You will never get closer to the action in a Wagner opera.
Following a highly successful Das Rheingold last November, Regents Opera returns to perform the second of the four operas in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. In 2014, its predecessor Fulham Opera presented the tetralogy with piano accompaniment, but this time around it is employing a reduced orchestration that its creator Ben Woodward began in large part as a lockdown project. In the case of Die Walküre Woodward, who also conducts the performances, has reduced the score from around 100 instruments to 22, including the organ.
The arrangement proves to be particularly successful as the impression generated by the music can sometimes feel quite different to when it is rendered with larger forces, but is just as persuasive. For example, when the storm theme cuts across the ‘plodding’ notes in the Prelude to Act I, in relative terms there is less sense of one sound ‘disrupting’ the other and more emphasis on how they still complement each other. Given that the clash is designed to show how Siegmund finds himself caught between nature and the gods, the idea of a slightly closer relationship between the two highlights just how tangled the situation he finds himself in is. The ‘Ritt der Walküren’ is rendered with great clarity on the one hand, and overarching senses of sweep and flutter on the other, while the fire music at the end of Act III proves to be as magical and moving as in any performance. Continuity is also maintained with the leitmotifs that were first introduced in Das Rheingold, as the descending spear motif is once again rendered on bass trombone.
For all of the vast orchestral forces that Die Walküre normally requires, the work can possess something of a chamber opera feel given that for the majority of the time only two or three characters grace the stage. In this context therefore, the reduced orchestration could be seen as generating the same level of intimacy as the staging itself. In the Art Deco Grand Temple of the Freemasons’ Hall near Holborn, the opera is staged virtually in the round as the audience is seated on three sides of the central performance area. With most spectators being just metres from the action, this Die Walküre generates the type of intimate experience that it is impossible to have in any major opera house. Act I thus becomes compelling by virtue of the detail we witness in the interactions between Siegmund and Sieglinde. When the brother asks the sister to taste the mead that she offers him, we see every facet of the ‘innocent flirtation’ that constitutes her reaction.
Brian Smith Walters is an excellent Siegmund whose tenor is warm, powerful and expansive. He also uses the space to good effect, facing in different directions for his successive cries of ‘Wälse!’ so that practically everyone in the hall gets to hear each of the two quite differently. Justine Viani, who played Wellgunde in Das Rheingold, is equally engaging as Sieglinde, revealing a compelling soprano and the spirit of one who is still able to show decency despite having been trodden into the ground. Gerrit Paul Groen, with his superb bass, is similarly strong as Hunding, combining a seemingly affable, almost ‘cheeky chappy’, persona with immense brutality. He whisks Siegmund’s mead (in this instance, beer) away, but then when he offers his hospitality gives it back before cracking open a bottle himself. When he physically grasps Sieglinde’s face he reveals just how shaken he is by her resemblance to Siegmund, and how he is used to treating his wife. His axe becomes a fire extinguisher, which could symbolise how he is attempting to douse the twins’ love, or, if we see Loge as being the driving force behind Wotan, suppress the chief god’s ambitions.
“…this Die Walküre generates the type of intimate experience that it is impossible to have in any major opera house”
In Das Rheingold, director Caroline Staunton emphasised the fact that the ring has no intrinsic value beyond the power that people believe it possesses. She likened it to a piece of art, leading designer Isabella van Braeckel to litter the stage with plinths containing small white sculptures. This theme is continued in Die Walküre, as some plinths lie around, but the main idea underpinning the second opera is that Wotan, despite having given the ring away, cannot escape its curse. In Rheingold Erda was shown all in white, but the other gods only had a little of the colour smeared on them as if this represented the last vestiges of a purity that had otherwise left them. Here, Wotan begins Act II seated with white on one side of his face, and desperately trying to shake off the gold that lies on the other. It is an excellent way of showing how he is trying to rid himself of the curse, and it also introduces an interesting dynamic because only Brünnhilde appears triumphant at this point when normally her father does as well. With his tremendous bass-baritone, Keel Watson puts everything into his portrayal of the chief god and it produces great dividends. The sight of him leaning on a plinth as he listens to Fricka, not only lacking the arguments to counter her assertions but also seemingly the mental strength to go on at all, is quite heart breaking. Above all, Watson’s portrayal brings into focus just how futile Wotan’s quest is, as he knows that all of his desperate attempts to engineer events in order to get things back on track are only bringing him closer to the end.
Catharine Woodward, with her beguiling soprano, complements Watson’s Wotan perfectly as her Brünnhilde is spirited in a way that he ostensibly is not, thus emphasising how she represents a side to him that he is unable to let live himself. Ingeborg Novrup Børch, with her excellent mezzo-soprano, is a multifaceted Fricka who on her first appearance appears haughty and expectant, but who reveals that it still requires courage on her part to challenge her husband. It is very easy to see Fricka as someone who offers problems but no solutions, but in Børch’s portrayal one can see how from her perspective she is proposing a way forward because she sees the ‘status quo’ as a better alternative. It is possible to view her embrace of Wotan towards the end of their encounter as a way of buttering him up, but equally it could derive from relief at her feeling that his acquiescence will see everything turn out well. She also smears her arms with oil that makes them white, suggesting that she too seeks a return to purer times.
The ‘Ritt der Walküren’ is brilliantly rendered as the Valkyrie sing and move to excellent effect. Each carries a famous painting rather than a dead mortal and as they react to how valuable these seem to be, it is as if they are considering how brave or virile each of the men they bring is. A silent character named Wotan’s Will (Veronica Weston) is introduced and as she destroys these paintings (which later form the basis of Brünnhilde’s fire) as Wotan displays his anger, it is as if the chief god is totally abandoning his idea of gathering mortals in Valhalla. Wotan’s Will also lays black sheeting in Act II, which represents the path that Siegmund and Sieglinde subsequently flee along and hence the road he hopes they will take. As Wotan vents his rage in Act III, she wraps Brünnhilde in white tape, which shows how in beginning to be punished Brünnhilde is already taking on a greater purity. Similarly, Wotan’s black robe carries just a little more white in Act III revealing how, by accepting his fate, a little of his nobility actually returns. There is understandably no real fire at the end, with the effect being created by Mitch Broomhead’s flickering lighting, but if grand effects cannot be achieved the next best thing is to generate the sense of stillness that is conveyed here. This ties in with Watson’s demeanour as we see a god who at the end of the act is unceremoniously exiting the stage in every sense.
Even what might be deemed to be the production’s slip-ups have their own rationale. Having Hunding pursue Siegmund and Sieglinde during the closing bars of Act I does not entirely work as the music suggests the exhilarating highpoint of their love, and so that is what we as the audience need to focus on. Nevertheless, there is a justification for it as Act II makes clear that he did awake from his drug induced sleep, and his staggering here suggests he is trying to shake off certain effects. Ultimately, when criticisms of a Walküre are reduced to the level of suggesting that the sword Nothung could have looked less puny, it reveals just how effective and moving the production really is. We are now at the midpoint of the Ring Cycle, and Regents Opera is flying high.
• Regents Opera’s Siegfried appears in February 2024, and the entire Der Ring des Nibelungen in November and December 2024. For further details and tickets visit its website.