With this Götterdämmerung, Longborough Festival Opera adds the final part to its new Ring cycle, the third over the last 25 years. Longborough enjoys a high reputation for its Wagner productions, and this latest addition should reinforce its role as, in the words of The Times, “the Bayreuth of the Cotswolds”. No need then for LFO to echo the anxious enquiry of Gunther that opens Act 1, “How stands my fame on the Rhine?”, effectively launching his family’s tragedy.

Lee Bisset (Brünnhilde) and Catherine Carby (Waltraute)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

Amy Lane’s stage direction is effective, not least in directing the interactions between characters, which in this work loom larger than the long soliloquies of the two previous operas in the tetralogy. The stage design of Rhiannon Newman Brown, costumes of Emma Ryott, lighting of Charlie Morgan Jones and the video projections of Tim Baxter combine to offer a vision of a natural world inhabited by a wide range of creatures, prescient Norns, lamenting Rhinemaidens, Valkyries past and present, evil dwarves, humans and horses, coming into conflict on a set consisting of just two three-stepped platforms left and right.

Mae Heydorn, Katie Lowe and Harriet Williams (Norns)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

The lighting is predominantly subdued in this dark drama, but the dazzling blaze of fiery light at the close is the more effective thereby. The video projections suggest key elements – sky, water, fire, gold – becoming more turbulent whenever the emotional temperature rises. The Norns’ and Rhinemaidens’ elegant period gowns shimmered, but most costumes are quasi-contemporary, with a fondness for overcoats and rainwear, the vassals uniformly dressed in trench coats. This outerwear also serves as dramatic props, from Waltraute flinging Wotan’s coat at Brünnhilde, to the vassals using those raincoats as an improvised shroud for the fallen Siegfried. Gunther is a status-obsessed bourgeois, neatly suited in tweed, waistcoat and all. On their departure, the Norns donate an almanac, containing perhaps what must come to pass, and various such volumes are consulted by the characters.

Lee Bisset (Brünnhilde) and Bradley Daley (Siegfried)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

If I could reverse one production decision, it would be at the very end of Act 2 – an act often considered Wagner’s finest as sheer drama, with its shattering conflict between bewildered lovers and its tremendous vengeance trio, malevolent puppet-master Hagen pulling the strings. To close Act 2, Wagner requires one more twist of the knife, when five pages before its end his score directs, in some detail, that Siegfried’s nuptial procession enters, to joyous music. The irony of this happy group intruding upon the plot to murder the bridegroom is for one commentator “a stroke of dramatic pathos with no superior in opera… a moment of moments”. Here it is simply omitted, even from the programme’s synopsis. Hagen is left alone on stage wondering why the orchestra has embarked upon its celebratory din. 

Hagen was Julian Close, deploying his superb bass voice to convey menace and cunning, his gestures sometimes as twisted as the character’s personality. Freddie Tong’s Alberich, a crawling bundle of rags, did not quite match his offspring’s vocal quality but raged well enough in their nocturnal colloquy.

Mari Wyn Williams, Katie Stevenson and Rebecca Afonwy-Jones (Rhinemaidens)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

As Hagen’s quarry, Bradley Daley’s Siegfried has the required notes, including a decent shot at those odd leaps above the stave. His tone is pleasing and his acting convincing, with a charm befitting one who Gutrune calls “schlimmer Held” (naughty hero!) He tired, as many Siegfrieds do, during Act 3 so that his final recall of Brünnhilde just as he expires was less affecting than it can be. Lee Bisset made a compelling Brünnhilde, especially in extremis in her Act 2 trials. She even sang better as the performance progressed, the occasional early moments of over-wide vibrato banished by the time of her splendid Immolation Scene.

Benedict Nelson (Gunther), Julian Close (Hagen) and Laure Meloy (Gutrune)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

Longborough seems able to cast this whole demanding work from strength. The Gibichung siblings, Benedict Nelson’s Gunther and Laure Meloy’s Gutrune, were strongly sung and sympathetically acted. Catherine Carby’s Waltraute almost matched Bisset in their scene together, Carby touchingly evoking Wotan’s sad state. The Norns and Rhinemaidens are almost luxury casting given the pedigree of some individuals, not least Katie Lowe as Third Norn. The Vassals sang lustily in the Ring’s only chorus, their number swelled by the contribution of Longborough’s Community Chorus. 

Conductor Anthony Negus is a Wagnerian of considerable distinction, and far beyond Gloucestershire. His direction was unerring in pacing and balance, with fire and energy when needed, and lyrical relaxation in such passages as the Rhinemaidens’ opening to Act 3. The big orchestral set pieces had impact enough, even with half the pit covered, and his players, not least the horns, provided plenty of fine solos to admire. The motivic fabric of this complex score was always clear. 

In June 2024, Longborough will present three cycles of this now complete Ring, so if you can’t you see their fine Götterdämmerung this summer, it’s not the end of the world.