I am late to the Longborough Festival Opera party, joining just as the remarkable organisation launches a new Ring Cycle, some 12 years after its first.
Now under the artistic direction of the founding family’s daughter Polly Graham, very well-known to Welsh National Opera audiences and a winner of Wales Theatre Awards for her work with the Youth Opera’s Kommilitonen!, it is perhaps an apt time to start.
This Ring is directed by Amy Lane who has Royal Opera connections and we have the formidable strength of Anthony Negus wielding the baton and, no doubt, also the reins to keep this vast ambitious task under control. The Ring, not Longborough, I hasten to add.
It is a very special experience, hearing Wagner’s musical genius in the intimate space, just 500 seats, with side doors opening straight out into the gardens, which, on an extremely rainy night, added another acoustic dimension.
The size of this production allows the audience a finer detailed take on the score which, perhaps not perfectly achieved, was impressive and totally absorbing. Similarly, we really are up close and personal with the fine cast which, delightfully, includes a number of young Welsh singers making this the place to hear up-and-coming talent.
Rhiannon Newman Brown’s designs rely on effective use of video, right from the start with our Rhinemaidens sung with distinct personalities by Marie Wyn Williams (Woglinde), Rebecca Afonwy-Jones (Wellgunde) and Katie Stevenson (Flosshilde), as they play and tease Alberich on the Rhine until he steals the gold. The video is often beautiful in its own right and, with very limited space, is also crucial to cope with the demands of this opera.
Mark Stone, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, Katie Stevenson and Mari Wyn Williams
Darren Jeffery and Madeline Shaw
Darren Jeffery and Mark Le Brocq
Wyn Pencarreg, Darren Jeffery, Marie Arnet, Madeline Shaw, Elliot Goldie and Mark LeBrocq
In the big roles we had the most obviously showy performance from Mark Le Brocq as Loge with a colourful frock coat ensemble and swish cane, a rather camp imp being amused and bemused by the antics of the full-bloodied gods and their aspirations, particularly Wotan and his fortress in the air and world domination dreams. It is, of course, Loge who tells us that this is the beginning of the end, not the end of the beginning, but that will have to wait until this Ring plays out.
Our Wotan is Darren Jeffery, who sings the role with great clarity and true to his characterisation as some sort of Victorian eye-patch wearing entrepreneur, paired with a grand dame Fricka, richly and emotionally sung by Madeleine Shaw. Completing this god-gang a richly sung Donner from Wyn Pencarreg and a hammer-swirling Elliot Goldie as Froh.
We have some particularly likeable baddies with Mark Stone’s mesmerising Alberich and a nimbly crafted Mime from Adrian Dwyer. Lane’s direction of the giants, Fasolt and Fafner (sung by Pauls Putnins and Simon Wilding), as artisans (perhaps on Wotan’s estate), was intriguing as too was the conflicted relationship between Fasolt and Marie Arnet’s tenderly sung Freia. Does she really want to come back to the gods?
There are some rather, well, basic stage action, such as Alberich dipping behind a cut out rock to perform his tarnhelm transformations, (although the use of video for the eye of the serpent was great – the toad was rather too Kermitish) but then wonderful moments, particularly the appearance (and disappearance) of Erda, exquisitely sung by Mae Heydorn.
I may be wrong but this also looked to me as if the Niebelung were mining coal not gold and the treasure, for example, included Davey lamps, which would fit into the idea of Victorian entrepreneur and industrialist. But we will see as the Ring develops.
I eagerly await the next step in this very special experience in a very special, near miraculous, Ring and this festival.
Further performances of Das Rhinegold on June 9, 11.
Main image: Pauls Putnins, Darren Jeffery and Simon Wilding
Images: Matthew Williams-Ellis