In the early 1960s, an enterprising grammar school boy started buying and selling secondhand cars. By the time Martin Graham was 21, he had bought half an orchard for £750 and borrowed the money to build a house on the land, now worth £800,000. After converting a barn on his Cotswolds property into an opera house and fitting it with seats acquired from the Covent Garden renovation in the late 1990s, things began to take off. Now, under the name Longborough Festival Opera, it fields new productions every summer: in June and July, it staged Britain’s only full-scale Ring production in Wagner’s bicentennial year.
Four days of opera – amounting to 14 hours of music, not including intervals – is a huge undertaking. Surely the Ring cycle, with its sprawling tale of gods, giants and heroes, requires vast resources? Perhaps a contemporary equivalent of Wagner’s patron King Ludwig II of Bavaria, or a major opera house with substantial funding to get it all going?
Compared to other bicentennial productions in more grandiose locations, it stood up extraordinarily well. The definitive venue is Wagner’s opera house in Bayreuth, opened in 1876 with the first ever staging of the Ring. Apart from during the dark periods from 1914 to 1924 (the First World War and the subsequent lack of money) and 1945 to 1951 (de-Nazification), it has delivered numerous productions of the Ring and the six other mature Wagner operas each summer. No other composer’s work has graced the Bayreuth stage; it is the holy grail for Wagner productions.
Unfortunately there has been a gradual decline at Bayreuth in recent years and several top Wagner singers and conductors are no longer willing to work there. For the 2013 Ring, the film director Wim Wenders dropped out amid arguments about what he wanted to do. The “bad boy” theatre director Frank Castorf was then brought in, though his intentions were also circumscribed, and with time running short the sets had to be built off-site rather than in-house. Though they were magnificent, the production was not and it was furiously and roundly booed.
Here’s the problem. In opera, particularly with Wagner, the music is the essence. This can be a problem for theatre or film directors who lack depth of musical appreciation – it’s not that they have bizarre new conceptions, which can be good or bad, but that the desire to give the audience something unconventional sometimes forbids the music to speak for itself in moments of pure emotion. No one goes to the Bayreuth Festival unless they love Wagner’s music, and bringing in intrusive video and crocodiles to poke a stick in the eye of sublime moments, such as the union of Siegmund and Sieglinde in the second opera, or the union of Siegfried and Brünnhilde in the third, is bound to fail. By contrast, Stefan Herheim’s extraordinary recent production of Parsifal at Bayreuth was immensely thought-provoking. Herheim is an opera director, originally trained as a musician.
The Berlin State Opera’s Ring cycle earlier in the year was much better, even if Lance Ryan as Siegfried failed to show up for Act I of his eponymous opera. Yet here, too, the Belgian director Guy Cassiers demonstrated the problem of bringing in someone from the theatre world. His use of dancers was unmusical and intrusive. The saving grace was the singing and Daniel Barenboim in the orchestra pit, as anyone who saw him at the Proms this summer will understand.
Those who don’t know the cycle might suppose it to be loud and bombastic and I’m reminded of the story of the upper-crust lady who was asked how she was enjoying a performance of Die Walküre and responded that she was looking forward to “The Pride of the Balconies”. The quiet moments – and there are many – are like chamber music and the Royal Albert Hall is a terrific venue for Wagner’s music, with plenty of the acoustic space the huge dynamic range demands. So do we really need an opera house for the Ring, with all the expense and directorial intrusion that it engenders?
At Longborough, the answer was a resounding yes. Everyone I know who saw the production was bowled over by its atmosphere and musicality, to say nothing of the lustrous singing of Rachel Nicholls as Brünnhilde. The conductor Anthony Negus brought huge emotional commitment to the enterprise and an unusual depth of experience in Wagner productions, having worked on the music staff at Bayreuth in the early 1970s and been assistant to the great British Wagner conductor Reginald Goodall.
The director Alan Privett used simple props and clever lighting to create a magical atmosphere. The whole thing was done for about £1.6m, including costs for sets, costumes, backstage staff, singers and musicians – by comparison, the sets alone at Bayreuth cost €4.3m (£3.6m).
In contrast to the boos at Bayreuth, at the end of Die Walküre during the Longborough cycle, there was a dead silence lasting at least a minute. Those who saw the Ring at the Proms may recall a similar silence at the end of Die Walküre but that was slightly different. Everyone could see that Barenboim had kept his arms raised and the applause started only when he dropped them. At Longborough, hardly anyone could see the conductor: the feeling in the audience was electric.
Unfortunately, 500 seats was the limit and tickets were not easy to come by. Nor were they at Bayreuth, or even the unstaged version at the Proms. So we still need our big opera houses to make staged performances of the Ring more accessible, but what Longborough showed is that dedication can count for more than money, something too often forgotten in the opera world and beyond.