Longborough's golden D.I.Y. "Ring"
It's a far cry from the Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney Hollywood movie where the two kids say "Let's put on a show," but the start of the 2013 Ring Cycle just outside the Cotswold village of Longborough has the same defiant D.I.Y. attitude.
Martin and Lizzie Graham have been thinking about Wagner's operas for 30 years, and in 1998 they mounted - in a converted hen-house on their farm - their first, but miniaturised, Rhinegold. Now the shed has become a rural opera house, with all the appropriate
theatrical paraphernalia, and (perfectly comfortable) red-plush seats rescued from the renovation of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.
Now, 15 years on, the Grahams are triumphantly hosting their first complete and full Ring cycles - three of them. What is more, these are the only complete Ring cycles in Britain in the Wagner bicentenary year. (They are also celebrating by staging a new production of Puccini's La Bohème - a Verdi or Britten opera might have been more appropriate, as it's also their bicentenary and centenary, respectively - but there are plenty of both composers' operas being performed elsewhere this year.)
Of course alterations have had to be made. Director Alan Privett and conductor Anthony Negus, though they have used the full score, have had to simplify the staging, taking it back to its essentials, which is no bad thing. For example, props have been reduced to a non-distracting minimum: no golden apples, no Nibelungen hammering at their anvils; and designer Kjell Torriset's simple and refined costumes are also a help, rather than a hindrance. Ben Ormerod's clever lighting therefore does a lot of the dramatic heavy-lifting.
Manager Philip Head's orchestra arrangements are the most interesting feature to me. The pit manages to accommodate a very big band, but with 70, not the 110 players specified by Wagner. This there are four, not eight double basses, and two harps, rather than Wagner's extravagant six (plus one offstage). The only brass missing is the contrabass trombone. In my wonderful seat at the end of row C, I missed the mighty rumble of the bass instruments that I could feel through my feet at the last Ring cycle at Covent Garden (conducted by Pappano). But the Longborough pit is partly covered by the stage, only a little less so than the infamous inferno of the orchestra pit at Bayreuth itself, and has some of the same magical feeling of the initial E-flat on the cellos coming from nowhere. On the other hand, from where I sat, the orchestra seemed a bit subdued even in fff passages.
Anthony Negus is steeped in Wagner: he worked with the leading British Wagnerian, Reginald Goodall, on the near-legendary late-1970s ENO Ring. Apart from a bit of wobbly ensemble in the first minute or so, and though it failed to blast me from my seat in the loudest moments, the orchestra was thrilling, as were almost all the singers. The most remarkable part of the production is that nearly all the performers are British - which would have been unthinkable not very long ago. As Sir George Christie, formerly the head of Glyndebourne Festival Opera, points out in a generous programme tribute, one of Longborough's real glories is the "discovery of young singers capable of meeting Wagner's daunting demands." Indeed, in this respect if no other, the Grahams' madcap enterprise is hugely to the benefit of opera everywhere.
In Rhinegold I found outstanding the performances of Alison Kettlewell's warm Fricka, Mark Le Brocq's naughty Loge, Anna Burford's deeply coloured Erda, and Andrew Greenan's bumbling but malicious Alberich (the last allowed, justifiably, to take pride of place in the curtain call). The Rhinedaughters, Gail Pearson, Sara Wallander-Ross and Catherine King were terrific movers as well as lovely to listen to. I expect Jason Howard's Wotan to get even better in Die Walküre, as I do Julian Close's Fafner in Siegfried. The sole lapse in direction I noted was Howard's sometimes failing to sing to Fricka, when the libretto has him directly addressing her. On the whole, the performers pay attention to the dramatic situation, and direct their attention to the person or group to whom they are singing; almost The larger Giant's part of Fasolt was sung mellifluously by Geoffrey Moses, though I wasn't convinced of his lust for Freia. I sometimes thought I was spotting a new star in Stephen Rooke's white-haired Froh, and was much taken by his acting in the small role.
Special kudos to choreographer Suzanne Firth, as she and the other two actors provided continuity as well as a bit of scene-shifting in some very appropriate and graceful slithering and sliding across the smallish stage. Mr Privett and his associates have slimmed down Rheingold in a wonderfully thoughtful manner - a completely satisfying and polished version of the production whose first outing I saw in 2007; and I can scarcely wait to see what happens in the next three operas.
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