Grimeborn: Die Walküre – Hackney Empire

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Music: Richard Wagner

Adaptors: Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick

Director: Julia Burbach

Conductor: Peter Selwyn

Grimeborn is back! After a missed year, the fringe opera festival is back in the city, launching with a shortened version of the second piece in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The first, Das Rheingold, was staged by the festival in 2019 to well deserved praise and was a brilliant start to the series (which they hope to complete as a full set in coming years). The same creative team have reformed to tackle the middle story, again using the 1980s version adapted by Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick and orchestrated by Dove.

It’s a leaner version of the epic work – which normally lasts well over four hours including intervals – though the majesty of Wagner’s vision is not lost. The arrival of the exhausted warrior Siegmund at Sieglinde and Hunding’s house catalyses a battle that could spell the end of the Gods themselves. As Siegmund and Sieglinde (at the same time) realise they are long-separated twins and plan an elopement after declaring their romantic love for each other, we learn of the trouble their meeting is causing their father, Wotan, the King of the Gods. Wotan, keenly desiring to champion Sigmund in a fight against Hunding, is left broken and roiling after his wife Fricka coerces him into abandoning the fighter. He is damaged further still when his favourite daughter, the valkyrie Brünnhilde intervenes in Sigmund’s favour, an act of betrayal he cannot let go unpunished.

The grand narrative is borne through some uneven storytelling. Complex and morally frought issues (Wotan champions incestuous lovers against his wife’s insistence of the supremacy of sacred marriage vows) are teased out eloquently, but the characters are presented as being simplistic and binary – ecstasy or despair, victory or death, Valhalla or Hell. There are also big jumps made in the proceedings of this shortened version that could do with a little more context; Fricka claiming Sigmund as a slave in mid-conversation with Wotan, for example.

When combined with some of the performance and presentation snags, this unevenness is magnified and unbalances the whole production. While beautifully sung, there’s a curious lack of intensity in the performances, excepting Mark Stone as Wotan who gives an absorbing performance of a disintegrating King, along with Laure Meloy as an active and fierce Brünnhilde in the latter half. Tentative movements and staid gesturing give a feeling of discomfort and disconnect with the content. People are falling in love, changing lives and facing the destruction of the world of the Gods and so a little more intentional movement and vigour is needed.

While visually impressive, the steel and scaffold set (representing a warehouse, according to the programme notes) from Bettina John feels out of place. The characters exist in it, and navigate it, but seem divorced from their surroundings. It serves its purpose well as an industrial looking home for Hunding, but loses all effectiveness by the end where Brünnhilde is set atop a mountain within a ring of fire – does Wotan set fire to the warehouse or what?

However, musically this is an absolute triumph and a joy to experience. Pruning a substantial portion of Wagner’s masterful work produces a version with a greatly reduced selection of musicians and singers, though with only minimal losses to the richness this opera is famous for. It is intelligent curation, and the result feels more intimate and accessible than the full version which can be overwhelming in all its glory. It begins in a stilted way, with the twins and Hunding meeting, but a comfortable stride is hit by the singers and the Orpheus Sinfonia under Peter Selwyn’s baton during Sigmund’s declaration of love in his Spring Song. Finnur Bjarnason is rich and subtle as Siegmund, Simon Wilding builds and sings Hunding wonderfully as a gruff and rangy character, and the trio of valkyries (Elizabeth Karani, Katie Stevenson, Bethan Langford) are vibrant and exciting, though lack menace as mythical fighters.

It reaches a musical peak with Wotan’s lengthy explanation of the Ring’s history, and closes beautifully with his farewell song to his daughter as he encircles her with flames.

Runs until 7 August 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Musically triumphant

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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