Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Die Walküre review – Longborough Festival Opera’s Ring Cycle goes from strength to strength 

18, 26 June, 5, 12, 14 July

Lee Bisset and Paul Carey Jones head an outstanding cast.

Die Walküre

Die Walküre (Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis)

Die Walküre is the one production in Longborough Festival Opera’s 2024 presentation of Der Ring des Nibelungen, directed by Amy Lane, that no one will have seen before. While the other three were introduced between 2019 and 2023, in 2021 the pandemic required Die Walküre to be semi-staged with a reduced orchestration. The result was undoubtedly successful, but a situation in which, for example, Siegmund and Sieglinde could not physically touch made it harder at least for the requisite chemistry to be generated. In direct contrast, this fully staged version is extremely strong on revealing the relationships between the different characters as a wealth of details and nuances underpin many of the interactions. 

In Das Rheingold Rhiannon Newman Brown’s set comprised a semicircle that was raised at the back and sloped down to the ground on either side via a series of steps. In Die Walküre it feels as if this has been split in two with the parts being placed so that the highest points now stand to the left and right. This enables Wotan and Brünnhilde to sing across to each other from these twin ‘pinnacles’ at the start of Act II, but the splitting of the semicircle also highlights various divisions. At one point when the Walküre are defending Brünnhilde, they all occupy one section while Wotan stands alone on the other. Brünnhilde meanwhile remains on the floor below desperately trying to curb her sisters’ boldness. When she subsequently attempts to persuade Wotan that in defying his orders she was obeying his will, she ascends the same section as he is on and ends up standing next to him. This symbolises the possibility of their minds meeting once more, although on this occasion Wotan reveals how he remains unconvinced by moving away from her again.

In Act I the stage is also ‘cluttered’ with items such as chairs, crates and kitchen utensils in order to represent Hunding’s house. The Prelude begins with Wotan entering to double check that Nothung is where he left it, and to leave a book by its side for Sieglinde to find. This book is seen throughout the opera and would seem to contain, or at least personify, Wotan’s grand plan. At certain points, however, characters rip pages from it as if to show how they are either unable or unwilling to fulfil the chief god’s wishes. Then before the battle in Act II Wotan ensures Sieglinde is sighted on a new book, which presumably contains a revised plan on how to proceed in the light of Siegmund’s impending death, which had not previously entered his calculations.

The chemistry between Mark Le Brocq’s Siegmund and Emma Bell’s Sieglinde is poignant from the start as their drinking of mead together, which is supposedly to prove to Siegmund that it is not poisoned, becomes a ‘flirtatious’ act in its own right. They are, in fact, about to kiss when Hunding enters, and in direct contrast the kiss on the cheek that he subsequently expects from Sieglinde speaks of enslavement rather than love. Throughout the scene there are many telling details, so that Hunding does notice just how happily and obediently Sieglinde has prepared his night draught, although he does not realise this is because she has drugged it.

Le Brocq reveals a tenor that is expansive enough at the top of the register to capture the real passion in Siegmund’s declarations, and yet also excellently controlled. The sheer richness and depth in Emma Bell’s mezzo-soprano make her a class act as Sieglinde, and her performance of ‘O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichste Maid!’ feels particularly moving and accomplished. As Hunding, Julian Close’s powerful bass is every bit as formidable as his brutal presence.

“…this fully staged version is extremely strong…”

Die Walküre

Lee Bisset & Paul Carey Jones (Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis)

Real electricity flows between Paul Carey Jones’ Wotan and Lee Bisset’s Brünnhilde. Emma Ryott’s costume designs see Bisset dressed very stylishly so that she is every inch the cool, young warrior. A few funky gestures between the pair reveal how she can make him feel young again, though they do put a strain on his body. Bisset’s soprano is extremely rich and vibrant, and she delivers quite a stunning performance as her cries of ‘Heiaha!’ within the ‘Hojotoho!’ section ‘ripple’ with extraordinary intensity. Carey Jones’ bass-baritone is firm, powerful and assertive and he stays the distance extremely well so that his final proclamation in the opera, ‘Wer meines Speeres Spitze fürchtet’, feels as strong as anything that has gone before. When Carey Jones and Bisset played these roles here in the 2021 semi-staging there was a slight tendency for them to overact, seemingly in an attempt to compensate for the overall lack of infrastructure. Now, in direct contrast, their performances feel highly animated but never overblown.

As Fricka, there is so much richness and nuance in Madeleine Shaw’s mezzo-soprano that her performance is commanding on vocal grounds alone, but she also reveals the complete gulf between Wotan’s wife and daughter. This is apparent from the moment she enters in a highly traditional dress, and instantly changes Wotan’s persona as she expects a polite bow from him. She carries a cane topped with a ram’s horn to signify the fact that she travels on a chariot pulled by rams, and when she grips this in one hand and her husband’s spear in the other it highlights the way in which Wotan is torn between two courses of action. Shaw’s Fricka arouses some sympathy because when she sings ‘Deiner ew’gen Gattin heilige Ehre’ it feels as if she is simply appealing to old fashioned values. However, as she shoots Brünnhilde a half triumphant, half dirty glance as she exits, one is left thinking that even these may not always be so wholesome. 

The battle at the end of Act II is highly compelling because it is presented overtly as a contest between the power of Brünnhilde to protect Siegmund and that of Wotan to destroy him. This means that, before the latter wins, there are several seconds in which we see the outcome genuinely hanging in the balance as both try to assert their strength. 

The Walküre feel a particularly formidable bunch as they reveal some tremendous voices. They enter one by one so that, in keeping with the original directions, some of their lines are delivered from offstage as those who have not yet arrived on the rock call to those who are already there. The subsequent scene between Wotan and Brünnhilde is as heart breaking as any, and Carey Jones undergoes the transition from furious god to loving father extremely convincingly. When Brünnhilde urges him to surround the rock with fire so that only a hero may rescue her, he suddenly finds that he is able to chuckle at the thought that he would expect nothing less from his daughter. 

The fire is rendered very effectively through a combination of Charlie Morgan Jones’ lighting and Tim Baxter’s video designs. As with Das Rheingold, the latter provide a continuous, but not too obtrusive, ‘commentary’ on the action as images appear on a framed screen at the back of the stage. In Die Walküre the moment in Act I in which spring enters is illustrated especially well, with the video designs reflecting Siegmund’s description of Sieglinde as being ‘wrapped in glory of waving hair’ while shining ‘beneath spring’s moon’. The image of Valhalla from Rheingold also appears whenever the fortress is mentioned, but it is generally less obscured by clouds. This reveals how it is now a more accessible place in the sense that gods, heroes and Walküre do dwell there. However, when Wotan banishes Brünnhilde from Valhalla the picture of the fortress changes to one of the forest, embodying the different realm to which she now ‘belongs’.

The Longborough Festival Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Anthony Negus, is once again in excellent form, and the feeling it elicits in the orchestral ‘repeat’ of Wotan’s ‘Der Augen leuchtendes Paar’ is particularly notable. The ‘fire music’ is also rendered exactly as one would wish it to be, as the orchestra captures the cheeky dance like quality in the ‘fluttering’ line, hits us with the most overwhelming power, and carries us into a new realm in the closing bars.

• After Longborough’s set of complete Ring Cycles finishes on 9 July, there will be two additional performances of Die Walküre on 12 July (conducted by Harry Sever) and 14 July (conducted by Anthony Negus). The Festival will also present La bohème between 27 July and 6 August. 

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

buy Lee Bisset MP3s or CDs
Spotify Lee Bisset on Spotify

More on Lee Bisset
Die Walküre review – Longborough Festival Opera’s Ring Cycle goes from strength to strength 
Götterdämmerung review – Longborough Festival Opera presents the conclusion to Wagner’s Ring Cycle
Longborough Festival Opera’s 2023 season includes everything from Monteverdi to Wagner
Die Walküre @ Longborough Festival Opera, Longborough
Tristan und Isolde @ Longborough Festival Opera, Longborough