Wagnerites don’t need to make the pilgrimage to Bayreuth for their fix this summer. And even if you do schlep up to the Green Hill, there is no staged Ring cycle this year anyway, with Valentin Schwarz’s new production bumped to 2022. In London, Grimeborn – a fringe opera festival in Dalston with big ambitions – resumed its own Ring, directed by Julia Burbach. Delayed a year by the pandemic, it moves up the road from the converted warehouse that is the tiny Arcola Theatre to Frank Matcham’s beautiful music hall, the Hackney Empire, for Die Walküre.

Mark Stone (Wotan) and Laure Meloy (Brünnhilde)
© Alex Brenner | Arcola, Hackney Empire

Last weekend, Birmingham Opera presented its new “RhineGold”, a tribute to its trailblazing director Graham Vick, who had died a fortnight earlier. Vick and composer Jonathan Dove created their pocket-sized Ring – abridged to ten hours – for City of Birmingham Touring Opera which premiered in 1990. It is this reduction that is being used by Grimeborn. Reduction is a loaded word, implying a diminishment, but their filleting – losing about an hour of Wagner’s score – is so deft, Dove’s orchestral arrangement – for just 18 players – so skilful, that there is little sense of loss. If anything, this reduction intensifies the experience. 

That intensity would have been more keenly felt in the Arcola, where performers almost clambered over the audience during Burbach’s cardboard city Rheingold in 2019, but the German director tamed the wide expanses of the Hackney Empire stage to focus the action tautly. She sets the opera in what looks like a warehouse or the backstage of a theatre, Bettina John’s set full of rigging, metal trunks and chains. A couple of sofas suffice to suggest the domestic setting of Hunding’s hut. Robert Price’s dramatic lighting helped build the tension, from the arrival of spring to the spotlight that kept eluding Wotan’s attempts to pin down his argument to the glowing Magic Fire of the finale.

Mark Stone (Wotan)
© Alex Brenner | Arcola, Hackney Empire

Peter Selwyn conducted sympathetically. The Orpheus Sinfonia, a young orchestra, sometimes struggled to keep up with Wagner’s demands. There was a sense of ensemble playing at the very limits of its capabilities, an heroic effort that only added to the dramatic tension. 

Wotan is at the centre of Burbach’s vision. From a high platform, the god observes the events of what is traditionally Act 1 (the evening is split into two acts, the interval coming before Act 2 scene 3), almost willing Siegmund to draw Nothung (the sword here a metal bar) from the rigging. Mark Stone’s baritone demonstrated plenty of heft, projecting Wotan’s rage viscerally. Up against Harriet Williams’ vitriolic Fricka, Stone’s Wotan seemed easily brow-beaten, utterly defeated from the off. Burbach really dug into the god’s relationship with his favourite valkyrie daughter, Brünnhilde, and his long narration detailing the backstory of Alberich’s ring – a snorefest in some productions – was magnetically delivered, the orchestra providing all the motifs to illustrate his narrative thread. Stone had plenty in reserve to deliver Wotan’s long farewell to his daughter powerfully. Laure Meloy’s feisty Brünnhilde was just as superb, her “hojotohos” ringing out rebelliously. But it was that relationship with Stone’s Wotan which was at the heart of this staging, questioning his decision-making, daring to challenge him.

Natasha Jouhl (Sieglinde) and Finnur Bjarnason (Siegmund)
© Alex Brenner | Arcola, Hackney Empire

The chamber textures of Dove’s arrangement help lighter singers take on roles that they may not yet tackle when pitted against a full orchestra. Finnur Bjarnason is far from being a Heldentenor, but the vulnerability he brought to Siegmund was touching (Selwyn’s swift tempi for Siegmund’s “Winterstürme” helped him), as was Natasha Jouhl’s fragile, tender Sieglinde. Jouhl sang a wonderful Cio-Cio San for Grimeborn in 2015 and it was good to hear her again, rising to the challenge of “O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichste Maid!” movingly. Simon Wilding was a particularly brutish Hunding, his dark bass rasping at Sieglinde angrily. Elizabeth Karani, Bethan Langford and Katie Stevenson were lively valkyries – just a trio of Brünni’s sisters here – whooping up their riotous ride on three swings.

Bethan Langford (Waltraute), Elizabeth Karani (Helmwige) and Katie Stevenson (Roßweiße)
© Alex Brenner | Arcola, Hackney Empire

Burbach’s production could easily tour. Put together in just 19 days, this Walküre is a remarkably plucky achievement and one has to admire the ambition in bringing a bit of Bayreuth to this corner of London.