A Day in Valhalla
In a former henhouse, at Longborough, deep in the Cotswold countryside, a very ambitious Ring cycle is shaping up. What, I asked myself, would its bombastic, luxury-loving author and composer make of it?
How would Wagner, who ordered his undergarments from a maker of bespoke women's lingerie, feel about designer Kjell Torriset's simple, effective, but hardly elegant costumes - of rough cotton rather than the silk the Master liked to feel next to his own skin?
How would the man who also built an opera house for himself, with all the then- current theatrical bells and whistles, feel about the basic, but comfortable auditorium, and the stage with Ben Ormerod's excellent, but limited lighting effects possibilities? And what would the man who called for circles of fire, dragons and rainbow bridges think about Mr. Torriset's (increasingly ingenious and impressive, superb but modest) special effects.
Above all, how would Wagner react to the intimate atmosphere of Longborough, where you can see the singers' faces from every seat in the house?
What would he make of presenting his Festival opera, his four-day affair, as a chamber opera?
Then it struck me with real force: he'd hate it. For this is remarkably similar to the way the first productions of Rheingold and Die Walküre were previewed against his wishes, on 22 September 1869 and 26 June the next year at the Munich National Theatre, by the command of King Ludwig. But never mind complaints from the ghost of Wagner, we were seeing these two pieces much as Ludwig first saw them.
And this is the way Wagner ought to have wanted them done, as the emotion he has written into the music itself is best displayed theatrically as at Longborough and Munich, before a small audience. This is the best acted Wagner production I have ever seen (and I've seen many more than my fair share). Because the singers know their faces can be read even by the audience in the last row, they are really giving their all. They are concentrating hard on what they are doing and saying, and director Alan Privett's team has got every singer, even the Valkyries, to pay attention to the meaning of the libretto, and work out whom they are addressing. They give us, the audience, the sense that they are singing to someone particular - in other words, they are creating a drama.
Not only this, but because these are (mostly) fresh, young singers at the start of their careers, they actually look right. The gods (and Siegmund) are fit, handsome and virile and the goddesses mostly slim and good-looking. Lee Bisset, who was a good Freia, turns out to be a spectacularly fine Sieglinde, as wonderful a singer and actress as she is beautiful. Andrew Rees, her Siegmund, was pushing his lovely, burnished voice in the first act, but after the interval came back on with perfect control of his volume and projection.
Because the pit is mostly covered, à la Bayreuth, it is easier for the singers to project over the orchestra, even when it's playing at full volume; but it naturally takes a little time for the singers to adjust to this. When they do, I imagine they find the conditions at Longborough very good to work with, as they are kind, especially to young voices.
Wotan, Jason Howard, seemed in much better voice for the second opera, and happily in control. Alison Kettlewell's Fricka is almost beyond praise - and her acting convinces you that there is a real domestic going on here. It read just like today's front pages in the British press. Rachel Nicholls' Brünnhilde is amazing - fiery and believable, and acted so well that I almost believed it possible for a 20-something goddess to care so much about her honour and not being shamed. Bravo all, and I can't wait for Siegfried, the opera Wagner delayed, so that Ludwig couldn't get it staged as a chamber piece.
I hope those who are privileged to see this Longborough production realise what an important event they are seeing and hearing.
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