The Valkyrie

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 – Giselle Allen
Ortlinde – Claire Weston
Waltraute – Emma Selway
Schwertleite – Ethna Robinson
Helmwige – Julia Melinek
Siegrune – Rebecca de Pont Davies
Grimgerde – Valerie Reid
Rossweisse – Leah-Marian Jones

Orchestra of English National Opera
Paul Daniel

Phyllida Lloyd – director
Richard Hudson – designer
Mark Henderson – lighting

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 11 May, 2004
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Phyllida Lloyd’s ongoing staging of The Ring reaches the second stage of the tetralogy: its first full-length instalment and that with the most overtly ‘human’ dimension. The musical and emotional nerve-centre of the whole enterprise, The Valkyrie presents problems in terms of unifying the scenic diversity in each of its three acts, while the lengthy narrative sequences of the central act can be difficult to integrate with the taut processes of those framing it. The present production had many of the right ideas, though it did not always see them through with quite the conviction needed.

After a pointless, sensation-seeking initial scream (presumably the death cry of the luckless bride whom Siegmund has tried to aid?), Act One was well handled in terms of defining the protagonists against a background of tribal conflict established in Rhinegold. The low-level box structure was again in evidence, ensuring the right claustrophobic intensity as Hunding prizes out the background to Siegmund’s plight that confirms him as a sworn enemy – while Sieglinde hovers at the periphery, gradually admitting of the attraction she feels towards the stranger who is, in reality, her estranged brother. Here, as throughout the production, Mark Henderson’s lighting was masterly in delineating a psychological space within which the characters can operate. Here, it underlined the seamless motivic development across an act that progresses from doubt to certainty in a single sweep.

Act Two took a novel approach to onstage confrontations – conducted against the knowledge of the lovers’ flight, which periodically appears in mime from behind a screen to galvanise the debate into action. This is the most complex layering of musical evolution and emotional intensification that Wagner had yet attempted, making the apparent lack of stage action all the more necessary. Lloyd generally respected this, though the attempt to evolve the characters of Wotan and Fricka on from those encountered in Rhinegold risked contrivance, while the props representing aspects of warfare conveyed an uneasy compromise between archetypal imagery and 1970s’ American animations – surely at odds with the almost clinical non-interventionism of the stage-sets.

Worse followed with the ‘Marvel super-hero’ attire of the dead warriors whom the Valkyries, looking like escapees from a British ‘new wave’ band, attend in Act Three. Lloyd closes down the emotional space between Wotan and Brünnhilde effectively enough, and the former’s donning of Wanderer attire is a prescient touch – though not his repeated returning to the stage as (presumably) a token of his soul-searching. Worse still was the arrival of ‘men in white coats’ to sedate Brünnhilde prior to her being de-Valkyrised – cluttering the stage with medical apparatus when the whole space needs to be concentrated on father and daughter as they realise an essential humanity. Henderson’s lighting – bathing the stage in crimson hues which envelop the somnolent Brünnhilde – was a masterstroke of pictorial revisionism which, if nothing else, confirms that the thinking of Wieland Wagner has not subsequently been outdone.

Vocally, the cast was again a secure one – often more so. Pär Lindskog’s nasal tone is not in itself appealing, but his unfailingly accurate singing and sympathetic portrayal of Siegmund justify his assumption of the role. As Sieglinde, Orla Boylan warms to her role as her personality emerges over the course of Act One, while her soulful contribution in Act Three confirms Valkyrie to be the most overtly human of the cycle. Clive Bayley’s forbidding yet principled Hunding makes of the part a still, brooding presence of ancestral pride and wrathful vengeance.

Robert Hayward remains equivocal as Wotan – visibly and audibly growing into the part over the course of Act Two, while being no match for the moral certainties of Susan Parry¹s imperious Fricka. Yet he rises to the challenge of Act Three magnificently – his initial god-like assumption of divine vengeance culminates in a remorseful acknowledgement of his all-too-human failings by the close. As Brünnhilde, Kathleen Broderick is fulfilling all the promise of her concert performances: vocally accurate and resourceful in her portrayal of the semi-mortal daughter, with her growth in character itself confirms that, for Wagner, acknowledgement of humanity only comes about through a concurrent willingness to admit of experience and its consequences.

As before, Paul Daniel impresses with his natural and unaffected pacing, allowing the interplay of motifs to register without exaggeration. Right from the Act One orchestral introduction, a scrupulous attention to dynamics and textural balance is evident, the coming together of emotional and thematic strands telling in its understatement, and the discursive progress of Act Two guided with due inevitability. Daniel understandably underplays the panache of the infamous “Ride of the Valkyries”, but the Valkyries themselves are well-matched as individual singers and as an ensemble, and dramatic pacing is as it should be in the build-up to Wotan¹s admission of divine failure and heart-rending farewell.

It is worth reflecting on the conceptual baggage that accompanies any new production of The Ring in general and Valkyrie in particular. ENO’s latest attempt has its share of compromises and fudged solutions, but the faults are at least made in the desire to communicate its dramatic essence in an age when ‘truths’ as such are hardly likely to be perceived as such. Which is a fair vindication in itself.

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