Richard Wagner
Longborough Festival Opera
Longborough Festival Opera

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Bradley Daley (Siegfried in disguise) wrenches the ring from Lee Bisset (Brünnhilde) Credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis
Julian Close (Hagen), Laure Meloy (Gutrune), Benedict Nelson (Gunther) and Bradley Daley (Siegfried) Credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis
Freddie Tong (Alberich) Credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis
Lee Bisset (Brünnhilde) and Catherine Carby (Waltraute) Credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis
Laure Meloy (Gutrune) and Lee Bisset (Brünnhilde) Credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis

Longborough proves yet again that you don’t need a mega-budget to stage a Wagner opera successfully, not even when the composer calls in its climactic moment for the heroine to leap onto her horse, the surrounding conflagration to engulf a palace, the Rhine to overflow with Rhinemaidens swimming past and mortals to look down as gods are lost in the flames.

All it needs is a fine cast of singing actors and a coherent interpretation of the piece that matches every element of the music with stage direction and set design. That is precisely what director Amy Lane and conductor Anthony Negus achieve in the final part of their tetralogy, which started in 2019 and will be repeated in its entirety next year.

Rhiannon Newman Brown’s set is minimal, two low platforms either side of a central one serving all scenes, with a few extra props. The production too is relatively straightforward, with vaguely late 19th century costumes, no Teutonic absurdities or modernist hang-ups.

What really transforms the concept is the remarkable lighting by Charlie Morgan Jones and Tim Baxter’s video projection, so well matched to the fleeting motifs of the piece that they could have been ordered by old Richard himself.

The former includes many minor touches, such as blacking out Benedict Nelson’s Gunther when he dons the shape-changing magic helmet, and a final grand one as tongues of flame fill the entire auditorium. Baxter’s images too are a constant refraction of musical references, maelstrom or inferno, molten gold or a cold Valhalla of crumbling concrete. As Bradley Daley’s Siegfried swallows the memory-numbing potion, black, swirling clouds obscure the screen.

Of many high-quality performances, that of Lee Bisset stands out from the norm as a youthful, svelte, alluring Brünnhilde, a convincingly human figure (a compliment for a god), passionate equally in love and as a woman scorned. She commands a thrilling, full voice, used expressively and with just the right vibrato control for this venue.

One of the evening’s highlights is her early ecstatic duet with Daley, in lovely voice here, a roustabout, punch-happy country bumpkin, like one in the city for the first time and soon with the hangover to show for it. His Siegfried is a creature of others, unable to avoid the fate written in the book passed between characters, and if fatigue seemed to take a slight toll by the punishing third act, Daley’s response was ever heroic.

Julian Close epitomised dark ambition as Hagen, deliciously chocolatey in tone, manipulating others like a puppeteer who despises his puppets. Nelson was lyrical in sound, as the impulsive, shallow Gunther, Laure Meloy a sympathetic Gutrune.

The Norns, Mae Heydorn, Harriet Williams and Katie Lowe, and Rhinemaidens Mari Wyn Williams, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones and Katie Stevenson sang in such close sympathy they might have been full-time trios. Freddie Tong made a brief appearance as Alberich, who since the dwarf’s appearance in Das Rheingold had clearly gone through hard times, appearing as if from his funeral, without the benefit of a brush-up.

I was greatly impressed by Catherine Carby, who sang the role of Waltraute with velvety smoothness. I mention her last only as a transition to Negus’s handling of the orchestra, which complemented Carby’s lyrical performance with insinuating softness.

The orchestral performance had a thorough fluency, tempi matching mood in a score without specific metronome markings, Siegfried’s journey in particular being light of foot, and the players never once overwhelming the singers. The sound balance at the back of the stalls was perfect.

This restraint made the moment even more dramatic when Negus let rip with dissonant brass at the entry of the Gibichung chorus—the first chorus in the entire Ring cycle. The immolation scene seemed by comparison a tad underplayed.

I find it hard to come to a satisfactory conclusion about Wagner’s metaphorical / metaphysical intentions, other than that there may ultimately be less than meets the eye in this interweaving of Nordic legends. Amy Lane, I think, similarly leaves the question open.

We might be dealing with nostalgia: the video images appear within a border like paper frames from an old photograph album, and Lane has Wotan briefly resurrect the deceased Siegfried and Brünnhilde. Or is that a demonstration of Love, matched by her dying expression of joy, although the death of all three seems hardly a triumph? Is it resignation to fate, as spelled out in the fortune-telling book, or a message of hope, despite the figure of Hagen left hanging around, still desiring The Ring?

All of these or none? I’m deeply sceptical of Wagner’s mystical messaging, but the puzzle keeps me coming back to productions, especially when as well staged as this.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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