Wagner’s Die Walküre, Secret Opera

Secret Opera’s Die Walküre at King’s College Chapel on the Strand was already the subject of some anticipation from all who had seen their reasonably successful Das Rheingold the week before; but this performance exceeded even my own hopes, with a superb pair of star-crossed lovers, a wonderfully sung Wotan (voiced last-minute from the wings by Ian Wilson-Pope), and Zoe South’s characteristically vibrant Brünnhilde. Richard Black once again excelled himself at the piano, his mellifluous touch painting the flowing colours of Winterstürme, with a sparkling account of Wagner’s famous Magic Fire music to close, as Brünnhilde fell into her enchanted sleep upon the lonely mountain – here, in Billie Achilleos’ bare-bones staging, just a chair in front of the altar. Indeed, some of us had been looking forward to this ever since the wonderfully intense preview (of just Act 1 and the final scene) last September at the Rosemary Branch, where the tiny attic theatre space had almost exploded with the sound of Wotan’s agonised fury.

Die Walküre is the most up close and personal phase of the Ring: a plot full of tortured family relationships, lost children, and passionate, doomed love which eventually gives birth to Siegfried, the world’s greatest hero and Wagner’s original, and ultimate, inspiration for the entire work. If Rheingold is Loge’s opera, Walküre is indisputably Wotan’s, the part of the cycle where he tells his own story, explains his thinking, and contemplates the end of the universe which, since spending time with the Wala, Erda, after the events of Das Rheingold, he has begun to realise must take place. All the action throughout the four hours relates directly to Wotan; indeed, to his frustration, he finds everything in creation is irrefutably his own (“den Freien erlang’ ich mir nicht!” – in this translation, “I create only slaves!”). It was therefore the greatest of treats to have Ian Wilson-Pope singing Wotan, whose smooth, thoughtful and beautifully enunciated account practically gave us a guided tour of the god’s darkening mind. While the strength and clarity of Wilson-Pope’s bass-baritone brought Wotan’s character and thoughts to life, Stephen Holloway silently mimed Wotan’s actions on stage, and here Holloway’s natural tendency towards stillness and gravity sat better on a character whose mind is, after all, turning towards the philosophical wall.

Brian Smith Walters constantly impressed as a virile yet sensitive Siegmund, proud of his warrior heritage but vulnerably confused about his own past, his father’s fate, and his lost sister, while Cecilia Bailey made a passionate, intelligent, hugely affecting Sieglinde. Their key love duet, the long, demanding Winterstürme, saw Bailey take the edge musically, singing with warm and consistent energy to create astonishing volume at times, while Smith Walters could just run out of steam towards his ends of his phrases, which grew occasionally ragged; but after the interval, Smith Walters returned to argue the value of love over immortality with Brünnhilde, and battle Hunding, in fine vocal form. Both Siegmund and Sieglinde were given blindfolds, which they periodically removed and used to bind their hands, or create a bond between them: a beautiful idea, in practice the constant tying and untying of blindfolds became something of a distraction on stage. Ideas of kinship and twinship, expressed by their matching and mirroring physical gestures, came across well, but again, a slightly fussy one-handed salute (which was only completed by their standing together) grew to feel a little gimmicky as it was repeated. Wagner has already installed so many signs and symbols in the twins’ recognition scene, itself directly based on (and referencing) the crucial recognition scene between Orestes and Elektra at the opening of Aeschylus’ Choephoroe, that adding further layers here can feel like gilding the lily. Thankfully, the most important aspect of their reunion, their mutual attraction and building sexual tension, was cracklingly apparent throughout.

As Hunding, David Ubaka looked ferociously convincing in a terrifying white mask, leather jerkin and long feather earring, oozing malice, glowering at his wife and guest alike. Ubaka gave a good account of Hunding, singing with more confidence than his Donner last week, but still, you feel Ubaka is an even better singer than he gives himself credit for, with his attractive bass just slightly lacking in punch.

This was the third time I have seen Zoë South sing Brünnhilde, a role she delivers with intent energy. This time, I felt South’s Brünnhilde was more in grief than in anger, heartstricken by her demotion from the gods, and sorrowing at her eternal separation from her father, Wotan. Occasionally South’s acting faltered, her focus this time more purely musical, which was a pity as she can definitely produce a fully rounded Brünnhilde in other circumstances. Nevertheless, it was an inspiring encounter with Wagner’s great heroine.

Our host of Valkyries included the excellent Jemma Brown as Waltraute, her rich mezzo standing out in the crowd. The Valkyries in general suffered most from odd staging decisions: each was given a dark grey skull’s jaw to pull red material through, which didn’t seem to be a hero and definitely wasn’t a horse, and as Wotan approached in anger they remained in a generally static group, gawping at their sister rather than clustering around or shrinking from her. Pasteboard signs with their “hero tally” was an amusing touch, but again grew fussy as they were continually held aloft, revolving to show each Valkyrie’s name. Altogether, despite the strong design statements of her Rheingold, Billie Achilleos seemed less inspired by Walküre, an opera brimming with fascinating juxtapositions and otherworldly scenes which, in this production, didn’t always get across. A large white cardboard tree, with black tracery to look like an illustration, did make an eyecatching backdrop to Hunding’s hut, which was simply a table with carved wooden cups. The knot of the tree, pleasingly Celtic in design, held a lifesized Notung, also white and outlined in black: though real, both tree and sword looked like sketched, theoretical props, referencing the pointed symbolism of Norse myth. This minimalism worked; but notably, the magic fire was merely represented by a single small candle lit by Wotan and placed on the sanctuary rail, despite the fact that two large and beautiful church candles, on striking metal stands, remained unlit either side of his sleeping Valkyrie daughter: like the journey to Nibelheim in Secret Opera’s Das Rheingold, it all felt like a missed opportunity. Wagner’s music calls ceaselessly for strong visual effects – as do his stage directions. Here, some minimalism felt not so much deliberate act as last-minute bodge. As one of my audience neighbours noted, a barrage of red balloons (given the success of her blue-balloon depiction of the Rhine) would have been an ideal way to create the circle of fire, with a strong visual nod to the companion Vorabend; hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Similarly, the costumes weren’t much to write home about, Hunding aside, with Wotan wearing (as before) a monocular torch over his darkened eye, here accessorised by a sequinned silver scarf (why?) and cowboy hat (presumably a nod to his Wanderer to come), while many other characters just got varieties on a theme of tunic, and the Valkyries’ smudgy coloured warpaint and colour-coordinated chiffon scarves would definitely have been better left off. Practical issues, like the subtitles being on a screen no higher than the singers, which meant sometimes a singer’s body would entirely obscure all words for half the audience, remained, and still the lighting seemed to be variations on a theme of ‘on’ or ‘off’. However, despite those glitches, the sheer musical and dramatic quality of those key principal roles ensured this was, nevertheless, a Walküre to remember.

Reviewed at King’s College Chapel, London on Saturday 14th November

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