A jaunty red big top signals the Longborough festival’s optimistic return to opera after last year’s fallow summer, but there was no question of putting Die Walküre in a circus ring where the rest of the programme will be. This opening night was a concert staging in the usual theatre, with social distancing in the audience as well as the strings of the festival orchestra sharing the stage with the singers. An arrangement now almost commonplace in contemporary music theatre, it served to sharpen the dramatic focus, the melding of instruments and voices emphasising Wagner’s integration of his thematic material and leitmotifs. Using Francis Griffin’s reduced orchestral version, and eliciting remarkable performances from his strong cast, conductor Anthony Negus achieved intimacy and intensity in equal measure.
Denied the design element, this was nevertheless a production, not a concert: upstage walkways at different levels led to the centre, with two designated areas on either side downstage. Rails and chairs were never more strategic: in the case of Peter Wedd’s impassioned and tender Siegmund, the constraint on space brought a psychological factor, his feats of athletic balance as compelling as the voice. His Sieglinde was Sarah Marie Kramer, notable for the clarity and pinpoint accuracy of her soprano, but able to open out into rich and full bloom with a thrilling expressive range.
Paul Carey Jones sang a Wotan whose flawed character was as evident as his manipulative hold, subject to attacks of pain that had him suddenly doubled up, but also able to inflict on others crippling bolts from the blue, lethal in the case of Siegmund. This mix of vulnerability and power was reflected in Carey Jones’s interpretation, at its most authoritative in the final act and the confrontation with warrior daughter Brünnhilde, who has understood and exposed his weaknesses. Lee Bisset was glorious in the role, defiant and gutsy, her character’s implicit understanding of the bonds of love translated into incisive or simply luscious sound.
With stellar performances from Brindley Sherratt as Hunding and Madeleine Shaw as Fricka, and a fearsome octet of Valkyries, this was as fine Wagner as could be wished.
If there’s a caveat, it’s that the gestures sometimes felt awkward. Given the compromises and constrictions of distancing, director Amy Lane and choreographer Lorena Randi created a credible overall feel, but when a gestural device seems like emoting rather than being natural, it attracts attention for the wrong reasons. But the profound musicianship of Negus and his singers was memorable; for those driving back into a brilliant late sunset, the glow of Brünnhilde’s ring of fire would have lingered on.
Die Walküre is at Longborough festival opera until 14 June.