Grimeborn Opera and Arcola Theatre brought their Ring cycle to completion by offering Siegfried and Götterdämmerung a few hours apart at the Hackney Empire. Siegfried had no interval, began at 3:30, and Brünnhilde was trading the final top notes of the work with her fearless hero at 5:25. She awoke beside him again at 7:30 and perished with him less than two hours and a half later. It made dramatic sense presented as a double bill, a Cav and Pag on the Rhine, but with – more Glyndebourne than Grimeborn – a  supper interval.

Neal Cooper (Siegfried) in Siegfried
© Alex Brenner

This is possible when the text is that of the shortened version by Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick, reducing the full 15-hour cycle to under ten hours. The Ring libretti have several moments when a character recalls events shown or narrated in an earlier drama. Trimming those and quite a few other passages can be done without impairing narrative coherence. In this Siegfried Mime is spared both the Wanderer’s three riddles and the forest colloquy with his “accursed brother”. In the closing duet, we lose the “Siegfried idyll” music, but that passage imparts no narrative information and the adaptation focuses on the heroic defiance of lachender Tod  (laughing death). 

Similarly in Götterdämmerung there is only a little of the Prologue (no Norns), and the action is focused on events in the Hall of the Gibichungs leading to Siegfried’s death and its aftermath. Siegfried loses much of both his Rhine Journey and his Funeral Music, and Hagen loses all but three of his vassals (and their jackbooted chorus). But the narrative is followed and the textual pruning convincingly done. Dove’s adaptation of Wagner’s scores must have seemed artistic sacrilege until he showed what was possible and brought such expertise to the new transitions needed. The reduction in time spent in one’s seat alleviated the affliction known to older operagoers, if not medical science, as “Wagner knee”.

Mae Heydorn (Erda) and Paul Carey Jones (Wanderer) in Siegfried
© Alex Brenner

But really, an orchestra of 18 players for the very composer who standardised the 16-player first violin section? Even that is made to work. Colour is retained through familiar doublings: flute/piccolo, oboe/cor anglais, and the crucial clarinet/bass clarinet. How many psychologically dark moments are touched in with a baleful bass clarinet phrase, supporting Nietzsche’s paradoxical insight of Wagner as a “supreme miniaturist”?

And how the young players of the Orpheus Sinfonia took up the challenge. Inevitably for Siegfried one singles out the first horn (Tom Bettley) summoning Fafner with great flair and golden tone. The end of the cycle lacked weight of string tone for the soaring redemption motif, though that was ameliorated by dead-centre tuning. Conductor Peter Selwyn brought a sense of pacing and balance, relishing the enhanced dramatic impetus when events follow each other more swiftly.

Neal Cooper (Siegfried) and Lee Bisset (Brünnhilde) in Siegfried
© Alex Brenner

Julia Burbach’s direction was clear in serving the three elements that make up this drama: its skillfully designed sequence of contemplation, conversation and confrontation, each requiring different handling of the characters. Thus the last phase of Siegfried has our hero in confrontation with Wotan, then contemplating the creature found behind the wall of fire and Brünnhilde’s impact on him, until their conversation flowers into the final duet. These episodes were persuasively done and flowed naturally into one another. Bettina John’s set with its different levels provided the heights and depths for the Ring scenario, and with its fluorescent tubes of changing colour and Robert Price’s atmospheric lighting, it made an integrated stage world serving effectively as forest hut, dragon’s cave, and rocky heights. The Gibichungs’ bourgeois aspirations were reflected in these spaces being domesticated by oriental rugs, chairs and a standard lamp. Costumes were broadly contemporary and served the character, such as a feathered head dress for the Woodbird and safety goggles for Alberich the blacksmith. For Erda, awoken from her long deep sleep, Wagner directs that she “appears to be covered with hoar frost, her hair and garments throw off a glimmering brightness”. As the vocally superb Mae Heydorn writhed slowly inside a gauze envelope, that is exactly what we saw.

Lee Bisset (Brünnhilde) in Götterdämmerung
© Alex Brenner

The singers were an impressive team, some of them Wagnerians with experience of combating the full Wagner orchestra. Siegfried the boastful youth was Neal Cooper, railing against Mime’s neglect and singing exultantly when forging Nothung himself since, as a colloquial surtitle put it, Mime admitted “I can’t forge the bugger”. Mime is a character tenor part which Colin Judson sang and acted well, without overdoing the wheedling manner. Paul Carey Jones was an impressive Wanderer, authoritative in voice and stage presence. His rejected favourite daughter, Lee Bisset’s Brünnhilde, greeted the sun and her saviour with radiance and warmth. A few moments were affected by wide vibrato, but she convinced throughout and especially at the end of the night, wishing rest to Wotan with tender phrasing, then facing her self-immolation with gleaming tone and a noble line.

Simon Wilding (Hagen) in Götterdämmerung
© Alex Brenner

No Siegfried, however foolish, can do both these works a few hours apart, so it was Mark Le Brocq who sailed into the Gibichung plot, singing with sweet tone and sufficient heft, qualities rarely combined in the role. His nemesis was Simon Wilding, a vocally strong Hagen with a manner suggesting he does indeed “hate the happy”. His nocturnal encounter with Alberich, the imposingly firm-voiced Freddie Tong, was a feast of fine bass singing. The Waltraute of Angharad Lyddon reported from Valhalla on Wotan’s decline into tragic resignation with singing so fine it gained her the biggest curtain cheer of the night. The sibling pawns in Hagen’s plot, Simon Thorpe’s Gunther and Lucy Anderson’s Gutrune, were touching in their vulnerability, with voice and gesture suggesting they sensed they will be collateral damage in the obsessive quest for the ring.