Longborough Festival Opera *****

I was last in a dress rehearsal audience at Glyndebourne in 1966 (L’Heure Espagnole and Janet Baker in Dido and Aeneas). Since then I have conducted many such rehearsals, but yesterday it was a joy to be an audience member again, soaking up the atmosphere as Longborough Festival Opera presented the dress rehearsal of Wagner’s Rheingold, launching this year’s Ring cycle (to be given three times).

Longborough combines Glyndebourne with Bayreuth, a winning combination which I have always enjoyed so much reviewing from this amazing Cotswold company for well over a quarter of a century. The atmosphere yesterday was so relaxed, people picnicking beforehand (no intervals in Rheingold), no sartorial showoffs, and the back half of this jewel of an opera-house packed with enthusiasts (the front half the domain, quite rightly, of techies).

We heard Anthony Negus, surely the most eminent of the world’s Wagner conductors today, giving a little pep-talk to the orchestra, referring to the music’s often chamber-music scoring, there was a little welcome speech from two of the Longborough bosses, and then the long uninterrupted span of this most perfect opera of the cycle began.

The deep E-flat from the orchestra’s basses underpinned the gradually surging crescendo of the score, a metaphor for creation, the Rheinmaidens eventually cavorting onto Rhiannon Newman Brown’s simplest of sets, atmospherically lit by Charlie Morgan Jones and enhanced by Tim Baxter’s continually vivid and evolving video projections.

So the drama unfolded, Amy Lane’s perceptive, often arresting direction giving the characters space and air to make their points. The small cast had no weak links, but at their head was the surprisingly sympathetic Alberich of Mark Stone, the Wotan of Paul Carey Jones which will develop in stature as the cycle progresses, and above all, the engrossing Loge of Mark le Brocq, light-footed in his louche movements almost as a mischief-making flaneur, and an amazing contrast to his tormented Aschenbach in Welsh National Opera’s sensational Death in Venice a couple of months ago.

The whole action in this dress rehearsal unfolded naturally and well-paced under Anthony Negus’ empowering baton. The Longborough Festival Orchestra were in superb form in this, their last season under Philip Head’s miraculous “fixing” – and the beautiful, treasurable programme-book devotes two pages of tributes to the marvels this ex-CBSO violinist has achieved in developing the contingent from 18 players to a Bayreuth-equalling 70-plus.

Circumstances prevent me from attending a complete Ring cycle at Longborough this year. I envy anyone who does.

Christopher Morley

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