New kid on the block

22 July 2017

9:00 AM

22 July 2017

9:00 AM

The new Grange Park Opera at Horsley is amazing, as everyone who visits it must agree. In less than a year a pretty large, comfortable theatre, with excellent acoustics and a large stage, has been erected from nothing, and among the first productions is one of Die Walküre, a demanding work in all respects, and one which, when it is largely successful, as the performance I went to was, provides an exalting and moving experience such as few works can. You probably need to be as difficult and abrasive a personality as Wasfi Kani to bring it off, but there is no doubting that she has.

The ‘creative team’ has as its most important members Stephen Barlow conducting, despite his concurrent work at Buxton; Stephen Medcalf directing, and Jamie Vartan designing the sets. Since the curtain rises as the Prelude begins, one instantly sees that the drama is set in the late 19th century, sharply contradicting the brilliant evocation of the primeval in Wagner’s score — odd too, that the uninvited guest Siegmund should stagger in wearing a vast wolfskin, while a maid who looks as if she has emerged from a 1920s comedy needlessly fusses. The setting is heavy, vaguely similar to the sitting room in Wahnfried, Wagner’s Bayreuth home, with a balcony running round three sides, on which unwanted characters wander, one of them interestingly Hagen’s mother, a figure whose appearance Wagner didn’t envisage.

So much, so bad, though no worse than one expects from a contemporary production. Look, register irritation, then try to forget — though that is made more difficult if these mythological characters are mainly dressed as upper class Wilhelmians, living among cases of stuffed creatures and advanced weaponry. However, as soon as Siegmund opened his mouth it was clear that he would be the evening’s hero. Bryan Register, who I haven’t previously come across, is in all respects ideal: a moving actor, a powerful and sensitively used voice, with an intelligent understanding of this sympathetic role. The Sieglinde of Claire Rutter was slightly disappointing, a fine presence but less steady vocally than I expected; Alan Ewing’s Hunding is a black bass, even less hospitable than Wagner intended, but adequately menacing. Siegmund had to break a glass case to extract the sword Nothung, but the First Act was a triumph, thanks in large part to the pacing of Stephen Barlow and the playing of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

The elaborate setting remained the same throughout. The splendid Wotan, Thomas Hall, had to contend with the fiercest Fricka I have seen in the last 50 years, Sara Fulgoni, whose demolition of the god’s view that he wasn’t responsible for how his children behaved achieved cosmic force: all creating gods are responsible for whatever their creations do. This Second Act, Wagner’s most daring and devastating in so many ways, made its full impact despite a rather blustery Brünnhilde, Jane Dutton, who failed to clinch the character’s great moments. The Valkyries, with their Prussian helmets, lugging body bags, were a thrilling crew, even if their Ride remains an oddity in the work. Barlow wasn’t always successful in building Wagner’s paragraphs, and the immense climaxes could, several times, have been more stunning. Even so, the performance as a whole — I went on 10 July — was extraordinary and something to be remembered with gratitude.

For my first non-Wagnerian trip to Longborough I saw The Magic Flöte, as the macaronic production with spoken dialogue in English and singing in German needs to be called. Unfortunately we lost our way getting to Longborough, and arrived just after the Overture; I’m sure it was conducted as well as Anthony Negus conducts everything I have heard, though Wagner is closest to his heart. I was startled to see a hospital bed centre stage, and a couple of large white puppets as the prominent items on stage, with some leafless trees carried on occasionally. Fortunately the bed soon went — was someone dreaming it all? — and the puppets only made an unwelcome reappearance near the end. Otherwise there was little in the way of scenery or indeed of production. I’ve grown so used to superlative evenings at Longborough that this one came as a shock. Most of the singers were adequate, but none made a strong impression, and the Papageno of Grant Doyle, excellently sung, was a charmless Aussie redneck, while Jihoon Kim’s Sarastro spoke and sang in a lugubrious Esperanto. The sense of this sublime pantomime as one of the great works of lofty search was never even intimated, and the only deep moment in the performance was the ‘O Isis und Osiris’ of the priests, where Mozart’s noble spirit reaches a realm that even he had previously not attained. But most of the audience seemed to enjoy it far more than I did.

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