By Terry and Julie Clarke
I have written before about performances of Wagner’s works in small private opera houses in the English countryside. For the past ten years Lizzie and Martin Graham have pursued the almost impossible dream of mounting a full Ring Cycle at their home in Longborough in the beautiful Cotswolds Hills west of Oxford.
The Opera Theatre was once a barn, which housed chickens amongst other animals, and has been converted to a 500 seat auditorium. The seats themselves were rescued from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden after the renovation there. The barn has been faced with an imposing façade and statues of Wagner, Verdi and Mozart adorn the roof.
This year, as is fitting, the dream became reality and in June and July three complete Rings were performed. A surprising number of members of the NSW Wagner Society, including the President, were present for the second cycle which proved to be an unforgettable experience.
The project under the musical direction of Anthony Negus and the direction of Alan Privett started with Das Rheingold in 2005 and the succeeding operas performed on a biannual basis so it has been meticulously prepared. The small size of the house dictates a reduced orchestra but nonetheless there were eighty players which made for a delicious sound without drowning out the singers. The direction was straightforward and sensible with single sets for each act. There were three black clad dancers who moved furniture and props around appropriately, acting somewhat like Norns.
But the joy was in the singing, particularly the Brünnhilde of Rachel Nichols. She sang Götterdämmerung in 2012, taking over from Alwyn Mellor’s Brünnhilde in Siegfried in 2010. Mellor has moved on to more prestigious houses having been a sensation then but Nichols has a strength and clarity which appears effortless supported by her innate acting ability, she left the audience in awe. Anthony Negus nurtures these young performers and did not consider the now 38 year old taking on the role without consulting Dame Anne Evans, who is a great mentor. There were two Siegfrieds, the rather older Hugo Mallet was surpassed by another 38 year old in Götterdämmerung, Jonathan Stoughton. This was his first Siegfried, he looks just right, is a wonderful actor showing a maturity beyond his years in his portrayal of the role and his voice was a sensation. Two singers took double roles, Lee Bissett was a touching Sieglinde and a restrained Gutrune and Alison Kettlewell a furiously scorned Fricka in Act Two of Die Walküre and an anguished Waltraute in Götterdämmerung.
The performances started at 3 pm so there were long intervals where the predominantly formally dressed audience could picnic on the lawns and in marquees and admire the beauty of the rolling Cotswold countryside when the sun shone.
A truly remarkable experience then, made wholly memorable by the wonderful singing of Rachel Nicholls, who should surely be on the verge of an international career.