Grimeborn Opera Festival’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung illuminates Hackney Empire

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Grimeborn Opera Festival 2022 – Wagner, The Ring Cycle: Siegfried and Götterdämmerung: Soloists, Orpheus Sinfonia / Peter Selwyn (conductor). Hackney Empire, London, 6.8.2022. (JPr)

Mae Heydorn (Erda) and Paul Carey Jones (Wanderer) in Siegfried © Alex Brenner

Adaptation – Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick
Orchestration – Jonathan Dove
Director – Julia Burbach
Designer – Bettina John
Lighting designer – Robert Price
Choreographer – Cameron McMillan


Siegfried – Neal Cooper
Alberich – Freddie Tong
Wanderer – Paul Carey Jones
Mime – Colin Judson
Fafner – Simon Wilding
Erda – Mae Heydorn
Woodbird – Elizabeth Karani
Brünnhilde – Lee Bissett
Fafner’s Entourage – Robin Whitehouse, Henry Wright and Jamie Woollard

Lee Bissett – Brünnhilde
Siegfried – Mark Le Brocq
Hagen – Simon Wilding
Gunther – Simon Thorpe
Gutrune – Lucy Anderson
Waltraute – Angharad Lyddon
Alberich – Freddie Tong
Flosshilde – Mae Heydorn
Woglinde – Lizzie Holmes
Wellgunde – Bethan Langford
Chorus – Robin Whitehouse, Henry Wright and Jamie Woollard

With all that has happened recently 2019 seems like another century but that is when Arcola Theatre’s Ring cycle began with Julia Burbach’s cardboard city Das Rheingold (review click here). It then moved to the Hackney Empire for Die Walküre last summer which I was unable to be at. However, I was pleased to revisit the olde-worlde glories of Frank Matcham’s 1901 theatre after too long an absence for the conclusion of their cycle with Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. The design team, musicians and conductor remain the same and there are two survivors from that cast three years ago, Paul Carey Jones and Angharad Lyddon.

Can I remind readers of my connection to the adaptation of the operas we heard which were – as I previously wrote – ‘in Graham Vick and Jonathan Dove’s chamber version for 18 players created for City of Birmingham Touring Opera in 1990. It originally was the first half of two – still fairly epic – evenings totalling some nine-plus hours that was called The Ring Saga and toured halls and sports centres up and down the country. In 1992 The Wagner Society – that I was in charge of at the time – awarded Vick’s enterprising touring group the prestigious Sir Reginald Goodall Memorial Award. It is interesting to see how things sometimes come full circle – cycle? – as these Arcola Theatre performances are in part funded by the current Wagner Society.’

This version was taken up by Longborough Festival Opera at the turn of the century but I had not seen and heard anything of it again until now. Can I first mention how – in general – Dove’s reduction loses little in comparison with the ‘original’ from any significantly larger ensembles. However, my overriding impression was that the late Graham Vick and Dove clearly did not like Siegfried – to put it mildly – since barely any recognisable scene from that opera goes by without input from Dove intruding on what you expect to hear (I accept that is a bit of a generalisation). Siegfried is often called the scherzo of the Ring and it was as if the experience Wagnerian conductor Peter Selwyn couldn’t rush his musicians through it quick enough and it lasted just under two hours. Later when we heard Götterdämmerung it was much less Dove and mostly all Wagner – as far as I could hear – and so much better for it. I didn’t realise until now how clunky Vick and Dove’s story editing was, a couple of examples (of many) are that when Siegfried wakes up Brünnhilde he refer to her as his mother which oddly doesn’t seem to be resolved and later he will be drugged and forget her, and then – for no other apparent reason – he remembers her as he dies.

Julia Burbach brings back the cardboard boxes amongst some familiar detritus of life under the higgledy-piggledy staging on several levels connected by stairs and ladders which strongly reminded me of the Escher- and Piranesi-inspired set for Katharina Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth in past years with its walkways often leading nowhere. In Siegfried most of the action was on the stage floor or a small central platform that represented Brünnhilde’s rock in that and again in Götterdämmerung where the Gibichung Hall was furnished with some oriental rugs, lamps and armchairs. There had been a simple folding chair during Siegfried and whenever that or any other one was sat on during the operas my mind turned to the accident in Bayreuth recently when the chair collapsed under Tomasz Konieczny’s Wotan – in the second act of Die Walküre – injuring him so much that he was unable to sing in Act III.

Robert Price’s albeit garish lighting added some atmosphere to various scenes (I’m sure I spotted the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian colours at one point but maybe that was my imagination?) Best of all were the LED neon tubes that came down from the flies from time to time and were green for the forest and incandescently flickered yellow/orange/red for the flames around Brünnhilde’s rock and during her Immolation Scene, amongst other changes of colour. Costumes were fairly nondescript but the Wanderer looked, well, like Wotan perhaps should, and Erda especially was in a diaphanous, voluminous creation making her look as if she was enshrouded in mist. The Woodbird was gaily coloured and Fafner was in green with the suggestion of a scaly cape for his dragon disguise. He was given an entourage for some reason and Siegfried had begun with some added masked figures (forest creatures?) and there was no bear and Siegfried donned a mask himself. Big moments were glossed over, for instance, the sword making employed an old tea urn and was rather perfunctory and Wotan’s spear remained resolutely unbroken by it later in the opera.

The Gibichungs in Götterdämmerung were dressed as if they were living in a British Country House but everything was played much straighter and there was nothing like Mime creeping in poking out of a cardboard box before trying to poison Siegfried with the drink he has brewed. There is no Norn scene but little is missed after Siegfried and Gunther swear blood-brotherhood and especially from when the pleather-clad Waltraute confronts Brünnhilde.. Oddly, there is no attempt to disguise Siegfried as Gunther when he overcomes Brünnhilde on her rock and later he is despatched all too quickly, but then the stage largely clears for the Funeral music and through to the apocalyptic end to the opera. Two figures masked as ravens wandered on and witnessed Brünnhilde suggesting where Hagen’s spear should strike Siegfried, yet they are not seen again though they are sung about on at least two other significant occasions!

Several wonderfully talented singers were on show, Colin Judson was a characterful Mime and worthy of a bigger stage as particularly was the always impressive Mae Heydorn as a confused Erda who realises she is no longer all-knowing. Of course Paul Carey Jones is a known quantity as the Wanderer and he is someone whose Wagnerian credentials impress me more and more each time I hear him. Elizabeth Karani sang well but it wasn’t – for me – the right sound for the Woodbird, Freddie Tong isn’t left with much as Alberich and didn’t make a significant impression, whilst the ever-reliable Simon Wilding brought poignancy to Fafner’s dying moment.

Peter Selwyn – fresh from assisting at Bayreuth this summer – occasionally did too little in Siegfried to quell the ardour of the Orpheus Ensemble and sometimes the sound overwhelmed the singers and it was often a case of who could sing (shout?) the loudest. I have heard Neal Cooper succeed in Wagner enough to know that perhaps this was an off-night or he needs more opportunities to get into the role. As for Lee Bissett her experience as Brünnhilde was obvious although it was well into Götterdämmerung before her voice gained in the security we are familiar with from past performances.

Lee Bissett (Brünnhilde) in Götterdämmerung © Alex Brenner

In what truly was ‘a game of two halves’ there were fewer weak links in Götterdämmerung. Lee Bissett went from strength to strength as Brünnhilde feels betrayed, seeks her revenge before her ultimate forgiveness as she redeems the world at the end of the opera. Bissett deserved the moment in the spotlight Burbach gave her. She was joined by Mark Le Brocq as Siegfried and although the demands of the role are less than in the earlier opera, Le Brocq was more lyrical and nuanced and made better use of his words. I wondered whether Simon Wilding’s voice might not have all the traditional resonance for Hagen’s music but he sang a thunderous call to the vassals and how well the three singers of the chorus – with some added vocal support – did with their responses. Freddie Tong sang solidly as Alberich who invades the dreams of his son Hagen. Lucy Anderson sang sweetly what was left of Gutrune’s involvement, Simon Thorpe’s Gunther was bluffer and more of a hail-fellow-well-met character than he usually is portrayed as and the three Rhinemaidens came and went. The standout performance was from Angharad Lyddon who sang an impassioned Waltraute with luminous clarity.

The virtuosic musicians of Orpheus Ensemble showed incredible stamina over the two operas and Peter Selwyn’s Götterdämmerung was meticulously paced and exquisitely layered. The only misstep was at the very start of Siegfried where Mime’s anvil sounded as if a gong was being struck to bring the boy in from the forest for his dinner!

Jim Pritchard

For more about the Grimeborn Opera Festival 2022 click here.

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