Last Updated on 15th August 2022
Tim Hochstrasser reviews Arcola’s Siegfried & Götterdämmerung, part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Hackney Empire.
Siegfried & Götterdämmerung
6 August 2022
The Arcola Theatre began its Ring cycle before the pandemic, and it has now come to a triumphant conclusion, a vindication not just for the production team but also for the abridged version of The Ring created by Graham Vick and Jonathan Dove. No one would seriously attempt putting on the full versions of the last two operas in a single day, but with the running time now taken down to two hours and two hours forty-five minutes respectively, it is more than manageable. Suddenly you can appreciate the full sweep of Siegfried’s life. The removal of the sections of retrospective plot summary, which Wagner introduced on the assumption that the audience would not be familiar with the other parts, frees up everyone on stage to act and sing in the moment. Dramatic momentum is returned to the story without any loss of depth in characterisation.
The same positive results apply to the music. With under twenty players in the pit, you begin by thinking that this really cannot work. But once you adjust to the sound the results are joyful. The balance between players and singers is restored which allows for real moments of relaxed intimacy quite apart from reducing the vocal strain on the lead singers. Yes, that inner string shimmer that Wagner created with all those viola lines is missing but instead, you hear all sorts of instrumental solos bubbling to the surface that usually are buried in the overall orchestral soup. Sometimes the edits between scenes are too sharp for my taste – I would have liked more of the orchestral transitions preserved, not least because the art of transition was one at which the composer truly excelled in a proto-cinematic way. But the essence is preserved, thanks to the skills of the Orpheus Sinfonia and their subtle conductor, Peter Selwyn.
The faded pomp and bling of the Hackney Empire itself is emblematic of the dubious grandiosity of Valhalla, so there was no need to have literalism in the staging. Instead, and drawing on the set from the preceding Walküre, we have a scaffolding structure with numerous platforms set at different levels. This has the advantage of facilitating protracted entrances and exits, always a feature in Wagner operas, while also allowing characters multiple vantage points for singing. In Siegfried the set was strewn with the detritus of Mime’s cave, and cardboard boxes did service for the gold piled up in Fafner’s cave. Shabby furniture supplied an appropriate bourgeois setting for the aspirant Gibichungs. The special effects were more hit and miss – vertical strip lighting descended from the flies at points to provide a sense of location – green for the forest, red for the magic fire, and a variety of colours for the end of the world. This was economical and effective. Likewise, Fafner, the dragon, here presented as a central figure with a range of avatars. However, the forging of the sword, always hard to bring off even in productions with ample budgets, seemed more like heating chestnuts on a brazier.
The Ring is sometimes described as like a symphony in four movements with Siegfried as the scherzo. This is the first production where I have found this comparison plausible. We have the energy and dynamism of youth, the exquisite evocation of the forest coming to life, the defeat of both the dragon and Wotan and finally the conquest of the magic fire and the waking of Brünnhilde. This all flowed effortlessly forward with no application of the dramatic brakes, an exhilarating experience to be part of. Of course, none of this would work without the vocal and acting skills of the cast: in the title role Neal Cooper kept his energy and innocence blazing through to the end, finding more layers than is usual in this role. Colin Judson really sung the role of Mime and let us feel his legitimate frustrations as much as his low cunning. In the central sections, the sumptuous voice of Paul Carey Jones conveyed the gravity of the Wanderer’s purpose but also his less admirable desire to manipulate and have fun at the other characters’ expense. You can therefore understand fully why Siegfried brushes him to one side with impatience, something that does not always come across well in performance. Freddie Tong, playing Alberich in both operas, was incisive and menacing, and Elizabeth Karani fluttered confidently through the tricky melismatic writing for the Woodbird. Simon Wilding found sensitivity and regret in Fafner’s final words, and Mae Heydorn, fighting her way through yards of peachy gauze, stood up eloquently to the Wanderer in their key confrontation that determines the outcome of the drama. This was the most intense, concentrated moment in the opera, and rightly so.
Sadly, but inevitably shaved of the Norns, Götterdämmerung focused very much on Siegfried’s betrayal of Brünnhilde and ingratiation with the Gibichung clan. We had a new Siegfried – Mark le Brocq – who was – rightly – older and more worldly from the start, and crucially vocally fresh for the demands ahead. Lee Bisset as Brünnhilde forced her tone too hard in the earlier scenes but relaxed into the role to give a commanding yet also intimate rendition of the culminating immolation scene. Simon Wilding returned to give a superb performance as Hagen, full of subtle, insinuating menace. Simon Thorpe projected Gunther’s dim-witted bluster very effectively, and Lucy Anderson made more of the under-written part of Gutrune than usual. Perhaps my favourite scene, totally gripping from start to finish, was the confrontation between Brünnhilde and Waltraute, where Angharad Lyddon made the most of the last opportunity to divert the catastrophic denouement – all the themes of The Ring, from the practice of deceit through to the prospect of redemption were enacted here.
Director Julia Burbach and her creative team deserve huge credit for steering this complex project through to a successful conclusion. They have truly punched above their budget in a wholly memorable way and have vindicated this performing version in a way that should, one hopes, lead to many further productions, which can only be good for appreciation and understanding of Wagner, whatever the purists may say.