Monday 27 November 2023

A remarkable sense of energy & engagement: Wagner's Die Walküre from the London Opera Company at St John's Smith Square

Wagner's Die Walküre - The London Opera Company
Wagner's Die Walküre - The London Opera Company

Wagner's Die Walküre; Ben Thapa, Philippa Boyle, Simon Wilding, Simon Thorpe, Harriet Williams, Cara McHardy, conductor Peter Selwyn; the London Opera Company at St John's Smith Square
Reviewed 25 November 2023

A full scale performance of Wagner's opera projected with remarkable energy, commitment and engagement by a strong cast with an orchestra mixing professionals, students and amateurs. A remarkable achievement

The London Opera Company was formed in 2020 by singers to give opportunities to performers who had lost work in the pandemic. Starting from relatively small beginnings, with chamber versions of Wagner's operas, the company founded its own orchestra last year and presented a full version of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde at St John's Smith Square. The company returned to St John's for Wagner's Die Walküre this year and plans to perform Wagner's Siegfried next year.

The London Opera Company performed Wagner's Die Walküre at St John's Smith Square on Saturday 25 November 2023. Peter Selwyn conducted the London Opera Company Orchestra with Ben Thapa as Siegmund, Philippa Boyle as Sieglinde, Simon Wilding as Hunding, Simon Thorpe as Wotan, Harriet Williams as Fricka and Cara McHardy as Brünnhilde.

This was a concert performance, scores and music stands were in use, but a lot of thought had gone into the presentation and all the singers were very responsive, reacting to others and making it far more than stand and sing. As Brünnhilde, Cara McHardy was off the book for long stretches of the performance, and many of the other soloists similarly managed to make their performances go far beyond singing to their score. The result had a sense of dramatic engagement which carried the performance along.

Another big factor in the evening was the orchestra. Most fringe performances of Wagner's operas rely on chamber reductions of the scores, but here Peter Selwyn conducted an ensemble of nearly 80 players, making the platform at St John's full to over-flowing (including Wagner tubas loaned from the Royal Opera House). The players were a mix of professionals, music students and good amateurs. Selwyn is an experienced Wagnerian; he has been assisting on the most recent Ring Cycle at Bayreuth and conducted Grimeborn's Ring [see my interview with Peter] as well as being the chief conductor of the non-professional Lambeth Orchestra. 

His direction was masterly, bringing encouragement, discipline and clarity to his players and guiding them through near four hours of music, yet shaping the work too. Perhaps, most importantly, this was a concert performance where the orchestra did not over-dominate the singers. Too often in Wagner and some early 20th-century operas, if you take the orchestra out of the pit the result is an orchestral sound that overwhelms the voices. Not here, during the long stretches of dialogue in the opera Selwyn encouraged his players to make space for the singers. The big moments were big, indeed, but always in context. A fine achievement indeed.

Ben Thapa was, I think, making his role debut as Siegmund whilst Philippa Boyle was a replacement for the initially announced Sieglinde. The two were using scores, but their performances were anything but score-bound and from the first moments of Act One, they brought a remarkable energy to the music. Thapa has a big, bright, forward-loaded tenor with an admirable ability to project the words. Yet this was a dramatic performance too, his Siegmund was big yet shambling and nervous. The entire act was about the journey that this damaged young man and his sister, the equally damaged Sieglined (Boyle) took from subservience to radiance. Boyle successfully incarnated, both musically and physically, the way Sieglinde was dominated by Simon Wilding's Hunding, yet came alive when talking to Thapa's Siegmund.

The knack with the great Wagner roles is not really the amount of noise you make but the ability to pace things so that you have enough in the tank at the end of a long evening. Despite the vividness of his performance, Thapa clearly had that knack. His 'Wintersturme' was bright, radiant and vivid, yet he was in fine form all the way through to the climax in Act Two. He and Boyle finished Act One on a high that set the bar for the rest of the performance.

It helped that Simon Wilding's Hunding was on a same vivid level. Dark and malevolent, but with a veneer of civilisation, this Hunding was far more than an mindless thug. Wilding was seductive and dangerous, sexy even and definitely magnetic. He moved away from his score at key moments, thus creating some terrific tension in the scenes with Boyle and Thapa. He effortlessly dominated Boyle's Sieglinde.

In Act Two, Cara McHardy introduced us to her freewheeling, playful Brünnhilde, giving a very physically active performance. She impressed with the opening battle cries, and then demonstrated a nice firmness in the lower register for Brünnhilde's subsequent long, low-lying passages. It is a voice that perhaps does not yet cut through the orchestra easily, but she was always vivid and sympathetic. Well judged as to pacing, never giving too much too soon. She and Thapa made the 'Todesverkündigung' one of the work's dramatic highlights, rightly so, as the two singers bounced off each other.

Harriet Williams made a dignified Fricka. This was a slow burn performance; no harridan, Williams allowed the arguments and the music to build gradually, reaching a climax when she devastatingly counters all of Wotan's arguments. Simon Thorpe is an experienced Wotan with a fine heldenbaritone voice, producing a lovely stream of sound that had just the right combination of effort and flexibility. Throughout the evening, however, he was constantly drinking water and you gained a sense that he was husbanding resources (in what is a long role). In Act Two, the scene with Williams' Fricka lacked that last ounce of spark between the two, and his long monologue to McHardy's Brünnhilde was perhaps slightly too understated. In an evening when most performers successfully projected their characters well beyond their music stands, Thorpe seemed to sometimes retreat behind his.

The end of Act Two was well done, the entrances, exits and deaths contributing to the dramaturgy rather than getting in the way. And this took a very traditional view of Hunding's last moments, Simon Wilding made it clear he was dead.

Philippa Boyle had been touching in Act Two (in the scenes I find a little tedious and display Wagner's patronising sexism), but she had glorious final moments in Act Three as her Sieglinde grew in stature when she realised she carried Siegmund's baby.

Act Three opened with a fine roster of dramatic talent in the Valkyries - Nina Bennet, Sky Ingram, Claire Filer, Harriet Williams, Mae Heydorn, Sarah Pring, Carolyn Dobbin & Katharine Taylor Jones. All looking glamorous, largely in red, singing with admirable security and drama, so that the famous scene was both engaging and thrilling. The sound of those battle cries sung with such security and projection in St John's was near overwhelming.

McHardy was touching here, with her concern for Boyle's Sieglinde and as the act progressed, McHardy brought out Brünnhilde's move from jolly hockey-sticks innocence to something more complex as she learns to understand the power of Siegmund's love for Sieglinde. The final scene with Thorpe's Wotan was touching, yet understated in the right way, till Thorpe finally opened up for a knock-out performance of Wotan's farewell. But of course, this scene is not the end, and as the orchestra took up the narrative the result brought a terrific evening to a magical close.

Peter Selwyn's speeds were largely on the faster side, the very opening to Act One far closer to Solti than Goodall. Throughout he had the knack of keeping things moving without ever seeming to hurry his singers. The long scenes unfolded naturally, but without any of that stopping to sniff the flowers that can sometimes mar Wagner performances.

Wagner: Die Walküre - Cara McHardy,  Philippa Boyle & the Valkyries - Peter Selwyn &The London Opera Company
Wagner: Die Walküre - Cara McHardy,  Philippa Boyle & the Valkyries - Peter Selwyn &The London Opera Company

The company is largely the brainchild of the evening's Brünnhilde and Fricka, Cara McHardy and Harriet Williams, but what came across was the terrific energy from all concerned so that this was a performance that mattered. Not everything was quite perfect, but that didn't matter, what you sensed was a collective belief in the power of Wagner's story telling, and what the performance also brought home to me was that for all the accessibility of smaller-scale performances of this music, you really need and orchestra. And at the centre of everything, was Peter Selwyn's masterly, discipline and clearly inspiring leadership.

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