Sunday 7 August 2022

Stupendous achievement: Grimeborn's Ring adventure comes to a thrilling and satisfying conclusion at the Hackney Empire

Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Lee Bisset - Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival at Hackney Empire (Photo Alex Brenner)
Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Lee Bisset - Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival at Hackney Empire (Photo Alex Brenner)

Wagner: Siegfried & Götterdämmerung, adapted by Graham Vick & Jonathan Dove; Lee Bisset, Neal Cooper, Mark Le Brocq, Paul Carey Jones, Freddie Tong, director: Julia Burbach, Orpheus Sinfonia, conductor: Peter Selwyn; Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival at Hackney Empire
Reviewed 6 August 2022 

The Grimeborn fringe Ring Cycle comes to a thrilling and satisfying conclusion, telling this complex story in a way that was engaging and direct, with some fine singing and acting.

The Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival Ring adventure came to a triumphant conclusion yesterday (6 August 2022) with the performances of Julia Burbach's production of Wagner's Siegfried and Götterdämmerung at the Hackney Empire. The adaptation by Graham Vick and Jonathan Dove was used, with Peter Selwyn conducting the Orpheus Sinfonia. Lee Bisset was Brünnhilde, Paul Carey Jones was the Wanderer, Freddie Tong was Alberich, with Neal Cooper as Siegfried (in Siegfried) and Mark Le Brocq as Siegfried (in Götterdämmerung), plus Lucy Anderson (Gutrune), Mae Heydorn (Erda, Flosshilde), Lizzie Holmes (Woglinde), Elizabeth Karani (Woodbird),  Bethan Mary Langford (Wellgunde), Angharad Lyddon (Waltraute), Simon Thorpe (Gunther), and Simon Wilding (Fafner, Hagen). Designs were by Bettina John, and lighting by Robert Price.

The two operas were performed as a double-bill (as Vick and Dove originally intended with City of Birmingham Opera); Siegfried in a single span of two hours, with Götterdämmerung in the evening with an interval. We thus had over four hours of music, and the young players of the Orpheus Sinfonia (just 18 of them) performing a truly heroic service. Dove's orchestration is highly imaginative and whilst one or two moments lack the sheer depth and richness of Wagner's full version, for nearly all of the time we had the weight and depth of colour that we wanted, and what we lost in sheer magnitude we gained in moments which reach almost chamber intimacy. This was particularly true of Lee Bisset's glorious Immolation Scene where she was able to be quiet, intimate and thoughtful in a way that the full version would not allow, almost taking us into Brünnhilde's thought processes.

Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Lee Bisset in Act Two - Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival at Hackney Empire (Photo Alex Brenner)
Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Lee Bisset in Act Two - Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival at Hackney Empire (Photo Alex Brenner)

This was a deliberately low-fi production, still very much a Fringe Ring, but the strengths of Burbach and John's approach was the clarity and directness of the story telling. And everything happened, all the necessary details from the libretto, but without any of the theatrical dazzle that larger budget Rings find necessary. John's set was simply a series of platforms, stacked up across the stage and linked by ladders. For Siegfried, under the platforms was a mass of cardboard boxes (linking back to the set for Das Rheingold), out of which everything came. The basic set remained for Götterdämmerung with one platform as Brünnhilde's rock, to which she would return for the end of the Immolation Scene, and other platforms decked out more conventionally for Gunther's realm.

Robert Price's lighting played a very big role, in particular a set of tubular lights which descended from the flies to create striking patterns and produce light of all colours, from the pastoral green for Siegfried's second act, to the red of the fire around Brünnhilde's rock and the ultimate conflagration. 

Siegfried was quite a surprise and proved to be two hours of compelling drama. Neal Cooper made an appealing young Siegfried, unknowing and naïve but not an idiot. Details such as the bear and the forging scene were deftly handled but what counted in the first part was Cooper's brilliant relationship with Colin Judson's whiny but passive aggressive Mime. This was the main engine of the first part of the Ring. As the Wanderer, Paul Carey Jones' contribution to Act One  was significantly reduced in this version, but he still created a commanding and engaging figure, with a magnificent sense of his complete blindness to the chaos that his plans would created.

The production was very strong on atmosphere throughout, and this particularly came over in the scene where Freddie Tong's alarmingly engaging Alberich and Carey Jones' Wanderer were both lurking around Fafner's cave, along with Judson's Mime and Cooper's Siegfried. Simon Wilding's very human Fafner, had an entourage (Robin Whitehouse, Henry Wright, Jamie Woollard, who would be the chorus in Götterdämmerung ), and Wilding's death was particularly moving. Elizabeth Karani made an attractive and highly present Woodbird. 

Mae Heydorn was a very striking Erda, relishing the gnomic nature of her utterances and entirely swathed in pale fabric (that she kept moving) so it seemed as if she was surrounded by mist or cloud. Carey Jones at this point rightly dominated the action, and Carey Jones brought out the relish with which the Wanderer tried to manipulate people, his interaction with Cooper's Siegfried was positively gleeful.

There was a tirelessness to Cooper's performance, his voice retaining its engaging brightness so that the culminating duet with Lee Bisset's Brünnhilde was balanced, with no sense of one partner wonderfully refreshed and the other tired from two hours performance. Bisset created a nice sense of Brünnhilde's coming to terms with her new situation, and Cooper brought out Siegfried's sense of wonder at this new creature, a new friend.

Götterdämmerung began with Siegfried and Brünnhilde (now Mark Le Brocq and Lee Bisset) without the Norns; a loss, but an understandable one. Whilst the compression in Siegfried seemed so deft that you hardly missed it, that in Götterdämmerung, with its complex, grand opera inspired plot, seemed more obvious. You noticed the bits missed out and after all Götterdämmerung was compressed from four hours or so of music to something until two and a half hours!

Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Lee Bisset, Angharad Lyddon - Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival at Hackney Empire (Photo Alex Brenner)
Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Lee Bisset, Angharad Lyddon - Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival at Hackney Empire (Photo Alex Brenner)

The first half (the prologue and Act One of the original) was notable for some very strong individual scenes. Simon Wilding made a very striking, rather thoughtful and finely sung Hagen, whilst the scene between Bisset's Brünnhilde and Angharad Lyddon's Waltraute was very much a highlight. Bisset was perhaps more human, less simply implacable than some and the result was a finely balanced and gripping dialogue, enlivened with Lyddon's evocativedepictions of how Wotan had given up.

The politicking at the Gibichung court proved rather less compelling. There were some strong individual performances with Lucy Anderson as a warmly vibrant Gutrune and Simon Thorpe as a hail-fellow-and-well-met sort of Gunther, very dependent on his half brother, Wilding's Hagen, for intelligence and information. The interaction between Simon Le Brocq's now slightly more mature Siegfried and the others was well done, but lacked the impetus of Siegfried.

However, everything changed after the interval. We had a thrilling encounter between Freddie Tong's brilliantly characterised Alberich (very much not the boorish uncivilised being that is often the case) and Wilding's rather intense Hagen, and then Bisset's Brünnhilde came down the mountain and suddenly the drama had legs. The movement of events, and notable the crystallisation of Bisset's anger at Brünnhilde's betrayal drove the original Act Two to a stunning climax. The original Act Three included the return of the engaging Rhinemaidens (Mae Heydorn, Lizzie Holmes, Bethan Mary Langford), and Siegfried's death. This section benefited from the drama's concentration on essentials without the fussy bits with extra potions and such. Mark Le Brocq gave a moving account of Siegfried's final narration, the culmination of a very mature performance.

The funeral march was played to a nearly empty stage, allowing the music to dominate in a striking manner. The closing scene was all focused on Bisset's Brünnhilde, and rather strikingly for the conflagration she returned to the position we had seen her in at the beginning of her first scene in Siegfried. As I have said, Bisset gave a finely intimate account of the Immolation Scene, crowning a fine performance. Initially during the performances she seemed to be still finding the right tone for the venue and the orchestra (she previously sang the Siegfried Brünnhilde at Longborough in the full version) with an inclination to push a little too much. When she relaxed more, there were some compelling moments and these built to a very engaging performance indeed. Not so much a fearsome warrior maiden but at woman just finding her way in the world; in a sense, in this half of the Ring, both Siegfried and Brünnhilde are ‎naïve‎s, finding their way in an unfamiliar world.

Peter Selwyn and the Orpheus Sinfonia brought things to a finely judged conclusion with the long orchestral peroration that concludes the work, a symphonic triumph to crown a striking achievement.

Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Simon Wilding - Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival at Hackney Empire (Photo Alex Brenner)
Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Simon Wilding - Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival at Hackney Empire (Photo Alex Brenner)

Any Ring is something of a journey; the way that Burbach, Selwyn and Arcola have seen this one to its conclusion, from the promising pre-COVID fringe Rhinegold to this dramatic conclusion, is simply stunning. The performances were a stupendous achievement, telling this complex story in a way that was engaging and direct, so the operas were as much about character as they were about fine singing. 

I certainly hope that the finance and wherewithal can be found to bring the entire cycle back as a whole, it certainly deserves it.

Further reading:

  • My recent interview with conductor Peter Selwyn
  • Grimeborn Festival performance Wagner's Die Walküre at Hackney Empire, August 2021 - my review
  • My 2021 interview with director Julia Burbach
  • Grimeborn Festival performance of Wagner's Das Rheingold at Arcola Theatre, August 2019 - my review

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