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Grimborn Festival brings Bayreuth to Bethnal Green for the conclusion of their Ring Cycle


Any staging of a Ring Cycle is ambitious for both audiences and creatives. The first one in 1876 almost bankrupted Wagner himself. Audiences can be made to sit for hours by sadistic directors in the name of bladder busting dedication to Wagnerian musical purity.

Grimeborn's hugely ambitious Ring Cycle started in 2019 with Das Rhinegold. Last year saw Die Valkyrie take flight. Now a double bill of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung brings Bayreuth back to Bethnal Green.

Director Julia Burbach must be applauded for her aspiration. Her Siegfried and Götterdämmerung are presented together as the conclusion to Wagner's epic Ring Cycle. Everything has understandably been stripped back, even the score has been boiled down to its essentials; usually orchestrated for a hundred strong orchestra, here battle commences with a mere eighteen musicians. The aural landscape is expectedly squished down, but it does allow the orchestra to be nimbler, darting from one motif to another.

Peter Selwyn conducts the Orpheus Sinfonia to maintain a crisp dynamism throughout. Yet in prioritising breadth over depth there is an inevitable occasional lack of definition, especially towards the end of Götterdämmerung. In their defence, the double bill is a marathon not a sprint, and stumbling through the occasional bar is a small price to pay for for keeping the pace flowing like the Rhine.

The score is not the only thing that feels skeletal. Burbach's staging is stratified across levels by an ugly metal labyrinth of platforms and rails. It leaves performers scurrying around it like mice. Perhaps there is something to be said about how the characters are trapped in one way or another; Brünnhilde, played by a gorgeously defiant Lee Bisset, is literally imprisoned in a circle of flames and Siegfried is arguably doomed by fate and prophesy. But regardless of what the central concept is, it is still messy.

Whilst the stripped back set is an eyesore for the most part, it draws attention to crucial images that could risk disappearing in a more garnished production. Take the overall portrait of Siegfried's journey of Wagnerian self-discovery. He is able to literally ascend, thanks to the stage's vertical layering, rising from Mime's murky subterranean cave choked by smoke and fiery orange light to the uncluttered height of Brunnhilde's bright alpine mountain. Or his interaction with the Rhine maidens in Götterdämmerung, bathed in icy blue light beneath him.

The stripped-back aesthetic does have its downsides. Whilst all the vocal performances are strong, not enough attention has been given to the physical performances. Movement is crumbly, often rendered without precision; Paul Carey Jones's chocolatey vocal performance as Wotan is rich and alluring. But Wotan's magisterial quality is nowhere to be found other than in the music. Neal Cooper's Siegfried holds his own with a confident vocal performance. But both he and Mark Le Brocq, who replaces him in Götterdämmerung, scamper around the stage without any nuance, giving their Siegfried's a skittish adolescent quality.

Burbach's production succeeds in finding the core of what makes Wagner so enthralling. But without the theatrical flesh to bulk up this bare-bones production, the spectacle that makes the Ring Cycle so awe-inspiring is missing. It works for those who want a taste of Bayreuth. Just don't go expecting the whole cake.

Siegfried and Götterdämmerung plays at Hackney Empire until 7 August

Photo Credit: Alex Brenner


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