Fanta in the wilderness: Die Walküre at Hackney Empire
Arcola Theatre at Hackney Empire
Dress Circle D31, £60
7 August 2021
If you’d been thirsting for days and found a bottle of warm, flat Fanta, you would drink it and almost certainly enjoy it, even if before losing yourself in the desert you’d been accustomed to a daily glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. It’s not right to place opera as something that’s as important to life as water, nor is it really fair to compare Jonathan Dove to warm, flat Fanta, nor Wagner to orange juice; but nevertheless the analogy suggests itself. A chamber arrangement of Die Walküre, by anyone let alone by Jonathan Dove, would not be my first choice – but after months in the desert I can’t deny its intense quenching pleasure.
Hackney Empire is a big old place to fill and I feared for Grimeborn’s singers, but on the whole they did themselves proud. Most impressive was Mark Stone, always a reliable stalwart in smaller roles in larger opera companies and here a resounding and considered Wotan. The rest of the cast were as a piece several rungs below Stone in terms of volume and concentration of sound, but nevertheless they could all make all the notes (ok maybe not all, but almost all): a rare achievement for any performance of Die Walküre.
They were helped, of course, by the unusual smallness of the orchestra; and while I hold fast to that exquisite thirst-lifting delight it’s here that my ungrateful tongue starts complaining about the warm-ness and the flatness and the Fanta-y-ness. Why would someone make Fanta? And why would someone want a chamber version of the Ring cycle? And why would that person ask Jonathan Dove to do it? I should not be so mean about Dove; he’s a very competent musician and even I, whom his muse delights not, have enjoyed some of his music. But I think everyone would agree that there are many, many differences between Dove and Wagner. The bars that land on Dove’s cutting room floor include many that surely the average Wagner fan would tearfully beg to be saved.
Take the prelude. What a great piece of music! So tense, so exciting, so memorable, so enjoyable. And also so achievable with smaller forces; in fact with enough commitment to hair pins a string quartet could convey enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Surely this is a gift to the chamber arranger. But Dove, seemingly anxious for time, mercilessly cuts to Siegmund’s entrance after mere seconds. This brutality is a taste of things to come. Throughout Dove ruthlessly slashes like a psychopathic hairdresser, with a bloodthirsty butchery that even, horror of horrors, curtails the Act I finale and appends it to the beginning of Act II. I shuddered, and I shudder still.
Conductor Peter Selwyn and the Orpheus Sinfonia are as ok as they can be under such conditions. I mourn what was lost, I mourn the etiolation, I mourn the vile imbalance, I mourn the five slaughtered Valkyries and their lonely remaining sisters. All this mourning for the opera of the Ring cycle that, with its tight drama and recitative-rich structure, is likely most well suited to a chamber adaptation! Imagine the fuss I would make on seeing Götterdämmerung!
I’ll lay off Dove, at last, but only so I can lay into director Julia Burbach a little. Naively I think that Die Walküre probably isn’t that difficult an opera to stage and with an enabled cast can mostly look after itself; no doubt that’s nonsense but there are decisions Burbach makes that are surely objectively wrong. Inspired, perhaps, by Dove’s supreme callousness to the Act I finale, Burbach has the lovers briefly embrace and then clear away the furniture ready for the next scene. Perhaps a bleak commentary on the impact of pandemic-enforced domesticity on modern romance, or perhaps simply cloth-eared and soulless. Throughout there is various similar meddling that on the whole seems exclusively to result in awkward and confused-looking singers. Still, though. Much better than nothing.
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