The Arcola Theatre proves size isn’t everything – even in Wagner.
Valhalla burns, the Rhine overflows its banks, the ring is returned to the Rhinemaidens, and order is restored to the world. Well, in theory that’s how the final opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle ends. And if this hugely ambitious – some might say audacious – Arcola Theatre project to bring a bit of Bayreuth to the Hackney Empire doesn’t quite conclude according to Wagner’s stage instructions, it does a damn finer job that Valentin Schwarz’s abysmal effort at this year’s Bayreuth Festival. It was a salutary experience being able to experience both on consecutive evenings, albeit the latter in a live relay from the Festspielhaus.
One had a cast of international singers, and a brand new staging where money was no object – the other was mounted on a shoestring budget, with homegrown singers performing the Jonathan Dove / Graham Vick truncated version. Whereas Schwarz’s staging was bereft of any ideas, or emotion, Julia Burbach’s told the story coherently, aided and abetted with interesting visual imagery and lighting. That this version, mounted at a fraction of the cost of Bayreuth’s new glitzy, empty-headed mess, should come across as the most arresting speaks volumes. As it stands, give us the Grimeborn Festival over the Bayreuth Festival any day of the week!
The Arcola presented both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung on the same day. In Dove’s adaptation, Siegfried is shorn down to two hours without an interval, Götterdämmerung just under three, with one interval of twenty minutes. Dove’s version, rescored for 18 players, can never deliver the kind of thrills of hearing a full Wagnerian orchestra at full pelt. On its own terms, however, it provides an intelligent reimaging of Wagner’s intentions, and allows small-scale companies the opportunity to have a go at one of the pinnacles of Western art – in a chamber kind of way.
Dove has been exceptionally successful in recreating the unique sound world of The Ring, and one is reminded how much music in the original is scored for solo instruments – especially the lower brass and woodwind. Somehow he manages to create musical alchemy as Wagner’s leitmotivs come across with equal force, despite the reduced forces. In Siegfried, tubas, trombones and timpani do much of the heavy lifting, and miraculously one never felt short-changed here. Similarly in Götterdämmerung, Dove catches the shifting moods and orchestral colours perfectly.
Of course, he had to ditch many passages from the original. And it can’t have been easy deciding what to jettison but given a lot of what Wagner wrote in these two operas is backstory, excising large chunks of narrative the audience knows already doesn’t do any harm. Some might argue it improves things. Only once did his uncanny knack for knowing what to edit falter. After Siegfried’s encounter with the Rhinemaidens, Hagen appears out of nowhere and stabs Siegfried. It’s over in a flash – and we don’t get to see Siegfried remember his life with Brünnhilde, which is a key part of the plot.
“…this hugely ambitious – some might say audacious – Arcola Theatre project…”
As mentioned before, Burbach’s staging of both operas rarely puts a foot wrong. Given there’s no time for scene changes, she and designer Bettina John have created an ingenious set of scaffolding and walkways which transform from Mime’s cave to Fafner’s lair, to Brünnhilde’s rock solely through Robert Price’s imaginative lighting plot. Neon tubes of light descend from the flies to create the forest (green), Rhine (blue) and fire (red) – and combined with judicious amounts of stage smoke, create the desired effect and ambience. She never gets in the way of telling the story and draws committed performances from all the cast.
Neal Cooper was a heroic Siegfried, and although there’s less to sing in this version there are still a lot of notes, and he never faltered. He sounded as though he had plenty in reserve even in the closing love duet with Brünnhilde. There was a lovely sheen to the voice as well. All in all, Cooper was a joy to listen to – and we can’t say that about every Siegfried we’ve encountered over the years.
He was ably partnered by Colin Judson’s cleanly-sung, and brilliantly characterised Mime. Eschewing the whining that too many singers impose on the role, he emunciated the text vividly and never resorted to caricature.
Simon Wilding was an imposing Fafner, Mae Heydorn a compelling Erda, and Freddie Tong a forthright Alberich. Paul Carey Jones embodied the Wanderer’s world-weariness to perfection – his vivid, and perfectly sculptured bass-baritone voice was a joy to listen to from start to finish. Lee Bisset‘s fearless Brünnhilde was hampered by a wide vibrato that crept in whenever she was under pressure – but that didn’t stop her awakening from being one of the highlights of the performance.
No tenor could be expected to sing both Siegfrieds in one day, which necessitated a change of singer for Gotterdammerung. Mark Le Brocq’s voice lacks the vocal heft Cooper brought to the young Siegfried, but he was musical, and his stamina never faltered. Wilding was an implacable Hunding, very much the dramatic lynchpin of the evening – his hallucinatory encounter with Tong’s Alberich was properly chilling. Bisset returned as Brünnhilde, finding more warmth in the voice than she had done earlier – her scene with Angharad Lyddon’s forthright and gloriously-sung Waltraute was one the evening’s musical highlights. However, there were still moments of stridency, particularly in the second act, and there’s no escaping the fact that the heavier roles she’s embarked on over the last few years have taken their toll on what is essentially a lyrical instrument. Still, she was tireless and made her immolation scene the emotional climax of the work it should be.
In the pit, Peter Selwyn led a propulsive account of both operas, and was rewarded with some exceptional playing by the young soloists of the Orpheus Sinfonia. A few blips in Götterdämmerung aside (no doubt due to tiredness) each of them seized their moment in the spotlight. This was ensemble playing on an exalted level – each instrumentalist covering themselves in glory. On paper, an abridged version of Wagner’s Ring shouldn’t work. Yet miraculously it does. Dove and Vick have captured the essence of The Ring, and more importantly have enabled audiences to experience the power of the work that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to. Dare one hope for the complete cycle next year?
• More details on Grimeborn 2022 can be found here.