Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Das Rheingold review – Longborough Festival Opera’s Ring Cycle begins in tremendous fashion

16, 25 June, 4 July 2024

A performance to justify Longborough’s reputation as ‘The Bayreuth of the Cotswolds’.

Das Rheingold

Paul Carey Jones (Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis)

When Amy Lane’s new Ring Cycle began at Longborough Festival Opera in 2019, the plan was to perform one opera a year before staging the complete tetralogy in 2023. Then COVID arose leading to nothing happening in 2020, and each of the other operas being pushed back a year. The result is that 2024 is the year in which the entire Der Ring des Nibelungen is being presented, and, judged by the first instalment Das Rheingold, it has definitely been worth the wait. 

The opera requires ascents to the mountain outside Valhalla and descents to Nibelheim, which are difficult to execute in a house as small as Longborough’s where it is impossible to install ascending and descending platforms. Lane and designer Rhiannon Newman Brown have, however, overcome the challenge posed in the most ingenious way. The set comprises a semicircle that is raised at the back and slopes down to the ground on either side via a series of steps. This alludes to the journeys from one level to another, while creating a space that works well for each individual scene. When Alberich tries to woo the Rhinemaidens the different levels are used to suggest how the nixies glide through the water, while the dwarf struggles to clamber up the rock to reach them. Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde are beautifully sung by Mari Wyn Williams, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones and Katie Stevenson respectively, and the characters are delineated well as Flosshilde’s ‘flirting’ with Alberich feels far more serious and intense than that of the other two.

A rough ‘board’ is placed on the inside of the back part of the semicircle to represent the rock in which the gold rests before Alberich steals it, and the mountain on which the gods wait to enter Valhalla. When Wotan and Loge go to Nibelheim this board is raised up to reveal how a descent has taken place, and the Nibelungen’s tunnels that lie behind it. With the addition of two dancers (Eera Gupta and Eleanor Stephenson), who through their movements suggest how an entire race has been enslaved, this provides a vivid depiction of a ‘dystopian’ society. 

The set’s shape also sees it create a powerful arena for the action. The intelligent placing of figures throughout ensures that our eye is always drawn to the ‘right’ people, and suggests the hierarchies that are at play. In the moment before Erda (a superb Mae Heydorn) appears, it really looks as if pandemonium is about to break out as the giants threaten to take Freia away. The staging also suggests that the gods are engaged in their own piece of theatre. For Donner’s ‘Heda! Heda! Hedo!’, Froh’s ‘Zur Burg führt die Brücke’ and Wotan’s ‘Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge’ each takes ‘centre stage’ in turn as if they are presenting a series of acts to maintain the pretence that all is well. However, it only requires Loge to enter for his ‘Ihrem Ende eilen sie zu’ to demolish their facade. As he steps onto the stage he feels like a compere, and, decked out with a long velvety jacket and cane, he virtually assumes this role throughout as he commentates on the action, moves proceedings along and delivers his own ‘number’ when he describes his journeys around the world. Mark Le Brocq, with his persuasive tenor and nimble movement, is brilliant in the role and, in contrast to Wotan who lost an eye to gain wisdom, one wonders if Loge’s shades actually make his thinking more nuanced.

Above all, this Rheingold reveals the sheer darkness and futility of practically everybody’s quest. As soon as Alberich takes the gold from its rock, it loses its sparkle and he looks heavy hearted as he exits with it. At the end, when Wotan can finally enter Valhalla, he struggles even to stand upright as he feels shame at having betrayed the Rhinemaidens and fears that this may be the end for him. 

“…this Rheingold reveals the sheer darkness and futility of practically everybody’s quest”

Das Rheingold

Paul Carey Jones, Eleanor Dennis & Madeleine Shaw (Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis)

The production is extremely good at exploring the relationships between the different characters. With his powerful baritone Mark Stone is a multi-faceted Alberich, while Paul Carey Jones’ strong bass-baritone establishes the foundation from which he delivers a commanding performance as Wotan. The manner in which the two interact, however, reveals that they are ultimately cut from the same cloth. In Nibelheim Alberich looms menacingly over Wotan who lies cowering on the floor, and when the chief god takes the ring from the dwarf it seems a particularly violent act. However, Wotan actually embraces Alberich while he lays his curse on the ring. This may partly be an attempt to calm and pacify one who seems so out of control, but it also reveals some empathy on the chief god’s part. Nevertheless, there are times when Wotan simply cannot stop smiling at the thought that he now has the ring, and it is notable that Loge actually has to place his spear back in his hands to remind him of his responsibilities.

Wotan’s relationship with Loge is also rendered effectively as the positioning of the various gods on the stage emphasises how Wotan is the only one of them who shows the demigod any favour. It also reveals how the chief god positively plays on this fact to keep his ‘advisor’ onside. As Fricka, Madeleine Shaw reveals a rich and sumptuous mezzo-soprano, and her relationship with Wotan feels extremely real and almost ‘domestic’. Her concerns at his ‘philandering’ ways seem entirely justified, but when he listens to them while sipping on whisky it suggests that he is not paying them the attention they deserve. 

Eleanor Dennis reveals a compelling soprano and real presence as Freia. She may have a relatively small role, but by carefully positioning her at key moments we are reminded of just how pivotal she is as to which way everything will go. This Rheingold does suggest that Freia has feelings for Fasolt. It is a line that many productions take, but it often feels like an attempt to introduce an extra layer of intrigue that flies in the face of the simple fact that she would be terrified of going with the giants. This one, however, succeeds in making some sense of the idea. Towards the end it might stand to reason that, having seen how duplicitous the gods are, and having now spent time with the likely caring Fasolt, she would see him as a preferable option. Earlier on in the production, it would appear that her fear is not so much of going with Fasolt but of going with him and his brother, as she would inevitably be with the more brutal Fafner as well. The differing characters of Fasolt and Fafner come into sharp focus in Pauls Putnins and Simon Wilding’s respective portrayals, and there is also good support from Adrian Dwyer as Mime, Freddie Tong as Donner and Charne Rochford as Froh.

A framed screen stands at the back of the stage, upon which Tim Baxter’s video designs provide a continuous stream of images that support the drama well. Some reflect the action more literally than others, and at the start they convey the fluidity of the Rhine and the shimmer of the gold in its waters. Loge’s description of his travels around the world is accompanied by pictures of landscapes and mountains, and when Alberich transforms into a dragon he crouches out of sight while a fearsome eye and scaly tail appear on the screen. When the gods lament the loss of Freia and her apples a tree is revealed, but the shimmering golden hue that it initially bears soon fades completely.

Valhalla is represented on the screen as a brutal modernist building, thus representing (although not literally) the capitalist world that Wagner saw around him and was commenting on. When Donner and Froh first confront the giants Valhalla suddenly lights up as if revealing the power of the gods. Mostly, however, it is obscured by storm clouds, with the thickness of these reflecting just how out of reach the fortress seems for the gods at any point in time. For example, when the giants first discuss the ring the clouds begin to part a little because it introduces the possibility of an ‘alternative solution’ for Wotan. In the pit, Anthony Negus is in as sure command as ever as he proves equally adept at eliciting the fluid sound of the Prelude and the powerful closing bars that remind us, as much as anything, that this really is only the start of the journey. 

• This current Cycle continues with Die Walküre on 26 June, Siegfried on 28 June and Götterdämmerung on 30 June. There is one further Cycle between 4 and 9 July and two additional performances of Die Walküre on 12 and 14 July, while the Festival also presents La bohème between 27 July and 6 August.

• For full details of all events and tickets visit the Longborough Festival Opera website. 

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