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Preston Witts reviews Longborough Festival Opera's production of Siegfried

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LONGBOROUGH Festival Opera’s reputation for world-class performances of the works of Richard Wagner got another boost on Friday (3rd June) with its production of Siegfried, the third of the four operas in the composer’s massive Ring Cycle.

That evening’s rendering of Siegfried was notable because the conductor was not the festival’s usual Wagner specialist, Anthony Negus, but a young man in his late twenties by the name of Harry Sever.

The performance was also unusual because the role of Alberich the dwarf was sung from a box close to the stage by the Hong Kong-born British bass-baritone Freddie Tong while the regular singer of the part, Mark Stone, acted and mimed the role. (Mr Stone had “not been feeling 100 per cent” but was fit enough to go through the motions on stage without using his voice.)

Siegfried. Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis (57147774)
Siegfried. Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis (57147774)

And in another departure from the intended programme, the Latvian Pauls Putnins stood in for the Welsh-Irish bass-baritone Paul Carey Jones as The Wanderer because Mr Jones, too, was not feeling quite up to scratch. (Two nights later, however, both Mr Stone and Mr Jones were back on stage and in fine voice.)

The fact that Anthony Negus handed over the baton to a much younger man for one of the five performances of Siegfried at this year’s festival is significant in itself. Mr Negus, a protégé of the legendary Wagner conductor Reginald Goodall, now has his own protégé in the form of Mr Sever.

Billed as Longborough’s first “Ring Cycle Conducting Fellow”, Mr Sever was chosen following an exhaustive audition process in which eight emerging conductors worked alongside Mr Negus on the opening scene of Siegfried.

The first thing to be said about Mr Sever’s conducting is that the sound flowing from the orchestra pit was as rich and wonderfully controlled as it would have been if Mr Negus had been on the podium. Accolades must go to both of them: Mr Negus for coaching his pupil so well and Mr Sever for being such an attentive and brilliant student.

Siegfried. Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis (57147776)
Siegfried. Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis (57147776)

At the end of the day, though, opera needs great singers. And in this production we certainly got it. There is no chorus in Siegfried. The cast consists of just eight virtuosi with the vocal stamina to meet the demands Wagner makes on them. And this was a great cast.

One of the pleasures to look forward to in this production was that of the Scottish soprano Lee Bisset as Brünhilde. She did not appear until the third and final act, but she was well worth waiting for.

She first performed at Longborough in 2007 and since then has established an international career while maintaining her links with this Cotswolds festival in leading Wagnerian roles as well as in operas by other composers.

Apart from being a powerful soprano whose voice was made for Wagner, Ms Bisset can also act. Her facial expressions are as much a part of her emotional weaponry as her glorious vocal range.

And she had the perfect operatic partner in the Australian tenor Bradley Daley in the role of Siegfried, a sturdy fellow who looked not unlike a young Peter Ustinov. His terrified declaration “It’s not a man!” on discovering the sleeping Brünnhilde was a woman got the biggest laugh of the night.

All members of the cast deserved the applause the appreciative audience gave them. Apart from those already mentioned, the Colombian soprano Julieth Lozano was delightful as the bird of the forest; the British-Australian tenor Adrian Dwyer as Mime was excellent, as was the English bass Simon Wilding as Fafner, the dragon, and the contralto Mae Heydorn was appropriately imperious as Erda, the earth goddess.

Directed by Amy Lane, this was a Siegfried to remember.

The next opera in the festival is Die tote Stadt by Erich Korngold, with four performances running from 21st to 27th June.

old, with four performances running from 21st to 27th June.

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