It is worth recapping what Martin and Lizzie Graham have accomplished at Longborough with their Festival and especially their Wagner productions, which have put them and their opera-house (a converted barn in the Cotswolds) firmly on the international map – all done without public funding. The Grahams started in 1991, and in 1999 they brought in Graham Vick’s and Jonathan Dove’s chamber version of the Ring cycle made for City of Birmingham Touring Opera (The Ring Saga, reduced to two, still fairly epic evenings). This kept Longborough on the Wagner boil until 2007, when the Grahams embarked on their own full Ring, one music-drama at a time until 2013, when they presented three complete cycles, the only UK house to do so in Wagner’s centenary year.
With their daughter Polly now on board as Artistic Director, Longborough has set out on a new Ring cycle, an instalment each year, taking the Festival to 2023 for runs of all four together. In the meantime, Longborough has also put on unforgettable productions of Tristan und Isolde, Tannhäuser and Der fliegende Holländer, all of them with Anthony Negus, pupil of Reginald Goodall and a musician with a profound understanding of how Wagner works.
Amy Lane’s production is broadly traditional (that is, nineteenth-century) in look, with aspects of Emma Ryott’s well-observed costumes deferring to the look of Bayreuth’s original staging. Given the small performance area, the set is dominated by a screen at the back for Tim Baxter’s video projections of elemental images moving us from the bowels of Nibelheim, through the depths of the Rhine and upwards to cloud-girt impressions of Valhalla. The rest is down to some clever lighting and Lane’s focus on the cast. She laces the Rhinemaidens’ lubricious teasing of Alberich with saucy detail, each of the fourteen characters is projected strongly enough to draw attention away from some rather static moments, and contemporary political and social parallels are there for the taking.
Fafner has a sharp eye for the gods’ corruptibility; Loge, dressed in a red frockcoat, top hat and sunglasses, channels the Rocky Horror Show’s Riff-Raff and Cabaret’s MC and cynically appraises Wotan’s hopelessly compromised position as top god; and Lane neatly does the groundwork for Wotan and Alberich being either side of the same coin, the Licht and Schwarz Alberich we encounter in Siegfried. Lane’s direction may be broad-brush, but she has a large cast to deploy on a small stage, and she does so with bracing directness. The big tick of her production is in her exposing Wotan’s reckless double-dealing leading to a decidedly hollow victory over securing Valhalla. The small dance element in the orchestral interludes adds nothing.
The singing is led by Mark Stone’s Alberich and Mark Le Brocq’s Loge. Both performances set a very high standard, Stone embracing Alberich’s dark soul with total conviction, and Le Brocq giving an elegant, rather camp bite to Loge’s slippery loyalties. Darren Jeffery has the majestic bearing of Wotan, and his artistry rises to the stature required for the entry of the gods into Valhalla. Simon Wilding is a magnificently treacherous, full-voiced Fafner, against whom Pauls Putnins’ attractively softer-grained Fasolt doesn’t stand a chance. Adrian Dwyer is an unexpectedly sympathetic Mime, enhanced by his lyrical tenor, while we must hope that Madeleine Shaw’s gleaming, imperious Fricka will go on to give Wotan reasons not to be cheerful in Die Walküre. There is magic in Mae Heydorn’s delivery of Erda’s solemn warning, while Wyn Pencarreg, Elliot Goldie and Marie Arnet vividly animate Donner, Froh and Freia.
The excellent trio of Rhinemaidens make you realise how skillfully Anthony Negus, with an orchestra of around sixty-five players, manages to both illuminate the detail of Wagner’s scoring without detracting from its overall impact. Das Rheingold may be in four clearly defined scenes, but Negus’s overview is spacious and organic, with faultless pacing and a natural response to the story. After a slightly cautious start, the orchestra was as much at home with the music’s delicacy and atmosphere as with the powerful passages, and the players leave us in no doubt of the many beauties. For Wagnerians, the next four years are sewn up.