United Kingdom Wagner, Götterdämmerung: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Longborough Festival Opera / Anthony Negus (conductor), Alan Privett (director), Kjell Torriset (designer),16-19.7.2012 (JPr)
For the bicentenary of Richard Wagner’s birth in 2013 Britain will celebrate in style with three full Ring Cycles between 16 June and 12 July. Of course this is an important anniversary so what will be the only theatre to do this? Not at Covent Garden (whose own Rings are later this year but are not that eagerly awaited by everyone), nor at any of the other regional companies, but at ‘England’s Bayreuth’ – the famous ‘converted barn’ in Gloucestershire. Who said it would never happen … well way back in the day, me actually!
I was there at the start of the enterprise before the turn of the century (goodness that makes me feel old!) when Martin and Lizzie Graham put on Jonathan Dove’s admirable reduced Ring and from that developed over subsequent years the almost unimaginable idea that Wagner’s tetralogy would be fully staged and heard played by the large orchestra the music demands. Sitting there in the early years sweltering because of the heat in the small theatre or unable to hear the music because of the extra percussion provided by a thunderstorm – both due to the old metal roof – I would never expected there to be at Longborough what there is now. That is, a superbly appointed auditorium seating about 500, a sunken pit capable of allowing an orchestra of about 70 players, a raised roof that provides excellent acoustics and a stage with sufficient depth to allow a credible staging of Wagner’s masterpiece.
At the apex of the extravagant terracotta-coloured portico that fronts the opera house, a statue of Wagner has Mozart and Verdi either side of him but to be honest, pride of place instead of these should be ones of Martin and Lizzie Graham themselves, such is the measure of this ‘monumental’ achievement in these financially straitened times – and they deserve all the support anyone is able to give them.
Not everything is absolutely right yet but enough is in place to make these forthcoming Ring Cycles an unmissable event for as many Wagnerians as can be there in 2013. Unfortunately there is no fly tower that would help with scene changes, there is also just an enthusiastic scratch orchestra whose musicians perhaps reveal their relative youth on occasions and there is still the odd strange casting choice. As improvements are made year on year with regard to preparation, coaching, experience and stagecraft this now matters less and less.
Alan Privett’s staging is virtually Konzept-free and that will delight many who would like to be immersed in Wagner’s sound world without worrying about what the director is trying to indoctrinate them about. For me, there is room for both approaches but I am always happy to see a simple story, straightforwardly told and without any hint of irony. The only moments of – I hope – intentional humour was the off-stage neighing sounds for Brünnhilde’s horse, Grane, and – as an animal lover – I am sorry to say that should be sent to the ‘knackers’ yard’ immediately. Many of the important scenes are played out again on Kjell Torriset’s large disc originally made famous by Wieland Wagner but even that seems to glide downstage more effortlessly than before. It is framed by the climbing bars and rope curtains also seen in the previous instalments of his Ring. This is all aided by Ben Ormerod’s lighting that is often very atmospheric.
Also present whenever necessary are the three silent, darkly clad Japanese Noh characters (this time choreographed by Joanna Meredith). Before I thought that these were the Norns, actually helping pre-empt the events of the unfolding story – as well as shifting the scenery! However, in Götterdämmerung we get the three actual Norns and the performers involved are needed later to reappear and bolster the number of Gibichung women, so their actual role here is less clear. None of the costumes makes the action of a given time period and they remain an eclectic collection of ancient and modern dress.
There are many stunning visual images, firstly right at the start with the eerily tall Norns – actually on large skeletal conical structures that are recycled on stage later. Then there is the nightmarish appearance of Alberich to his son, Hagen, at the start of Act II, the appearance of the well-choreographed Rhinemaidens (I always prefer calling them ‘Rhine daughters’) and the final ‘conflagration’ and its aftermath. Yes it was often little more than ‘smoke and mirrors’ – and truth be told often just smoke – but the story was clearly told and a credit to Alan Privett and his singing-actors.
The cast was solid without often being exceptional, but they were all so ‘in the zone’ that I am reluctant to mention individuals but must. For me the least successful was Stuart Pendred’s Hagen who did not have the expansive and dark-toned bass voice needed for his music though he was dramatically extremely believable. Meta Powell out-sang her colleagues with great portentous effect as Third Norn but her fellow Norns (Sara Wallander-Ross and Catherine King) joined Gail Pearson as a trio of delightfully eye-catching, fairytale-like Rhine daughters and they sang quite wonderfully too. Alison Kettlewell was an intense Waltraute in an impassioned scene in Act I with her sister Valkyrie, Brünnhilde.
Gunther for some reason best known to the director rolls on in a wheelchair but leaps to his feet when Siegfried is drugged in Act I. His loyal sister Gutrune clearly has a very close relationship with her brother and early on kisses him on the lips and poignantly protects his body when he is murdered by their half-brother Hagen at the end of the opera. Lee Bisset (Longborough’s Sieglinde) provided a beautifully sung, vulnerable and naïve Gutrune and together with Eddie Wade’s stern, yet suitably venal, Gunther these were two performances that would grace any international stage. Malcolm Rivers has reached the veteran stage and beyond (truthfully his photo in the programme was older than some of the singers around him) but he gave a masterclass in how to command a stage and use words during a superb vignette as the ‘Blind Pew’ apparition of Alberich. Later in Act II Longborough’s Chorus of 12 men made quite an impression as the Gibichung vassals.
Now slightly more problematic were Mati Turi and Rachel Nicholls as Siegfried and Brünnhilde. In an age when these roles cannot be performed with any great consistency anymore they too are probably beyond criticism. Estonian tenor Mati Turi has reserves of vocal stamina and a subtle head voice that he didn’t use often enough. I am surprised that with Anthony Negus – Wagner coach par excellence – as conductor that some more lyrical moments in the music could not be found. To my ear Turi has a greater baritone quality to his voice than even the most baritonal of Heldentenors and as such found the higher lines of the role a little difficult and so – in hindsight – it was probably with his conductor’s collusion that he gabbled his way through his Act III ‘Narration’. Elsewhere he was a suitably guileless innocent bear-like young man who fails to grow up until it is nearly too late. His Siegfried was also about twice the size of his petite Brünnhilde.
When Rachel Nicholls was handed a flaming torch to ignite the purification of the ring I imagined her running around the auditorium with it before running off towards the Olympic Stadium. More seriously, she is an exciting prospective Wagnerian talent but someone I would have rather heard as Sieglinde and Gutrune first before tackling Brünnhilde. This former baroque music specialist cannot do anything other than sound youthful and she is also a very confident performer. However I would like Ms Nicholls to find her own voice – or in modern talent show speak – ‘make the role her own’. Nevertheless she was at her best with a wonderfully impassioned Immolation Scene, yet even here there were the strident top notes that she occasionally unleashed throughout the evening.
Finally, all Wagnerians should be grateful for Longborough bringing Anthony Negus out of the music practice rooms at Welsh National Opera and into the pit where he more often deserves to be. Yet I was surprise how little repose there was in this Götterdämmerung. I suspect this taut, driven approach was due more to the valiant young musicians in front of him rather than his own natural inclinations. They played for him like a chamber ensemble writ large, very rarely swamping the singers. Not faultless and whilst only rarely giving the music the fluidity and transparency it really needs, the music-making nonetheless was of the highest standard.
However many Rings you might have seen or whether this would be your first time, if you want to see the story well told and equally well sung then there may be (please forgive me Bayreuth) only one place to go in 2013 … Longborough! It maybe opera on a shoestring … but what they do with those shoestrings is now simply wonderful!
For more information about Longborough Festival Opera if you want to be there next year and/or donate money go to http://www.lfo.org.uk/. There is a sponsorship scheme under which you can sponsor Wotan for £1,000, Hagen’s spear for £100 or a Toad for a mere £25.