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REVIEW: Masked and ready for some Wagner at Longborough Festival Opera

Preston Witts reviews Die Walküre, 8th June, Longborough Festival Opera

LONGBOROUGH Festival Opera’s reputation for world-class performances of works by Richard Wagner has been given another massive boost this year with its production of Die Walküre, the second of the four masterpieces in his monumental Ring Cycle.

There was an added significance on this occasion because of the creative imagination needed to present such an extravaganza with a pandemic still lurking menacingly around every corner.

The orchestra was split by having the strings on the stage itself and the rest of the players in the pit below. All, of course, were wearing masks – as were the socially-distanced members of the audience in the former barn that is now famous as an opera house in this glorious piece of Cotswolds countryside.

Sarah Marie Kramer (Sieglinde) Peter Wedd (Siegmund) in Wagner's Die Walküre at Longborough Festival Opera.
Sarah Marie Kramer (Sieglinde) Peter Wedd (Siegmund) in Wagner's Die Walküre at Longborough Festival Opera.

The singers, meanwhile, deftly traversed those parts of the stage not occupied by the string players to convey an impression that such a way of doing things in an opera was the most natural thing in the world.

One other fact that gave this production considerable piquancy was that the performance on 8th June took place on the 75th birthday of its conductor Anthony Negus, a hugely acclaimed Wagner specialist whose name has become synonymous with the Longborough festival.

The overall effect of this Covid-restricted production was one of great intimacy. The Longborough venue is intimate without pandemic-imposed safety measures, but these cleverly designed arrangements made it even more so. There was wonderful clarity from the orchestra in the boundless lyricism and rich textures of this enormous work. And the singing would have graced the stage at Bayreuth itself.

In fact, the singing was of such exceptionally high quality that it deserves a whole array of accolades. All of the artists were superb, but someone who really does deserve a special mention is the Canada-born but Vienna-based soprano Sarah Marie Kramer. Her performance of Sieglinde, daughter of the god Wotan, was a revelation. The electric effect of her powerful and passionate voice was remarkable – as was her range, which was especially mellifluous in the lower register.

The other prominent female in Die Walküre is the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, Wotan’s favourite daughter, and this part was performed by the Scottish soprano Lee Bisset, a familiar name at Longborough who has already established herself as a distinguished Wagnerian. Ms Bisset has a way of making the singing of Wagner look easy when, by any stretch of the imagination, it is among the most demanding challenges for any singer in the whole of opera. She has a relaxed look about her, as though she’s just popped in to help out and suddenly found herself centre stage in a starring role.

There were also magnificent performances by the Welsh-Irish bass-baritone Paul Carey Jones as Wotan, the tenor Peter Wedd as Siegmund, son of Wotan, and the bass Brindley Sherratt as Hunding, husband of Sieglinde.

Given the unusual circumstances of this production, high praise should also be given to members of the creative team behind it – the director Amy Lane, the lighting designer Charlie Morgan Jones, the choreographer Lorena Randi and the artistic adviser Isabel Murphy.

For the rest of the Longborough Festival Opera season the productions will be performed in an erected marquee within the grounds. They are Così fan tutte by Mozart, from 23rd June to 4th July, The Return of Ulysses by Claudio Monteverdi from 13th July to 18th July and The Cunning Little Vixen by Leoš Janáček.

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