Arts: Ringing in the changes

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The Independent Culture
OLD MACDONALD had a barn... And it was just such a barn, with a breathtaking view over the Evenlode Valley, which has miraculously been transformed into Longborough Festival Opera.

Chickens still peck around the deep pink Palladian mock facade. The ceremonial staircase is breeze block rather than red carpet. Despite surrounding Cotswold stone, there is still the sense of arriving in the middle of nowhere.

But Longborough has a trump card. Its acoustic is superb. It captures singers, orchestra and solo instruments with a crystal clarity, whether you slide into its comfortable Stalls (Covent Garden cast-offs) or slot into the stable-like, not-too-grand upstairs tier, where sound and sightline are every bit as satisfying.

Privately-funded Longborough has just staged its first in-house production, whimsically launching its own Ring Cycle. The first offerings, two performances of Wagner's Das Rheingold, were conducted by Alistair Dawes, for several years Head of Music at the Royal Opera. With a team of able imported soloists, it notched up a remarkable success.

This was largely due to Nicholas Folwell's strongly-projected Alberich. So long as the Nibelung dwarf emerges as a genuine rival for power to Valhalla's residents and Erda's solemn warning (ringingly delivered, in slightly inept Miss Havisham garb, by Pauline Birchall) makes its stark point, even static Rheingold can achieve lift-off.

Clad in a costume that made him a dead ringer for Wozzeck, Folwell brought sufficient vocal punch and burly athleticism to supply a memorably daunting Alberich. While some of Laura Smith's cineprojections (pre-war Berlin?) lent Wotan and Loge's quest an Expressionistic time-warp feel, it was a scarlet, metallic Sisyphean underworld, the newsreel print of the scattered surtitles (glowering like Nietzschean aphorisms) and the smugly Frankfurt- like Bauhaus monstrosity cinematically depicting Valhalla that worked best of the back-projections. The curtained entries were direly effected; the gold (some limp miming aside), rather skilfully suggested.

The singing, overall, served Rheingold well. The knickerbockered Rhinemaidens (refugees from Lulu), variable individually warbled alluringly a trois. Still, no wonder one falls for Alberich. The deities could never quite pin down who they were. Jenny Miller's troubled Fricka hailed straight from Chekhov; Brian Bannatyne-Scott's effetely Ibsenesque, grim-eyed Wotan let his dapper cane do his acting for him; Peter Lurie's wide-vibratoed, shrugging Loge rather clouded Wagner's sneery chromatics. Guy Harbottle's mild Donner seemed at moments pick of the bunch. Both giants registered well, Fasolt (Jacob Zethner-Moller) particularly impressive in the lower ranges. The thinned orchestra delivered exquisite string passages, fine woodwind and nice glints of brass, albeit insufficient to achieve full dynamic variety and depth. Yet only Folwell brought that sense of extended line that is so integral to Wagner. Following a clipped Prelude, Dawes handled Wagner's unfolding in shortish bursts; intriguing to hear Ring recitative that sounds like Rameau.

Roderic Dunnett