United Kingdom Longborough Festival Opera 2011 – Wagner, Siegfried: (New production) Soloists, Longborough Festival Opera Orchestra, conducted by Anthony Negus, 28.7.2011. (JPr)
You could only be at country house opera when you overhear one end of a conversation that went ‘Well at worst you will be here for dinner … you’ve seen the opera before anyway.’
Mentioning ‘dinner’, perhaps it was because he met me in passing during the long supper second interval that inspired Anthony Negus to unite his orchestra and singers in Act III to provide the loyal Longborough audience with the single finest Act in its increasingly distinguished 14-year Wagner history. OK, this wasn’t really the reason, but something seems to have happened: maybe everyone – having survived two difficult Acts – was more relaxed. The quietly unassuming Wagner Maestro told me he was pleased the way this Siegfried had been going – and he must have been even more delighted by the end of the evening!
Truth be told, I had been a little disappointed with those first two Acts. After Alan Privett’s Das Rheingold (2007) and last year’s Die Walküre I am getting used by now to his semi-staging by now: it features the almost ever-present three darkly clad Japanese Noh-inspired Norns (choreographed by Suzanne Firth). They are really only there to shift scenery or hand props to the singers such as a shovel, horn, spear or sword. I am also used to the slightly reduced sound from the 66-strong orchestra; actually it seemed to me that in the first two acts Anthony Negus was deliberately quietening the sound while his singers sang a bit too loudly but when we reached Act III there was a much better balance. (I wondered whether this had been just my personal reaction until I returned to my hotel where I met a couple who asked me who was responsible for the ‘reduction’ played and were amazed when I told them how large the orchestra actually is.) Negus’s account may well have been somewhat appropriate for the lightest and fastest-paced of the Ring operas but I didn’t experience the music’s space and true epic nature until nearer the end of the evening. Generally his musicians played splendidly for him and only the Act II horn calls defeated the solo player … but this exposed moment tests the best of them.
Although Alan Privett’s production verges on the non-existent at times it does have a shadowy, claustrophobic, dream-like quality. I think his essay in the printed programme is significant and not only subtly hints at the lack of money he has in a quote from T S Eliot’s Little Gidding but also suggests the thinking behind his direction in this paragraph: ‘The young Siegfried is perhaps a dream of what man at the dawn of the world could have been. He moves into manhood in a dream of idealism. He is all hope; nothing is impossible.’ Kjell Torriset’s traditional costumes and sets borrow heavily from memorable Ring Cycles of the past; I have seen the Act I furnace, the disk, the geometrical shapes and the bare plinth on which Wotan summons Erda many times before. Very familiar to me is the early appearance of the Wanderer to spy on events and the rock-chick Woodbird (a spirited Allison Bell) leading Siegfried this way and that. Though this is all backed-up by some nice lighting effects and directorial touches; I particularly like the evocation of the ‘curtain’ of fire around Brünnhilde’s rock and the first appearance of the warrior maid as if she was a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. If this was someone’s first Siegfried – and there were enough people scrutinising the synopsis to suggest this was so – Alan Privett’s production did a great job in presenting the story in the clearest and obviously most economical way possible.
Having seen several Rings throughout the world during the last 30 years there is not much, unfortunately, I haven’t seen before. For instance, if Colin Judson as a typically conniving Mime hasn’t studied with Graham Clark then he has certainly watched DVDs of his performances very closely. He sang extremely well and Colin Judson was part of the best ensemble of singers Longborough has fielded in any of its Wagner performances. By the triumphant end of the opera it was very clear that there was no weak link; of course Nicholas Folwell’s adversarial Alberich and Phillip Joll’s grizzled Wanderer are very experienced in their roles and Evelyn Krahe was marvellously portentous as Erda. Julian Close was a dark-hued and suitably threatening Fafner despite being wheeled about as the dragon on a small – mostly bare – scaffolding tower with just a few lights and some flapping material. In particular, the veteran Phillip Joll seemed to be in great form singing – and acting – with consummate authority.
These are American, Daniel Brenna’s, first Siegfrieds, from early reports I read I had expected a blond Adonis but he is a typical, tallish yet stout, heroic tenor but someone who seems to have his own hair and, the fortunate ability, to look much younger that he probably actually is. In the first two Acts I did not find his tantrums very convincing and he often had his hands on his hips too often. He ‘came of age’ splendidly in Act III, despite now grasping his chest too much, and sang tirelessly with a much more ardently lyrical sound after shouting a little too much earlier on. On the one hand he is given too much miming to do that did not suggest is yet the finished article as a singer-actor and it included almost no sword forging, as well as, a risible ‘fight’ with the ‘dragon’. However, he is also made to put himself through some stamina-sapping hammer wielding and horn blowing.
I had a better seat than last year and am in a better position to assess Alwyn Mellor’s Brünnhilde. At least here the dramatic dynamics worked for once since she really looked like Siegfried’s aunt. Her voice has a full, old-fashioned, sound with laser-bright top notes. It is usual these days for much lighter voiced soprano to be cast as Isolde and Brünnhilde and it is good to hear a heavier voice again and Ms Mellor is in the great British tradition of Rita Hunter, Jane Eaglen and, more recently, Susan Bullock who will sing the role in forthcoming Rings at Covent Garden. Supporting this encouraging trend for more dramatic voices internationally are Alwyn Mellor’s own forthcoming performances in the 2013 Seattle Rings and the news that one of the world’s finest dramatic mezzos, Petra Lang, is adding Brünnhilde to her repertoire soon.
As a glass half-empty person I never expected Martin and Lizzie Graham’s typically British ‘let’s put on a show’ idea of replicating Bayreuth in Gloucestershire to get as far as Siegfried … or Götterdämmerung next year (what will they do about the chorus?) … or the planned complete Ring Cycles in 2013, the Wagner bicentenary year. If you have some spare money – or know someone with some – this is one of the better uses of some philanthropy. I have been going to Longborough since its beginnings in 1998 and it is now a wonderful venue, with a proper pit, fine acoustic, and excellent, if limited, stage facilities. It has come a very long way and it also now, at last, provides performances of Wagner’s music on a level with any UK subsidised company.