Die Walküre – Music-drama in three acts to a libretto by the composer [First Day of Der Ring des Nibelungen; co-production with The Metropolitan Opera, New York City; sung in a new English translation by John Deathridge, with English surtitles]
Siegmund – Nicky Spence
Sieglinde – Emma Bell
Hunding – Brindley Sherratt
Wotan – Matthew Rose
Fricka – Claire Barnett-Jones [singing] & Susan Bickley [acting]
Brünnhilde – Rachel Nicholls
Gerhilde – Nadine Benjamin
Ortlinde – Mari Wyn Williams
Waltraute – Kamilla Dunstan
Schwertleite – Fleur Barron
Helmwige – Jennifer Davis
Siegrune – Idunnu Münch
Rossweisse – Claire Barnett-Jones
Grimgerde – Katie Stevenson
English National Opera Orchestra
Director – Richard Jones
Designer – Stewart Laing
Lighting designer – Adam Silverman
Movement director – Sarah Fahie
Video designer – Akhila Krishnan
Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers
Reviewed: 19 November, 2021
Venue: The Coliseum, London
A bold and confident statement of intent for any opera company is to put on a staging of the epic that is Richard Wagner’s opera tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen. (The ultimate statement would surely be Karlheinz Stockhausen’s seven-day Licht, about twenty-nine hours of music.) In the midst, perhaps, of a global pandemic, it might be considered – to borrow a Sir Humphrey-ism – ‘brave’, especially a new production. Add in that this company’s main London (and so U.K.) competitor, The Royal Opera, has announced its own. Directed by Barrie Kosky and conducted by Antonio Pappano, with Das Rheingold due to appear in September 2023, one can only hope that both will complement and enhance the other. Certainly, this in-English Ring, spread over five years and a co-production with The Metropolitan Opera, New York City, has the language to give a very different experience. The plan is that Das Rheingold will appear in 2022-23 followed by a reprise of Die Walküre. Then Siegfried (2024) and Götterdämmerung (2025) to follow; no full cycle is envisaged, yet. For that, you will have to be in New York City, where this Ring will be presented in 2025 with full cycles by the end of the 2026-27 season; Robert Lepage’s $16 million production, with its glitch-prone 45-tonne stage contraption, presumably is, or has, headed for the breaker’s yard.
Richard Jones directs this new, his third, staging, and it is a provocative one. With the recent passing of the much-missed Bernard Haitink, one recalled Jones’s second production, for The Royal Opera, and that maestro’s difficulty with it when he was to conduct. Here it was not Jones’s fellow musicians or audience that had problems with his creation but Westminster City Council, who, despite ENO’s “extensive planning” for the large fire effect in Act Three, insisted that it had to be cut, due to a previously unknown aspect of The Coliseum’s stage’s construction. At future revivals the fire effect will be “achieved in a different, safe way”, but for this and the remaining performances in this run, we, the audience, were asked to use our imagination, whilst noting that the fire is in the music anyway.
Jones has stated that he is “shamelessly Stanislavskian” and that this Ring will be “narratively clear to a first-time buyer.” Indeed, problems do arise for first-timers who might well wonder who Wotan, Fricka, Fafner and Fasolt are, and what the ‘hoard’ and ‘ring’ are – they all get mentions here. Fortunately, for the neophytes, there is a handy glossary in the programme by Philip Reed that seeks to explain these and other terms, and there is also plot summary for the ‘Preliminary Evening’ Das Rheingold. So, don’t be put off about meeting this Ring at its ‘First Day’.
Working with Jones is his long-time collaborator, designer Stewart Laing. The staging gets off to a convincing start: Hunding’s hut is realistically effected, albeit with an ash tree growing through the centre. This provides an intimate and claustrophobic homelife for the much-abused Sieglinde and her husband Hunding. Enter Siegmund, and there is not enough space for the three of them: this will not end well. Wotan’s abode is a log-cabin, he a lumberjack. Brünnhilde, modelled on Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s idealistic crusading, is dressed in teenage garb. One can see the point, but it fails to make a mark in this milieu; this is a characterisation that will be interesting to follow, and one can well imagine how Brünnhilde’s later betrayal and then the world’s destruction and rebirth might play out in terms of climate activism as the cycle unfolds. There are trees that have been blown by the wind across the stage. For Brünnhilde’s final resting place the stage is bare save the grey curtain surround that has been ever-present. It is a tough watch, but never dull.
Act One’s threesome of Emma Bell (Sieglinde), Nicky Spence (Siegmund) and Brindley Sherratt (Hunding) were well matched. Bell delivered smart confidence, Spence that touch of innocence that grew to ardour, whereas Sherratt was malevolent, though the ecstasy of the twin’s incestuous love was muted.
Rachel Nicholls’s crusader Brünnhilde is compelling, and is given a stridently sung performance that tackled the orchestra valiantly. Matthew Rose seemed to be channelling John Tomlinson’s later Wotans; the lyricism that can accompany the final scene didn’t materialise, but as a commanding Wotan he delivered with aplomb. Both gave John Deathridge’s direct and effective new translation life: one could get behind these words well. Fricka was sung from a side box by Claire Barnett-Jones whilst Susan Bickley (suffering a cold) acted the part. That acting imbued Fricka with a depth of character that went beyond the hectoring wife that she can be, and Barnett-Jones’s singing exuded command.
Act Three’s Valkyries, in outsized green jackets, were nicely detailed, although their horses were too pantomime and skittish, a weak realisation. Are these not meant to be bold and brave horses that carry their loads to Valhalla? On occasion the music managed to cross the pit and envelop, but it didn’t match the action. Martyn Brabbins brought humanity to the music that was occasionally lacking on the stage, and the closing scene was a musical triumph of feeling and communication with the notes. Losing the fire was a shame for the producers, no doubt, and frustrating, but was not fatal, and those moments where the stage was bare – think Wieland Wagner and his famous post-war productions at Bayreuth – compelled. The final tableau, with Brünnhilde asleep, hoisted into the air, and wrapped in Wotan’s bright-red hiking jacket, was very effective; the flames were not missed, much.