Friday 6 August 2021

A little miracle: Grimeborn Festival opens with Wagner's Die Walküre at Hackney Empire

Wagner: Die Walküre - Finnur Bjarnason, Mark Stone - Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival at Hackney Empire  (Photo Alex Brenner)
Wagner: Die Walküre - Finnur Bjarnason, Mark Stone
Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival at Hackney Empire  (Photo Alex Brenner)

Wagner Die Walküre; Mark Stone, Laure Meloy, Natasha Jouhl, Finnur Bjarnason, Harriet Williams, Simon Wilding, Julia Burbach, Orpheus Sinfonia, Peter Selwyn; Grimeborn Festival at the Hackney Empire

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 August 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Grimeborn returns to The Ring with superb panache in a deep exploration of a family in crisis

That Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival has been able to open this year with the continuation of its Ring Cycle is nothing short of miraculous. On 4 August 2021, Julia Burbach [see my interview with Julia] returned to direct Wagner's Die Walküre for the Grimeborn Festival, not at the Arcola Theatre but in the grander (and larger) Hackney Empire, with Mark Stone as Wotan, Laure Meloy as Brünnhilde, Finnur Bjarnason as Siegmund, Natasha Jouhl as Sieglinde, Harriet Williams as Fricka, Simon Wilding as Hunding, and Elizabeth Karani, Bethan Langford and Katie Stevenson as the Valkyries. Peter Selwyn conducted the Orpheus Sinfonia. Designs were by Bettina John.

The opera was performed in the version by Graham Vick and Jonathan Dove which trims the piece down to 150 minutes of music and uses an orchestra of 18 (still large for a fringe enterprise). The cutting down is done expertly, and in many ways this is Wagner without Rossini's 'mauvais quart d'heures'. At the core of the piece is a series of tense dialogues through which Wagner unfolds the philosophical underpinning of the cycle, so that whilst there are grand moments it is these personal interactions which count.

Burbach's production focused on the people and their interactions, and the evening was articulated by a series of strong and involving performances. The great moments were there, the discovery of Nothung, 'Winterstürme', the Ride of Valkyries and so-on; for all the production's low budget, Burbach had her eye on Wagner's libretto and made sure everything needed was there (not a given in modern Wagner productions), but her interest wasn't theatrical dazzle for its own sake, but the deep exploration of a family crisis with a strong philosophical underpinning.

The setting was a wide-open stage full of scaffolding, so that at the opening of the opera Mark Stone's Wotan was present throughout, watching the drama of Sieglinde (Natasha Jouhl), Siegmund (Finnur Bjarnason) and Hunding (Simon Wilding) play out. An abstract space, a theatre? It didn't matter where we were, the setting provided an expressive backdrop for the personal drama.

Wagner: Die Walküre - Mark Stone, Laure Melroy - Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival at Hackney Empire  (Photo Alex Brenner)
Wagner: Die Walküre - Mark Stone, Laure Meloy - Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival at Hackney Empire  (Photo Alex Brenner)

Mark Stone made a very sympathetic Wotan, lyric in impulse but wonderfully firm of voice. Deluded and self-absorbed rather than trenchant and objectionable, there was a melancholy warmth to his performance and his account of his two great monologues was masterly. Wagner's habit of having characters recap what has already happened can have an intriguing element of Rashomon to it, but can also serve to hold up the drama. Here, Stone's retelling of what had already happened was the drama - flexible, word-based and gripping. Having a lyric voice singing the role with a smaller orchestra meant that in moments like Wotan's Farewell we got the sort of beauty of tone that is not always feasible in larger scale productions.

Laure Meloy will be covering the role of Brünnhilde at Longborough for 2022-24, and I certainly think we will be seeing more of her in the role. The tessitura challenges of the role in this opera (top C's for the opening and then lots in the mezzo-soprano register) seemed to hold no horrors for her, and throughout this was a beautifully sung account of the role, poised and with bright, forward tone. She gave Brünnhilde a sense of dramatic journey as her unquestioning obedience to her father changed as she experienced elements of the world outside, notably Siegmund's intense love for Sieglinde above everything else. Her final scene with her father was anxious, intense and thoroughly believeable, wonderfully setting the scene for Stone's fine account of Wotan's final scene.

Natasha Jouhl's Sieglinde was nervous, intense and thoroughly cowed by her nasty husband (Simon Wilding's Hunding). Yet there was a vein of strength too, and as the opera progressed we watched her move from passive victim to having real agency during the duel scene. Jouhl's voice is a lyric one and she opened up well for the more dramatic moments though I would have liked a bit more edge to the sound. What was compelling was the way that Jouhl and Finnur Bjarnason's Siegmund developed their intense, self-regarding relationship. Bjarnason has a tall, striking physical presence which he combines with a fascinating dark-hued tenor. His voice lacked the bright ping of great Siegmunds, but he impressed with the evenness and flexibility of his performance, always seeming to have something in reserve. There is something of Tim Nice-but-Dim about Siegmund (and Siegfried for that matter), but Bjarnason made this firmly credible in a finely judged Todesverkündigung.

Wagner: Die Walküre - Bethan Langford, Elizabeth Karani, Katie Stevenson - Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival at Hackney Empire  (Photo Alex Brenner)
Wagner: Die Walküre - Bethan Langford, Elizabeth Karani, Katie Stevenson - Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival at Hackney Empire  (Photo Alex Brenner)

Simon Wilding's Hunding had a wonderful sense of entitlement and the rightness of his world, expressed through the physicality of his relationship with his wife; the emphasis being on 'his' and the way Hunding controlled her physically. Wilding carried this over into a wonderfully trenchant account of the role, conveying his feeling of self-belief and the rightness of his world-view.

Fricka can sometimes come over as a rather humourless harridan, in the right but not sympathetic.  Harriet Williams made her a far more approachable character from her first entrance when we saw her psyching herself up for her encounter with her husband. This woman was dignified and confident in her own duty, but not a harridan. The result was a compelling piece of drama as Williams and Stone unfolded Fricka and Wotan's dialogue in a way which was mesmerising, making us understand the nub of the metaphysical drama.

This version has only three Valkyries, plus Brunnhilde, but that was plenty in this lithe and engaging scene, each Valkyrie, Elizabeth Karani, Bethan Langford and Katie Stevenson, giving us a nicely differentiated character.

 Peter Selwyn gave us a fluent and quite fleet account of the music, the opening to Act One moved at quite an exciting lick. He drew out plenty of orchestral detail so we could enjoy Jonathan Dove's recolouring of the score and it was fascinating how these alterations highlighted different aspects of the music. The performance from the Orpheus Sinfonia was nothing less than heroic; compressing a Wagner score down to just 18 players does not remove the taxing nature of the music, quite the opposite. There was the occasional hint of quite how challenging this was, but overall the musicians provided a fine complement to the drama on stage.

Wagner: Die Walküre - Natasha Jouhl, Finnur Bjarnason - Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival at Hackney Empire  (Photo Alex Brenner)
Wagner: Die Walküre - Natasha Jouhl, Finnur Bjarnason - Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival at Hackney Empire  (Photo Alex Brenner)

Simply bringing Wagner's opera to the stage is an achievement in itself, and Grimeborn did so with superb panache and an engrossing performance which made me wish I could see it again. And I certainly hope we can look forward to the next instalment of the cycle from this team.

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