Die Walküre

Stephen Barlow
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
29 June 2017
Theatre in the Woods West Horsley Place
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegmundBryan Register
HundingAlan Ewing
WotanThomas Hall
SieglindeClaire Rutter
BrünnhildeJane Dutton
FrickaSara Fulgoni
HelmwigeMari Wyn Williams
GerhildeTanya Hurst
OrtlindeBecca Marriott
WaltrauteAnne-Marie Owens
SiegruneLauren Easton
GrimgerdeGemma Morsley
SchwertleiteMorag Boyle
RoßweißeFelicity Buckland

Stephen Medcalf has set Grange Park Opera’s new Die Walküre – the company’s first foray into ‘Ring’ territory – in the museum-standard collection of a grand bourgeois German house around the time of the opera’s first performance in 1870 (defined by the picture of Wilhelm I’s coronation as Emperor of a unified Germany). With the cycle’s totems and regalia – the ring itself, trinkets from the Nibelung hoard, Nothung, the preserved trunk of the world ash tree, Wotan’s spear – safely contained in display cases, there seems to be sufficient distance to get a dispassionate view of ancient myth in Wagner’s enlightened times. But the past, as Wagner knew, simply will keep reinventing itself.

This is very much a director’s staging, but one that Medcalf has applied with great imagination, lightness of touch and many a moment of sly humour. Jamie Vartan’s fixed, elegant set of a large room with a raised gallery is brilliantly informed in terms of décor and costumes, is probably the grandest design I’ve seen at Grange Park, and it sits majestically on the new house’s stage. With its iron pillars, grand glass cabinets and solid furniture, the various interiors exude late-nineteenth-century German confidence, which, as we know, will be unpicked within a few decades. Just as significantly, the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde’s incestuous love seems like a psychoanalytical case study of a neurotic, middle-class woman’s erotic fantasies; she is stuck in a loveless marriage to a prissy, manipulative husband, and gets what she dreams of with the half-savage Siegmund – the image of the fur-clad demigod, barging into the house’s inner sanctum like a heat-seeking missile doesn’t mince its Freudian sexual symbolism.

Bourgeois certainties are threatened even more effectively in the Wotan-Fricka confrontation of Act Two, an uneasy balancing of habit and affection versus long- and short-term moralities. This scene, with its outstanding observance of the couple’s civilised arguments over outraged proprieties being overwhelmed by Wotan’s primal despair, gets straight to the heart of Medcalf’s concept, and with Wotan’s musing to himself through Brünnhilde as the extension of his ego, Act Two evolves into a truly gripping piece of theatre.

Grange Park Opera’s production of Wagner’s Die Walküre Photograph: Twitter @GrangeParkOpera In a staging that bends a huge, elemental creation-myth to fit more confining sensibilities, Medcalf has drawn the Wotan-Brünnhilde/father-daughter relationship with particular insight. The warrior-goddess may now be just a jolly, horsey girl, but her humanity comes to the fore in her announcement of Siegmund’s death. The post-dinner-interval ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ has the eight girls, dressed in military uniform with ultra-Teutonic spiked helmets, stepping out of their display cabinets and tossing hero-sized bloody sacks around with great merriment, and their love of Brünnhilde and fear of Wotan was staged, once again, with impressive vitality, and they are formidable. There is another element, involving a museum curator and a maid (both silent, apart from a shriek at one seminal point from the latter), that looks back to Das Rheingold and forward to the rest of the cycle in a way that makes you think wistfully what a success Medcalf and Vartan could have on their hands with this tetralogy.

The singers are strongly cast. Bryan Register looks tough but vulnerable as Siegmund, and the soft baritone grain of his tenor suits the solemn ‘Todesverkündigung’ music beautifully. Claire Rutter, a nervy, compulsive Sieglinde, has the necessary gleam and penetration for an ardent ‘Du bist der Lenz’, and although she went a bit awry with the detail of the climactic ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ its spirit was undeniable, as was the chemistry between the two of them. Alan Ewing, dressed in Bavarian hunting-gear more, you feel, for fashion than rural action, gives an incisive portrait of a narrow, controlling, closet-sadist Hunding, and Sara Fulgoni sings and acts magnificently as Fricka in a handsome, tailored riding habit.

Thomas Hall, Wotan in a velvet smoking-jacket, is every inch the compromised visionary and sustains the god’s big monologues with tireless authority, his ‘Leb’ wohl’ hitting the emotional spot. Similarly, Jane Dutton’s Brünnhilde seems completely at ease with the production and was at her considerable best in the Act Two scene with Siegmund.

There were moments when I longed for more volume and weight from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at the big moments, and Stephen Barlow kept the relationship between pit and stage at the same level throughout. The final scene, with Brünnhilde surrounded by a ring of fire and Caspar David Friedrich’s sublime mountain paintings, added one more pregnant visual component to suggest that this Walküre is a ‘Ring’ cycle in progress – if only it were.

Peter Reed | June 29, 2017


Museum piece? Stephen Medcalf offers an intriguing Walküre at Grange Park Opera

The Theatre in the Woods, like Valhalla, awaits completion. It is an astonishing feat to have a building ready for public performances a mere eleven months after work began but exposed brickwork and an absence of carpeting tell us that this is still a work in progress. The same could hardly be said of Stephen Medcalf’s new staging of Die Walküre, with designs by Jamie Vartan, a high concept affair, which arrives on the Grange Park Opera stage underpinned by a through line that would suffice for a whole Ring cycle. Medcalf locates the action in pre-WW1 Imperial Germany (a popular timeframe, currently, for Wagner dramaturgy), more specifically in the trophy and breakfast rooms of a haut bourgeois household, complete with intriguing butler and maid, who aren’t all they at first appear to be. Indeed, the mini-drama played out in dumb show between these two apparently non-textual characters works as a counterpoint to the main action (to say any more would be to spoil the surprise ending).

Medcalf’s idea is variably successful but confidently executed: trophy room glass display cases and glassy-eyed stuffed animals had an inhibiting effect on Act 1, with Bryan Register’s bucolic Siegmund confronting Alan Ewing’s ramrod-backed Hunding in sepulchral half-light. It is a relief when spring intervenes in the form of increased wattage from the lighting rig and Claire Rutter’s gloriously sung “Du bist der Lenz”. In Act 2, we meet Thomas Hall’s Wotan, an ex-military paterfamilias in vermillion smoking jacket and Jane Dutton’s Brünnhilde, a rollicking Hooray Henrietta dashing down her morning coffee prior to a spot of equitation. Far from being the eye-rolling non-event this description suggests, it makes for an arresting and – yes! – genuinely funny moment: Medcalf has located a strain of humour in the text without sending it up. But it is in the Wotan—Fricka confrontation that his concept really crackles into dramatic life: beginning in the vein of domestic comedy established in the first scene, it gradually becomes a powerful depiction of two people arguing across a moral chasm. Wotan, for all his faults, finds himself tied to a woman who is in every way his inferior, who has not developed morally or intellectually since the early days of their marriage and whose brutal but clear-eyed insistence on ‘what’s proper’ torpedoes his more nuanced advocacy of ‘what’s right’. In a quite superb portrayal, Sara Fulgoni, done up in Lincoln green like the formidable W.I. Monster Fricka might have been, relishes the compelling narrowness of this unlovely character.

If the Valhalla section of Act 2 was a triumph, the second half was less successful, if only because the breakfast room with its heavy Deal table and stairways made an awkward setting for the battle between Siegmund and Hunding. But it didn’t hinder Dutton and Register from delivering a Todesverkündigung of accumulative power and poignancy, or prevent Rutter from a most convincing portrayal of Sieglinde’s delirium.

In Act 3, the Valkyries themselves are the occupants of the glass cases, coming to life as their Ride gets into its stride. Directors have little choice but to ignore Wagner’s impossible to realise stage directions requiring real horses, but the choice of bloodied sacks to represent the dead heroes was visually striking and well choreographed. The long final confrontation between Wotan and Brünnhilde (as representatives of Order and Instinct respectively) saw Hall and Dutton deepening their characterisations, demonstrating just how far this father and daughter have travelled during the course of the evening. The cliffhanger ending had me primed for Medcalf’s production of Siegfried (not programmed, but I can dream…).

After a stormy prelude that was a little too polite, Stephen Barlow and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra gave a sensitive account of the score, hardly ever overwhelming the singers and giving appropriate weight to Wagner’s longer (and shorter) paragraphs. On this evidence, a complete Ring from the Barlow/Medcalf/Vartan team would be an enticing prospect.

Richard Ely | 30 Juni 2017

The Stage

In need of more energy

Grange Park Opera is nothing if not adventurous. Just three weeks after it moves into a newly built theatre at a new venue, it takes aim at the second segment of Wagner’s Ring – the ultimate challenge in the entire standard repertoire.

Jamie Vartan’s designs present images from the period of German nationalism of Wagner’s own day, including a famous painting depicting the first German Emperor, Wilhelm I, at his moment of triumph in 1871 – the year after Die Walkure’s premiere.

The first act resembles a small museum – a silent actor (Brian Smith Walters) is even credited in the new role of the Curator – containing exhibits from the natural world as well the few props the act requires, notably the sword Nothung, which Siegmund removes from a glass case rather than heroically drawing it from the canonical tree trunk rising through Hunding’s house. In the final act the magic fire with which Wotan encircles the sleeping Brunnhilde runs around the banister of the balcony above the room that forms the unit set.

Despite such striking images, the wholesale focus on one particular historical period limits a piece whose mythical narrative offers far wider and more complex resonances. Often a meticulous and detailed director, here Stephen Medcalf has created something far more generalised, painting Wagner’s in-depth psychology with the broadest of brush strokes.

Symptomatically, not enough of the German text comes over, while vocal performances are distinctly variable. Bryan Register’s Siegmund nevertheless suggests considerable potential in the role, while Thomas Hall’s Wotan, if hardly subtle, is grandly voiced. Claire Rutter’s Sieglinde and Alan Ewing’s Hunding are both solidly sung.

In the pit, meanwhile, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra sounds tentative, while Stephen Barlow’s conducting could do with more propulsive energy.

George Hall | Jun 30, 2017

Daily Mail

A rough night at the museum: This production of Walküre is backed by a magnificent orchestra but some unWagnerian voices let it down

Grange Park’s new La Scala mini-me auditorium passes another test with flying colours with this Walküre. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra sounds magnificent in Wotan’s Farewell and the Magic Fire Music. The sound from the pit is truly excellent.

And indeed, after a perhaps over-slow start to Act I, everything else is splendidly controlled by the conductor Stephen Barlow, whose Tristan Und Isolde at the old Grange was very good, and this Walküre even better.

Those among the cast with proper Wagnerian voices must surely find the new house’s excellent acoustics a pleasure to sing in. But, not surprisingly for an unsubsidised festival taking on one of opera’s most demanding pieces, not all of them do have such voices.

On the plus side, the American Thomas Hall’s Wotan is compelling both vocally and dramatically almost throughout, until he runs out of steam during his Farewell. Sara Fulgoni is an ear-catching Fricka, exuding real authority. Claire Rutter also supplies some much needed drama and passion during Act I, with her perhaps rather matronly Sieglinde.

However, the American tenor Bryan Register’s Siegmund is insipid. Sad, because, as I noted about his Tristan last year, he has a genuinely mellifluous voice for a Wagner tenor. But until he acquires some dramatic bite, he is simply not heroic enough on stage to scale the heights in these operas his voice deserves. Another American, Jane Dutton’s Brünnhilde, is a serious disappointment; it is obviously a severe trial for her to sing, and an even worse one for us to listen.

A variable cast is perhaps inevitable; a director like Stephen Medcalf is an own goal. The set is so like a Victorian museum that spending a night, or at least an evening, there I expected Ben Stiller to wander in at any moment. And it would have livened things up if he had!

Why a museum? A complex explanation is offered by the director in the programme book, but it was an unnecessary distraction throughout. Even worse, the director has invented a character – the Curator – who spends much of Act II raping a maid on the balcony. Totally gratuitous.

What is it about some of these opera directors and rape? It’s becoming an obsession; and surely something for him to talk through with his shrink, rather than share with his audience.

David Mellor | 8 July 2017

British Theatre Guide

Die Walküre was booked in long before the company had to up sticks and take up a new residence in Surrey. This Wagnerian epic is quite a challenge for any opera company—let alone one building a new home.

The second part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle comes in at around four hours of stage time—an endurance feat for artists and audience alike. There was certainly a feel of the principles pacing themselves, but, once they’d settled in, the standard of this fantastic team of performers grew and grew throughout the night. This was in tandem with Stephen Medcalf’s direction—it lacked energy in act I but again seemed to garner momentum throughout the evening.

Die Walküre takes place in single, grand, palatial room, the walls a rich red and ringed with a high balcony.

Coupled with David Plater’s sensitive lighting design, Jamie Vartan’s set effectively takes on mulitiple locations with minimal changes in props. In act I, we are in a museum; glass display cabinets house taxidermy, butterflies and large tree trunks. Medcalf focuses on the sense that Hunding and Wotan are collectors—and treat those around them as trophies.

Siegmund bursts into this room dripping with heavy furs and bringing a sense of a harsh winter outside the warmth of Hunding’s lavish domain. He and Sieglinde’s meeting captures the right sense of intrigue, a couple that cannot keep their eyes off one another.

Act I is all about an erotic love and, once Bryan Register (Siegmund) and Claire Rutter (Sielglinde) let rip, their passionate duet brings act I to an exciting end. Rutter really shines in this production, her excellent articualtion and quicksilver tone contains all the power required without becoming too approximate.

Act II moves to Valhalla, Wotan at home drinking tea around a vast dining table.

Thomas Hall (Wotan) and Sara Fulgoni (Fricka) work as a handsomely bickering married couple—Hall’s charming attempts to downplay his meddling coupled with Fulgoni’s powerful insistence. Hall’s following despair is powerfully covered as his rich baritone soars above the lush orchestration.

The second half of Die Walküre focuses largely on Wotan and Brünnhilde, again a brilliant dynamic. Jane Dutton (Brunnhilde) has excellent dramatic presence. She’s exciting to watch and brings a fresh, youthful energy to the stage as Wotan’s daughter, although sadly loses clarity of tone at the louder moments.

The ensemble opens act III with a vibrant chorus of “Hojotohos”, the Valkyries stepping out from display cabinets, proving to be more of Wotan’s trophies. The ensemble is on fine form, their presence bringing a boost in pace and energy.

The Bournemouth Symphony orchestra is conducted by Stephen Barlow, a combination often used by Grange Park Opera. Barlow paces this epic well, allowing room for the singers. He effectively manages the quieter moments, whilst drawing the drama from the well known set pieces. The Bournemouth Symphony is on fine form—the strings sound is full and has me tingling as they soar through Wagner’s more impassioned writing. The brass has more trouble, lacking a little in weight.

It seems they saved the best till last. With excellent casting, this exciting and imaginatively staged Die Walküre proves to be the most thrilling production of Grange Park’s summer season.

Louise Lewis

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 48.0 kHz, 526 MByte (MP3)
In-house recording
A production by Stephen Medcalf (premiere)