Die Walküre at Hackney Empire Bethan Langford, Elizabeth Karani, Katie Stevenson Photograph: Alex Brenner, Arcola

Grimeborn Opera Festival 2021 – Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre

Wagner
Die Walk­üre – Music-drama in three Acts to a libretto by the composer [First Day of Der Ring des Nibelungen; performed in the reduced version in two sections by Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick; sung in German with English surtitles]

Siegmund – Finnur Bjarnason
Sieglinde – Natasha Jouhl
Hunding – Simon Wilding
Brünnhilde – Laure Meloy
Wotan – Mark Stone
Fricka – Harriet Williams
Helmwige – Elizabeth Karani
Waltraute – Bethan Lamhford
Rossweisse – Katie Stevenson

Orpheus Sinfonia
Peter Selwyn

Julia Burbach – Director
Bettina John – Designer
Robert Price – Lighting designer


Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 4 August, 2021
Venue: Hackney Empire, London

Grimeborn Opera’s Die Walküre was scheduled for last year, following its Das Rheingold in 2019, both in the reduced version – of cast and material, originally conceived for City of Birmingham Touring Opera – by the director Graham Vick (who died unexpectedly last month) and the composer Jonathan Dove. One of Grimeborn’s selling points was that this was the version’s first London revival since the early 1990s. The guiding principle behind this reduction is accessibility, but the evening, with a short interval coming just before Brünnilde’s announcement of death to Siegmund, still comes in at over three hours, which is par for the Wagnerian course.

The reduction works well for Wotan’s Farewell, but one might miss the full squadron of Valkyries (here a detachment of just three) and the abrupt approach to Sieglinde’s acceptance of her fate. For the most part, though, this version is seamless and doesn’t remotely seem like Wagner-lite – indeed, the big Wotan–Fricka and Wotan–Brünnilde dialogues were very intense. The same production team as for Rheingold delivered a no-man’s-land backstage set of scaffolding, walkways and heavy-duty packing cases. Costumes were generic, dark grunge for the men, a touch of colour and flounce for Fricka and Brünnilde. The lighting was explicit and sometimes obliterated the surtitles.

Orchestra and soloists took a while to settle into the opening Siegmund and Sieglinde reunion. Natasha Jouhl opened-out impressively in the love music and would later fill the theatre with an ecstatic ‘O hehrstes Wunder’. As her brother/lover, the Icelandic tenor Finnur Bjarnason looked the part of the tortured, isolated romantic lead; his voice has a lovely baritone range and he acted well, but it needed more size, and the climactic bits of ‘Winterstürme’ and ‘Notung’ were a stretch. Simon Wilding’s abusive Hunding was a great success, even if Hunding’s death, in this version, is succinct.

Harriet Williams’s rich mezzo was an excellent fit for Wotan’s bitter, unloved wife Fricka, and Williams guided Fricka’s self-righteous emotional blackmailing with considerable flare. From the moment she came on, the drama snapped into focus, and she delivered a couple of enjoyable put-downs of Wotan’s beloved daughter Brünnhilde. She was performed by the American soprano Laure Meloy, and from her first Hojotohos we knew she was a Valkyrie to be reckoned with. The voice has gleam and penetration, and she was very moving in the closing scene. If she didn’t completely take charge of the evening, this was probably down to the version, because there was no doubting Mart Stone’s overwhelming presence as Wotan. His singing had the requisite volume, and his acting caught the miseries of this completely compromised god.

Peter Selwyn and the hard-working Orpheus Orchestra offered well-paced Wagnerian drama and colour, and the accumulative power they built up in the closing pages was terrific. Of course, you sometimes wanted more instrumental bulk, but Jonathan Dove’s re-scoring works well, even in the Magic Fire music, which usually sports six harps.

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