An accessible production with hidden depths in the Cotswolds.
When Longborough Festival Opera began its new Ring Cycle with Das Rheingold in 2019, it could not have foreseen how its plans for the tetralogy would be disrupted. Had COVID-19 not reared its ugly head it would have been producing the final opera Götterdämmerung by now, but the pandemic necessitated the cancellation of the 2020 festival. The restrictions that were still in place for much of 2021 saw it present a (very successful) concert staging of Die Walküre last year, but now it is back with a fully staged production of Siegfried and the results are superb.
In terms of staging, Amy Lane, who is directing the entire tetralogy, achieves the best of both worlds. On the one hand, Rhiannon Newman Brown’s sets help to tell the story in a straight forward manner that automatically makes it engaging. This is not only since everything is easy to understand, but also because in Longborough’s intimate opera house, where everyone is close to the action, the approach feels in tune with so many things such as the ‘domestic’ set-up in Act I. At the same time, as the evening proceeds, it is clear that a slant is being placed on the work and it proves to be a very clever one.
Each of the three acts sees various props occupy the stage, behind which stands a framed screen. On this appears a variety of images, courtesy of video designer Tim Baxter, with Act I portraying a Romantic landscape, Act II the setting for Fafner’s cave and Act III rugged rocks. These can change so that Act I’s scene can suddenly be shown in winter or the skies turn red after the last giant is killed, and they hint at the impact on the wider world of the actions that take place before our very eyes. They also aid certain plot points with the bear that Siegfried brings ‘home’ being portrayed upon the screen.
In Mime’s cluttered dwelling his profession as a skilled forger is contrasted well with his domestic role in raising Siegfried by having all of his metalworking equipment on one side of the stage and all his kitchen utensils on the other. This works especially well when Siegfried forges Nothung as with him melting the broken sword over real fire to the left and Mime fiddling with pineapples to make his brew in the centre, we gain a keen sense of the different ways in which each feels triumphant at the thought he is on the verge of achieving his goal.
Adrian Dwyer is a first rate Mime whose actions and reactions are always astutely observed. The part generally requires a tenor to apply something of a pinched tone to his voice in order to capture the dwarf’s malevolent and comical nature. However, Dwyer succeeds in applying just enough of one to convey the requisite character while still producing a highly pleasing sound. This ties in with his overall portrayal of the dwarf, which is nowhere near as caricatured as in many assumptions of the part, and all the more effective for that. It is also good to see Dwyer be the penultimate cast member to take his bow at the curtain call when so many productions shunt Mime down to fourth last in the pecking order, despite him being the second largest role.
“…now it is back with a fully staged production of Siegfried and the results are superb”
If several performances are undoubtedly special, Paul Carey Jones’ portrayal of The Wanderer feels particularly so. His bass-baritone is as masterly as it is powerful and he imbues the disguised god with the right combination of mystery, sharpness and intelligence. If anyone needed proof that his game of questions with Mime is not merely an opportunity to remind the audience of the story’s background but rather the ultimate battle of wits, Carey Jones and Dwyer provide it. As Mime asks his third question The Wanderer positively gestures for him to ask what he needs to know and gives an exasperated sigh when he does not, while his own question concerning his children Siegmund and Sieglinde feels like a confession as he describes how Wotan loved them dearly yet treated them badly. Carey Jones also plays up The Wanderer’s mischievousness, and if there is just a touch too much levity in his skipping when he moves to wake Fafner in front of Alberich, there is never any cause to doubt the sheer quality of his performance. His Act III meeting with Erda (a splendid Mae Heydorn) is suitably terrifying as he stands on a rock with his staff, and she appears behind him within the frame clutching her own.
Act II is highly evocative as the fact that Alberich has been camped outside Fafner’s cave for years is illustrated by the presence of a makeshift structure and campfire as much as by his long hair and completely dishevelled appearance. Interestingly, when Alberich realises Wotan is present he moves to attack him, only to be repelled by Wotan sending out a force field, seemingly without effort. However, Alberich does manage to break free from this, thus revealing how the chief god’s power is waning in this rapidly changing world. Mark Stone, with his brilliantly powerful baritone, gives an excellent portrayal of the more threatening dwarf, while Simon Wilding is highly effective as Fafner. His costume, which sees him appear on crutches, makes him both giant and dragon simultaneously. This enables Siegfried really to fight with him in one-to-one combat and thus highlights how the hero defeats him through his own strength, with the plunging of Nothung (which is handed to Siegfried by The Woodbird) into Fafner only representing the final stroke that finishes him off.
This production would seem to pose the question, when it comes to the fate of the world, what is written and who gets to write it? Writing certainly plays a large part from the outset as Mime has a book full of notes on his encounter with Sieglinde, and all that she told him. This adds several dimensions to the drama as Mime has to pretend that he never got to note down Siegfried’s mother’s name, Siegfried scrambles to try to see the pages and The Wanderer tears a page from it to reveal how Mime is missing the point in his game of questions. The idea is raised to another level in Act II, however, as The Woodbird is given a far larger role than normal. She first appears at the end of Act I as a ‘substitute’ for Siegfried smashing the anvil with Nothung, thus marking her out as some type of overseer, and as she clutches a book in Act II it all becomes clear. Wotan has his ravens who keep him informed of all that happens in the world, and here The Woodbird, by keeping Siegfried abreast of what he should do, performs a similar role, thus setting up a rival camp when it comes to the future of the world. When Siegfried finally arrives on Brünnhilde’s rock he is led there by The Woodbird as Wotan (who has already had his spear broken by this point) leads Brünnhilde on, thus pitting The Woodbird directly against the god and signalling the changing of the guard. Julieth Lozano, seen as Vixen Sharp-Ears here last year, is outstanding in the role, totally looking the part as she is dressed in tails and acting superbly. Her beautiful voice would seem to sit just a little lower than one might normally expect for The Woodbird, but is in no way less effective for that.
At the heart of the evening stands Bradley Daley as Siegfried. His tenor is robust and he stays the distance well in this most demanding of roles. He is not quite as effective at portraying the really distasteful side to Siegfried’s character, and just occasionally Mime’s reactions to his taunts seem more convincing than what he is actually handing out. However, perhaps by the same token, he provides an immensely sensitive portrayal of the character. As much as anything, this reminds us that there are still many times in the opera when Siegfried shows a more sympathetic and innocent side, and there are certainly moments when Daley really succeeds in moving us. One of these is when he asks Brünnhilde if she is his mother and she replies that she will not be coming back. In this production, this is also the point at which Brünnhilde spies the ring on Siegfried’s finger and Lee Bisset is tremendous in the role, with her soprano proving strong enough to thrill us with its power but also sensitive enough to convey the Walküre’s sense of vulnerability to the full. The encounter between Siegfried and his grandfather is also rendered effectively by both performers. Carey Jones initially chuckles to himself at what amount to insults from Siegfried, but over time it becomes harder for him to do this. Then when the spear is shattered, in an instant he looks as if he just been transformed into an old man to such an extent that Siegfried, even though he does not know who he has defeated, looks upset and guilty at what he has just done. In the pit Anthony Negus is in typically sure command, and this is surely the point at which the phrase ‘The Longborough Sound’ ought to enter common usage to describe both the balance and the brilliance inherent in the sound that he always succeeds in eliciting from the Longborough Festival Orchestra.
• Harry Sever conducts the performance on 3 June.
• Longborough Festival Opera’s 2022 season continues until 2 August. For details of all of its productions and tickets visit its website.
• Longborough Festival Opera’s Ring Cycle continues with Götterdämmerung in 2023 before the entire tetralogy is presented in 2024.