Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Götterdämmerung review – Longborough Festival Opera presents the conclusion to Wagner’s Ring Cycle

29, 31 May, 2, 4, 6 June 2023

A performance of quality and distinction in the Cotswolds.


Julian Close (Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis)

Next year Longborough Festival Opera will be presenting the entire Der Ring des Nibelungen. The individual operas in this Ring Cycle, which is directed by Amy Lane, started to be introduced in 2019, although COVID-19 ensured that nothing happened in 2020. Now it presents the final opera in the tetralogy Götterdämmerung, and the staging brings together themes, ideas and motifs that were explored in the productions of the previous operas. That they come across strongly here is an achievement in its own right because the pandemic dictated that Die Walküre in 2021 should be a concert staging. In terms of what the audience has seen therefore, one piece of the puzzle is still missing, although it will be revealed next year when that opera is fully staged.

In both Das Rheingold in 2019 and Siegfried twelve months ago, Rhiannon Newman Brown’s set presented a semicircular raised platform that created different levels on which people could perform. Video designs, courtesy of Tim Baxter, also appeared at the back of the stage on a screen, which was framed to provide a greater sense of depth, both physically and metaphorically. Both of these features are apparent here as the Prologue with the Norns (the excellent Mae Heydorn, Harriet Williams and Katie Lowe) is rendered especially effectively. The ropes that they weave have a tangled quality that suggest the roots of the World Ash Tree. The three run towards a central ‘column’ that represents the pine tree on Brünnhilde’s rock from which the Norns now spin, but looks very much like Wotan’s spear.

As the Norns relate the tale so far, the projections on the back screen illustrate what they describe. As throughout the opera, however, they sometimes illustrate the relevant point quite literally, but often only allude to it. We thus witness skies, landscapes, woodland, horses and Valhalla (shown as a brutal modernist building that hints at the raw capitalist world Wagner saw around him), while the marble halls of the Gibichung are revealed through a marbled pattern. Interestingly, while fire does feature, it is the image of cascading water that appears far more frequently and persists in the memory. This creates the feeling from early on that the cleansing and renewal of the world is ultimately more important than its prior destruction, and it is a point that the production as a whole makes. Having the Norns lead Brünnhilde and Siegfried on for the scene that follows also mirrors how Wotan and the Woodbird brought these two characters on for the final scene of Siegfried last year.

Siegfried also placed a great emphasis on writing, and seemed to pose the question when it comes to the fate of the world, what is written and who gets to write it? This idea is expanded on here, although there is more emphasis on whether anything can be written in advance. Certainly, after the Norns’ rope breaks one of them places a book down on the rock as if to say that what happens from now on is at the very least for someone else to write. The start of Act I in the hall of the Gibichung also reveals how writing can be used in different ways and for different purposes. Gunther reads a popular magazine that is presumably commenting on his reputation, while Hagen (pointedly) sits on Gunther’s throne with a pen and clipboard monitoring absolutely everything before him. Gutrune on the other hand reads a history book containing the most fascinating stories, so that when Hagen tells her of Siegfried’s heroism she can follow it up in this and become even more intrigued. The book that the Norn lays down makes many more appearances in the drama, and during the Immolation Scene Brünnhilde places it on Siegfried’s body as if to suggest it will burn with him and that from now on nothing will be written or, in other words, predetermined.

Spears become a motif in their own right, which suggest strength although not always in a good way. Wotan’s is alluded to at the start and Götterdämmerung could be seen as the opera in which the power of his spear gives way to that of Hagen’s. Siegfried also places several around Brünnhilde’s rock when he leaves on his adventures as a form of added protection, and it is actually Waltraute who removes some of these when she appears. Interestingly, while the opera makes much of Hagen’s spearpoint, which he, Brünnhilde and Gunther swear on and with which he dispatches Siegfried, that idea is taken to extremes here by not seeing it attached to any long shaft as would normally be the case. Since that is what all of Wotan’s agreements were notched on, it suggests that Hagen acts in the absence of any rules.

“…Longborough Festival Opera… presents the final opera in the tetralogy…”


Lee Bisset & Bradley Daley (Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis)

Lee Bisset, with her captivating soprano, is a superb Brünnhilde who only has to enter when Hagen demands the ring for himself for everyone to feel her presence. She certainly reveals two sides to the character as she wears a warrior like gown for most of the opera, but does not don this at the start when she is enjoying a blissful and loving existence with Siegfried. She similarly removes it for the Immolation Scene where she is not acting as a fighter but out of love as her own true self, and she delivers the words directly to the audience so that the grandest of proclamations feels extremely intimate and personal.

Bradley Daley is also an excellent Siegfried who by and large stays the distance well while also revealing some impressive acting. Siegfried generally comes across as a more sympathetic and well meaning character than in the previous opera, and Daley certainly shows this. When he is disguised as Gunther, despite simply donning the king’s clothes and a ‘top hat’, he looks and feels tangibly different before he instantly ‘snaps back’ into his own character when he removes the tarnhelm at the end of the scene. He shows just a few signs of tiring in Act III, but his final words after he is stabbed are still highly moving because he acts so well.

Julian Close is an outstanding Hagen, whose bass is so rich, firm and powerful that it becomes easy to forget just how much flexibility and prowess is required to deliver his lines with such apparent ease. He skilfully presents Hagen as a figure who has been totally numbed by being born with no love, and with the sole aim of obtaining the ring. He is constantly seen observing all of the action, as he seeks to engineer events, maximise his opportunities and take his moment, and he delivers ‘Hier sitz ich zur Wacht’ as if in a trance. When Alberich, sung well by Freddie Tong, appears to him in his sleep, Hagen is swigging from a bottle, which makes total sense for one who hates his own existence so much. This sets up an interesting dynamic between the disconsolate son and the obsessed father, who has now gone far beyond looking completely dishevelled as he did in Siegfried to appearing entirely gnawed away by envy.

Benedict Nelson is a tremendous Gunther, really making us empathise with how wretched it must feel for a king to be humiliated in front of his entire court, and who similarly appears heartbroken at the terrible act he has sworn to support. Laure Meloy is also splendid as Gutrune as she suggests a feeling person who is ultimately good at heart, and has simply got carried away by romantic notions when these have been encouraged by Hagen. Catherine Carby is notably persuasive as Waltraute, showing all of the courage and desperation of one who is being thwarted in her attempts to avoid, as far as she is concerned, the most disastrous of outcomes. Mari Wyn Williams, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones and Katie Stevenson bring total class to the roles of Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde respectively, while the chorus responds to Hagen’s ‘rabble rousing’ extremely well by producing a sound that feels both suitably boisterous and highly precise. In the pit, Anthony Negus is in as sure command as ever, and it is the act of hearing such accomplished orchestral playing in the most intimate of settings that makes this experience feel particularly overwhelming.

There are a few slip ups along the way, including the fact that it looks as if Hagen has merely slashed at Gunther rather than killed him. It also does not feel obvious that Hagen has died by being dragged under the water by the Rhinemaidens, but notwithstanding that point the ending is particularly powerful and emotive. Obviously, Longborough cannot muster the same level of effects as the world’s major opera houses, but what it does achieve with Baxter’s video and Charlie Morgan Jones’ lighting designs is extremely impressive. It also applies a take that feels quite unique, and which it would be wrong to give away here. It may be that some people feel it fails to capture the point of the Ring Cycle, but to me it does so entirely. In fact, with Wotan spending lengthy periods willing the end, and the overriding message being that love transcends absolutely everything, it is hard to picture an ending to Götterdämmerung feeling any more appropriate or moving.

• Longborough Festival Opera’s 2023 season continues until 3 August. For details of all of its productions and tickets visit its website.

• In 2024 Longborough Festival Opera presents Der Ring des Nibelungen in three complete cycles. For dates and booking details visit this page.

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