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13 Jun 2019

Anthony Negus conducts Das Rheingold at Longborough

There are those in England who decorate their front lawns with ever-smiling garden gnomes, but in rural Gloucestershire the Graham family has gone one better; their converted barn is inhabited, not by diminutive porcelain figures, but fantasy creatures of Norse mythology - dwarves, giants and gods.

Das Rheingold: Longborough Festival Opera

A review by David Truslove

Above: Mark Le Brocq (Loge)

Photo credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis

 

This is Longborough Festival Opera’s Das Rheingold and the first instalment of the complete Ring-cycle up until 2022. It's also Polly Graham’s second season as Artistic Director of the festival established by her parents in 1991 - a founding year that was to bring an operatic dream of a British Bayreuth to reality. A first Cotswold Rheingold in 1998 heralded a Wagnerian Eden. It’s not been a smooth ride - early on a critic considered ‘Mr Graham will give more pleasure by being less ambitious’ - but history has proved otherwise and the intimate space of Longborough’s 500-seat theatre (salvaged from Covent Garden) is no barrier to artistic enterprise or a composer’s gargantuan vision. If anything, Longborough’s limited dimensions admirably suits Rheingold’s text-laden outlines where its creative energies (unfettered by the absence of technical wizardry) can be distilled through depth of characterisation and powerful musicianship.

These qualities were abundantly present in this performance under director Amy Lane, and central to its success was the Wagner specialist Anthony Negus whose immersion in the composer’s operas and nearly two decades of conducting them at Longborough have provided one of Britain’s most authoritative and respected exponents. There was a real grasp of musical architecture when I caught up with Rheingold on its third night and the music’s ebb and flow took hold from the start. Longborough Festival Orchestra built through the opening Prelude with accumulating grandeur and arrived at the work’s final climatic bars unscathed and uninterrupted 150 minutes later. There was barely a fluffed horn and the whole was scrupulously well-balanced and vividly coloured.

Mark Stone (Alberich) Darren Jeffrey (Wotan).jpgDarren Jeffrey (Wotan), Mark Stone (Alberich). Photo credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

With designs from Rhiannon Newman Brown, the set was periodically colourful too, and behind the stage’s rising mountain paths with low central summit were Tim Baxter’s effective video projections, both naturalistic (a swollen river Rhine) and abstract (swirling patterns). Set and screen together evoked the murky depths of Nibelheim and the Rhine, while emerging from towering clouds was a rather impressionistic Valhalla, suggestive more of a limp sandcastle than an intimidating fortress. By contrast, the smelting furnace down in the bowels of the earth was intensely conjured and brought to mind The Great Day of his Wrath by the English Romantic painter John Martin - an apocalyptic vision of destruction from the early 1850s - coinciding roughly with the period of Emma Ryott’s sombre costumes and the composition of Das Rheingold.

DJ Wotan Madeleine Shaw (Fricka).jpgDarren Jeffrey (Wotan), Madeleine Shaw (Fricka). Photo credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

Designs and costumes aside, what really lifted this Rheingold into something almost revelatory was the standard of acting and singing - albeit not uniformly excellent, but with enough definition to repeatedly draw the ear and eye towards several outstanding performances. Chief amongst these was Mark Le Brocq’s dodgy dealer Loge, whose crimson frockcoat and twirling cane brought a whiff of a Victorian music hall MC. His ease of movement and vocal projection were outstanding, his perfectly caught ambivalence tailor-made for this role. His pirouetting laid bare Darren Jeffrey’s stolid and authoritatively sung Wotan whose lumbering gait worked against his impressive build, otherwise ideal as a ruler of the gods. More convincing was the nimble and dishevelled Mark Stone as Alberich, utterly persuasive in voice and single-minded ambition. His brother, Mime, was sung by a clarion-voiced Adrian Dwyer who brought considerable energy to his ensemble scenes.

Wyn Pencarreg (Donner) Matthew Williams-Ellis.jpg Photo credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

Arriving comically on decorators’ stairs the two giants Simon Wilding and Pauls Putnins were sharply delineated as Fafner and Fasholt, and Wyn Pencarreg and Elliot Goldie made a well- cast partnership as Donner and Froh. Amongst the women Marie Arnet was a full-toned but anxious-looking Freia, while Madeleine Shaw was an imperturbable and loving Fricka, grandly elegant in looks and tone. So too were the three winsome Rhinemaidens - Marie Wyn Williams, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones and Katie Stevenson - whose singing stood out from their schoolgirl cavorting. But it was the gold-plated voice of Mae Heydorn as the imploring Erda that left one of the strongest impressions of the evening.

If this performance is anything to go by, the next three years will bring queues to Longborough and when the entire cycle is mounted in 2023 this rural idyll will be a Wagnerian heaven.

David Truslove

Wagner: Das Rheingold

Wotan - Darren Jeffery, Fricka - Madeleine Shaw, Loge - Mark Le Brocq, Donner - Wyn Pencarreg, Froh - Elliot Goldie, Freia - Marie Arnet, Erda - Mae Heydorn, Fasolt - Pauls Putnins, Fafner - Simon Wilding, Alberich - Mark Stone, Mime - Adrian Dwyer, Woglinde - Mari Wynn Williams, Wellgunde - Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, Flosshilde - Katie Stevenson, Director - Amy Lane, Conductor - Anthony Negus, Designer - Rhiannon Newman Brown, Costumes - Emma Ryott, Lighting - Charlie Morgan Jones, Video - Tim Baxter, Longborough Festival Orchestra.

Longborough Festival, Gloucestershire; Sunday 9thJune.

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