Das Rheingold appeared at Longborough in 2019, but the two year wait for the second instalment in Wagner’s Ring Cycle was definitely worth it.
While COVID-19 has been devastating for all summer opera festivals, coping with the pandemic is even harder when one is in the midst of presenting Der Ring des Nibelungen. This is partly because, when there are four operas to tackle, massive rescheduling can be required as one cannot simply pass over an entire season and move onto the next. It is also because Wagner orchestras are so large that it is extremely difficult to socially distance them during the period of recovery, and there is a third problem as well. Although on the surface Die Walküre might seem easy to perform at the moment as it generally sees only two or three characters on stage at the same time, it is difficult for the performers to generate the requisite chemistry when they cannot physically come close to each other.
Longborough Festival Opera could never have known when it embarked on its new tetralogy in 2019 what lay ahead, but it has coped admirably with the challenges presented, while also allowing us to see and hear Die Walküre in a new light. It is presenting the opera in a series of concert performances, thus allowing the orchestra to occupy the stage as well as the pit in an approach that Glyndebourne Festival Opera is also adopting for Tristan und Isolde in August.
The performances employ Francis Griffin’s reduced orchestration, and feature just twenty-nine players. Longborough’s intimate opera house, a converted cattle shed, allows Wagner to work on this scale, but the approach is still high risk because lines are very exposed and there is no cover if anything whatsoever goes wrong. In the hands of conductor Anthony Negus, however, the orchestra’s sound becomes magical by virtue of its accuracy and clarity. Because of the small forces and the space between each player, lines are delineated brilliantly, allowing colours and hues to come to the fore that might normally remain somewhat hidden.
When we hear the way in which, for example, certain phrases are leant into and out of, it is clear just how well Negus has worked with all of the players over the rehearsal process to elicit such an accomplished sound. With Negus in the pit with the thirteen wind, brass, harp and percussion players and the sixteen strings on the stage above there are certainly times when we can appreciate how the sound has been built from the ‘bottom up’. In a perfect world, I would still prefer to hear larger orchestral forces that can generate a richer and fuller sound, but the opportunity presented by circumstance to hear the score in this way is undoubtedly a welcome one.
This concert performance, directed like the rest of Longborough’s Ring Cycle by Amy Lane, sees various gangways cross behind the orchestra. A central square (sometimes with a chair at its back) and two corners at the front of the stage then provide further focal points and places from which to sing. It is not easy for Siegmund and Sieglinde to convey the strength of their feelings when they have to remain apart, but the staging employed helps them to do so while also making further points. At the end of Act I when they might normally join hands, the pair reach out their arms towards each other before turning their hands and placing them on their own faces. It is a move that conveys intensity but also, since the pair never actually touch, alludes to the fact that not everything between them is going to work out well.
A technique often used in the encounters between both Siegmund and Sieglinde and Wotan and Brünnhilde is to station one in the central square and the other directly behind on the raised gangway. There are a few times when it makes it too easy for Sarah Marie Kramer as Sieglinde to occupy the square and merely face forward and watch the conductor, but she really grows in strength over the evening with her rendition of ‘O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichste Maid!’ proving as moving as it is brilliantly executed. As Siegmund, Peter Wedd’s tenor is focused in a manner that reveals excellent technique and really conveys the intensity of his feelings. If his sound could feel just a little more expansive in Siegmund’s most climactic phrases, the sheer quality of his performance is never in doubt.
“Longborough Festival Opera… has coped admirably with the challenges presented, while also allowing us to see and hear Die Walküre in a new light”
A powerful electricity runs through the evening so that the excellent Walküre writhe in ways that suggest their riding through the air and coming to land on the rock without literally portraying these things. The central relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde is similarly rendered so that at the start of Act II Wotan looks weak and distressed before Brünnhilde raises him up from a distance. In the music that precedes ‘Der Augen leuchtendes Paar’ Wotan bends double before Brünnhilde falls even lower, and Wotan raises her again, suggesting how much they really need each other. As Brünnhilde, Lee Bisset is strong from the outset as her initial ‘Hojotohos’ reveal impeccable control and real excitement, a formidable combination that characterises her performance as a whole. Paul Carey Jones is a deeply multi-faceted Wotan who, with his smooth and secure bass-baritone, can reveal real anger but also the sense of world weariness that runs through the chief god during the opera.
The two smaller principal roles represent luxury casting with Brindley Sherratt and Madeleine Shaw delivering some notably strong singing and acting. Sherratt, who plays the same role for English National Opera this winter, rolls Hunding’s deep bass sounds as only he can, and, though he certainly feels brutish enough, he also suggests that Hunding cannot believe his luck that the enemy he seeks should so readily present himself. Shaw reveals a stunningly radiant voice as Fricka, and makes the character’s stances feel rather more considered than in many other portrayals.
In the absence of a full staging, and hence an infrastructure to take some of the weight, there is a slight tendency towards overacting when so often the performer only needs to feel the emotion inside for this to be projected. In Act III Brünnhilde is obviously desperate but some of Bisset’s expressions make her pleading with Wotan feel slightly petulant. Similarly, Carey Jones really crumbles after he puts Brünnhilde to sleep when it would arguably be more moving for the fading god to show greater restraint. This said, Wotan’s positive revelling in the fire music works well alongside Charlie Morgan Jones’ lighting effects, which are strong all evening without drawing excessive attention to themselves. The moment also works, however, because it is rendered so effectively in the orchestra. The sound is given a cheeky, dance-like quality, totally befitting of Loge’s role as a trickster, and yet everything is so beautifully played that it epitomises all that is good in this performance of Die Walküre, which is presented under such difficult circumstances.
Freddie Tong sings Hunding on 10, 12 and 14 June.
Longborough Festival Opera’s 2021 season, which includes productions of Così fan tutte, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and The Cunning Little Vixen in its new ‘Big Top’, continues until 3 August. For further details read our season preview.