Tuesday 30 May 2023

An intimate, chamber production of Wagner's Die Walküre from Regents Opera

Wagner: Die Walküre - Justine Viani (Sieglinde), Catharine Woodward (Brünnhilde), the Valkyries  - Regents Opera 2023 (Photo: Steve Gregson)
Wagner: Die Walküre - Justine Viani (Sieglinde), Catharine Woodward (Brünnhilde), the Valkyries  - Regents Opera 2023 (Photo: Steve Gregson)

Wagner: Die Walküre; Brian Smith Walters, Justine Viani, Gerrit Paul Groen, Keel Watson, Catharine Woodward, Ingeborg Novrup Børch, director: Caroline Staunton, conductor: Ben Woodward; Regents Opera at the Freemasons' Hall
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 27 May 2023

Reduced forces, but heightened drama from the second instalment of Regents Opera's Wagner in the round

Regents Opera returned to the Freemasons' Hall for Caroline Staunton's production of Wagner's Die Walküre (seen 27 May 2023) with Brian Smith Walters as Siegmund, Justine Viani as Sieglinde, Gerrit Paul Groen as Hunding, Keel Watson as Wotan, Catharine Woodward as Brünnhilde, and Ingeborg Novrup Børch as Fricka. This was the second instalment of musical director Ben Woodward's new arrangement of Wagner's tetralogy, with the orchestra reduced to just 22 players, including organ. Combined with the staging, which thrust the action into the centre of the room, surrounded on three sides by the audience, the overall effect was to create an intimate, chamber production of Wagner's most intimate chamber opera, which rarely has more than two characters on stage at a time.

Wagner: Die Walküre - Keel Watson (Wotan) - Regents Opera 2023 (Photo: Steve Gregson
Wagner: Die Walküre - Keel Watson (Wotan) - Regents Opera 2023 (Photo: Steve Gregson

From the outset, the limpidity brought by the reduced orchestration bore fruit – the opening storm had a taunt coherence rather than a blatter of noise, with clearly heard thematic references and interlocking counterpoint revealed which is too often obscured, in particular the clarity brought by the absence of timpani being distinctly felt throughout the evening. From this storm staggered the battered and wounded figure of Brian Smith Walters's Siegmund, a tough and capable looking outlaw rogue with the voice of a hero. His characterisation focused on the suffering and striving of his experiences rather than his youth and idealism. Throughout the first act, his interplay with his estranged twin sister, Justine Viani's Sieglinde was utterly compelling. Being so close to the action brought a whole new level of engagement often lost in large opera houses, where facial expressions and small gestures go unremarked.

The atmosphere turned much darker with the introduction of Gerrit Paul Groen's Hunding into the scene. Immensely tall & threatening, with a forceful, resonant lower register, he immediately exuded an air of menace and danger. It was simple to believe not only that he wanted to kill Siegmund, but that he very easily could. Despite the intervention of Brünnhilde, at the end of the second act he got his chance, and bludgeoned his rival to death with a fire extinguisher, an interesting choice of weapon from director Caroline Staunton.

Following from last year's highly successful Rheingold with the same team, the audience already knew to expect great things from Keel Watson in the central role of Wotan, and he did not disappoint, dominating the stage with his powerful voice and physical presence, and bringing a welcome humanity to his role. From his first appearance at the start of Act 2, he appeared worn down, weary and frustrated by his situation, and as he related the history that had brought him to this point, his anger grew into a terrifying rage. Watson then demonstrated his range as an actor as well as a vocalist, his long, heartbreaking farewell to Brünnhilde which closed the opera leaving him as a broken shadow of his former self.

Wagner: Die Walküre - Catharine Woodward (Brunnhilde), Justine Viani (Sieglinde) - Regents Opera 2023 (Photo: Steve Gregson)
Wagner: Die Walküre - Catharine Woodward (Brunnhilde), Justine Viani (Sieglinde) - Regents Opera 2023 (Photo: Steve Gregson)

Inhabiting the role of Brünnhilde with the character of a violence-prone gothic teenager, Catharine Woodward certainly has the vocal ability and endurance for the role, filling the theatre with her voice as she pleaded with her father. As Regents Opera's choice for the entire Ring, she still has her biggest sings ahead of her, and, on the basis of this outing, the company have chosen well. As have they with her sisters, a fantastically well-balanced ensemble, who delighted in the opera's showstopping opening to Act 3. Dressed as grungy art students on a night out, the mortal warriors they brought to Valhalla were represented by reproductions of famous paintings (which were later symbolically destroyed and used to build Brünnhilde's pyre)

As with almost every operatic production, there were some unusual production choices. The acting, stage placement, movement and gesture was thoughtful, defining character, and allowing the singers to interact in dramatic and believable ways (apart from a few moments when characters, for example sang about feeling each others' embraces from opposite sides of the stage – sadly the kind of thing that takes one out of the action) The staging was minimal but functional, a place for the drama to unfold, rather than being a character in itself, although the introduction of a huge & very noisy sheet of black plastic across the stage was perhaps a practical misstep. Hopefully when this production is revived in 2024 as part of Regents Opera's complete cycle it gets replaced with a silent black cloth or similar.

Wagner: Die Walküre - Regents Opera 2023 (Photo: Steve Gregson)
Wagner: Die Walküre - Regents Opera 2023 (Photo: Steve Gregson)

Overall this was an enormously engaging, well characterised production which featured world-class vocal performances from vocalists with a wide range of experiences. Many of these singers deserve to be heard in Wagner more often, particularly Watson's devastating portrayal of Wotan, Børch's foot-stamping, tantrum-throwing Frick and Walters's heroic, battered and compelling Siegmund. Woodward's orchestration was massively successful as a support and foil to the action on stage, and only very rarely was the lack of force and volume an issue – although from a personal perspective the absence of one instrument – the harp – was perhaps most keenly felt. Again, this production will return as part of a complete Ring in 2024, so who knows? Perhaps a harp will make its way onto the stage in the future. For now, mark your diaries for February next year when the saga continues with Siegfried.

Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders

Siegmund: Brian Smith Walters
Sieglinde: Justine Viani
Hunding: Gerrit Paul Groen
Wotan: Keel Watson
Brünnhilde: Catharine Woodward
Fricka: Ingeborg Novrup Børch
Valkyries: Charlotte Richardson, Shannon Roberts, Catherine Backhouse, Gráinne Gillis, Philippa Boyle, Magdalen Ashman, Grace Maria Wain & Caroline Carragher
Conductor: Ben Woodward
Director: Caroline Staunton

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