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

            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

            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.

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.

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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  1. says

    Perhaps the positive experience was due mostly to the small hall. There are nine fulltime opera houses within two hours of where I live in the Black Forest: Stuttgart, Freiburg, Ulm, Karlsruhe, Pforzheim, Zurich, Basel, St. Gallen, and Lucerne. Seven of these nine cities are small – ranging from 76,000 to 200,000. So the houses are small, seating about 500 people.
    Opera is best heard in houses of this size. There is so much more clarity and fullness to the orchestral sound. The singers can use lighter voices which allows for much more inflection and acting. Stagings can be far more efficient, economical and yet very effective. And above all, the closeness allows the public to experience opera in all of its visceral beauty.
    The social and aesthetic affect is also different. The principle message in large, prestigious houses is most often their own sense of grandiose self-importance. Honcho singers bellow to the thousands and create a horsey, warbling, egoistic physicality that subsumes all the other elements of theater. This also affects stage direction. Famous singers usually have tight schedules and agree to only a minimum of rehearsals. This is why houses that engage stars so often revert to park-and-bark staging. Small European houses, by contrast, use an ensemble of fulltime singers that spend weeks rehearsing workman-like singing, acting, and stage movement. Music is placed before stardom.
    It should be noted, of course, that small houses like I mention are only possible through effective public funding systems like those in Germany and Switzerland. Small performances like this in the USA could only exist in on a very occasional basis, and only with pickup singers and orchestras in rental spaces. It would be difficult to duplicate the highly professional effect of small, fulltime European companies with fulltime ensembles working in their own dedicated house.

  2. John Saxon Jones says

    I could not agree more with the reviewer. The intimate house worked entirely in the favour of the production and the singers. It showed that one does not need to chuck money at production to make it work.
    Rachel Nicholls is of course sensational! However the entire project makes one’s heart soar.

  3. Oliver Geldon says

    This was a wonderful Cycle. I felt the intimacy of the theatre really lent itself to the singers. Also they were young singers, therefore it was refreshing to hear new artists in this repertoire. All the principles were really exceptional. In particular, Nicholls has a really bright future ahead of her. She is young as well, therefore has a lot of time to develop even further. I also thought the Loge in Rheingold was very special. In Die Walkure, I have to say that the Valkeries were some of the best I have heard, in particular, Jenufa Gleich as Helmwige. Her Hojotoho’s were astounding in the beginning of the scene. Does anyone know who she is? The whole scene had a cohesiveness that even the bigger houses haven’t managed to create. One could hear all the voices and all were unique. Anthony Negus I have read has been tapped for the Melbourne Ring Cycle. He is touted as one of the best ‘unknown’ Wagner conductors out there. This festival has a great future. Hopefully more funding will follow. I am so looking forward to Tristan!

  4. Jonathan Tipler says

    Friends who attended first cycle had given broadly this feedback prior to seeing this article. Overall they gave 9/10. If the improvements are achieved I can’t wait for the third cycle which I’m attending – my first full cycle in one go after seeing my first over four years at the London coliseum in the 60/70s from school.

  5. Caroline Clegg says

    I was privileged to visit Longborough on July 8th to watch Die Walkure. As a theatre and opera professional myself I attend countless productions but never have I felt so uplifted and inspired by opera as I did on that glorious evening. As I set off for a homeward journey of three and a half hours the music still jubilantly playing in my head I thanked my lucky stars that I had had the opportunity to witness Lizzie and Grahams work, passion and ‘dream’ come to fruition. I have had the pleasure of working with Anthony Negus and he is one of the most consummate musicians I know and I hope that he will now gain the recognition he richly deserves.
    If you haven’t been to Longborough make the trip. This is how opera should be seen and heard. Built on love and passion and performed with the same. Congratulations to one and all, it will remain my opera highlight for many years to come.

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