Better than Bayreuth?
The last "Ring" I saw was last autumn's revival of the Keith Warner production at Covent Garden. As in 2005/6 I had intended to write a book about seeing every Ring cycle produced in a single year, I not only saw the Bayreuth Ring in summer, 2006, but the earlier Manaus and Adelaide Rings. I've seen at least three different Bayreuth productions (each more than once) over the years, and have seen every production in London and Edinburgh in the last couple of decades, including the feeble Russian staging - my first ever being the ROH production in 1970. I relished the 1994-95 Richard Jones, unpopular though it was with my colleagues. Someone recently asked me how many Rings I've seen, and I realised that I couldn't answer without going through my old diaries and calendars. So the answer is: quite a few.
But I've never enjoyed one more than Martin and Lizzie Graham's Longborough Ring, whose first complete cycle has just ended.
There are many reasons for this. The first is the low-budget, high-imagination of the staging, which allows the audience to concentrate on the music, the singing and the acting. The director and designer, Alan Privett and Kjell Torriset, made the brilliant decision not to faff about during the musical interludes. So, though I've seen some terrific projections of Siegfried manning a punt or sailing during the Rhine Journey, I've never revelled in the music itself so much as at Longborough, where absolutely nothing happened on stage to interfere with the appreciation of it. This was true of almost every one of the interludes. Though Wagner's purpose in writing them was chiefly to allow time for scene-shifting, they are some of his most glorious orchestral moments.
The small 500-seat house has fantastic sightlines; you can see the singers' faces from every one of the (former Covent Garden) plush chairs; and these mostly young singer-actors made the most of it, with expression so subtle they would have worked in cinema close-ups or on the TV screen - no hamminess, no gurning, just the appropriate facial movements and gestures. And most of the time (though not always - the first Siegfried needs to remember when he's singing to his sword) the singers remember the rule that their character is always singing to someone, and that is only rarely the audience. In most cases, any failings in this respect were only of degree, and the director can easily improve the performances by slightly repositioning the errant singers.
For the most part the singers in both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung were alert to the fact that they were performing them as chamber operas in a small house, with the 70-piece orchestra in a covered pit. There is no need to shout, bellow or bark à la Bayreuth, and most of the exceptionally fine, and exceptionally good-looking singers, were never tempted.
There were a few lapses. The wonderful looking young Siegfried, Hugo Mallet, has an exquisitely beautiful baritonal tenor voice (and he's the only Siegfried I've ever seen who could take his shirt off on-stage without shame - though he, in fact, did not; but when he stripped his padded bulk down to his shirt, we saw a slender young man). In his first appearance his eyes were glued to Anthony Negus, the superb conductor. By the second cycle he will have gained the confidence that will let him concentrate on Brünnhilde.
The second Wotan, Philip Joll as the Wanderer, is experienced, but used to bigger houses. He will learn to modulate his dynamics by the next performance.
My own sense of pitch is hardly perfect, but the magnificent orchestra didn't seem to all agree that A = 440, but their fuzzy attack in the first bars of each of the openings soon gave way to wonderful ensemble playing and, as I noted above, the interludes were almost uniformly thrilling. This is an orchestra specially assembled for Longborough, not a permanent band, and everyone concerned in recruiting and rehearsing this marvellous group deserves the standing ovation they received after the first Götterdämmerung.
And we were present at the discovery of some new stars. I've previously mentioned the Siegmund and Sieglinde, Lee Bisset. But Ms Bisset also sang Freia and gave us the most glamorous, beautifully acted Gutrune. Alison Kettlewell's Fricka was sensational, but so was her Waltraute. Stuart Pendred's baritonal bass is almost too attractive for Hagen, as you can't help feeling sympathy for a character with such a lovely voice. Eddie Wade's Gunther was believable -very few singers playing this role have ever achieved that.
I wondered how the older Siegfried could possibly match the charisma and vocal beauty of Jason Howard's young held. I was wrong. Jonathan Stoughton equalled him in power, stamina and acting ability; and if his voice is not as warm as his predecessor, he has a faultless upper range, and could reproduce the Woodbird's motif without straining or pushing his voice. Finding one fine Siegfried is a real accomplishment - two is positively Lady Bracknellish.
Finally there's a superstar. If Rachel Nicholls can manage six more performances of Brünnhilde without damaging her voice, I'll expect to hear her perform the role soon in one of the world's major opera houses. Her acting and singing is almost beyond praise - and she kept the level up to the same mark in all three operas. Her presence is commanding, she looks the part of an emancipated but beleaguered, self-aware, proud young woman. Her warm, splendidly coloured true soprano voice is powerful and dramatic, and also lusciously lyrical.
I've mentally compared her favourably to some of the Brünnhildes I've heard in the past - Linda Watson, Gwyneth Jones, Jane Eaglen and Susan Bullock, for example. I have heard, but not seen Anne Evans, and have not yet heard Nina Stemme's Brünnhilde. The only Brünnhilde I can remember seeing who compared at all to Ms Nicholls is Deborah Polaski in the Kirchner/Rosalie Bayreuth production.
Of course, Longborough doesn't have the resources to cast a Bryn Terfel or a John Tomlinson as Wotan. But by god, they've made a good fist of it. If anyone reading this has the wherewithal and desire to sponsor a supremely deserving musical venture, this is the project for you: a superb chamber production of Der Ring des Nibelungen in the Cotswolds. And a knighthood for Martin Graham wouldn't be inappropriate.
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