Composer: Richard Wagner
Director: Julia Burbach
Conductor: Peter Selwyn
In the rococo splendour of Frank Matcham’s Hackney Empire, Grimeborn Opera presents a barebones production of the second half of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, following its success here with Das Rheingold in 2019, and Die Walküre last year. The staging is a multitude of platforms at all sorts of levels, and walkways along scaffolding passages. The operas are similarly barebones, Siegfried cut down to two hours and The Götterdämmerung, a modest two and a half.
The spectacle loses out substantially in these productions. Siegfried’s world-conquering sword is a piece of pipe, which seems appropriate for the fairly lacklustre combats in which Siegfried defeats his mighty foes. Not until Angharad Lyddon’s Waltraute appears in Götterdämmerung, urging her sister Brünnhilde to give up her magic ring and save the world, does anything that looks like acting happen. Waltraute invokes global disaster as if it might happen. Siegfried thrusts aside dragons and all-consuming fire like a man brushing off cat hairs.
The stark functionality of Siegfried is modified somewhat in the second act of Götterdämmerung, with soft armchairs and Afghan rugs denoting the louche, morally ambiguous Gibichung residence, where two brothers steeped in treachery and the use of mind-altering pharmaceuticals plot Brünnhilde’s ravishment and Siegfried’s murder, and the final acquisition of the Ring of the Nibelungs, the treasure around which all four operas revolve. The furniture and the rugs never leave the set, they just get tipped over or pushed aside, which interferes with the stark scaffold look, but there is some very effective lighting that goes a long way to overcoming the messiness. Hagen of the Gibichungs, sung by Simon Wilding, also has the acting skill to make his back-stabbing treachery properly villainous.
But committed acting has never been the point of grand opera. Finding a sweet spot on stage, standing and singing, that’s what opera lovers love. And that they get by the bucketful. The stripped-down production allows the voices to ring out to their best advantage, and the eighteen members of the Orpheus Sinfonia get an unusually clear space in which to shine. The surtitles in English are resolutely unstuffy and approachable. Simon Wilding’s Hagen protests “I hate happy people…” which doesn’t sound like something Wagner might have written.
The purpose behind the Grimeborn Festival, developed by Mehmet Ergen, artistic director of the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, is to make opera available, to bring it closer to a new, diverse audience than Covent Garden or the Coliseum allow, and that purpose is magnificently served by this production. Relocating the Rhine Maidens to the River Lea is valuable, noble, and successful, as a houseful of new opera lovers in the Hackney Empire would attest.
Reviewed on 6 August 2022