ENO The Valkyrie (Barbican)

The Valkyrie
[Part Two of the Ring Cycle. Sung in Jeremy Sams’s English translation]

Siegmund – Pär Lindskog
Sieglinde – Orla Boylan
Hunding – Clive Bayley

Wotan – Robert Hayward
Fricka – Susan Parry

Brünnhilde – Kathleen Broderick
Gerhilde – Julia Melinek
Ortlinde – Claire Weston
Waltraute – Emma Selway
Schwertleite – Ethna Robinson
Helmwige – Cara O’Sullivan
Siegrune – Ruby Philogene
Grimgerde – Valerie Reid
Rossweisse – Leah-Marian Jones

Orchestra of English National Opera
Paul Daniel

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 2 November, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The second instalment of Wagner’s epic ’Ring’ cycle introduces human characters into the drama. ’The Rhinegold’, having been concerned with Gods, Giants, Dwarfs and Water-nymphs and located on mountain-tops, and underground and underwater, sets the scene, as it were, for the ensuring action. In fact, ’The Rhinegold’ is described as the “preliminary evening”, whereas ’The Valkyrie’ is the “first day”.

In my review ’The Rhinegold’ I referred to the sense of urgency in Paul Daniel’s conception. This was evident again in ’The Valkyrie’, with undoubted gains in places but less effective in certain key scenes. The opening storm was graphically depicted, with vigorous articulation from cellos and basses, which not only conjures up rough weather but also reminds that Wotan is not far away and may, indeed, be controlling events. The orchestral Prelude built to a thundering climax with powerful timpani and wailing winds.

Pär Lindskog, as an initially exhausted Siegmund, made an immediate impression. His is not an ingratiating voice, but he presented an impetuous, defiant character, occasionally rough and brusque. However, he did have some intonation problems and some of his vowel sounds were rather strange. He may have been more comfortable singing the role in German. Orla Boylan as the world-weary Sieglinde was sympathetic and engaging.In this initial scene, there was some beautifully moulded playing from the strings (especially the solo cello) which hints at the initially-undeclared attraction the twins (as it turns out) have for each other. These orchestral ’commentaries’ are vital in conveying emotion and gesture and were eloquently played. Menacing tubas greeted the arrival of Hunding in the comparatively youthful figure of Clive Bayley. This part is often assigned to a large and elderly bass, but Bayley was effective enough in his own right, even if a darker, more baleful voice is ideally needed for Hunding’s bluff comments.

Lindskog brought a wealth of nuance to the narration describing his youth and life with his father – by turns aggressive and nostalgic. When recounting how he went in search of a woman’s love, there was mellifluous playing from the clarinet. Indeed the solo winds were exemplary throughout the evening – special praise to the cor anglais and bass clarinet. The latter is given a number of crucial passages – surely there is no precedent for Wagner’s extensive and expressive use of this instrument?

When Siegmund is left alone to ponder his fate, it was here and later in the Act, that the want of a more spacious approach to tempo was felt. To be sure, Daniel conveyed nervous agitation, but Siegmund’s great cries to his father (Velsa) need to emerge from a gradual building up of tension. It is this quality which is, as yet, lacking in Daniel’s approach. Wagner’s ’big moments’ need to be prepared for – not just suddenly happen.

The blossoming of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love is one of the most rapturous scenes in all opera – in all music. Siegmund’s lyrical “Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond” (here, rather prosaically, “Spring has driven all of the clouds away”), which is one of the rare extended aria-like passages in the ’Ring’, was too swift. The remainder of the Act was given with increasing ardour. Full marks to Daniel and the orchestra for real pianissimo string playing following Siegmund’s drawing of the sword – this passage is frequently frenzied in the wrong way. The orchestral coda was suitably wild in its sense of ecstatic exultation.

This excited mood continued at the start of Act Two, whose prelude depicts the twins’ flight through the forest and heralds the arrival of Wotan and Brünnhilde. An important tempo indication was dealt with spot-on. When Wotan starts singing, this should be at the same frenetic speed of the Prelude – it was here. Too often, there is a pulling back in pace with a consequent loss of impetus. I admired Robert Hayward’s somewhat youthful-sounding god in ’Rhinegold’, but the now older and wiser Wotan needs a more hefty and commanding manner. I am sure Hayward will acquire this in time.

Kathleen Broderick’s Brünnhilde was superb, the very epitome of the youthful, eager, wide-eyed devoted daughter of her doting father. Her opening cries of “Hojotoho” rang out thrillingly, with the top notes resounding fearlessly. Her exchanges and interaction with Hayward demonstrated a real sense of character. I look forward to seeing her in a staged production.

Incidentally, one strange feature of this presentation was the odd idea of having the singers standing or sitting on opposite sides of the stage when they are supposed to be communicating directly with one another. Intimate communication between Siegmund and Sieglinde, and Wotan and Brünnhilde, was curiously but inevitably detached. I do hope this is not going to be a feature when ENO eventually mounts a staging of ’The Ring’.

Fricka is often depicted as a needling, nagging wife. However, Susan Parry presented her full of righteous indignation at Wotan’s implicit condoning of the twins’ incestuous union. She acted as the voice of moral authority and reason when pointing out that Wotan has brought shame on the gods. In the long monologue that follows, where Wotan opens his heart to Brünnhilde and tells of his woes, Hayward struggled somewhat with the very low-lying tessitura. This is a scene that can often drag, but Daniel ensured that this did not occur and Hayward conveyed Wotan’s seething despair and frustration, even if he did struggle from time to time with the volume and power of the orchestra.

The remarkable scene where Brünnhilde announces to Siegmund that he is to die and be taken to Valhalla is marked ’solemn and measured’, but this sense was not conveyed. Here one really needed the more sombre approach of a Goodall or Knappertsbusch. The famous ’fate’ theme on tubas was also too loud. I hope Daniel will re-consider this crucial passage before further performances. As the Act proceeded towards its tempestuous conclusion, the episodes such as Sieglinde’s nightmare and the killing of Siegmund and Hunding had real theatrical frisson. Even in this concert setting, Wagner’s drama was vividly projected.

The ’Ride of the Valkyries’ which opens the Third Act was an urgent and turbulent one. The team of singers portraying Brünnhilde’s sisters was strongly cast, working well in ensemble and individually. Cara O’Sullivan and Claire Weston (who was a compelling Freia in ’Rhinegold’) stood out; all eight made a formidable band of warrior-maidens.

That extraordinary moment when Sieglinde thanks Brünnhilde for her help (“O rarest wonder”) was properly overwhelming, with Orla Boylan matching the might of the orchestra. Ferocious trombones and biting staccato chords announced the return ofWotan intent on punishing Brünnhilde for her disobedience. Robert Hayward was not quite authoritative or vehement enough. However, having dismissed the Valkyries, and as his anger abates somewhat, he was very effective in the gentler, regretful and resigned passages which pervades much of the affecting final scene. There was much poignancy between father and daughter – the latter pleading, the former implacable – hinting at more than a filial relationship between them. Just before Wotan’s heartrending farewell, there were one or two moments when tempi became portentous, with the brass rather harsh, but this was a small miscalculation in the otherwise judicious pacing of this Act. Hayward’s summoning of Loge to place a ’Ring of Fire’ around his sleeping daughter was robust, and the ’magic’ – and magical – music glittered and flickered with appropriate colour.

This was an even more convincing performance than that of ’The Rhinegold’.

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