Atop the neo-classical portico of this country opera, a statue of Richard Wagner commands the surrounding Cotswolds hills and valleys. Since the founding of Longborough Opera Festival by Lizzie and Martin Graham, the works of the “the Wizard of Bayreuth” have been the keystone of its repertoire. This year the youthful masterpiece Der fliegende Holländer dropped anchor and, in 2019 under new artistic director Polly Graham, they will embark on a new Ring Cycle, to be staged complete in 2023.

<i>Der fliegende Holländer</i> © Matthew Williams-Ellis
Der fliegende Holländer
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

At a time when fully staged performances of Wagner are disappearing from the repertoire of the national opera companies, apart from The Royal Opera, it is valiant that this small festival conjures up the spells and potions to draw Wagner lovers from afar. Vaulting ambition alone would not be enough to achieve a reputation were it not for the high musical standards developed and sustained by the management and especially the conductor, Anthony Negus. Singers from earlier seasons have gone on to significant international careers.

From the spine-tingling opening chords of the overture, Negus stirred up the swell and spume of the tempest-tossed wandering of the cursed Dutchman. The antiphonal brass resounded in the resonant accoustic and the the woodwind chattered like the gale in the rigging. The score demonstrates the composer's symphonic technique, while looking back to the Singspiels of Weber and Marschner and anticipating the mature style of the later music dramas. Negus fairly broad conducting effected the transitions skilfully, always in command of the longer span and dramatic ebb and flow.

Richard Wiegold (Daland) and Simon Thorpe (Holländer) © Matthew Williams-Ellis
Richard Wiegold (Daland) and Simon Thorpe (Holländer)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

The cast blended experienced Wagnerians with those new to their roles. Kirstin Sharpin, already noted for her concert appearances in his early operas with Chelsea Opera Group, was performing her first fully staged Wagner role. With a glinting voice of a youthful sheen, like bracing Nordic air, she was entirely convincing as the obsessed dreamer, Senta. She paced herself well and managed those climactic descending phrases at the end of the “Wie aus der Ferne” duet skilfully where better known names have come to grief.

With his heavy beard and gait, Simon Thorpe was a driven Dutchman, with a Lieder-like feeling for the text. In his determination to round Cape Horn, he seemed to have lost a secure sense of pitch and his variable intonation made for some oddly atonal moments in his duetting with the craggy bass of Richard Wiegold, who judiciously balanced the venality and paternal affection of his character.

Carolyn Dobbin (Mary) and Kirstin Sharpin (Senta) © Matthew Williams-Ellis
Carolyn Dobbin (Mary) and Kirstin Sharpin (Senta)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

Jonathan Stoughton further endorsed his Heldentenor credentials with a dark-toned weighty Erik. He is already an established Siegfried and will be covering the role in the autumn Ring cycles at Covent Garden. He had been indisposed earlier in the run and his voice as yet lacked flexibilty in those sections that look back to the earlier, Italianate cantilena tradition. Willam Wallace was a nicely contrasting bright-voiced Steersman, and Carolyn Dobbin was a characterful solicitous Mary.

The chorus was well drilled and rhythmically incisive. Given a small male chorus, it was clearly not possibe to mount the full double chorus of Norwegians and ghost sailors in Act 3, but the use of well synchronized pre-recorded chorus emanating from a spectral transistor radio echoing around the auditorium made to a suitably spooky effect.

Kirstin Sharpin (Senta) and Jonathan Stoughton (Erik) © Matthew Williams-Ellis
Kirstin Sharpin (Senta) and Jonathan Stoughton (Erik)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

Given the stage limitations, with no wings or fly-tower, directer Thomas Guthrie and designer Ruth Paton wisely opted for bare decking sparsely furnished with chairs, nets and trunks. Costumes were homespun with a hint of Norwegian folk-style emphasising that, in contrast to the later, legendary works, this is a working world rooted in community, into which an outsider intrudes with disastrous results. Small model fishermen's huts gave a sense of location set against a lowering, ever-changing skyscape, recalling the livid colours of the Danish expressionist paintings of Emil Nolde.

With an athletic chorus, notable in the foot-stomping rollicking of Act 3, Guthrie could have used them more dynamically on the largely bare stage, especially at the end of Act 1 which remained resolutely anchored. Stage blocking was clear and evocatively lit, but too often the soloists were left centre-stage, facing forward. Despite the use of the revised 'Redemptive" musical ending for this exhilarating performance, the finale was downbeat and lacked dramatic lift and transcendence where the original, bleaker ending might have been more appropriate.