Photograph, Tristram Kenton
Friday, November 19, 2021
The Coliseum, London
Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed
Whatever you may have thought about Richard Jones’s Wagner productions – in the UK, for example, the Royal Opera Ring Cycle in the 1990s and The Mastersingers for English National Opera in 2015 – they have hit the spot in many ways.
ENO’s new production of The Valkyrie – the first of the four Ring Cycle music-dramas to be mounted over five years – makes perceptive use of the dysfunctional relationships that shape the whole of the tetralogy, but Jones’s trademark cartoon style (with designer Stewart Laing) doesn’t raise much in the way of laughs, or poke fun at suburban proprieties, or undermine the seriousness of the Ring myth. The sets for Acts I and II – a giant Wendy house with the skeletal ash tree poking through the roof for Hunding’s hut; a Swiss-style ski-chalet (Valhalla?) at the start of the second Act – distract us from the setting’s drab reality of an empty stage surrounded by grey curtains, like an anonymous but very large workshop space.
Jones’s staging is also very low-tech, and for a co-production with the Met, it’s worth remembering that the Met’s last Ring Cycle was a lavish behemoth of high-tech wizardry. Here there is a short bit of video projection, of Wotan’s nemesis Alberich stalking the compromised god during the latter’s Act II Narration, but the planned Magic Fire effects had to be abandoned for safety reasons. That notorious Ring Cycle production challenge, the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, is not Jones’s finest hour, dominated by the girls’ eight not-so-mighty steeds, like the front half of panto-horses, all of them in an exaggerated state of high anxiety, which outstayed their welcome.
It is, then, all down to relationships, which is where Jones hit his stride. During the stormy Act I introduction, Sieglinde seemed already raring to go for her mythic significance, willing to push boundaries with her twin brother Siegmund. Her marriage to Hunding is graphically brutal, and the abuse seeps into the Wotan-Fricka dynamic, although with a degree of subtlety. The twins’ incest is reflected in Wotan’s pervy games with his daughter Brünnhilde, and during their great Act III showdown, with Siegfried being clearly signalled as an upcoming attraction via his motto-theme, Jones makes way for the fact that Brünnhilde will later be keeping things in the family with her half-great-nephew.
Brindley Sherratt’s feral, priapic and black-voiced Hunding stole the show in Act I, and Emma Bell was on radiant form from the start as a strongly characterised Sieglinde, while her moment of vocal glory in her Act III assumption of Wagner’s redemption theme flooded the Coliseum’s auditorium. There was an announcement that Nicky Spence was singing through a cold, and it took a while for the bloom in his voice to come through, which it did, marvellously, in his Act II scene with Brünnhilde as the harbinger of his death. Again his role is strongly characterised and directed, and his death was one of the moments when Wagner and Jones hit it off. Susan Bickley had more-serious vocal problems, and the role of Fricka was sung, very well, from one of the boxes near the stage by Claire Barnett-Jones (who was also Valkyrie Rossweisse), while Bickley acted her way through Fricka’s formidable and coercive powers of persuasion with notable conviction.
I couldn’t work out what Rachel Nicholls’s costume was meant to tell us about Brünnhilde, but her big, bright soprano, with a few pitch problems, led the way in the big scenes with her father and with her half-brother (who has fathered her future lover). Her exchange with Wotan, as an extension of his will, had an unmistakable and creepy ring of truth. My overall impression of Matthew Rose’s Wotan, wearing cords, plaid shirt and a red anorak, was of an over-stressed schoolteacher in diminishing command of his pupils. Rose’s bass and acting was a match for Wotan’s despair in his talking-to-himself Act II monologue, less convincing in Wotan’s Farewell, but Jones’s direction hardly chimes with the unfolding of the god’s epic tragedy, leading to suspicions of accessibility being no guarantee of understanding. The Valkyries, wearing a uniform of green anoraks, gave their vocal all to their music.
In the pit, Martyn Brabbins and the ENO Orchestra delivered an account of the score that was at times forensically clear, beautifully tailored to the singers, extremely atmospheric, and, when letting rip, up for all the stature, romance and intricacies of Wagner’s fabulous music. Perhaps – and this is not something you would normally want from any Wagner opera – Jones’s thoughtful, intimate, muted production would work better in a smaller theatre. But who knows what he has up his sleeve for the next instalments in ENO’s new Ring?
“ENO Music Director Martyn Brabbins conducts the award-winning ENO Orchestra with a star-studded cast of singers featuring Matthew Rose (Wotan), Rachel Nicholls (Brünnhilde), Nicky Spence (Siegmund), Emma Bell (Sieglinde), Brindley Sherratt (Hunding), and Susan Bickley (Fricka)”
English translation by John Deathridge.
5 Evening Performances Remaining
2 Matinee Performances Remaining
Anthony Negus conducts on December 7