English National Opera 2021-22 Review: The Valkyrie

Matthew Rose & Rachel Nicholls Shine in Richard Jones’ Uneven Production

By Benjamin Poore
(Credit: © Tristram Kenton)

It is some 20 years since ENO saw a complete “Ring.” Over the next few years they launch a new production, beginning with “The Valkyrie,” reverting next year to “Das Rheingold,” and then on. It is a bold undertaking to launch a new “Ring” in these challenging times for opera, with no little financial and artistic risk entailed in a stake as grand as this.

Richard Jones’ new production is blessed with superb singing and some standout moments, but has a fair few artistic wrinkles to iron out (some more substantial than others.)

Artistic Wrinkles

Misfortune follows poor Siegmund everywhere he goes. It seems his spirit was rather haunting this production, which was beset with woe. The grandiose fire effect planned for the end had been, at the eleventh hour, forbidden by Westminster council for safety reasons (the Coliseum is a grand old building with special status). One wonders how such problems were not foreseen with over a year of planning – but at time of writing it’s unclear where the fault may lie. A head cold afflicted both Nicky Spence and Susan Bickley; the former did sing, the latter did not, walking the role instead. There was also a rather mysterious kerfuffle over the involvement of conductor Anthony Negus, who disappeared from the ENO website only to be lately reinstated.

Jones last directed the Ring at Covent Garden in the late nineties, in a production widely disliked for its irreverent (though iconic) attitude. He has returned to ENO to have another bite at the golden apple. One wonders how prudent such a decision is – the Ring is surely too important and significant to be entrusted to a director who has already given it a go in London. Surely ENO could’ve sought someone younger and less-established to bring this project to life?

His vision is by turns spare and cartoonish, but ultimately one that rests on an acute sensitivity to how gesture and music come together. The setting is modern – a kind of Nordic noir – with understated costumes and simple sets (the latter by Stewart Laing). A huge grey curtain frames the stage, which contains Hunding and Sieglinde’s barren little hut (they sleep in the attic) and then Wotan’s slightly more extravagant timber chalet. The final act plays out under black snow – grimly apocalyptic – on a near empty stage; the bodies of slain heroes are hoisted into the flys.

There was no fire at the end, and no concession was made with lighting or projection to ameliorate it. Wotan wrapped Brünnhilde in his padded red anorak and attached her to cables – she was raised above the stage, floating in suspended animation. Some will find this sequence clumsy and immersion shattering – I felt it had a strangely bathetic, ordinary charm, and eerie tenderness.

Making the Gods Human

Jones’ direction makes gods and warrior-maidens feel ordinary, grounded, and their stories recognizably domestic. The most effective sequences came from superb Personregie and relative simplicity of presentation. Jones’ ironic – even witty – approach to the Ring’s mythic character surely rankles with traditionalists, but it does clear the ground for a psychological acuity and rawness that other productions occlude with grandeur or philosophy.

Act one’s tense exchanges between Siegmund, Sieglinde and Hunding had the eloquence and concentration of a play. In a quiet interlude as Wotan slumps into despondency on the couch, accompanied by solo bass clarinet, Brünnhilde holds him with remarkable tenderness. For an aching moment it is no longer an epic but a story of a depressed and damaged father and his doting daughter, whose dysfunctional relationship will go on to collapse. Their embrace during Wotan’s Act three farewell is so ordinary it is heart-wrenching. Likewise the terrible moment of recognition when Siegmund glimpses Wälse moments before Wotan throws him back onto Hunding’s spear.

Gestures are of the sort you see every day, and are seldom stylized. Costumes similarly: Hunding wears a dirty fluorescent jacket; downtrodden Sieglinde jeans and dull black top; Siegmund could’ve been dressed from the high street. There are a few more evocative, dreamlike gestures: Brünnhilde’s embroidered Bayeux-tapestry like top and Bermuda shorts, packed with images of warriors, the sign of a youthful, athletic vigour and childish imagination; the pantomime horses of the Valkyries, each played by an actor in cartoonish costume.

There are a few dud ideas. An Irish jig from a solo dancer at the top of Act three either needs scrapping or extravagantly expanding to high-kicking West End levels. (Its meaning might then become clear.)

Projections depicting Alberich during Wotan’s Act two meltdown were needless distractions given the quality of Matthew Rose’s storytelling; an over-busy set of moves that required Wotan to light a flaming torch in the great ‘das Ende’ climax was clunky and seemingly sprung from nowhere. As the production is revised, one hopes Jones will take the directorial equivalent of Coco Chanel’s advice about looking in the mirror and removing an item of clothing before leaving the house.

John Deathridge, a leading Wagner scholar and translator, provided a new version of the text. It is based on his spry literary version for Penguin published in 2018; here it has been reworked into a singable entity. Well, mostly. Idiomatically it strikes the right tone – there is a down-to-earth quality of bluff directness whose immediacy gels well with the everyday characters of Jones’ humble, earthbound setting, casting the work on a recognizably human scale. There are some provocative interventions. Wotan yearns not for “das Ende” but “extinction,” which feels uncannily contemporary and catches the enormous geological-historical dimension of the work.

But it clearly requires some further reworking at points – the syntax attempts to cleave, at times, to the original German text, which makes for some clunky constructions that make meaning get stuck in the mud. At other times there are simply too many words packed in Wagner’s musical lines. Revisions in the name of sleekness and simplicity should be on the cards for future performances and the rest of the cycle as a whole, as it comes around.

Broad But Admirable

Martyn Brabbins led an ENO orchestra who spilled into the boxes at the side of the stage, harps and percussion given dramatic prominence (it was especially nice to be able to hear all four harps so prominently at the opera’s flickering conclusion). Brabbins played it broad – slow to some ears, redolent perhaps of Reginald Goodall’s famously expansive account for the same company some decades ago. Act one felt a little safe, methodical and assured, and slower than expected at its rapturous climax; a few fumbles in the brass and some slightly leaden entries are hopefully problems that will resolve themselves naturally. On the other hand, this breadth allowed for moments of exquisite inwardness and spotlit moments for solo ‘cello and bass clarinet, amongst many others.

At his best Brabbins highlighted the work’s unconscious stirrings, showcasing the complexity of Wagner’s psychological orchestral canvas. This worked well alongside Jones’ rich character portraits. Things considerably warmed up in Act two, where the orchestra finally found its bite, with a bold opening. Those who like their Wagner brisk and spectacular will not be fans of Brabbins’ approach, but his sustained pacing undoubtedly found the rueful and lustrous parts of the score.

Vocally there was plenty to admire – remarkable in a cast of so many role debuts, and generally lighter voices. Rachel Nicholls is not one of those, returning to the role of Brünnhilde. It is a slighter, brighter voice than one might expect here. But it is certainly crisp and engaging – her “Hojotohos” at the top of Act two had exemplary zest – and she had a lyric quality that is admirable. A convincing lower register also summoned up the portentous atmosphere of the annunciation of death scene. Her characterization was vivid and engaging – impetuous and playful, a little naïve, and someone whose eyes open to a resolutely human world of love and compassion.

Matthew Rose is the first bass Wotan to appear in London for some time, and made a remarkable debut. He marshals his vocal resources well, lyric and flexible in the role’s fearsome upper reaches, and eking out a host of colours and shades in the middle and lower down – it is particularly gratifying, in an era where Wotan tends to bend towards the baritone, to hear such richness and focus in the darkest regions of Act two’s monologue. Indeed, the latter was a sensational sequence in terms of its storytelling – crisp, deft, and delivered with poise and focus. The psychological shading of his performance was remarkably engaging: he was by turns a lackadaisical narcissist, wounded and deflated by Fricka’s invective; a depressive; a man whose frustrations boil over into raging and ranting. And, last of all, someone in whom a flicker of kindness still burns.

Nicky Spence was clouded with head-cold, but there were strong signs of a distinctive Wagner voice. Whether he can go into heftier roles than Siegmund in this music remains to be seen – but one can easily hear a Walther or Lohengrin in this fresh, lyric sound. When aided by the amplifying boxes of the Act one set, Spence brought a creamy, compelling legato (as opposed to the more usual gruff baritonal darkness) that made Wagner’s music sound like lieder. He would greatly be aided by swifter tempi and a little more spritz in the orchestra, though in the second Act he managed to soar admirably.

His partner-in-crime was Emma Bell’s Sieglinde, who is richly-hued in timbre; she is most effective in her lower register, and could be a little wild when it came to the highest notes. Dramatically, though, she was fierce and resourceful, seeming to conjure Siegmund from fire at the beginning of the show. Her fright and courage felt remarkably raw and engaging in Act two.

Brindley Sherratt was a baleful, thuggish presence as Hunding, throwing Sieglinde around and shadowed by his taciturn goons (stand-ins for his dogs); he forces himself on Sieglinde before collapsing from the effect of her sleeping draught. Vocally he was oily and dark, breathtakingly crisp with the text and showcasing some absolutely cavernous vowels (The great bass John Tomlinson, spotted in the audience that night, would surely be thrilled).

Susan Bickley was (vocally) out with a cold, so up-and-coming mezzo Claire Barnett-Jones sang with tautness and definition from the side of the stage while the former walked the part, fulsome and even across the voice (she also sang Rossweise). Bickley’s exasperated Fricka convinced in movement and gesture; there Deathridge’s translation was a vivid vehicle for her icy contempt towards Wotan’s pathetic scheming.

A starry lineup of Valkyries – Jennifer Davis, Nadine Benjamin, Fleur Barron, Katie Stevenson, to name just a few – managed to ride Brabbins’ orchestral wave in Act three, quaking with fear at Wotan’s wrathful return, and singing with thrilling ferocity in the ensembles sequences.

This was an uneven production, and probably should’ve been given over to someone else – ENO has a responsibility to plough a new a different furrow. But there was much in the production that is of interest, with moments of outstanding power and direction. It is not yet the finished product, and one hopes that as subsequent installments appear there is greater clarity and intensity from the production side.


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