Richard Wagner - The Valkyrie (London, 2021)
English National Opera, 2021
Martyn Brabbins, Richard Jones, Matthew Rose, Rachel Nicholls, Nicky Spence, Emma Bell, Brindley Sherratt, Susan Bickley, Nadine Benjamin, Mari Wyn Williams, Kamilla Dunstan, Fleur Barron, Jennifer Davis, Idunnu Münch, Claire Barnett-Jones, Katie Stevenson
The Coliseum, London - 19th November 2021
The announcement of a new Ring Cycle at the Coliseum was welcome news for many opera goers and followers of the English National Opera. It was a sign that new Artistic Director Annilese Miskimmon had some creative ideas to revive the fortunes of a company that has recently been going through some difficult times. The news was also greeted however with a certain amount of caution and indeed even trepidation by those who had been to see director Richard Jones's previous Ring for Covent Garden, or indeed any of his productions. There was little here to suggest that Jones would be a natural fit for Wagner.
Still, that doesn't have to be an essential quality and sometimes it's useful to get another perspective where the Der Ring des Nibelungen is concerned. While it's perhaps a little too early to look for any distinctive ideas or themes emerging, some of those concerns do appear to be well-founded in this opening opera of the tetralogy; not least the fact that it's opening with Die Walküre - and following the ENO's dated ideals about English language performances it's of course The Valkerie - commercial imperatives perhaps necessarily superceding artistic considerations.
Those are the least of this production's concerns, although commercial considerations may have also been a factor in the set designs looking a little sparse and the ideas at this stage looking a little thin. One would think that being a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York might have provided a few more resources, but considering the expense poured into the Met's last Ring Cycle - and continuing pandemic related problems - caution may also have been the watchword there. Whether the concept is fully developed or not, and whether it is expanded on at all before it gets to the Met (it is surely too small scale for the Met), Jones's The Valkyrie looks like a work in progress.
There is always going to be something of a feeling of lack of completeness in any production of Die Walküre, and this Ring cycle hasn't even given us a Das Rheingold (or The Rhinegold) yet, but the problems here go deeper than that. Many of the great set pieces of this opera fell flat, with Act III suffering most in this respect. The horses ridden by the green raincoat wearing Valkyrie looked like the front half of a pantomime horse, the scene only saved by the combined singing strengths of the Valkyrie. Brünnhilde's fate to go out in a blaze of disgrace at the finale was scuppered by the Westminster council's refusal to allow naked flames to be lit on the stage of the Coliseum, but even with it I'm not sure that Jones would have pulled off the kind of spectacle needed.
For Richard Jones however it seems the limitations imposed, or self-imposed, is a chance to focus on the nuts and bolts of the drama, on the characters and the relationships between them. The idea of the cast wearing jeans and T-shirt type casuals is otherwise baffling other than it simply being an attempt not to distract or distance through traditional costumes of heroic mythology. With Wagner's music played for all its dramatic and emotional potential and some fine singing, the attention to character more than concept can pay dividends, and to an extent Jones succeeded in bringing in some tweaks to characterisation, but not on any level that would be considered insightful or revelatory.
The sets can best be described as functional and minimal, aligned to mood. A twisted ash breaking through the roof of Hunding's abode - a surprisingly small cabin rather than any kind of manor - was all that sat on the largely empty stage in Act I, with some shadowy figures hovering around to rotate the set now and again. The second scene of Act II consisted of a row of distorted trees and a few troughs of soil for the performers to run through. Each Act however concluded on a mostly bare stage with the concluding drama of the scene enacted in a circle of light. The dead heroes of the start of Act III were borne up to Valhalla on wires, to allow the Valkyrie their moment and clear the stage for the final non-conflagration.
It all played out fairly conventionally then with just little twists of emphasis on characterisation. Not even twists, just minor tweaks or injections of character and personality. Hunding was shown clearly to be an abusive brute to his wife, which enhanced the dangerous and distasteful side of his character and made his comeuppance feel truly merited. We also got excellent singing and performance to go along with this from Brindley Sherratt. Nicky Spence was labouring under a cold but showed little sign of it in another strong and consistent performance as Siegmund. His refusal to be transported to Valhalla without Sieglinde was heartfelt and absolutely heartbreaking. Emma Bell's also sang wonderfully, even if Jones failed to really get across the bond between her Sieglinde and Spence's Siegmund.
A Ring Cycle wouldn't be a Ring Cycle without some serious mishaps and problems and this one looks like having more than its fair share. Susan Bickley, cast as Fricke, was unable to sing at all, and had to walk through her role while it was sung from the wings by Claire Barnett-Jones, who took this on in addition to her role as the Valkyrie Rossweisse. This worked just fine. Matthew Rose was a capable and very demonstrative Wotan, striding onto the stage in Act II punching the air at the success of his plans in Act I, only to see them dashed soon after. This kind of dynamic set Wotan out as somewhat petulant, but a petulant god is still a fearsome thing, even one dressed as a lumberjack with his log cabin Valhalla.
Sung in English, the translation tried to strike a balance between colloquial and rendering of Wagner's old German poetics, so the delivery was inevitably a little awkward in places, although sung passages were such more successful at sounding closer to the familiar German. The perceived and forced limitations of the production and stage design aside - functional but with little in the way of this director's usual flair - this was however an otherwise enjoyable production of Die Walküre at least as far as musical and singing performances go. Martyn Brabbins's conducting drove the drama along purposefully with impact and emotional charge where required. Far from feeling like a complete opera in itself, the ENO's The Valkyrie at least offers hope that there is room for improvement and development by the time we get to performances of a full cycle.
Links: English National Opera