Saturday 23 July 2022

From Bayreuth to Grimeborn: having assisted at Bayreuth Festival's new Ring Cycle, Peter Selwyn moves on to conduct the concluding parts of the Grimeborn Festival's ambitious Ring Cycle

Wagner: Die Walküre - Bethan Langford, Elizabeth Karani & Katie Stevenson as the Valkyries - Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival at Hackney Empire in 2021 (Photo Alex Brenner)
Wagner: Die Walküre - Bethan Langford, Elizabeth Karani & Katie Stevenson as the Valkyries - Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival at Hackney Empire in 2021 (Photo Alex Brenner)

As Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival opens on 26 July 2022, I chat to conductor Peter Selwyn who is conducting the festival's new productions of Wagner's Siegfried and Götterdämmerung as part of its ongoing Ring Cycle. The festival's ambitious Ring Cycle project began in 2018. Staged by Julia Burbach with Peter Selwyn conducting, the first instalment, Das Rheingold [see my review], opened at the Arcola Theatre in August 2019. 

Peter Selwyn
Peter Selwyn
They are using reduction by Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick, but it is still an ambitious project and when the planned staging of Die Walküre was postponed in 2020, the project looked evening more challenging. But Burbach and Selwyn returned in August 2021 with Die Walküre at the Grimeborn Festival, yet staged at the Hackney Empire [see my review]. Now the cycle is being completed and Peter conducts Siegfried and Götterdämmerung at the Hackney Empire on 6 and 7 August 2022. I recently caught up with Peter by Zoom from Bayreuth where has been assisting on the new production of the Ring Cycle which opens at the Bayreuth Festival at the end of this month.

Peter says he has to keep pinching himself that what he describes as a crazy project is still managing to take place. When we spoke, they had already started rehearsing without him and it was all systems go. Das Rheingold was rather special, taking place within the confines of the larger studio at the Arcola, but it stretched the orchestra almost beyond its capabilities. To fit in the space, violins and cellos had to play in a specific attitude. So whilst for the audience it might have been highly effective and very immersive, Peter and Julia felt that they had to move on to the Hackney Empire for Die Walküre. And with COVID, there was of course no way to do the project at the Arcola, as the closeness would not work. So the move gave them space, for the players and for the staging, but also for health reasons. For Die Walküre, last year, the auditorium was around half full but hopefully this year it will be full. Also, there are fewer performances this year, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung  done as a double bill on two days.

The double bill presentation, which mirrors that of Birmingham Opera Company when they first premiered Dove and Vick's version, is something that Peter feels some people will go for and some may not, though it is perfectly possible to take in Siegfried one day and Götterdämmerung  the next. They are doing it this way because Peter and Julia felt that Siegfried did not quite stand on its own. Even in the reduced version, there are two hours of music, but it did not quite work dramatically, whereas Das Rheingold did work on its own. Peter suspects that Götterdämmerung will be the more popular option.

When we spoke, Peter was in Germany, a country where Wagner is a popular currency. Opera houses would be unlikely to perform the reduction in Germany, as everyone has access to a 20-hour Ring Cycle this year or next year. But in the UK, we are a bit starved of Wagner and a show like Grimeborn's Ring Cycle makes a significant impact.

Coming directly from Bayreuth to Grimeborn will be a big difference. Whilst he sees the reduction as a different work, he is sure that there will be moments when he feels the differences in the sheer volume of sound. But this is his chance to do the Ring his way, whereas in Bayreuth he has been assisting on someone else's conception. There again, the sound coming out during Die Walküre was pretty epic, the reduction is so clever. Dove's reduction uses five brass which gives a big symphonic sound, with harp and organ to give extra weight. So, there are plenty of moments when you get overwhelmed by the sound, yet there are more detailed chamber moments too. And Peter mentions the chamber versions of Mahler symphonies where you hear more detail, get more transparency, they stand up on their own very well.

Wagner: Das Rheingold - Andrew Tipple (Fasolt), Paul Carey Jones (Wotan), Gareth Brynmor John (Donner), Dingle Yandell (Fafner) - Grimeborn Festival 2019 (Photo Lidia Crisafulli)
Wagner: Das Rheingold - Andrew Tipple (Fasolt), Paul Carey Jones (Wotan), Gareth Brynmor John (Donner), Dingle Yandell (Fafner) - Grimeborn Festival 2019 (Photo Lidia Crisafulli)

There is nothing reduced about the casting, all could sing the full opera. They have gone for a full Wagner sound, and Peter admits that there is something of a crossover with Longborough Festival Opera in the casting, they have simply gone for some of the best people out there. Lee Bisset, who sings Brünnhilde at Grimeborn, sang the role in Longborough's production of Siegfried this year and will sing the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde there next year. So Grimeborn is a chance for her to get this latter role under her belt. The reduced version preserves some 70% of the role and the Immolation Scene is intact. In the reduction, whilst some scenes are cut or are missing others are preserved intact, so for instance Wotan's monologue in Act Two of Die Walküre is also substantial.

Having assisted at several Ring Cycles, Peter has experienced different approaches to the Ring. For him, when working with a director you have to trust them. You may disagree, but the director has been working on their vision of the piece for a long time. He hopes that you will agree and come up with a unified vision. Peter has worked well with Julia, they did Britten's Rape of Lucretia together at Grimeborn in 2018 and then the first two episodes of the Ring cycle. And he admits that they can disagree, but comments that a bit of too and fro is healthy. Whilst he has seen lots of productions of the Ring cycle, and he has felt closer to some than others, he would not be the sort of musical director who would walk out. He certainly would not want to direct a production himself, but wants to feel that he can look up on stage and feel he can contribute. His input is in areas such as where people can stand, and where the set needs to contribute to the vocal performance.

But it is in the nitty-gritty of day-to-day rehearsal that he can contribute when you interact with director and singers. Things such as whether Fafner should be off-stage or on-stage (in the original staging he was off-stage), what to do with the Woodbird and where the sound should come from. And as an aside, Peter comments that Wagner asked for the Woodbird to be sung by a boy, and he goes on to comment that the Bayreuth acoustic is very favourable to lighter singers as the pit is so deep and covered. It is much harder to balance such things with an open pit.

Peter Selwyn conducting the Lambeth Orchestra at All Saints West Dulwich in April 2022 (Photo: Anna Shilonosova)a
Peter Selwyn conducting the Lambeth Orchestra at All Saints West Dulwich in April 2022 (Photo: Anna Shilonosova)

Many of Peter's recent operatic engagements and future ones are for Wagner, something he sees as a happy happenstance. And now, people know he has done a lot of work in Wagner's operas and ask him. Yet he would be very happy to conduct Puccini's La Boheme again (a work he last conducted 20 years ago) and has worked on Verdi's operas at the Royal Opera House. But when he gets asked for Wagner, he is delighted. 

In October he is conducting a concert performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde for the London Opera Company (on 29 October 2022 at St John's Smith Square). If this goes well, then there are hopes that they will do a complete Ring Cycle. For Peter, it would be fantastic to do it with full orchestra, a chance to distil his own impressions of the work in a full very. And he points out that he has yet work on Tristan und Isolde, so he still has that to learn. And he has not done Tannhauser or Parsifal yet, so he is not a full Wagnerian. Yet.

One of Peter's recent appointments was taking over as principal conductor of my local orchestra, the Lambeth Orchestra. Peter would love to do more concert work, though he has done plenty including amateur, professional and youth orchestras, and he is now lucky to have one of London's best amateur orchestras and is pleased to have a chance to expand his concert repertoire. Next season with the Lambeth Orchestra is rather Germanic, but he plans to look at other repertoires the seasons after. This forthcoming season is full of things that he has been burning to do such as Bruckner, Mahler and Strauss, pieces he has known for a long time.

Peter Selwyn conducting the Lambeth Orchestra at All Saints West Dulwich in April 2022 (Photo: Anna Shilonosova)a
Peter Selwyn conducting the Lambeth Orchestra at All Saints West Dulwich in April 2022 (Photo: Anna Shilonosova)

The orchestra has big ambitions, and the forces to enable them. They have a big wind group so that they can perform works with triple woodwind, and also a full string complement. So any piece is within reach, not just early classical. One of the works Peter had his eye on was Bruckner's Symphony No. 5, which he performed with the orchestra in May this year. Before lockdown, Peter did not know much Bruckner but he listened to six symphonies and fell in love. He admits that they are a bit long at times. But in Bruckner's Symphony No. 5, the 25 minute wait for the climax makes it worth waiting for.

For the Ring Cycle at Grimeborn, Peter would love to be able to do the cycle on tour but has so far not managed to convince it to be anyone else's dream. Other parts of the country need to see Wagner, a mini Ring cycle is a significant event. Peter sees that there are 10 theatres in the country that would sell out the Ring well. What it needs is a six figure number, they would need a partner or a sponsor. 

Wagner: Siegfried and Götterdämmerung - Grimeborn Festival at the Hackney Empire - director Julia Burbach, conductor Peter Selwyn, Neal Cooper and Mark Le Brocq (Siegfried), Lee Bissett (Brünnhilde), Paul Carey Jones (Wanderer), Colin Judson (Mime), Simon Thorpe (Gunther), Lucy Anderson (Gutrune), Freddie Tong (Alberich), Elizabeth Karani (Woodbird) - 6 & 7 August 2022 [ticket link]

Liszt: Les Preludes, Mahler: Blumine and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Strauss: Tod und Verklarung - Kieran Rayner, Lambeth Orchestra, Peter Selwyn - All Saints' Church, West Dulwich - 22 October 2022 [ticket link]

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - conductor Peter Selwyn - London Opera Company at St John's Smith Square - 29 October 2022 [ticket link]

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