understatement - most businesses, even in straitened circumstances, do not penalise the high-fliers they rely on.

More by accident than design - it was just how the dates worked out - I watched ENO close out its season this year, seeing the final performances of 'Jenůfa' and 'Tristan and Isolde' on 8 & 9 July. One of my more intense weekends. But between them, the two productions seemed to sum up almost everything I love about ENO, and why they're so vital and important.

Any Wagner opera is a huge undertaking, but a crack team of soloists assembled for 'Tristan and Isolde' - particularly outstanding, I felt, was Matthew Rose, who made King Mark a perfectly judged combination of looming gravitas and baffled compassion. Edward Gardner - a former ENO Music Director - returned to conduct and brought out a similar lush warmth from the orchestra that I remembered from 'Mastersingers' last year.

The production was somewhere between haunt and hoot. It was blessed with stage designs by Anish Kapoor, the artist I know best from his breathtaking sculpture 'Marsyas', which filled the Turbine Hall at London's Tate Modern gallery. Since this was clearly not going to be a 'realistic' interpretation, Kapoor came up with stylised, but not totally surreal, locations that promoted a kind of dream-state as the opera's environment. The ship of Act 1 was shown as triangular divisions across the stage, with Isolde restricted to the left chamber and Tristan the right - with them meeting in the middle section only as the potion is taken.

(Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore, from the ENO website. Act 1 of 'Tristan and Isolde'.)

Kapoor then presented a natural looking rocky outcrop in Act 2, but confined within a perfect circle, a 'mind's eye', that later revolved to become the moon. Only in Act 3 did the staging assume a complete symbolism, as the torn backdrop - which could be Tristan's wound, or even his heart - exploded in red. In a superb coup de theatre, as the wounded Tristan (a tireless Stuart Skelton) moved around the stage, streams of blood-red light poured out of him to 'soak' the white expanse behind him.

I personally had a bit of trouble getting my head around the costumes and direction - it looked like a bold decision had been taken to dress the characters in the past despite the SF feel of the staging. I might not have liked a Cyber-nal that much, but at least I would've seen the logic. Here Mark still felt medieval, Brangane and Kurwenal were obsequious courtiers, Isolde almost Geisha-like and Tristan himself as a kind of Braveheart meets Kurosawa. By mixing up these civilisations/timestreams, it could say something about the universality or mystical transcendence of the story, but I felt it was something the performances had to overcome (which they absolutely did) rather than complement.

The point is, though, that everything about the production - the bits that worked for me, and the far fewer bits that didn't - felt brave, fresh and fearless. It had the spirit of ENO in every note - we're going to take on this huge opera, without compromising the quality of the music in any way, but we're going to attempt something different with it, and try to take you with us. I went with them.

The previous night, 'Jenůfa', was simply my idea of operatic perfection, and another aspect of what ENO can do so well: give us an edgy, slightly punk-ish, ultra-realistic view of a classic. This was raw stuff, and exactly the kind of treatment that I feel will be an essential part of reaching 'the young' (whoever they might be!), the untapped potential lovers of opera that the artform needs to attract.

Mark Wigglesworth, the (sadly) now-outgoing Music Director, conducted Janáček's beautiful but unsettling, even churning, score as if the orchestra were sitting on the edge of their seats. Sweeping moodswings, silences from nowhere - the playing was unbelievably tight, unpredictable, impassioned.

Onstage, everyone rose to the challenge. My stand-out would be Peter Hoare, one of my favourite performers ever since I got back into opera a few years ago, as superb here as ever. His sharp, almost anti-heroic tenor made him unforgettable as Creon in 'Thebans' and Herman in 'Queen of Spades' - all at ENO, where I've been able to follow his career like any self-respecting fan. He's absolutely unafraid to inject his fine voice with psychosis and vitriol as the occasion demands, making him an utterly compelling singing actor - and a brilliantly tormented, yet ultimately loving Laca here. Laura Wilde was a sensitive, low-key Jenůfa, buffeted on all sides, not only by the attentions of Laca, but also the swaggeringly boorish Števa (Nicky Spence showing what a fine actor-singer he is, somehow giving the horrendous man-child moments of 3D sympathy) and the fearsome Kostelnička, brought to austere, lethal life by Michaela Martens.

(Photo credit: Donald Cooper, from the ENO website. Laura Wilde as Jenůfa, Peter Hoare as Laca.)

But the other stars of the evening were the chorus. In their joint portrayal, every worker/local was an individual, each chorus member acting and re-acting constantly. Their movement was utter precision - one riotous outbreak in an early scene coalescing into a massed advance towards the front of the stage... and later on, an incongruous but utterly natural maypole dance. Janáček's feverish repetitions and climaxes allowed all the players - soloists and chorus - to give the audience maximum impact and scale increasingly impressive emotional heights.

One among many of the ENO chorus's assets is its members' ability to step out and make their own mark from time to time. In my relatively short time as an ENO regular, I well remember David Newman's inimitable turn at the piano in 'The Mikado' and a brilliant 'stand-in' performance as the Marquis in 'The Force of Destiny' by Robert Winslade Anderson. In 'Jenůfa', it was the turn of Morag Boyle, who sang and acted with great comic timing as the granny-restraining neighbour, and Claire Mitcher as Barena - another very physical, fully-thought-through characterisation - chain-smoking, body language radiating 'attitude' until shaken into wracked panic as she witnesses Laca's accidental wounding of Jenůfa, singing her testimony while careering or being manhandled across the stage. Both cameos quite unforgettable, and as much a part of my memory of how great the evening was, as the excellence of the soloists.

And so we come full circle, to some extent, with deserved praise for the chorus. ENO are now on their summer break until the 2016/17 season begins. It's an enticing enough range of operas, especially for we relative rookies, but (as has already been pointed out), it's scaled down in scope and size (only to be expected), and hugely under-uses the chorus (madness).

A few months back, we had an intriguing glimpse of an independently roving ENO chorus, when Mark Wigglesworth led them in a trio of performances (across three London churches) of Brahms's 'German Requiem', but in its English version, sung with piano duet rather than orchestra. A magnificent evening, it seemed to say so much about the kinds of events and repertoire the chorus could give us with the appropriate support behind them.

It also got me wondering seriously about why we didn't have such a great treatment of a painfully rare piece (or version of a piece) preserved for posterity. The perfect length for a CD, recordable in ready-made glorious holy acoustics. Absolute no-brainer. And I started to wonder if the ENO board, who can surely be criticised for allowing 'business thinking' to over-ride any artistic concerns, were actually being a bit rubbish at business as well.

Why is there no real 'commerciality' at ENO? A record label would surely be a start. I realise it's possible to look with envy at Opus Arte - the Royal Opera House's long-running label - and accept that the ROH has access to more resources, both financial and technical. But that's not a comparable example. Wigmore Hall Live, the chamber venue's superb performance archive, is - and I read only this week that the Globe are also starting a label to record its musical events in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Even if the operas were beyond recording, or the Coliseum not fit for purpose, the chorus (and possibly orchestra too) could build a body of other works for sale to eager listeners.

But - by the way - the operas can be recorded and filmed in the Coliseum. ENO Screen - the cinema relays - seem to have quietly disappeared (even though 'The Pirates of Penzance' broke the box-office record for opera in UK cinemas), but obviously could be resurrected and used for DVD. And productions are still broadcast on BBC Radio 3 - so audio recordings exist. It pains me to think that by now, we could've had a commercial release on CD of Julian Anderson's 'Thebans', or 'Akhnaten' (the Philip Glass masterpiece, apparently deleted), restored to the catalogue, brought thrillingly to life by this wonderful company.

Maybe there are thorny rights issues involved somewhere (I believe this is partly what scuppers that other potential classical goldmine, the Proms, from releasing more performances), but what are they? ENO have made recordings before, for the 'Opera in English' series of releases on Chandos, so it can be done. Why isn't it now? I would genuinely like to know.

Leaving aside recordings and labels, I'm also curious about the 'ENO brand'. Understandably, the first things many people think of when they hear the word 'brand' are visuals/advertising, and ENO's current 'look and feel' has resulted in some beautiful and arresting poster and programme imagery - but, ironically, the ENO logo itself and the names of the operas being advertised are harder to read. There is no shop at ENO, no merchandise... and as a result, hardly any company presence. Each opera is at risk of becoming an individual, discrete evening - when repeat business depends on people recognising that every time, ENO will give them that electrifying, slightly freer, even more dangerous operatic experience.

I find it more helpful to think of a 'brand' as more like a company or organisation's image. Again, think of the Royal Opera House. They get the seemingly small things right - every document is in the same font, but the posters - with the opera name writ large, bottom centre - vary its colour, size, weight and so on. Those familiar red programmes all feel part of an ongoing, timeless series. But what this all says is luxury, high quality, attention to detail. There is a shop (usually it's outstanding, stacked out with hard to find opera recordings, but its wings are currently clipped during the 'Open Up' refurbishment) - most of what's in it is rather luxurious souvenir fare, and while opera 'merch' is thin on the ground, there's a plethora of Royal Ballet motif fashion items for the young dance enthusiast. Or the Wigmore Hall, again, which is building a younger and wider audience through social media but following through with occasional Twitter 'meet-ups' and cheap ticket offers - emphasising friendliness, inclusivity, accessibility, at a venue that could easily project a more insular atmosphere. Again, it not only has a distinctive, recognisable logo, but it isn't above putting it on a tote bag, or fridge magnet. Its CDs are firmly mid-price, beautifully and consistently designed - and therefore very collectible.

From my years of following rock, jazz and folk artists, I think the classical sphere so often misses one trick after another when it comes to marketing itself. God knows the world has changed since I was in my teens, but I still see evidence of the next generation getting wholly behind 'fandom' - whether it's One Direction or Beyoncé, Doctor Who or the Marvel Universe, or... er... computer game type stuff (*mumbles incoherently*) - all the old hobby-tribes are still out there. I would wear an ENO t-shirt now, with an ENO badge on it. Or sling an ENO bag over my shoulder, covered in doodles made with my ENO pen. Classical music is not 'above' this sort of stuff, nor should it be. I want to be in the ENO gang. I want to buy 'merch', to show my support, and carry free advertising for the company around with me. Others would, too.

In ENO's case, of course, one thing that might trip any idea along these lines at the first hurdle is: you have to spend now to make the gain later. I realise you can't start a record label or produce a range of merchandise with no money. But then: the board are in this for the long game, I trust? This is the kind of thing I would expect to see in a forward-looking business model/strategy, which - presumably - the Arts Council are keen to get their hands on, so they can feel comfortable supporting ENO like they would do any other similar organisation and take them out of 'special measures'..? ENO's financial problems are, of course, not easy to solve and in some respects, a bit mysterious - while they also have great offers, there is an issue with seat pricing overall, and it's not clear to me what part fundraising has paid (if any) to mitigate the cuts.

I've said on several occasions that I write more as a punter than a critic, and I realise that an impartial, paid reviewer would view an individual performance at ENO (and anywhere else) as its own beast: there will be good nights, there will be bad. But there is another angle: supporting the ENO chorus and orchestra - the whole company - through the triumphs and misfires, cheering on every bold, brilliant move - is a lot like following one of the best bands in the UK. It's just that, at the moment, I'm having to wear my t-shirt on the inside.

Wednesday 13 July 2016

Double door: Raf and O's 'Portal'

Some of my very favourite artists are those who I feel create their own universe of sorts, a unique sonic environment that allows their music to sound not just 'great' but also unmistakeable. I suppose the most widely-known band I think manage this consistently is Radiohead, but my personal pantheon would of course include many of those artists that I try to bring to your attention on a semi-regular basis: Matt Howden (aka Sieben), Jo Quail, Shadow Biosphere, Trembling Bells... and in this post, Raf and O.

Raf Mantelli and Richard 'O' Smith make up the duo. There is a certain division of labour - Raf provides vocals/guitar, and 'O' the drums - but both share responsibility for the astounding array of synthesised treatments and effects in which the songs bathe and breathe. The overall impression is a kind of suspended animation, a blissful limbo.

In a fictional dream, I imagine two practice rooms, ideally within a building placed in near-future Ballardian isolation. In one room, you can play and hear only 'organic' music - there are no amps, pedals, nothing but acoustic instruments. In the other room lies every piece of electronic musical equipment imaginable - synths, samplers, sequencers, speakers. Raf and O have the keys to both rooms, and they make the music you can hear in the connecting corridor. Natural and unnatural sounds blend, clash - or sometimes simply pass each other by, hiding in the corner of one's ear.

So it's highly fitting for my SF mental wanderings that the sublime new album by Raf and O is called 'Portal'. I think it's their most sophisticated and successful exploration so far of the space between pop music - as we generally know it - and experimental electronica. At times it approaches sound-art in its willingness to take the listener beyond routine riffs and rhythms and into an aural atmosphere. One of the things I love most about the record is its unhurried confidence: every idea is given the right amount of room, no more, no less. If a song needs to glide, weightless, it does. If a rhythm is fascinating in itself, it's worked through in layers until the cycle feels complete. While if a tale can be told in under two minutes, the song stops.

The pair's particular talents are well in evidence. There's Raf's glorious and incredibly versatile voice, which seems to touch on so many possible reference points - an Italian answer to the breathy intimacy of a Gilberto or Hardy, a range to match a Björk or Kate Bush, a sinister chill calling to mind Claudia Brücken in the early days of Propaganda (that other band so obsessed with the human and mechanical)... but she never really sounds like anyone apart from herself. And there's 'O''s hyperactive percussion, seemingly fed through circuitry as if real blood was flowing through a drum machine, as crucial in the colour it adds, as much as the drive.

But throughout 'Portal', there's a sense that Raf and O also know exactly when to rein in these tendencies, and the material emerges all the stronger for it. The magnificent 'Worms' spurns vocals altogether, as 'O' kick-starts an immediate, infectious motorik beat, before the brilliantly patient, restrained build-up gradually unfolds. Two startling tracks find Raf using something close to spoken word: we hear Italian as well as English in the crisp, hazy-rap delivery of 'Drunk' where the voice provides the rhythm; while in 'Automatons', she intones science fiction imagery as 'O' (I assume!) brings the robots' metallic clang alive with brittle, scattershot strikes.

The Shakespeare setting 'Sonnet 62' must be one of the loveliest songs they've ever recorded. The arrangement is sparse and delicate, allowing the gorgeous melody to fill the space - but still decorated with flickering electronica, as if the Bard's words have broken through time thanks to some future technology.

It's very difficult to choose highlights from such a consistently winning record. David Bowie fans will lap up the cover of 'Win' (originally from 'Young Americans'). Raf and O have a deep affinity with Bowie - as one of the original musical universe makers and connoisseur of the alien - and have already covered 'Lady Grinning Soul' to great acclaim. (You can find it on the previous album, 'Time Machine'.) The fragile 'imposter soul' of 'Win' makes it a perfect fit, drifting seamlessly into the otherworldly 'Portal' aesthetic.

And in a masterstroke of sequencing - who says the album format is dead? - Raf and O include a live track, 'Echoes', towards the end of the disc. Such is 'Portal's overall restraint that this brilliant song bursts from the speakers in a sudden rush of energy, as if the 'other' soundworld has finally stormed the gateway into this - until the final song 'Magic' reins the power back in.

Speaking of seeing Raf and O live - if you're in London you have the chance to do so very soon. On Friday 22 July, they launch the album with a gig at St James the Less Church in Pimlico. To my enormous annoyance, I can't make it, but I would dearly love as many of you as possible to attend as my representatives. Excitingly, there are a range of enticing ticket deals - so please follow this link to check them out, and get along if you can. They are a superb live band - as entrancing to watch as to listen to - and it'll be fascinating to hear how they bring 'Portal' to life. I hope I get the chance to do so myself before long.

In the meantime, there's a digital EP available which previews two tracks from 'Portal', along with two collaborations with electronica legend Robert Logan (who is also playing at the album launch). Bending and shaping Raf and O's distinct sound through his own box of tricks, the Logan tracks remind the listener that, once through the portal, there's more than one possible direction of travel. For the curious, this is a very rewarding way to spend £3 - head over to Bandcamp to take action. And if you can't make the launch concert to buy the album there, you could succumb to the temptation to pre-order 'Portal' itself - the door's wide open.

Tuesday 5 July 2016

Opera North circular: Wagner's 'Ring' at the Southbank

Finally, it was here - so long-awaited, it felt like we had booked our seats while still in nappies, learning ourselves how to use tools and fire. But at last, Opera North were in London to perform their production of Wagner's entire Ring cycle at the Royal Festival Hall.

I only mention London specifically, of course, because it's my patch and those are the performances I attended. But in fact, ON have taken on the mammoth task of touring the cycle around several other cities too - mostly their normal haunts, but I think we southerners were included as this was such a special occasion. ON are a well loved and respected company, so it was a privilege to have the chance to see them on my home turf.

The creation of this Ring cycle was epic in itself. You get the impression, I think, of a company that knows how to strike the exact balance between ambition and good sense. Starting in 2011, ON did one Ring opera a year, completing the set with 'Götterdämmerung' in 2014. Presumably this allowed them to spread the effort - not to mention budget - and take the time to completely nail how they wanted to present each instalment (I'll talk more about what the production involves below). Because believe me, by the time we saw them power through the whole cycle in a week, they were match fit: the singers and particularly the orchestra seemed, to a person, energised, tireless, in command.

(Forgive me for not going into a full summary of the plot, or addressing the themes of the cycle in any great detail here - it would take up so much of this post, and it's easy to find that sort of background online. I wrote a little bit more along those lines after seeing Barenboim conduct the Ring at the Proms in 2013 - that post is here, if you'd like to read it.)

ON describe their version of the Ring as a 'dramatic performance for the concert hall'. I rather like this, not least because Wagner was very keen on using particular labels for his work that avoided calling them 'mere' operas: for example, "Gesamtkunstwerk" for a 'complete/all-embracing artwork', or "Bühnenweihfestspiel" for 'Parsifal', a 'festival play to consecrate the stage'. I like to imagine there should be a long, single word in German for 'dramatic performance for the concert hall', should anyone want to suggest one...

But more importantly, the description is 100% accurate. For those of you who haven't seen any photos of the production: there's no pit - the entire orchestra is on stage. In front of the orchestra runs a relatively narrow platform for the soloists, with a row of chairs. On the back wall, there are three large screens. These screens are in constant use: they show the surtitles - and also, when helpful, add a brief summary of the action, or name new characters if several appear at once, so there's no chance of anyone getting lost. Behind the text (and throughout), the screens show the relevant terrain for the on-stage action: forest, sky, water, flame.

Every potential or apparent limitation of this set-up was turned into a virtue. I felt that in the absence of sets, the projections were a genius idea. (I've heard it said that some Wagner buffs prefer concert-style performances of the Ring, since it's quite hard to stage without at least some elements appearing ridiculous.) To ON's credit, they didn't try to depict in any kind of crystal clear way the splendour of Valhalla, say, or a full representation of Fafner in dragon form. Instead, in these two instances, we saw mist-shrouded peaks and the hint of a scale-ridden, indistinct face. The mix of abstraction with constant motion on the screens meant that the visual 'motor' was always running: something to occupy our eyes without actually distracting from our focus on the performers - and one highly successful effect of this cycle, by bringing the players out of the pit and lining up the singers level with them, was to keep our attention firmly on the music.

The visual inventiveness wasn't confined to the screens. What might've first appeared to be co-ordinated concert attire was in fact a character-driven dress code. There were some visual 'quick wins' - such as the shimmering blue dresses of the Rhinemaidens - as well as razor-sharp, lower-key touches. Wotan's smart waistcoat and tails getting more dishevelled as his grip on authority weakens; Fafner running his bright red tie through his fingers as he bleeds to death from his wounds; Brunnhilde adding a single shooting glove and bovver boots to her concert dress; Siegfried's naive machismo captured in his bow tie undone around his open neck, like a groom elated to survive his stag night.

The stagecraft and direction also elevated simplicity into sophistication. While the soloists mostly 'sang out' at the audience (as in a 'normal' concert set-up), they also fully, physically acted their roles. So, characters in conversation with each other were actually standing side by side, singing at us. This seemed a little odd for a matter of minutes, but it's incredible how quickly you simply lock into it. Clearly, projecting the voices straight into the audience was was the best option for the sound; but also, movements which might otherwise have appeared artificial - for example, one person handing an invisible drink to the other meant they each had to 'give' and 'take' with arms out towards the house - seemed natural and unforced, because they were in total mutual support with the music. Our buy-in to this style of performance meant that it could be used increasingly boldly - Siegfried's murder was a stark, nightmare moment, with Hagen thrusting outwards and Siegfried, next to him, instantly arching forward in agony.

This slight distancing also heightened the tension - particularly in the love duets, where the characters, having sung their passion to us, were only then released, to come together and embrace. In many cases, following a death, the victim simply crossed their arms over their chest and retreated to a chair, in darkness. In fact, the chairs themselves were pressed into prop service, as Alberich slithered across them when grappling with the Rhine's wet rock.

We were lucky enough to have seats close to the stage, and witness just how skilful the acting on display really was. All the soloists continued to face outwards and (re)act when not singing (this is not necessarily the case in concert renditions) - allowing them to flesh out their characterisations. Some of the finest examples of this physical acting came from Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as the god of fire Loge in 'Das Rheingold', seasoning his ambivalent body language with constant flame-like rippling of his fingers; Robert Hayward's agonised Wotan and Lee Bisset's terrified Sieglinde in 'Die Walküre', Richard Roberts's grotesque agitation as Mime and Jeni Bern's remarkably natural stop-start movements as the Woodbird in 'Siegfried', and in 'Götterdämmerung', Andrew Foster-Williams seemed to make Gunther almost shrink into himself with guilt and horror.

And this is to take nothing away from the singing, which felt so strong to me throughout the ensemble that it seems almost unfair to single out individuals. There are a few performances I feel I should mention, however. Kelly Cae Hogan was a triumph as Brünnhilde - not afraid to show (and sing) vulnerability and tenderness but unleashing the fury when required - again, the expressiveness in her face as well as her voice made the character - who undergoes the most extraordinary change, from virginal warrior to passionate mortal lover and ultimately, a conflicted mix of the two - vivid and true.

Johl Pohlheim managed to make Alberich both intimidating and pathetic, combining an ingratiating, twisting physical presence with a threateningly strong delivery. It strikes me that these two performances in particular are those where the soloists could develop the characters over several of the operas - possibly not a coincidence. To me, the most outstanding 'one-off' was Mats Almgren as Hagen in 'Götterdämmerung', willing to make his voice somehow evil - an unflinching, hideous portrayal (this is a huge compliment, by the way) - no less impressive after he had played Fafner in two of the earlier operas. (Several of the singers inhabited more than one role, lending some interesting perspectives - for example, Giselle Allen's superb characterisations of Freia and Gutrune draws the connection between the two as women used ruthlessly as pawns in the men's games, and James Creswell's apparent implacability helps bring about his downfall as both Fasolt and Hunding.)

My closing words of admiration, however, are reserved for ON's orchestra, conducted by their outgoing music director Richard Farnes - who has clearly chosen something of a monumental project as his company swansong. Again, with our close seats, we would've been happy to let Wagner's music overwhelm us - but the level of detail Farnes drew from the players was astonishing. I've never been so acutely aware of the percussion intricacies the work demands, for example (I wonder if timpanists have to make a will by law before tackling 'Götterdämmerung'?) - not just because I could see what they were doing, but I could really hear it. I've never appreciated quite so sharply how the strings and horns balance the texture and melody. I've never been able to pick out the recurring themes/motifs so easily. The operas felt like one thrilling rollercoaster ride after another, surely much shorter than their actual mammoth running times. Though we stumbled out of 'Götterdämmerung', reeling, elated but also exhausted... I would happily do it all again this week.

Which, remotely, one sort of can. As I type, 'Das Rheingold' is actually in progress for the last time in the tour, at the Sage Gateshead. BBC Radio 3 are broadcasting the whole cycle from the Sage live this week, which means they will also be available to listen on BBC iPlayer Radio for 30 days afterwards. The Leeds performances were also filmed for streaming later in the year (when more details about this are available, I'll spread the word).

Please try and experience this Ring cycle in some shape or form if you possibly can. It's a stunning artistic achievement in its own right. But I think it also demonstrates how Opera North - not an outfit with unlimited resources - can meet a challenge as vast in scope as the Ring head-on and make it work using innovation, creativity and flair. And crucially, by giving the orchestra and (in 'Götterdämmerung', the scene-stealing chorus) such prominence, they've demonstrated to audiences their utter confidence in the excellence of their company. (I'd like to think the board of English National Opera could learn a few lessons from this: how to treat singers and musicians with the respect they deserve, and how there are more artistic responses to financial realities than merely cuts.)

In future, I'll respect Opera North's generosity in bringing their Ring cycle to me, by making more of an effort to travel to see them. Roll on their Puccini double bill and 'Billy Budd' productions towards the end of the year. Tickets already booked.

(The images in this post I believe are all copyright Opera North, drawn from their own Ring website, Sage Gateshead and the Southbank Centre.)