Der Ring des Nibelungen, Longborough, June/ July 2013Posted on 3 July 2013
Longborough Festival Opera provided one of the most memorable moments in any Ring I’ve seen — as the lights went out at the end of Walküre a stunned silence enveloped the audience for at least half a minute. Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde over, a mist surrounded the god as he knelt by the sleeping body of his daughter, and the orchestra under Anthony Negus brought an emotional commitment to Wagner’s music that I have rarely heard equalled.
Negus was one of the heroes of this Ring, helped by Alan Privett’s production that avoids interfering with the musical representation of the story — unlike some modern stagings of Wagner operas — yet enhances it with Kjell Torriset’s simple but extremely effective designs, and Ben Ormerod’s equally simple but very atmospheric lighting. For example I loved the sudden appearance of Wotan at the battle in Walküre, standing on the giant spool of twine that represented the rope of fate. I loved the giants in their dull grey cloaks and faces, the Norns as immensely tall women, and the Rheinmaidens moving beautifully in their diaphanous costumes. In the final moments of Götterdämmerung one of them clearly held the Ring, and this production showed convincingly why Hagen could never quite grasp it.
Complementing the wonderful conducting were the singers, whose performances filled the superb acoustics of this mini-Bayreuth, and none more so than Rachel Nicholls as Brünnhilde. With 500 seats this is hardly the Royal Opera House, yet Ms Nicholls’ voice sounds as if it has a future there, and I found her vocal and dramatic portrayal immensely appealing. From her first Ho-jo-to-ho in Walküre to her gentle Ruhe, ruhe du Gott in Götterdämmerung her voice swelled with power, emotion and sympathy. Her acting was equally compelling and after Siegfried left for his journey up the Rhein, she shuddered involuntarily on hearing a horse approach through the clouds. That signified the arrival of Waltraute, beautifully sung by Alison Kettlewell who was also an excellent Fricka in the first two operas.
Several of the female singers sang more than one role, with Lee Bisset particularly notable as Freia, Sieglinde and Gutrune. Her Freia had a compelling power, her Gutrune a convincingly portrayed shallowness, and that marvellous moment when Sieglinde bursts into O hehrstes Wunder was revelatory. Among smaller female roles, Catherine King was a fine Flosshilde and First Norn, and Gail Pearson a wonderful Woodbird, both vocally and in the musicality of her movements.
Among the men, Jonathan Stoughton provided an attractive stage presence and heroic timbre to the Siegfried of Götterdämmerung, and in Siegfried, Hugo Mallet sang the role with extraordinarily clear diction, rendering the excellent surtitles superfluous. As Siegmund, Andrew Rees provided a strong counterpart to Lee Bisset’s Sieglinde, and Jason Howard’s strong stage presence as a young Wotan in Rheingold developed convincingly until he became a defeated god after allowing Mark Richardson’s strongly portrayed Hunding to kill his beloved Siegmund. After destroying Hunding with a short sharp Geh!, and finding and condemning Brünnhilde, this tragically flawed character yearns for Das Ende. He has foolishly relied on Loge to pull him out of the contract with Fafner and Fasolt, and these three were all very strongly sung by Mark LeBrocq, Julian Close and Geoffrey Moses.
In an essay in the programme, Michael Kennedy calls Wotan ‘the villain of the piece’, but I see hubris rather than villainy. Alberich on the other hand is guilty of an original sin, alleviated by Wotan and Loge in stealing the Ring, and Andrew Greenan was immensely powerful both physically and vocally as the Alberich of Rheingold. His brother Mime was strongly sung by Adrian Thompson in Siegfried, hammering away in time to the music, and his son Hagen was portrayed as a thoroughly nasty piece of work by Stuart Pendred. Vocally powerful he dominated his half siblings Gutrune and Gunther, and Eddie Wade cleverly characterised Gunther as weak and unsure, despite his powerful physical form.
There is weakness and villainy aplenty in the Ring, but among the heroes Rachel Nicholls as Brünnhilde was outstanding, as was Anthony Negus in the orchestra pit. And despite an absence of Arts Council or Lottery funding this ‘Bayreuth in the Cotswolds’ is staging the only Ring in the UK during Wagner’s bicentenary year, a heroic achievement in itself. Congratulations to its founder Martin Graham, an entrepreneur if ever there was one.
This report is on the second cycle — the third starts on July 6. If you can possibly get to just one of the operas, do so — for details click here.