mon 22/07/2019

Götterdämmerung, Longborough Festival | reviews, news & interviews

Götterdämmerung, Longborough Festival

Götterdämmerung, Longborough Festival

Superb Wagner in a Gloucestershire barn promises well for next year's Ring cycle

The twilight of the gods: the Norns on their cherry-pickers, touchingly fragile, oddly moving

Every production of Wagner’s Ring is a challenge. But to stage it in a smallish converted barn seating 500 with little or no stage machinery, which is what the Longborough Festival plans to do in a year’s time, might strike one as a particularly refined form of lunacy. The omens, nevertheless, could hardly be better. The final wing of the edifice, Götterdämmerung, is complete; and in almost every way it’s a remarkable, memorable achievement, a triumph of sheer enthusiasm and dedication – a rare victory for the fools rushing in ahead of the timid angels.

No need to dwell on the obvious limitations. The point about Alan Privett’s production and Anthony Negus’s conducting is that they make a virtue of them. Once upon a time Karl Böhm, himself a great Wagner conductor, described The Ring as chamber music, and we all laughed. But in this confined space, with a reduced orchestra of 70 or so, Negus is able to show what Böhm meant.

From the very start, with the three Norns, he restrains the orchestra, allowing the detail to come through and the voices to carry without shouting. And this fine balance is maintained throughout. Even at Bayreuth, I’ve never heard the voices or words so well in Wagner; and there’s another interesting consequence. In a small auditorium, casting assumes a different complexion; you no longer have to depend on thumping “Wagner” sopranos or tenors in every minor role. You can bring in authentic lyrical voices, and have the music sung as it must surely have been conceived, as a kind of extension of late Schubert – a blend of line and expressive colour.

No barking, not a squawk to be heard: maybe the odd voice not quite up to the specific gravity of this or that moment. But in general this is a model of how well Wagner lies on the vocal chords when they aren’t being drowned out by a symphony orchestra in full cry.

Privett has his Norns 12 feet up in the air on wheeled cherry-pickers, lending them a touchingly fragile air, but also giving them space and carry. The idea sounds grotesque, but is in fact oddly moving, in a mildly nightmarish way. The singing, by Catherine King, Sara Wallander-Ross and Meta Powell, is lucid and eloquent. But this is nothing compared to the astonishing warmth and richness of Rachel Nicholls’ Brünnhilde (pictured below right) and the vitality of Mati Turi’s Siegfried when they emerge from their “cave”.

Needless to say the designer, Kjell Torriset, offers nothing so literal. What we do get in this prologue is a closeness and intimacy of a kind usually quite foreign to Wagner. The whole relationship suddenly becomes a matter of facial expression and discreet gesture; and both singers make full use of these resources, almost as in a television play.

Similarly the Gibichungs are like characters in a drawing-room melodrama: Gunther (Eddie Wade) suited and tied and for some reason in a wheelchair, until released, apparently, by Siegfried’s drinking of the forgetfulness potion; Hagen (Stuart Pendred) more chic in a green house-coat; Gutrune (Lee Bisset) dressed for dinner in a well-regulated household, which, it soon turns out, this is not.

Siegfried’s arrival is the intrusion of myth into a world of bankers and the smart disabled. And almost without exception the singing is fluent and articulate, Wade especially good, utterly convincing as the moral coward who connives at a deception that he lacks the courage to admit even to himself; Pendred occasionally dry of voice but immensely plausible in his villainy; Bisset, perfect as the ordinary girl landed in a situation beyond her comprehension.

The vignettes are also excellent: Malcolm Rivers, a veteran Alberich in every sense, wonderfully sinister and vocally precise in his nocturnal visitation of Hagen, in Wagner’s blackest B flat minor; Alison Kettlewell inclined to overact as Waltraute, but secure of voice and intense of character.

She knows how to act with her voice, her body and her faceNone of this, though, would carry much weight without the three main stars of the show. Nicholls’ Brünnhilde is in every way an extraordinary creation. Well-known as a baroque and classical soprano with extensions (she was a Valkyrie here two years ago and a Flower Maiden at Covent Garden), she emerges now as a dramatic soprano of real brilliance and intense expressive power. The voice is clean, bright, but with dark colourings, strong in the low register, firm and secure on top, and with a fluency of line that even the greatest Wagner sopranos sometimes miss. She can also act. She knows how to act with her voice, her body and her face; quite simply she has presence. In the immolation she commands the stage (and to his credit Privett lets her do so). At other times she is the wronged heroine, vulnerable and bewildered. She reminds us that Wagner, among other minor talents, was a penetrating psychologist. It’s one of the most affecting performances I can remember.

Mati Turi (pictured left), though, is her ideal foil. Large without grossness, spirited without stupidity, he manages to persuade us that Siegfried is something more than a blank Aryan clod. Part of this is in the singing, which is remarkably sound and assured for so apparently inexperienced a tenor. But there is also a quick intelligence in his acting, and a certain vividness in the way he responds to this baffling chain of events. When these two are on stage together, whether loving or hating, they make compelling music theatre: one can’t ask much more.

The third hero, of course, is in the pit. Negus’s achievement in piloting the singers and orchestra through this perilous masterpiece is impossible to overpraise. He has the breath of the music, its pace and architecture. But he is also attentive to both his singers and his players – the virtue, I suppose, of years of repetiteuring, coaching, and rehearsing for other people. Securing balance in Wagner is notoriously hard; he achieves it. The choral singing, by a small but well-drilled group, is immaculate. The orchestra is very good, but it isn’t perfect; there are problems of tuning and splitting in the wind and brass, in among much lovely, well coordinated playing. All this will improve, under a talented conductor who, over the years, has never received his due in mainstream opera houses..

Of the staging, I’ve said the best. The setting is neutral: a bit of this and a bit of that. A large Wieland Wagner disc that tilts for the end of the world; various assorted things on wheels, Rhinemaidens climbing up fish netting, a horse whinnying offstage, a few flaming brands at the end. Not a tree or a blade of grass or a splash of water to be seen, for music that begins and ends in Nature. But Privett does his best work with the most important props of all, the singers. It’s the least spectacular part of the director’s job, but the one most frequently muffed

Götterdämmerung at Longborough Festival on 19, 22 and 24 July

A remarkable, memorable achievement, a triumph of sheer enthusiasm and dedication

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