United Kingdom Longborough Festival Opera 2019  – Wagner, Das Rheingold: Soloists, Longborough Festival Opera Orchestra / Anthony Negus (conductor). Longborough, 9.6.2019. (JPr)
Director – Amy Lane
Set designer – Rhiannon Newman Brown
Costume designer – Emma Ryott
Video designer – Tim Baxter
Lighting designer – Charlie Morgan Jones
Wotan – Darren Jeffrey
Alberich – Mark Stone
Loge – Mark Le Brocq
Fricka – Madeleine Shaw
Freia – Marie Arnet
Donner – Wyn Pencarreg
Froh – Elliot Goldie
Fasolt – Pauls Putnins
Fafner – Simon Wilding
Mime – Adrian Dwyer
Woglinde – Mari Wyn Williams
Wellgunde – Rebecca Afonwy-Jones
Flosshilde – Katie Stevenson
Erda – Mae Heydorn
Since its inception in 1998 Longborough Festival Opera has more often than not featured a Wagner opera in its summer season and is now ambitiously embarking on its third Ring cycle with one opera each year before staging the entire tetralogy in 2023. At least that is the plan since the founders of Longborough Festival Opera, the indomitable Martin and Lizzie Graham, appeared before the start of Das Rheingold to confirm these plans but also to appeal for more financial support to help make this happen.
My history with Longborough goes back to 1999 and what the Grahams have achieved is miraculous. There is a special atmosphere to an annual visit to this rural Gloucestershire idyll’s 500-seat theatre especially with heavy rain beating down on is metal roof! Unfortunately, many modern school halls have better stage facilities than Longborough as if any scenery needs moving someone is seen doing it. I love the place and the people involved but was hoping that for this current attempt at the Ring that there would a further leap in standards and if we were not to get anything worthy of Bayreuth (unrealistic I know!) it would at least measure up to what a regional UK company or small international opera house could achieve. It was Tim Baxter’s use of video that raised the bar a notch whilst still too much was redolent of a ‘let’s put on a show in a (former) barn’ mentality.
Within a frame at the rear of the stage, Baxter’s ever changing images showed, for example, the waters of the Rhine, the radiance of its gold, Valhalla (as something from Kevin McCloud’s Grand Designs), the descent and ascent from Nibelheim, the eye of the dragon Alberich turns into, and later, the gathering storm clouds and a rainbow bridge. Occasionally these are interrupted by a what seems to be a broken mirror to highlight the – more than seven years – bad luck that will afflict the gods because of their missteps.
Amy Lane who has worked with Keith Warner on his Covent Garden Ring provides a Warner-lite Rheingold in Victorian costumes remembered from Patrice Chéreau’s famous 1976 Bayreuth Ring. I saw little that I had not seen before but I know that most of the Longborough sell-out audiences are not Wagner veterans – especially when several are seen to be peering at the synopsis in the programme before the start – and it was clear they thoroughly enjoyed what they saw and heard. Some of the happenings in Rheingold are very difficult to stage and it is not Lane’s fault that neither the transformation of Alberich into a dragon, nor amongst other things, the covering of Freia with the gold and the subsequent death of Fasolt really work. Also, there is some contemporary dance (from Johannes Stepanek) for two supernumerary characters during the return from Nibelheim that is best forgotten. On the plus side there is a very nuanced exploration of a more-than-usually ambiguous relationship between Wotan and Loge who seems very much like the puppet master.
Rhiannon Newman Brown’s basic set created two levels but there is no real way there can be ever be much distance between any of the characters. It made the opening scene look rather awkward with a playful trio of Rhinemaidens often being just an arm’s length away from the scruffy looking and predatory Alberich. On the other hand, it worked best when Wotan, Loge, Fasolt and Fafner were discussing Freia’s ransom on the upper level above her and Fricka as if to show men’s business is nothing to do with them. In the main those characters singing at any one time were seen emoting centre stage whilst the rest stood relatively still so the audience’s eyes always knew where to look. The exception was Mark Le Brocq’s remarkably colourful and fey Loge. Again, this portrayal was nothing I hadn’t seen before but his was a performance that was truly of an ‘international’ standard and – amongst the men – Le Brocq (who is next year’s Siegmund) was the singer who truly understood his character the most. He was rarely still and was constantly reacting to what was going on around him and – even with a smirk or some feigned deference – he commanded that the audience’s attention be solely on him whenever he was on stage.
The biggest disappointment for me was the orchestra which sounded much thinner than I have come to expect at Longborough. I was constantly wishing there was a volume control I could turn up. The playing from nearly 70 players was well-nigh faultless but the only genuine crescendo of sound came during a resplendent final scene and especially with Wotan’s ‘Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge’ and the gods’ entry into Valhalla. I hope the wonderful Anthony Negus, music director at Longborough since 2000, will forgive me when I say that it was as if half the orchestra had just returned from a sojourn to a local hostelry having missed the rest of the opera.
The effort into creating a mostly ‘homegrown’ ensemble is admirable and I wondered why the opportunity was not taken to sing this Ring in English. Nobody let the side down though the female voices had a strength in depth not there amongst the men. There were three alluring sounding Rhinemaidens (Mari Wyn Williams as Woglinde, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones as Wellgunde and Katie Stevenson as Flosshilde), a domineering Fricka from Madeleine Shaw, an appealingly conflicted Freia (who genuinely seems to care for Fasolt) and best of all was Mae Heydorn who portentously intoned Erda’s apocalyptic warning in a remarkable vignette. Like Le Brocq’s Loge, Heydorn’s used impeccably diction to convey the meaning of every word she sang, and it almost made the need for the English surtitles redundant.
Loge apart, the rest of the men were more of a mixed bunch; his curse on the ring was the highlight of Mark Stone’s roughhewn Alberich, Elliot Goldie’s Froh lacked lyricism, Wyn Pencarreg sang a rousing ‘Heda! Heda! Hedo!’, Adrian Dwyer’s Mime sounded as if he was auditioning for a more significant Wagner role, the giants Fasolt and Fafner – initially pushed on atop stepladders to hint at greater height – were a sturdy pair with Pauls Putnins’s voice having a more plaintive edge compared to Simon Wilding’s aggressive Fafner. Darren Jeffrey’s grizzled Wotan recovered admirably from an early memory lapse, but my preference is for the head god to be less browbeaten and to exercise more autocratic authority over his dysfunctional family.
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