fri 19/07/2024

The Valkyrie, English National Opera review - fitfully flickering flames | reviews, news & interviews

The Valkyrie, English National Opera review - fitfully flickering flames

The Valkyrie, English National Opera review - fitfully flickering flames

Consistently fine orchestra, singing from strong to strenuous, clear but patchy staging

Brünnhilde (Rachel Nicholls) witnesses the love of Siegmund (Nicky Spence) for his sister-bride Sieglinde (Emma Bell)All images by Bill Knight for The Arts Desk

That the ever-decreasing circles of Richard Jones’s first Wagner Ring instalment for English National Opera ended in a no-show for the fire that should have made former Valkyrie supreme Brünnhilde proof against all but a fearless hero – Westminster City Council poured cold water on it before this first night – is in a way the least of it.

An act which has begun so searingly with a first-rate septet of warrior maidens and blazing orchestra under an ever-masterly Martyn Brabbins fizzles into some very choppy singing for the father-daughter confrontation which should make for one of the most moving endings in all opera. There wasn’t much going on here dramatically, either, puzzling from a director who has so many good ideas, executed with varying degrees of success, in the first two acts.

This is Jones’s third Valkyrie in his second-and-a-half Ring cycle – he got no further in a planned Scottish Opera tetralogy – and maybe it’s significant that I can’t remember much about his Royal Opera staging compared to the searing insights of the Rheingold, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung there. Mark Three begins in vintage style with a log cabin of a far-north pioneer, blasted tree rooted as required below the floor of the main room, and Sieglinde incantating the rescuer who will turn out to be her brother Siegmund up from the flaming hearth. It will be contrasted with the more prosperous timbers of a room in Valhalla for the first part of Act Two; though thereafter the lumberjack idea disappears, and the usual brilliant coming-together of a Jones concept surfaces only in the prancing horses – Pullmanesque daemons, perhaps – of the Valkyries. Maybe the fire would have done it. Scene from Act One of ENO ValkyrieThe first voice we hear is Nicky Spence’s, and it’s clear, recent cold notwithstanding, that this is a role he can sing anywhere in the world. The beaten-bronze middle register encases a characterisation alive to every word of the text (though here’s our first stumbling block: John Deathridge’s new translation is banal and clunky, giving no good reason for its replacing the peerless Andrew Porter version which served ENO so well for decades). Jones helps out with the resonant wood of the forwardly placed hut, and after so much was lost in the wide open spaces of Claus Guth’s Royal Opera Jenůfa – where Spence didn’t get a chance to shine in the same way – it’s refreshing to see a director let his singers project downstage (never have the Valkyries sounded so thrillingly present, even if the taking-up of the dead heroes from the battlefield is something we’ve seen before).

The vivid narrative of Siegmund’s unhappy past, where Jones trusts Spence to carry the weight alone, is compounded by the louring presence of Brindley Sherratt’s Hunding and his men with their horse-logo T-shirts, eating out of cans as they listen tensely for the news that this is their deadly enemy. Emma Bell starts out as a sympathetic sister, but the tone is too cloudy, the vocal climaxes rather gusty, when what we really want is a soaring lyric soprano; I’m sure that Brabbins, so sure of pace and balance, would have made sure not to let his orchestra drown a different voice-type. The arrival of spring is one of many peripheral what-wheres, as are the bottle-carrying scene shifters, and the love duet doesn’t really spark, for all the orchestral surging, until the pulling of the sword from the tree. Wotan's narrtive in The ValkyrieIt's always an exciting arrival of the other two principals, Wotan and Brünnhilde, as we move to the realm of very flawed gods in Act Two. This one starts well with Wotan rejoicing in the news of his twins' union from his raven emissaries, and hoydenish, basketball clad, dart-throwing Valkyrie (Rachel Nicholls) in childlike tussles with her dad (Matthew Rose),. Though a voiceless Susan Bickley then had to go through the dramatic paces of wife Fricka’s deadly spoke in the works of Wotan’s plan for his only son Siegmund to be his saviour, it was the third vocal treat of the evening, after Spence and Sherratt, to hear Claire Barnett-Jones – later singing Valkyrie Rossweise – bring lustrous Wagner-mezzo tones to the role from a box at the side.

Rose starts well: the huge bass brings a resonance and a white-note – for which read black-note – colour to key words to convey cosmic grandeur in voice if not in stage presence (those fiddling hands, indicative of a tension which later transmits to the voice, need encasing in gloves: Sherratt would have brought the gravitas in spades). His big narrative works almost as well as Siegmund Spence’s; rarely a one for video work, Jones uses Akhila Krishnan’s projection design to bring us the threat of Nibelung Alberich’s world domination ever closer in select images across a black background. You wish, in fact, that black was the framing for most of the opera; what in designer Stewart Laing’s storyboard images, reproduced in the programme, look like palisades become drab curtains working against the atmosphere of  blasted wood and open spaces. Though in principle this Valkyrie would make a striking contrast to the high-tech Robert Lepage Ring at the New York’s Metropolitan Opera, sharing this production, it actually looks cheap, and the costumes don’t help. Valkyries at ENOThough the collective Valkyries scene is one of peerless musical brilliance, inequalities emerge in what should be the central confrontation of the entire Ring, when Brünnhilde tells Siegmund of his war-father’s reversed decision to let him die in battle, and the hero, in refusing to obey her summons to Valhalla and thinking only of his half-demented sister bride, shows her the meaning of real love. Spence is at his very best here, but Nicholls pales in presence and vocal focus, making it an unequal match. And unfortunately that carries through to the opera’s big final scene. Where now we need majestic long lines and some real bel canto to combine with riveting music-theatre, neither of the singers can deliver the goods. Rose reverts to stentorian barking, breaking up each phrase at the mid-point.

Most directors have some new idea up their sleeve for the final passionate reunion of father and daughter – Phyllida Lloyd’s hugely underrated Ring, ENO’s most recent before this and one destined never to have a complete run, was gut-wrenching as well as heartbreaking at this point – but it doesn’t happen here. While Brabbins is nurturing the most veiled, tender-lovely orchestral reprise of Wotan’s farewell, Rose has to attach cords to the sleeping Brünnhilde, allowing her to levitate above a non-existent fire. The end, alas, doesn’t crown the work; we’ll have to wait on a revival, and a different Wotan and Brünnhilde, for that to happen.


You must have been watching a different opera. I found the coal performances commanding and convincing. Nicholls in particular was lyrical and powerful.

As I suspected, it all depends on the conductor. I went to the third night, conducted by Brabbins. The singing was better than reported here, but overall the performance was somewhat underwhelming. Last night, under Anthony Negus, it was transformed - weighty, urgent but never rushed, superb rubato - and the effect was overwhelming, as it should be. You don't need to to take my word for it, you just need to know about the cheering that greeted Negus at every opportunity and, most tellingly, the applause he received from the singers at the end.Is it too late for Negus to be rescued from comparative obscurity, as Reginald Goodall was fifty-odd years ago?

Yes, well, even that won't redeem some of the serious miscasting here. I was actually very happy with the orchestral playing on the first night, but it didn't save the evening. It's outrageous, all the same, that the management went along at first with whoever wanted to deprive Negus of his only performance (rumours vary on that one).

It’s not the orchestral playing, it’s what the conductor does with the orchestra.

Thanks for the observation. I think I'm capable of telling. But you ignore the point that without an acceptable level of Wagner singing, that counts if not for little, then certainly for not enough.

I don’t ignore your point, I disagree with it. Why are you so rude?

I hope you went back - I saw it three times, the opening night, when Negus conducted and tonight, the last night. I found it much improved and couldn’t fault any of the singers. I even got to like the production, though still flawed.

Interested to know if there was any approximation to fire in the final scene.

There wasn't (I went back twice too because I found it so rich in drama and meaning and so sensitive to text and music) and it seemed better that way rather than some lame orange glow. All or nothing, I think.

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