A None Review: Siegfried Longborough (LFO) 2011

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday, 30 July 2011 | 1:09:00 am

"Friend Seidl tells us about the performance of Siegfried in Munich, which to judge by his report, must have been thoroughly bad - they have gone out of their way it seems to do everything differently from Bayreuth. "I don't want to hear a word about it." R (Wagner) exclaims, and "What a curious fate these works have had" Cosima Wagner: Diaries - June 17 1878 (Trans: Geoffrey Skelton)



Longborough, Siegfried 23/07/11:

Going to the opera can be a traumatic experience - as visitors to Bayreuth's new  Tannhäuser production  have discovered this week.One can never can be sure before hand what sort of production to expect.  For those going to Longborough's Siegfried it is fairly safe to say they can expect a production that sits firmly in the mould of the neo-traditional Ring staging, verging on the traditional.  Alan Privett’s direction, and Kjell Torriset’s designs, allow Wagner’s music; the wonderful Negus and his orchestra; and the cast to tell this story – for this is a collaborative event. And it is also the story that Wagner wrote - not one imposed upon it by yet another opera director that feels that they know what it is all about , (or in many cases what they feel it should have been about). Now, this is not to say that the Ring is nothing more than a “fairy tale” – for it certainly is not – but, as I have said, Wagner wanted the audience to come to it’s true meaning without guidance – assuming of course by the end even he was still aware of it’s true meaning. As Wagner said himself, “I shall within these four evenings succeed in artistically conveying my purpose to the emotional -- not the critical -- understanding of the spectators.”  Myths and fairy tales are always about more than what they appear on the surface.  If they have a purpose other than to entertain, it is to “teach” us lessons, express our own inner desires and fears, etc. Within their pages – should we wish to look – they encompass the whole of human experience. But as I repeat constantly, we are all very different and how we perceive these lessons – and indeed what knowledge we take - is an individual processing event.  The point of myth and fairytales is not to impose a lesson but to allow the listener to acquire  knowledge on their own, and sometimes that knowledge may be outside of normal reasoning processes. This is what Privett seems to allow.

Using limited resources and space (compared to the MET or ROH for example) Alan Privett and Kjell Torriset emphasis the dreamlike quality of the ring – especially up to Brunnhilde’s awakening where Siegfried reaches maturity. Until this point, much of the stage is only partly lit (which has the effect on occasion of making things seem claustrophobic. I am still unsure whether this is deliberate or accidental). Shadows dominate – as they can do in darkest of dreams and the furthest reaches of consciousness. In act two for example, rope netting hangs across the front of the stage and until Siegfried arrives it stays this way (although occasionally being partly moved aside).  While this may be to simply emphasis the fact that we are in a forest with a dense growth obscuring our view it equally tends – at least to me – to emphasis the dream/myth like quality of what is taking place – especially at the beginning of this act where the only communication is between purely mythical constructs: dragons, gods, dwarfs and even the very forest itself. We are seeing things through the veil of myth perhaps? Possibly, it is certain that the forest itself in myth is a metaphor.

It is only in the final act that full use of light and the full area of the stage itself are used – in a manner reminiscent of the earliest “Wagner Brothers” New Bayreuth productions (there is even a small disk in the middle of the stage although this is not used in the same way as it was at Bayreuth). Siegfried has now fully awoken from his boyhood, he stands in the “light” suddenly he is no longer purely part of myth and legend but he is now making a new legend.  Indeed, we shall find in the next opera how greatly what he – and ultimately Brunnhilde – have done to begin to deconstruct the old myths and ultimately destroy them – although they are still not truly free of the Norn’s ever watchful gaze.

Ever present throughout the productions are the three silent Norns of Suzanne Firth. They have had a mixed reaction from the reviewers with only one, Nicholas Wroe at the Guardian, being highly enamored with them. I have to say that I do become nervous whenever I find extra members added to the cast (mimes, dancers or whatever) a la Grange Parks’ Tristan (Sorry Grange Park – I loved the production except for that – and the cardboard cutouts of course – see here). However,  at Longborough they worked remarkably well. Not only do they add to the staging but they  are without doubt central to its success – and hence I discuss them here within the context of the production design rather than with the cast. Ever present, yet not obtrusively so, they have multiple functions:  First they manage lighting (wonderfully), effects and scenery change. Second, they help remind us of an important part of the Ring: from the moment Alberich meets the Rheinmaidens every character's future is set -  with the exception, in part, of Siegfried and certainly Brunnhilde. The wheel of destiny is set in motion and no-one – even Erda, as we discover in Siegfried – can do anything to stop it. In Die Walkure, when Wotan tries to bring about Siegmund’s “free will” recovery of the ring, Freya points out that this has been manipulated by Wotan – Siegmund and Sieglinde have no more free will than the gods. Everything is predicted, everything is known.  The Norns in this production remind us of this and in a real sense become both the storytellers and observers they really are – or at least they will be until Gotterdammerung.   But thanks to Suzanne Firth’s wonderfully unobtrusive choreography they never dominate.  On a technical level, it is also difficult to see how Guy Hoare could have achieved some of the lighting effects he did without them or how many of Wagner’s demanding scene changes could have occurred.

This of course is not to say that the production is  without faults – even if they are minor. Up to the wonderfully realized  last act there can be a certain “rough around the edges” feel to some parts of the set – although this is not anywhere near  enough to distract from the opera as a whole. But one feels that this will easily be rectified as the season continues and will certainly be resolved for the full cycle in 2013. This is after all a massive drain on any opera house (SO’s ring cycle nearly bankrupted the company for example and Bayreuth has been bankrupted by the Ring at least once in its history).  The program contains the set designs for Siegfried and it is clear from these exactly what needs to be done to turn this into a highly attractive set indeed.  If I was to make one recommendation it would be that the first act is slightly cluttered and the removal of the odd extra bit of scenery would help greatly – but then this is only my opinion of course. Wagner needed to build an opera house to stage the Ring – and to call on the monetary resources of the royal families of Europe. To do what the Grahams have done at Longborough is extraordinary.

The costuming is in keeping with a traditional Ring staging – Brunnhilde even has a breastplate!  The only thing not expected is Mime’s costume which looks like it has come from a Mad Max movie. And yet, within the industrial setting of act one it works well. Siegfried may well be born of the natural world so loved by the Romantics – and his costuming suggests this – Mime is clearly of the industrial revolution – whose oppressiveness was so hated by the Romantics and Wagner especially.

Cast:

We only really get to be with the “real” Mime once in the entire opera, right at the beginning of the first act, when he is alone. Once again trying to forge a sword  that Siegfried will not break within moments. For the rest of the opera we see  and hear only the “public” face of Mime, the one who manipulates Siegfried and has been doing so all of his life.  The other Mime that we see - even when talking to Wotan in some respects – is the public Mime ,the frankly rather whiney, “caring”,  hard done by Mime (or so he pretends). As Siegfried mocks, cruelly, “… that shuffling and slinking, those eyelids blinking…”. Of course all of this is part of Mimes manipulation. I think for us to believe that Mime has managed to manipulate even the frankly dumb Siegfried, for his whole life, we must believe that the “real” Mime is able to do this. This is reflected in the opening of the ring and requires a good actor – both vocally and physically – to reflect this. Colin Judson manages to achieve this well and undergoes the transformation to the public Mime with skill – both vocally and physically. He is a great actor and his previous experience of this role is easy to see. Someone else has said this already, but it is indeed sad to see him go in act 2. Mime, if he is convincingly performed,  can “grow on you” despite his inherent evil. It does take a good performer to make this take place and Colin Judson is indeed such a performer and a fine singer also.

Was Wagner really thinking with any logic when he created and wrote for Siegfried?  Let us think about the demands for a moment. The role requires a heroic tenor able to sing for nearly five hours, act convincingly – and with great physicality – sound,  look and act for two and a half acts like an overgrown schoolboy, who then transforms in act 3 into a man  - and indeed the ultimate hero . Who must after hours of hard singing, sing alongside a soprano who has had a good sleep for the rest of the opera! It is for this reason that Siegfried is so difficult to cast in live performance - as so many reviews, listening to live broadcasts or going to the opera will tell you.  So, how is it that Longborough have managed to find one of the most amazing Siegfried’s in modern opera history? A tenor no one – including me – had ever heard of? A tenor who despite excellent previous reviews is unrecorded – anywhere?  A tenor who reminded one reviewer , partly, of Melchior (and there are similarities – he certainly shares the energy ,  heroism and vocal expressiveness and power of a young Melchior  - if, at the moment, he is  lighter of tone for what perhaps would be considered a typical  Wagnerian heldentenor).  Indeed, I have searched a rather extensive library of Wagner recordings here in an attempt to find anyone like him – and have had to go back to early 20 century recordings to find anything even close.  He  sings and acts with such energy that I thought in the beginning he was making the classic mistake of not pacing himself – but no. He maintained the same lyricism and energy (and excellent German) right through to the last act – only once or twice showing signs of tiredness when facing the fully refreshed – and always wonderful - Mellor. And what a joy to see a modern Siegfried so obviously enjoying himself  (even in the last act), able to act and manage to make us believe, both psychologically and vocally, the change in Siegfried in act three!  He even somehow manages to make Siegfried likable, or at least understandable – no easy task. Wherever you get the chance,  see this young man. 

Yesterday, Domingo announced his fight against classical music piracy – proven by falling record sales. Perhaps the classical recording industry would not be facing falling sales if they recorded more unknowns like Brenna instead of the same reworked  CDs by the same limited number of  – but well known – performers. And BBC Radio 3? Where were you? Would it really have been that much bother and cost to have recorded and broadcast this performance?  Do we really need to hear another Boheme from the ROH or Butterfly from the MET featuring more over exposed “stars”?

Phillip Joll is of course something of a legend to British Wagnerians and what a joy it was to see him back on form as Wotan – and much more impressive vocally than the last time I saw him a few years ago. Wotan is a role that he could no doubt do in his sleep and yet the energy,  gravitas and nobility that he brought to the wanderer was a joy. His encounter with Mime was excellently done. With Alberich in act 2 – the person responsible for so many of his problems – it was like two old enemies meeting again and handled wonderfully to construct a believable relationship. This was helped greatly by Nicholas Folwell’s fine Alberich – an Alberich that still has not learned anything even when confronted by Joll’s Wotan – a Wotan who has clearly grown to become wiser and more world weary than when they last met. At curtain call he seemed genuinely surprised with the rapturous greeting that met him – he should not have been.

I have already mentioned Nicholas Folwells fine Alberich. He is a suitable and menacing Alberich, convincingly sung and acted. I have always had a soft spot for Alberich and Folwell is believably both menacing and rather tragic a figure.

Julian Close makes his entry as Fafner on a piece of moving scaffolding (those poor Norns). It reminded me a little of the cranes that suspended so many of the performers at the Valencia Ring. Did it work? All companies struggle with the Dragon – even the METs from ’89. With all of its budget, Fafner  looked like an escaped monster from a 70’s TV science fiction series. Let me put it this way, I often find myself suppressing a giggle when yet another silly dragon appears on stage – I didn’t need to do that this time. Julian is a fine actor and played the role well – with wonderful power and tone. But then, as he is the METs Fafner in Lepage’s Siegfried next season perhaps this should not come as a surprise.

It’s always difficult for directors to know what to do with the Forest Bird. Stick her  up on a crane? Hang her from the rafters? It’s a brave performer that takes this role, but at least this time Allison Bell did not need to fear for her safety. She begins off stage and then enters stage left, dancing her way around Siegfried for all the world like Kate Bush in one of her late 70s videos! Oddly enough, she looks a little like a young Kate Bush – which is no bad thing. It is unusual to find a soprano that can also perform “modern” dance and was a refreshing change. She makes a more than pleasant Forest Bird vocally also.

And finally act 3 (the act that I know is the only reason some people go to Siegfried) The entrance of Evelyn Krahe’s Erda is done masterfully (act three is the most successful visually of this production).   It is simply too complex to describe, but Krahe’s frankly ill and somewhat statuesque entrance to Wotan’s command – being led by her three daughters – needs to be seen. Krahe’s frail and obviously “dying” Erda is something that must be seen and heard. The entire scene is well conceived and the interaction between Krahe and Joll believable.

Next, Alywn Mellor’s Brünnhilde!  One of the reasons that I went to Longborough was to see Mellor’s Brunnhilde following her magnificent Isolde at Grange Park (Oh dear, one hopes one is not becoming star stuck at my age) . My intent was to wait till 2013 and see the entire Ring at Longborough then.  Although after Siegfried I will be returning next year with no hesitation – the dates are already blanked out in my diary.  But what can I say? Magnificent?  Sublime? I have already said enough I think in my thoughts on her Isolde – see here. And yet, perhaps vocally she was on even finer form – and now against the forces of a greater and more powerful orchestra, under the control of one of Britain’s leading unsung Wagnerian conductors  and a wonderful Siegfried. Top, middle and bottom of her register were magnificent. Even with the excellent cast that the Grahams had somehow managed to assemble, on awaking it is as if a Brunnhilde of legend has entered the stage. It is no wonder that Seattle have selected her as their Brünnhilde for 2013. I think that not everyone is convinced by what I write about Mellor.  Well, you will have the chance to hear for yourself shortly as she is Sieglinde (once more working alongside the extraordinary Clive Bayley as Hunding) in Die Walkure in Opera North’s ongoing Ring Cycle. This I believe, like the Rheingold, will be broadcast live June 2012.

Anthony Negus and the LFO orchestra. What was most amazing was that it was nearly impossible to tell that you were listening to an orchestra nearly half the size as specified by Wagner. A reviewer somewhere mentioned it being a chamber orchestra – but this, thanks to Negus’s wonderful management - is a chamber orchestra in name and size only, but certainly not in sound.  While performing in an opera house that was built to deliberately mirror Bayreuth helps (or perhaps hinders  - see below),  there was all of the lushness that you would expect from a full sized world class, Wagner orchestra.  Negus – and the LFO orchestra - cannot be commended enough. And while it is true that there was a fine cast, one wonders, given the inexperience of Brenna in the role of Siegfried  for example, if they would have been as good under a lesser conductor. What is surprising about Negus is that although he received much of his Wagner training under Goodall (although of course he was also assistant conductor at Glyndebourne’s Meistersinger this year and has worked with many other world class conductors), his tempos are nothing like Goodalls. His command and understanding of Wagner’s opera may be similar, but he has far more forward momentum then Goodall - even in his later years. Goodall was “discovered” relatively late in his career as the conductor that he was, one wonders if it is a pattern repeating itself with Negus? If you wish to see him on the podium before LFO next year, he will be conducting WNO Marriage of Figaro February through to April next season.

And Finally, LFO itself. It is unusual for me to comment on a “venue” but LFO needs to be discussed a little before I conclude. There has been much made of LFO’s “amateurish nature”, that the opera house is a former “chicken shed”, that it is all highly “eccentric” etc. This needs to be clarified and addressed. If LFO was indeed ever a “chicken shed” it in no way resembles one now. Instead, you are met with a highly professional opera house – if one on the scale of Grange Park (they have similar capacities). What is extraordinary about it is its similarity – acoustically – to Bayreuth.  Bayreuth is designed (whether accidently or intuitively by Wagner is a matter of debate)  to add a certain “lushness” to the orchestra while at the same time favouring the voice (to some conductors disdain) . LFO is the same. Nowhere in England – and possibly anywhere in the world outside of Bayreuth – will you hear Wagner (and especially the Ring and Parsifal) sound the way Wagner intended them to be heard. This may sound like an exaggeration but it is true nevertheless.   Read any of the reviews and you will hear comments that the voice is favoured at LFO. It is the same at Bayreuth – only it is now so well established that few comment upon it. This allows LFO to use voices that anywhere else simply would not have the raw “power” to be heard against Wagner’s orchestral forces. It is thus possible for LFO to use singers who are highly lyrical but elsewhere would simply not have the vocal “heft” to succeed in Wagner – and this adds a very special dynamic. 

Even more extraordinary is the sheer determination of the Grahams. Within a few years they have gone from staging Mozart in their living room to building an opera house specifically to stage Wagner and then begin to stage a full Ring Cycle! Sheer insanity and yet they have done it. And the opera house itself is constantly developing,  only a few years ago the roof was raised – literally. And one senses they have not finished yet.

And finally for the British Summer Opera Festival “snobs” among you  - you know who you are. Yes, you with  Debrett’s Social Season page set as your homepage.  LFO offers the “full” experience. Set in fine gardens, in the middle of lush rolling countryside, it is easily on par with the Glyndebourne or Grange Park “experience”.

As noted in my opening remark – Wagner was often dismayed with what happened to his operas once they left his control. And Siegfried perhaps above all of his mature works, is the most difficult to stage. What is certain is that at LFO Siegfried is in safe and confident hands. Roll on 2012.

Disclaimer: There is a debate taking place about "sponsored" blogs over at Twitter at the moment - an unhealthy practice in my opinion. With that in mind I thought it worth making the following clear: I have no associations - monetarily or socially (except of course when I buy tickets from them) with LFO, the Grahams or anyone - as far as I am aware - associated with LFO). LFO has not approached me in  any way while I produce any article about it . I happen to be in the relatively comfortable position to be able to do this stuff purely for pleasure. Indeed, if I feel that I might write about an event I try to remain as far away from it's organisers as possible. While at Longborough for example,  we were sitting in a box very close to the Grahams but we did not even go and congratulate them on the performance - for this reason (well I am also an unsociable old so and so and a tad mean - it would be terrifying if I had to buy them drink -  but that's another issue).

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