Grimeborn 2019: Das Rheingold

For its centrepiece opera at the Grimeborn Festival this year, the Arcola
Theatre presented Julia Burbach’s staging of Graham Vick and Jonathan
Dove’s adaptation of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Peter Selwyn
conducted members of the Orpheus Sinfonia, with Paul Carey Jones as Wotan,
Marianne Vidal as Fricka, Seth Carico as Alberich, Kiandra Howarth as
Freia, Philip Sheffield as Loge, Harriet Williams as Erda, Dingle Yandell
and Andrew Tipple as Fafner and Fasolt, Kiandra Howarth, Claire
Barnett-Jones, Angharad Lyddon as the Rhinemaidens. Designs were by Bettina
John and lighting by Robert Price.

The adaptation reduces the opera to a swift 100 minutes, and whilst one
missed some of Wagner’s repetitions the result is still enormously
effective and has a paciness which suited the small space. Fitting 18
instrumentalists and 11 singers into the larger studio at the Arcola
Theatre is no mean feat. The orchestra was partially hidden, placed behind
a curtain at the back of the stage under the balcony in a space which
seemed to descend into the depths in a manner wonderfully analogous to the
narrative of Wagner’s poem.

A key to any performance of the Ring is the director’s conception
of who these people are: is this straight story telling about
Germanic/Norse gods, a take down of capitalism or what? Bettina John’s
imaginative set linked the balcony to the main playing area by a staircase
made of ‘cardboard boxes’, with elements of the Ring‘s iconography
drawn on them, and on the floor. This meant that the work opened with what
should have been the climax, the vision of the newly created Valhalla
(drawn onto boxes piled high on the balcony). The idea of creating it out
of the detritus around us, seemed to be central; Burbach’s programme note
says, ‘the story is triggered by a man stepping into a space that looks
like something one might find in a Dalston back alley’.

Thus, the opening of the opera wasn’t an evocation of the Rhine, but an
anonymous man (Seth Carico, who became Alberich) finding a cardboard box
full of figures and a pair of headphones and being transported into the
story. At the end he reappeared, still with his box of possessions. In
between, the logic of this back-story was less apparent. Burbach told the
story pretty straight, yet the modern updating and costumes meant that we
were unsure whether Paul Carey Jones highly effective Wotan was a Norse God
or a ego-maniacal capitalist in contemporary London.

Burbach drew strong and engaging performances from her cast, and performing
the piece in such an intimate space with such a cast really brought the
piece to life. This was a production which worked wonderfully well in terms
of interaction of character on a personal level, and anyone who had never
seen the opera before (and plenty of those of us who had) could not help
but be drawn in. The singers’ diction was excellent; it was easy to follow
the German, and there were surtitles, but I thought that singing the piece
in one of the good modern English translations was rather a missed
opportunity (I learned the Ring in Andrew Porter’s excellent

Where Burbach let us down slightly was in Wagner’s grander theatrical
moments. She seemed to struggle a bit to articulate the rather tricky
spaces of the Arcola. Whilst Harriet Williams first entry as Erda, from the
audience, was a coup, too many other moments seemed to fail to respond to
the music so that the descent into Nibelheim involved much walking around,
and for the entry of the Gods into Valhalla there was no rainbow bridge,
they simply slipped out of a side door! Similarly, Alberich’s
transformations relied, perhaps, too much on Seth Carico’s mime skills and
if you had never seen the piece before you may well have wondered what was
going on.

But these are the complaints of someone whose Ring experience
started with Goodall at the English National Opera, and the highly
theatrical first Goetz Friedrich Ring at Covent Garden. Burbach
and her cast did an excellent job of bringing Wagner’s story alive and
drawing us into these characters, aided by a very high level of singing and
instrumental playing.

Paul Carey Jones (the extremely camp Lescaut in Opera Holland Park’s recent
Puccini Manon Lescaut) will be playing Wotan in the full version
of the Ring at Longborough from 2021, and on this showing I can’t wait to
see him in the role. This was a wonderfully complete portrayal of Wotan as
egomaniac, truly self-absorbed in his vision. Carey Jones found an inner
strength in his voice, and in Wotan’s great pronouncements were wonderfully
magisterial, yet there was also a sense of his delusion and separation from
the realities of what was going on around him. Carey Jones paced himself
very well indeed, so that the final ‘Folge mir, Frau!’ was thrillingly
done, giving us the musical frisson that the staging lacked. As his wife,
Marianne Vidal (who is sharing the role in the run with Claire
Barnett-Jones) made an elegant Fricka, yet an effective opponent to Carey
Jones’ Wotan. The two made a handsome couple but Vidal certainly stood up
to him. Yet this was quite a warmly elegant portrayal, I have seen more
sardonic Frickas (both Helge Dernesch and Rosalind Plowright were wonderful
masters of the withering put down here). Physically Vidal was impressive
too, negotiating the tricky ‘cardboard box’ staircase in tall heels!

Philip Sheffield is an experience lyric tenor with a wide range of roles,
and dramatically he created a wonderful picture of Loge as the wily eternal
trickster. There was less sense of him being an outsider here, Sheffield
was dressed similarly to Carey Jones, with no identification with fire.
Instead we had the tricksy businessman, who could be seductive too!
Unfortunately, Sheffield’s voice rather let him down, it had a tendency to
dryness in the upper register and he sometimes rather barked the role. Loge
is an heroic part (the first Loge was Heinrich Vogl who was a notable
Siegmund, Siegfried and Tristan), this rather shows the trickiness in
casting the role in a reduced version of the opera. Here Sheffield held our
attention, thanks mainly to his dramatic skills.

Seth Carico was the lynchpin of the drama, beginning and ending it, and
whilst you might quail at the identification of a homeless man with
Wagner’s Nibelung dwarf, Carico was impressive in the sheer physicality of
his performance. Not that he threw himself around, but this was a
performance which embodied Alberich both vocally and in terms of body
language and expression. It was a complete performance that certainly made
the character vivid in the small spaces. Carico found a strength in his
voice for Alberich’s curse in the first scene, but by the end he was
starting to tire. Whilst Dove’s orchestration means that the piece can be
cast from lighter voices, they still need the stamina, even in this cut
version Alberich is a long role. But Cario impressed to the end, making the
most of his resources and giving us a vivid account of the role. This seems
to be the first major Wagner that he has done, and if he can build on it he
has the makings of a very fine Alberich indeed.

Dingle Yandell and Andrew Tipple as Fafner and Fasolt were workmen plain
and simple, there was nothing giant-ish about them though Yandell certainly
used his impressive height to great physical effect in the performance.
Yandell aptly conveyed Fafner’s growing obsession with the Ring, whilst
Tipple’s very human Fasolt remained enamored of Freia.

Kiandra Howarth doubled as the Rhinemaiden Woglinde and Freia (which
perhaps explains why the gods entry into Valhalla was fudged, it wouldn’t
have been possible for Howarth to be in two places!). She made an appealing
Freia, warm and maidenly. Howarth, Angharad Lyddon and Claire Barnett-Jones
made a delightful trio of Rhinemaidens, rather sexy and teasing with a
lovely blend in their singing.

There is no Froh in this version, but Gareth Brynmor John as Donner
impressively fulfilled the dramatic requirements as Fricka’s brother,
standing up for his sisters’ rights, and this fine performance was crowned
by a truly thrilling and highly musical account of Donner’s summoning of a
storm (a great example of how Wagner could crown such theatrical moments
with a rattling good tune). Harriet Williams was a stunning Erda, certainly
living up to her striking entry standing up from the audience. This was a
focused, dramatic and resonant account of Erda’s warning, thrilling and
commanding and I certainly wanted to hear more of her.

In the pit, largely hidden from view, the 18 members of the Orpheus
Sinfonia did wonders under Peter Selwyn’s expert direction. Dove’s
orchestration is wonderful for the way he manages to suggest the fuller
version, and there were many incidental instrumental felicities once a few
uncertainties had been ironed out. Selwyn was expert at keep his disparate
ensemble together in a situation where few of the soloists could see him
directly. The result was a pacey affair, entirely apt for the space and the

This production was a terrific achievement, and I am sure it will develop
and broaden as the run progresses (there are a total of eight performances
until 9 August 2019). I suppose it is too much to hope for that we might
get more of the tetralogy in future years!

Robert Hugill

Wagner: Das Rheingold

Wotan – Paul Carey Jones, Wellgunde – Claire Barnett-Jones, Donner – Gareth
Brynmor John, Alberich – Seth Carico, Freia/Woglinde – Kiandra Howarth,
Flosshilde – Angharad Lyddon, Loge – Philip Sheffield, Fasolt – Andrew
Tipple, Fricka – Marianne Vidal, Erda – Harriet Williams, Fafner – Dingle
Yandell; Director – Julia Burbach, Conductor – Peter Selwyn, Designer – Bettina
John, Orpheus Sinfonia.

Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre, London; Wednesday 31st
July 2019.

product_title=Grimeborn 2019 at the Arcola Theatre: Das Rheingold
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=Above: Das Rheingold at the Arcola Theatre

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli