Hackney Empire, London – until 7 August 2021
Guest reviewer: Charlotte Valori
Grimeborn is following up its fantastic 2019 Das Rheingold with Die Walküre this year. Moving to the gorgeous Hackney Empire, with the Orpheus Sinfonia comfortably ensconced in the pit, this production has a far larger canvas, and opportunity, than its sister Rheingold ever did. However, it fails to achieve the emotional heft and visceral immediacy of its predecessor, despite competent singing and a strong creative team.
Designer Bettina John locates the story inside a dark warehouse, thronged with menacing steel scaffolding towers, neon-lit from beneath and topped with floating vintage industrial lights. Visually arresting, and certainly photogenic, the set offers surprisingly limited opportunities for action and play; or perhaps it just didn’t fire director Julia Burbach’s imagination.
She has certainly opted for a difficult line through the piece, focusing on rootlessness in a music drama which is all about close bonds, and how much it hurts to break them. Burbach makes much of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s traumatised state, giving us two broken, hunted human beings terrified of the world and each other, but the gawky physicality between them is constantly at odds with Wagner’s music, which thrills with sensuality and conviction, and this makes hard work for the audience.
The bond between Wotan (Mark Stone) and Brünnhilde (Laure Meloy) doesn’t ring true, either: the stage action feels alternately static and rootless, rather than grounded in strong emotion. As a result, this reduced version by the composer Jonathan Dove, and the incredible (and sadly missed) Graham Vick, feels curt, even brusque at times.
I never thought I would ‘notice the gaps’ in any Walküre, but as the singers slip into ‘park and bark’ mode, or wander aimlessly around the scaffolding, you find yourself watching one sung phrase end and waiting for the next, the opposite of through-sung continuous drama (Wagner’s great gift to opera). Exceptionally basic side-titles reduce the piece even further, skipping key lines in the German holding deep thematic significance: this won’t help a first-timer.
There are a few practical problems: Peter Selwyn sometimes stumbles into some rather hairy tempi with the Orpheus Sinfonia, occasionally struggling to balance orchestra and singers (the brass section in particular seem to have a vendetta on Sieglinde’s best bits).
There are also a few actively annoying things: Hunding’s hut is a corporate 3-piece suite which, frustratingly, Siegmund and Sieglinde have to put away before running off to escape him: never has a romantic flight felt more prosaic or less urgent. Nothung is a wooden staff, concealed anonymously on the scaffolding: there’s no sword (and no Excalibur moment), one of the vital visual (and musical) images of the Ring Cycle. Worse, in the climactic battle, Nothung doesn’t actually break; broken bits do turn up later, but as you can’t re-forge a wooden staff, it feels very token. If the concept delivered more for the work in other ways, these niggles wouldn’t irritate so much.
Natasha Jouhl’s warm and lovely soprano makes for a special Sieglinde, while Finnur Bjarnason’s big, strong tenor (with just a touch of gravel) suits Siegmund nicely. Harriet Williams makes a memorably pouty, relentless and finely sung Fricka. Simon Wilding’s unsettling, convincing Hunding uses his huge voice as a weapon, to brilliant (near comic) effect. Our Valkyries (cut to just three) get the best costumes (sassy leather coats and boots), with Elizabeth Karani’s super-feisty Helmwige throwing some much-needed fire on the stage, but it’s too little, too late. Stone and Meloy don’t have an overall psychological grip on their key roles of Wotan and Brünnhilde, despite occasional fine moments from each; there’s a feeling of getting through their roles, rather than steadily revealing them.
Grimeborn’s Das Rheingold got right to the bones of that work, delivering something punchy, visceral and exciting to the Arcola’s stage from a huge, rambling canvas. This does the opposite, taking a tense, intimately human drama and letting it unravel. I have never known Die Walküre fail to connect before, particularly in the hands of a talented team. Let’s hope this cycle gets right back on track as they progress towards a future Siegfried.