It was a double privilege to be invited to see Wagner’s DIE WALKÜRE in a semi-staged production at the Longborough Opera Festival this summer. Firstly, the company gave a superlative performance that caught fire from the very opening and kept its audience totally captivated and attentive throughout. Secondly, because it was a very Covid-friendly event and therefore it was a very small audience that was able to experience this approach live because of all the restrictions that kept it Covid-compliant.
The orchestra, for reasons of distancing, was split so that all the strings were up on stage and masked while the conductor, the woodwinds, and the brass, i.e. any instruments that required musicians not to wear a mask to perform were in the pit tucked under the stage and kept maximum distances possible apart. The economical, intelligent staging by Amy Lane took place with singers in a suitable contemporary dress on a kind of horizontal jungle gym set behind the strings, and therefore above the orchestral forces and able to project their voices more easily.
The staging kept me thinking about Brecht’s Alienation Effect. One was always aware of being in a theatre watching singers work their way through the score, one could watch the string players and how much energy and effort they required, but at every point, the intensity of all the performers was such that you were transported through your imagination into the world of the opera. It told the story brilliantly.
Fortunately, too, for we few, all the singers were at a very high level of both vocal and dramatic ability. Freddie Tong was a dark, black-toned and suitably vicious, and proud Hunding. Sieglinde, gleamingly sung by Sarah Marie Kramer, had notes that reminded me of Margaret Price in her prime and a convincing poignancy in her acting. Peter Wedd embodied Siegmund in every way – physically, vocally, and with a profound musicality that was nevertheless completely in the service of his acting that character. Inhabiting the stage with great warmth and physicality, he dominated the first act as he should. From the moment of Sieglinde’s return to the stage and her narration about her wedding through the discovery o their passion for each other and their relationship, I felt the attention of the audience riveted as firmly as the sword Nothung.
No less dramatic and physically involved was the Brunnhilde of Lee Bisset. Peter Wedd and Lee Bissett were extremely popular and successful as Tristan and Isolde at Longborough back in 2015 and 2017 and their connection was especially evident in the Announcement of Death scene which was the powerful highlight of the second act even though everything that had gone before had carried total conviction. Madeleine Shaw’s Fricka managed to be hectoring, shrewish, pained and voluptuous, her anger and sense of betrayal feeling convincingly poignant against the bullying and guilty embarrassment of Paul Carey Jones as a pitch-perfect Wotan. This Wotan then settled down into real despair in his narration to Brunnhilde catching her up with the story so far, and both his fury and his melting into paternal love and protectiveness in the third act meant that the drama of the opera climaxed properly with the final scenes between Brunnhilde and Wotan. The lighting by Charley Morgan Jones deserves a special mention, particularly for the magic fire at the end.
Add to all this some of the best Valkyries you are going to hear in these roles. These fine singing actors (or better yet, vividly dramatic singers) were utterly, like the orchestra, in the service of the excellent, idiomatic, and utterly committed conducting of Anthony Negus. If you are a lover of Wagner and have not yet heard it performed at Longborough, I would suggest you try to do so. The operas are performed with a vivid lyricism that is unique in my experience. And in this performance, because of the separation of parts of the orchestra and the visibility of the string sections, plus the acoustic of the semi-empty theatre, there was a clarity to the sound and a balance of the aural forces that was exceptional.
All in all, I would say that this production – maybe because of the inventiveness that had to overcome so many Covid difficulties – was a remarkable triumph. And I would go very far to hear Wedd, Bissett Kramer, and others from this production again in anything.
- Music and Libretto: Richard Wagner
- Conductor Anthony Negus
- Director Amy Lane
- Cast includes: Peter Wedd, Lee Bisset, Sarah Marie Kramer, Paul Carey Jones, Freddie Tong, Madeleine Shaw
- Longborough Festival Opera
- Until 14 June 2021