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Grimeborn Die Walküre at Hackney Empire review: Slimmed and trimmed but just as exhilarating

·3 min read
Bethan Langford, Elizabeth Karani and Katie Stevenson as the Valkryies (Alex Brenner)
Bethan Langford, Elizabeth Karani and Katie Stevenson as the Valkryies (Alex Brenner)

The historic Hackney Empire, closed for the last 16 months, reopened last night with a truncated version of Wagner’s Die Walküre as part of the Grimeborn 2021 season. Bearing the faintly comical warning (considering this is Wagner opera) of loud noises and scenes of violence – why no mention of the domestic abuse and incest? – this production is a revival of that originally conceived by the late, lamented director Graham Vick and composer Jonathan Dove for the City of Birmingham Touring Opera in the 1990s.

Not only is the length of the opera reduced in this three-hour version by roughly a quarter, but the scoring is radically slimmed down too, for a mere eighteen players: six string instruments as opposed to Wagner’s 64. But the damage is far less drastic than it sounds. Surprisingly little of real substance is excised (though Brünnhilde’s eight Valkyrie sisters are whittled down to three) and you would have to know the work pretty well to notice the stitches.

Natasha Jouhl and Finnur Bjarnason play Siegelinde and Siegmund (Alex Brenner)
Natasha Jouhl and Finnur Bjarnason play Siegelinde and Siegmund (Alex Brenner)

Moreover, so skilful is Dove’s orchestration that the ear easily adapts to the slimmed-down sonorities. Wagner’s textures are replete with passages for individual instruments anyway and such solos, occasionally reassigned to different instruments, were beautifully played here by members of the Orpheus Sinfonia. Yes, the rich upholstery of multiple strings is missed, but the exhilaration of the Ride of the Valkyries, for example, is cleverly replicated and time and again Dove finds ingenious solutions for his pruning.

Pursuing the theme of the Rheingold staged two summers ago by this company, which deployed cardboard boxes to evoke displacement, this Walküre, once again directed by Julia Burbach, with designs by Bettina John, substitutes iron gantries for (in Act I) the wooden hut of the coercive husband, Hunding, with its mighty ash tree in his front parlour. The dwelling in question does feature a comfy-looking sofa and chair though. The character of Hunding (sung here with suitable abrasiveness by Simon Wilding) may be rough-hewn but this one clearly has a hedonistic streak. At the height of their passion, the siblings Siegmund and Sieglinde stand, in their muddy boots, on the sofa, an act as offensive as it is precarious – never mind the incest.

Mark Stone is outstanding as Wotan (Alex Brenner)
Mark Stone is outstanding as Wotan (Alex Brenner)

Otherwise the production is discreet, with neither provocations nor real insights. But the cast is a strong one. Particularly outstanding is Mark Stone’s Wotan, who brings maximum tonal variety and animated articulation to his delivery: in his long narration he vibrantly relives the prior events of the theft of the gold and the forging of the ring. Laure Meloy’s Brünnhilde is impressively secure and the final scene for her and Wotan is deeply moving. Natasha Jouhl is a feisty, affecting Sieglinde and Finnur Bjarnason’s soft-grained Siegmund is attractive on the ear even if he needs to channel his inner superhero a bit more. Harriet Williams admirably conjures the indignation of Wotan’s long-suffering consort Fricka.

Barring a disjointed and lethargic opening scene, where in the absence of detailed character interaction, greater musical propulsion was needed, Peter Selwyn drew highly accomplished and subtly balanced playing from his select forces.

Hackney Empire, E8 on Friday and Saturday;

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