Fine and characterful singing as Die Walküre is heard once more in Wagner-starved London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Die Walküre: Soloists, London Opera Company ensemble (Rosemary Taylor [clarinets], Jo Harris [trumpet], William Brown [trombone, bass trumpet], James Bower [percussion]), Peter Selwyn (piano, music director). St John’s, Waterloo, London, 3.7.2021. (MB)

Cara McHardy (Brünnhilde)

Siegmund – Brian Smith Walters
Sieglinde – Gweneth-Ann Rand
Hunding – Simon Wilding
Wotan – Simon Thorpe
Brünnhilde – Cara McHardy
Fricka, Waltraute – Harriet Williams
Gerhilde – Jacqueline Varsey
Ortlinde – Philippa Boyle
Schwertleite – Rhonda Browne
Helmwige – Natasha Jouhl
Siegrune – Carolyn Dobbin
Grimgerde – Katharine Taylor-Jones
Rossweisse – Angharad Lyddon

Wagner’s dramas, one might think, would be among the last things to return to our cultural lives. In a way, they doubtless will. For obvious reasons, a full-scale staging of Die Meistersinger would be a tall order right now, though Bayreuth proposes a few performances this summer of Barrie Kosky’s staging (widely lauded, though certainly not by me). Covent Garden has reopened its doors with Mozart: La clemenza di Tito and now, Don Giovanni (review forthcoming), though friends in Berlin are currently enjoying Stefan Herheim’s new Das Rheingold at the Deutsche Oper. (How I wish I were still there!) In London, however, such possibilities seem still quite distant. The London Opera Company’s Tristan und Isolde, performed last October with piano trio in place of orchestra, was a rare beacon of light. Now, the company returns with its second instalment of Wagner — or anything else — Die Walküre, marked as a concert performance but with a degree of acting and a few small props.

Brian Smith Walters (Siegmund) and Gweneth-Ann Rand (Sieglinde)

Brian Smith Walters and Gweneth-Ann Rand offered pretty much everything one could hope for in the Volsung lovers. The former’s Heldentenor thrilled vocally as any Siegmund must; there was, though, much more to him than that. Like the rest of the cast, he took advantage of the lack of full staging to show just how much character narrative can develop through words and music. From outlawry and dejection to apparent victory, only to be snatched away from him by the chief of the gods himself (ever unknown to him as his father), this was a story that demanded to be told. Rand’s dignity told in sheer stage presence — even without a ‘proper’ stage — and again through words and music. She engaged us, had us feel for her, but was no mere victim; this was a Sieglinde with agency too. The titular Valkyrie herself was familiar from Tristan. Then as Isolde, now as Brünnhilde, Cara McHardy led us not merely to follow, but to share her journey from the warrior maiden’s first, thrilling ‘Hojotoho’ to a tender, closer-to-human farewell with Simon Thorpe’s Wotan. Thorpe’s performance seemed drawn from the sagas, delivered as myth that did not preclude but rather encompassed humanity. That quality was certainly present in Harriet Williams’s uncommonly sympathetic Fricka. She not only made her case — its chilling logic is, on one level at least, readily apparent — but had us understand why. Simon Wilding’s jet-black Hunding proved the perfect foil to Volsung Lenz, another considered and highly dramatic portrayal. Brünnhilde’s Valkyrie sisters impressed equally in solo and ensemble performance, aided by a lucid instrumental ride from Peter Selwyn and company.

My principal reservation nonetheless concerned the arrangement itself: not, of course, the act of arranging, but the choices made. Tristan’s piano trio with conductor (the excellent Michael Thrift) worked considerably better for me. There will always be pros and cons, and the presence of bass clarinet in particular certainly had its Wagnerian moments. The choice of clarinet/bass clarinet, trumpet, bass trumpet/trombone, percussion (mostly timpani), and piano nonetheless seemed odd. It may not have been a choice; performing forces often are not. A few times, players and singers fell out of sync, likewise instrumental ensemble itself: doubtless to be expected, though perhaps a few times more than one might have hoped. Still, I should not carp. The openings of the second and, as mentioned, third acts in particular thrilled, ensemble seemingly reinvigorated. In Wagner-starved London, few will have been disappointed. Let us see what the London Opera Company, currently seeking sponsorship, comes up with for Siegfried next year.

St John’s, Waterloo will now close until next year for restoration, the first major work to Francis Octavius Bedford’s Greek Revival building since 1951, when it was rebuilt as the official church of the Festival of Britain. That festival helped bring hope and light back to London after the privations of war and rationing. St John’s has helped many of us over the past year, not least as home to the Waterloo Festival, with its actualised theme of ‘respair’, the return of hope after a period of despair. I look forward to its reopening and, in the meantime, the continuation of its crucial ministry to neighbourhood, city, and beyond.

Mark Berry

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