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by on 9 August 2022

Changing Lives


by Richard Wagner, adaptation by Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick

Arcola Theatre Productions at the Hackney Empire until 7th August

Review by Helen Astrid

To scale-down any production is not an easy task.  What would have been six hours of music and drama became just two.  Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick’s reduction of Wagner’s Siegfried, the third opera of the tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen or “The Ring Cycle” as we know it, has certainly made a mark in the repertory for smaller venues with even fewer resources to perform large-scale operas or in this case music-dramas.

The entire Ring Cycle takes around fifteen hours to sit through, which is an endurance test.  When it was staged in Seattle in 2003, the opera house issued advice to ticket-holders suggesting they lay off the booze and get plenty of sleep the night before.  The great English conductor Adrian Boult said that two acts of Wagner was enough for anyone and he used to skip the middle act to go and have dinner.  Grimeborn’s production though was without any intervals.

Even though the orchestra was just nineteen instead of the usual 88 players, we were not short-changed.  Peter Selwyn in the pit successfully managed to produce the sonorous sounds heard at Bayreuth with some glorious playing from the Orpheus Sinfonia.

Siegfried as an opera is a relatively straight-forward tale.  Siegfried is the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde and has grown up – raised by the nasty dwarf, Mime.  Siegfried forges anew the fragments of his father’s shattered sword, Nothung.  Mime longs to have as his own the ring and the gold that are now guarded by the giant Fafner, who has now become a dragon.  Siegfried manages to slay Fafner, taking with him the ring and the magic helmet, the Tarnhelm.  Realising that Mime intends to do him harm, Siegfried kills Mime.  As the hero who knows no fear, Siegfried is able to penetrate the magic fire that surrounds Brünnhilde, who had been put to sleep as punishment by her father Wotan – she can be wakened only by a fearless hero.  When Siegfried kisses her, she awakens as a mortal woman (no longer a goddess).  They fall ecstatically in love.

Unfortunately, Wagner had to stop writing Siegfried after the first two acts.  It’s very likely to have been ongoing financial troubles forcing him to take a break from writing the opera – one that lasted an astonishing twelve years.  When he finally returned to Siegfried, he was simply a different composer.  The ground-breaking harmonic and rhythmic structures he’d developed whilst writing Tristan und Isolde – one of the most influential compositions in the history of music – had carved a permanent place in Wagner’s creative imagination.  British musicologist Derrick Puffett says, “When listening to Act Three of Siegfried we sometimes wonder if we are listening to Tristan und Isolde instead”.  The musical expression in Tristan und Isolde is the familiar stock of leitmotifs, incomparably intensified through their contact with Wagner’s new harmonic language.  In their magnificently comprehensive text A History of Opera, Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker wrote that “Wagner’s taste in harmonies and sonorities grew stranger and more complex in the 1860s and 1870s.”

Casting any Wagner opera can be a challenge, but one of the strengths of Grimeborn Opera Festival and artistic director Mehmet Ergen at the Arcola Theatre is churning out high calibre artists, in this case ones on the brink of their careers or those who are more established.  At this performance we were fortunate to have a great cast all carefully chosen to fit the bill.  Outstanding among whom was Paul Carey-Jones as Wotan.  His effortless voice has a superb, rich quality with faultless diction and delivery – let’s hope we get to hear Carey-Jones at the major houses soon.

Lee Bisset as Brünnhilde was equal in calibre.  In Siegfried, she only appears for the last seventeen minutes, but it was worth the wait.  She is a voluptuous singer who showed agility and flexibility not only vocally but physically with what appeared to be a downward dog at her awakening.

The title role has an unforgiving task with soaring stratospheric vocal lines to deal with.  Neal Cooper certainly has all the makings of a true Heldentenor with looks and stature to match.  I can’t help but guess Wagner disliked tenors.  His “Nothung! Nothung, neidliches Schwert” encouraged one audience member to shout “Bravo” from her seat, much to our surprise.  He showed all his boyish charm and courage, though the character never really sees the big picture and remains somewhat ignorant throughout the entire cycle.

Julia Burbach’s imaginative production made clever use of the multi-layered set designed by Bettina John.  As Burbach rightly says, opera explores what it is to be human through storytelling; and this was no exception.  Graham Vick endorsed this idea and having had the privilege of working with him in the mid-80s during my singing career, his passion and dedication that opera can change people’s lives for the better is what Burbach achieved at this performance.  As we watched from the grandeur of the auditorium, the vast stage area of the Hackney Empire was utilised with smart precision.  The lighting design by Robert Price was impressive with colourful strobe lights symbolising aspects of Wagner’s mythical and magical and mostly dark world – not a place for beginners! 

I look forward to hearing more from this cast and the creatives.  They certainly deserve recognition.

Helen Astrid, August 2022

Photography by Alex Brenner

From → Hackney Empire, Opera

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