A socially distanced semi-staged Die Walküre with many musical highlights returns summer opera to Longborough

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Die Walküre: Soloists, Longborough Festival Orchestra / Anthony Negus (conductor). Longborough, Gloucestershire, 8.6.2021. (JPr)

Sarah Marie Kramer (Sieglinde) & Peter Wedd (Siegmund) (c) Jorge Lizalde

Director – Amy Lane
Lighting designer – Charles Morgan Jones
Choreographer – Lorena Randi

Siegmund – Peter Wedd
Sieglinde – Sarah Marie Kramer
Wotan – Paul Carey Jones
Fricka – Madeleine Shaw
Brünnhilde – Lee Bisset
Hundling – Brindley Sherratt
Gerhilde – Meeta Raval
Ortlinde – Cara McHardy
Waltraute – Fiona McIntosh
Schwertleite – Rhonda Browne
Helmwige – Katie Lowe
Siegrune – Carolyn Dobbin
Grimgerde – Katie Stevenson
Rossweisse – Emma Lewis

This performance celebrated a ‘Hey, Let’s Put on a Show’ mentality that has so wonderfully characterised Longborough Festival Opera since its humble beginnings in 1998. Many back then might have sniggered thinking it was just an operatic ‘folly’ on behalf of its founders Martin and Lizzie Graham, but who’s laughing now? On the day of this performance current Music Director Anthony Negus was celebrating his 75th birthday in a season that marked the 21st anniversary of his involvement with Longborough Festival Opera. It is actually 23 years ago that I first travelled to the Cotswolds’s rolling, verdant countryside to see something there!

Negus, the celebrated Wagner conductor, is finally getting the recognition he thoroughly deserves and on 7 December he will stand at the podium at the London Coliseum and conduct the English National Opera for the first time. That performance of their new The Valkyrie will be very significant as that is where his mentor, the legendary Sir Reginald Goodall, led many memorable Wagner performances.

Before Covid struck LFO had begun a new Ring cycle with Das Rheingold (review click here) and this will now be completed in 2024. The continuing need for social distancing and other pandemic precautions (when will they ever end?) meant that the orchestra was less than 30 with masked strings on stage and everyone else (not that it left many) in the orchestra pit. Singers could not come within two metres of each other which was a significant problem in an opera which features the burgeoning incest of a pair of twins and the exploration of a challenging father-daughter relationship; so hugging, kissing and any other normal operatic interactions were not possible.

The 500-seat Longborough auditorium is intimate enough at the best of times, but at perhaps a little over a quarter full it was a sad sign of the current times and all concerned deserved better. (I once gave an interval talk there several years ago to a bigger audience than that!) It is a credit to the singers and musicians that they sang and played as if they were at Covent Garden. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it would have been better if we had been able to just focus attention entirely on Wagner’s music without some of Amy Lane’s directorial distractions. I know Negus is always keen for audiences to hear some of the nuances in Wagner’s works that can often be lost in other larger opera houses. There was an opportunity to let us concentrate – even more than we could – on the voices and the music. Of course, no one wanted music stands and scores as there were for a starry Die Walküre first act I recently watched online (click here) though neither should anyone be left scratching their heads – which incidentally could have been one of the moves Lane gave singers! – as to what we were watching in just a concert-style performance.

Singers tended to have their bigger moments on a small platform between the strings. This was interconnected to two walkways behind it constructed of some rehearsal staging on which characters prowled when supposedly interacting with others in any particular scene. Otherwise, singers could come to the front of the stage at the edges on either side. Although the exhausted Siegmund at the start drank from a bottle, there was oddly no sword (apparently this was signified by a small array of nine yellow lamps) and – until the final moments – no spear. Singers were spotlit and there were other effects including some red flickering during the ‘Magic Fire Music’ but little else scenically – apart from chairs – to distract from the attempt of the singers (mostly in dark rehearsal clothes) to dramatise their individual portrayals. Lane (and her choreographer Lorena Randi?) undermined what they could come up with themselves if left to their own devices because of too much gesticulating, which included characters holding their heads like Munch’s The Scream, covering their left eye (to represent the one Wotan sacrificed for greater wisdom?), kissing their own hands, or indicating what looked like self-mutilation. There was also the impression that the characters were not in control of their own actions for the most part and Brünnhilde was even seen to control Wotan, through more often it was him who could force her and her sister Valkyries to do his bidding.

At Bayreuth during recent years Katharina Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde involved an Act I set inspired mostly by Dutch graphic artist M C Escher where there were gangways and stairs which were often closed down to go nowhere or would just end in a blind alley. I suspect Lane knows this production as the way she moved the characters around was just like everything was to stop – as in that Tristan for other reasons! – someone getting too close to another person.

Francis Griffen (a name new to me) provided a remarkable reduced Die Walküre orchestration which veered from chamber-like intimacy (frequently underpinned by Jane Salmon’s mellow cello) to the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ and ‘Wotan’s Farewell’ when the orchestra sounded like it was three times its actual size. The most exciting opening to a performance of this opera I have ever heard was at the start of a magnificent Die Walküre in Cardiff in 1984 under Goodall where he left behind his previous rather measured approach and simply let rip! This was never going to equal that, but it was still highly memorable from Negus and his committed Longborough Festival Orchestra. Rich in detail his Die Walküre was perfectly paced across the three acts; first allowing passion to bloom for Siegmund and Sieglinde, he then whipped along those Valkyries and led a single harpist (Catherine White) through some gloriously evocative ‘Magic Fire Music’ at the end. My only concern was the wall of sound all the valiant soloists might have had to cut through and whether this made them sing louder than they would otherwise have wanted to.

Since this was a semi-staged concert version it did not really matter that Peter Wedd and Sarah Marie Kramer were (physically) an ill-matched pairing as the ‘twins’ and no costumes or wigs would help that. Wedd has a large (at least for Longborough’s small auditorium), powerful, surprisingly dark-toned and emotion-fuelled tenor voice and his Siegmund (thanks to Lane?) was rather fidgety and overwrought. Wedd sang with the evident confidence of someone in full command of his role. ‘Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater’ was ardent though he seemed a little tested by the cries of ‘Wälse! Wälse!’. With this Wedd showed himself to be compelling storyteller though it was the vocal colour and greater nuance he brought to ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Mond’ and during the second act ‘Annunciation of Death’ duet with Brünnhilde which showed it is possible to sing these big Wagner roles more lyrically.

Young Canadian soprano Sarah Marie Kramer had a bright sound and her Sieglinde in Act I, despite perhaps leaving something in reserve, simultaneously suggested a lack of self-awareness as well as resilience. It was intriguing to read in Sophie Rashbrook’s interview with Negus in the programme how he suggests Die Walküre ‘contains nothing less than “the most glorious melody in the whole Ring”: the moment where Sieglinde learns from Brünnhilde that she is carrying Siegmund’s child, and she sings “O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichste Maid!” (“O glorious miracle! O wondrous maid!”). “That melody is sometimes referred to as ‘The Glorification of Brünnhilde.’”. I wondered why this pivotal moment fell flat as Negus’s Sieglinde on this occasion missed all the radiance this ecstatic outburst demands.

Brindley Sherratt brought bitterness and an imposing sense of threat to the dour Hunding’s confrontations with Siegmund, though he looked – in this setup – somewhat avuncular. He will repeat this role later this year for English National Opera. Further luxury casting saw and heard a masterclass from Madeleine Shaw (who shunned black for an elegant emerald gown) as the cantankerous, domineering Fricka who gave the henpecked Wotan zero chance of winning their domestic argument. The Valkyries were spaced apart at the rear of the stage, and they had obviously been well-coached and could be heard rehearsing during Longborough’s long supper interval. They undoubtedly tackled enthusiastically all that Wagner and Negus demanded of them, however they were a rather variable octet.

Paul Carey Jones is another engrossing storyteller and the Act II scene when Wotan recounts the Ring story so far was not as endless as it sometimes can be. His chief of the gods looked grizzled and was clearly channelling Sir John Tomlinson’s portrayal of the role, but Carey Jones’s is a more youthful and therefore less world-weary account than is sometimes heard, despite all the familiar anger and bravado as Wotan rails against all his misfortune. I read in an old review from 2009 how I described Carey Jones as a light-grained baritone and oddly I have no reason to change my description of his pleasant voice on this occasion. I found it slightly at odds with Wotan as I have heard him sung on innumerable occasions: whether that is a good or bad thing I can leave for another time.

Lee Bisset (Brünnhilde) & Paul Carey Jones (Wotan) (c) Jorge Lizalde

Last but no means least, Lee Bisset did exceptionally well as the errant Valkyrie. Bisset has a rich, emotive voice, even and secure throughout her range with strong top notes. Once past her ‘Hojotohos’ her Brünnhilde performance was most subtly characterised and moved from the gamine – though feisty – innocence of Wotan’s devoted daughter to the defiant – though totally broken – figure at the end. Bisset is already a particularly good Brünnhilde but has it in her to be an exceptionally fine one by 2024. I assume she will be returning for Siegfried in 2022 and I will be looking forward to hearing her again at Longborough but this time in a full, healthy, and mask-free opera house.

Jim Pritchard

For more about Longborough Festival Opera click here.

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