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).  

Claire Rutter (Sieglinde) and Bryan Register (Siegmund) © Robert Workman
Claire Rutter (Sieglinde) and Bryan Register (Siegmund)
© Robert Workman

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. 

Jane Dutton (Brünnhilde) and Thomas Hall (Wotan) © Robert Workman
Jane Dutton (Brünnhilde) and Thomas Hall (Wotan)
© Robert Workman

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…).  

Jane Dutton (Brünnhilde) and Valkyries © Robert Workman
Jane Dutton (Brünnhilde) and Valkyries
© Robert Workman

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.