fri 18/10/2019

Siegfried, Longborough Festival | reviews, news & interviews

Siegfried, Longborough Festival

Siegfried, Longborough Festival

Wagnerite heaven in Gloucestershire - small stage, big impact

Removing one’s rose-tinted specs, it’s easy enough to find fault with this or that aspect of mature Wagner done in a converted barn with 500 seats. The stage is too small, the pit (though recently enlarged) seats 65 compared with Wagner’s 105, and so forth. But with music-making of this quality, one can easily forget about such problems. Anthony Negus, an experienced Wagnerian who has had too few opportunities to put his enthusiasm into practice in public performance, conducts a taut, beautifully paced, finely balanced reading of a score that certainly doesn’t play itself in any sense. The small theatre perhaps inhibits the music’s spread and sense of space, but on the whole it helps the singers. In fact this is the most singer-friendly Wagner I’ve heard outside Bayreuth, a theatre specifically designed to cope with the problem. And the cast is practically without a weakness.

At its head is a young American Siegfried, Daniel Brenna (main picture), who as far as I know is completely new to the British stage. From his first “Hoi-ho” it’s instantly apparent that he’s a Wagner tenor of outstanding promise, a natural with a brilliant, easy top to the voice that half-recalls Melchior, strong projection throughout the range, excellent German and a completely unforced stage presence. His acting is still raw, and he needs more disciplined direction than he gets here. But it’s great to hear this difficult, taxing music sung so uninhibitedly, and without a trace of exhaustion to the very last phrase of his final-act duet with Alwyn Mellor, who herself sings Brünnhilde with radiant tone and vivid dramatic intensity.

Siegfried_wandererOpposite Brenna in the first two acts is the Mime of Colin Judson, a clever, witty character tenor, more likeable, maybe, than this slimy, manipulative dwarf should be, brilliantly watchable in his scene with the Wanderer (Philip Joll), voice and face reflecting exactly the ebb and flow of the riddles which will in the end cost him his life.

Joll himself (pictured right), a voice from the past in this role as far as I’m concerned, turns out to be still in fine fettle, superb especially in his third-act confrontations with Erda and Siegfried – the only music Wagner wrote for the Ring’s ambiguous, Zeus-like hero after picking the work up again post-Tristan and Meistersinger. And this scene is also a highlight of Alan Privett’s otherwise patchy production, Evelyn Krahe’s Erda admirably statuesque, dark-voiced, but beautiful enough, in a cadaverous sort of way, to make Wotan’s fathering of Brünnhilde on her perfectly understandable.

Nicholas Folwell, also rather well directed, remains one of the best Alberichs imaginable: a dark, virile baritone, remorseless in his exposure of Wotan’s hypocrisies, yet in an odd way vulnerable, his complaints at the bad hand dealt him by fate made to sound all too plausible despite their obvious emptiness. He would, one feels, sue if he sprained his ankle kicking someone. And he would lose.

Nature, such a crucial aspect of Wagner’s dramaturgy, is nowhere to be seen

Like many modern directors, Privett (with designer Kjell Torriset) rejects the great outdoors in favour of quasi-interiors littered with bric-a-brac, not all of it obviously relevant to the plot in hand, so that an already cramped stage becomes an obstacle course of gantries and scaffolding, criss-cross ramps, and in the first act a huge furnace door, far downstage, which also oddly enough serves as an entrance and exit.


 Brünnhilde’s rock, for no apparent reason, is backed by a vast window. Nature, such a crucial aspect of Wagner’s dramaturgy, is nowhere to be seen. Fafner the dragon, grandly sung by Julian Close, trundles on atop a cherry-picker scaffold tower, a most disappointing adversary for our eager young hero; the Woodbird is a pretty singing dancer, Allison Bell, not very feathered, though mildly avian in tone and tuning.

The entire action is haunted, not to say crowded out, by a trio of black-clad dancers representing the three Norns (how this will work next year in Götterdämmerung, where they will have to sing, remains to be seen). Their most useful function is to distribute props when necessary, like clever automatons in a designer kitchenette. But like automatons, they soon get in the way and on one’s nerves.

Oh, for a bit of space and a leaf or two. Brünnhilde’s horse Grane, we hear, has found some grass on the mountain. But that’s offstage. The irony is perhaps deliberate. It’s the music, though, that takes the cake.

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