There’s nothing like a pre-show announcement to spook the horses, and the opening night of English National Opera’s The Valkyrie began with three. The first we’d all read about in the papers: the local Westminster Council’s safety officer had poured cold water on the ‘magic fire’, supposedly the spectacular finale to part two of Richard Jones’ new staging of Wagner’s Ring. The others were equally gloomy: Nicky Spence had a cold but would nevertheless be singing Siegmund, and Susan Bickley, also cold-stricken, would walk the role of Fricka while one of the Valkyries – Claire Barnett-Jones – would sing the role from offstage. As it happened, neither vocal indisposition turned out to be a disaster, and the fire-free ending turned out to be the least of the problems in this ultimately hollow-hearted co-production with New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
So, what went wrong? Jones is a hugely experienced director with a string of hits including the Met’s Hansel and Gretel and more recently the Royal Opera’s stylish La Bohème. He was also the director of a notoriously disliked Ring Cycle for Covent Garden back in 1993, a fact that raised the odd eyebrow when he was announced to direct the ENO’s first Ring in 15 years, the one intended to replace the Met’s equally notorious Robert Lepage Ring, another of opera’s dampest squibs. Thirty years on, this new Valkyrie avoids some of the crazy excesses of Jones’ previous effort, but it also lacks much of its imaginative boldness. It’s always hard to tell what a director is trying to say when you come to the Ring’s second part without the benefit of seeing Das Rheingold (postponed due to the pandemic until next year), but even so this production seemed short on ideas, and many of those it had felt like misfires.
The curtain rises to reveal a tiny hut on an otherwise bare stage, boxed in on three sides with pleated grey drapes (Stewart Laing designed both the uninspiring set and the bright, lively costumes). These dismal hangings remain throughout, occasionally lifting at the back to allow a character or piece of scenery to trundle awkwardly on or off. The hut, which looks like a modern prefab, is scarcely bigger than the enormous dead tree that grows up through it, leaving you wondering why they didn’t simply build it three feet to the right or left. The opening storm music finds Sieglinde conjuring up Siegmund from a trapdoor in front of the hut. Clearly she needs him, but his springing instantly into her arms before ricocheting to the floor defeats all of Wagner’s subsequent musical efforts to gradually explore their connection.
The hut is stocked with logs, gasoline and tin cans, the latter – according to a preview feature in The Guardian – containing dog food to be consumed later by Hunding’s henchmen. They may or may not be dogs – they certainly don’t act like them – but either way, his tee-shirted crew seem to eat it up politely enough. In one of many worn tropes, Hunding lays brutally into Sieglinde every time she opens her mouth, making you wonder why she bothers. Meanwhile, outside in the darkness lurk several black-clad figures. Are they Norns, perhaps, or gnomes? Who can tell? Their job appears to be to simply watch, wait and occasionally shift the scenery.
Act Two is set in a more up-market, mostly two-dimensional log cabin (Jones often goes for this slightly distancing geometric look). Brünnhilde, sporting what looks like a natty set of white PJs decorated with Bayeux Tapestry motifs, is playing darts while she awaits her instructions from Wotan, here clad in startlingly red rain attire, more functional than grand. Later, the cabin trucks off leaving the stage bare for Wotan’s narration – a moment of visual relief for what is the opera’s emotional and philosophical still point. Part way through a giant projection of a lolling-tongued Alberich appears behind the action – we know this because he has “Nibelung” tattooed on his brow. Latterly he reappears fondling the pregnant woman who will give birth to Hagen. These phantoms vanish, pantomime-like, every time the haunted god turns to look for them.
On his mighty cry of “Das Ende”, here translated as “extinction”, instead of letting his fateful words echo in the silence, Jones requires Wotan to light a torch and pass it symbolically to Brünnhilde. This not only kills a pivotal moment, on opening night it was badly muffed. Later, the fight between Hunding and Siegmund is equally messy, while the latter’s death, the result of a spear thrust up the backside drew audible titters.
Act Three opened with the famous Ride of the Valkyries and a lone sprite doing a manic tap routine cribbed from Riverdance (why?). There followed the simultaneous appearance of all eight Valkyries, robbing the scene of Wagner’s intended sense of them gathering one by one (again, why?). Curiously they are clad a lot like park rangers in matching green plastic macs and shorts. Their horses – bodies encased in grey or brown chaff bags with hobbyhorse heads – tottered around the stage for half an hour, mostly collecting in a sorry-looking group at the back, in front of the aforementioned grey curtains.
Just before the end, Wotan’s farewell is interrupted by the descent of six thick cables which the distraught god is required to fasten laboriously to his slumbering daughter. She is duly hoisted ten feet up into the air to a spot where, had there been any flames, a scientist or cook might tell you she would roast most effectively.
Jones can be an insightful director, but too much here comes across as unoriginal, or worse, clichéd. With little sense of overall concept, there’s a disconnected, scattergun feel about the whole affair.
If that all adds up to a dud of a production, in the pit matters were not much better. Martyn Brabbins is a fine conductor but here his plodding reading lacked both nuance and drive. There were moments where all went well for a while – some delicious chamber textures in Act One, Wotan’s sensitively handled narration, a hushed, intense Annunciation of Death, and parts of Wotan’s great farewell – but too often he seems to let the music roll along on autopilot with insufficient shaping of the drama. The ENO strings and wind played well, but Brabbins’ orchestral balancing was hit and miss, and the brass had some horror moments on opening night. He is, however, a sensitive accompanist as far as the singers are concerned, allowing voices and words to come over with admirable clarity.
Vocally, top honours go to Matthew Rose’s sonorous, occasionally appropriately gruff Wotan. He copes well with the role’s challenging tessitura and applies a Lieder-like attention to crafting the text. His hollow intoning of “By my own shackles I am bound,” is just one of many powerful moments where we sense his dreadful dilemma. Jones chooses to play up the childish tantrum-throwing side of the character and Rose conveys that well, and if he tires a trifle at the end, so do many others.
Nicky Spence’s Siegmund is also wonderfully clear. He may not be a Heldentenor as such, but his perfect diction and careful way of shaping words and phrases creates a vividly three-dimensional and sympathetic character. He’s especially strong with Brünnhilde in Act Two – along with Wotan’s narration, the show’s musical highlight. Firing on all cylinders, he should prove more compelling in the latter part of Act One, but Jones’ staging allows for little connection between the siblings, and their running round and round in circles at the end labours the point without allowing for an explosion of passion. As Sieglinde, Emma Bell’s soprano is effective lower down where she really connects to the text. When pushed, however, the voice spreads and her vowel sounds tend to merge as one. Brindley Sherratt’s Hunding is suitably menacing if two-dimensionally brutal. Vocally he’s dark and dangerous at the bottom, though he’s lighter and slightly less effective at the top.
As Brünnhilde, Rachel Nicholls has plenty going for her. Her tiny frame is perfect for conveying a sense of rebellious teenager and she captures well the character’s awakening womanhood and ensuing emotional conflict. The voice has a laser beam quality that carries well over the orchestra, though it can lack body when pushed and can be short on colour above the stave. Belting out Fricka from a box stage right, Claire Barnett Jones enjoyed a triumph on opening night in a role you could easily imagine her tackling for real. Her rich, burgundy mezzo has terrific body, and the top should gain in power with a little more experience. Although the lower-voiced Valkyries were the strongest. In the Ride, all were outstanding in the complex ensemble work that accompanies the confrontation with their furious father.
The production is sung in English in John Deathridge’s new translation. It’s a fairly patchy affair with moments that would seriously rattle Wagner’s Meistersingers (“Courage I feel he has,” sings Sieglinde at one point, apparently channelling Yoda).
With New York – for now at least – committed to Jones’s staging for 2025, ENO has a lot riding on this Valkyrie. While the Met’s General Manager Peter Gelb will not be inheriting conductor, soloists or translation, in its current form it’s hard to see this disappointing affair going down a storm in the Big Apple (or, one imagines, in Australian and other cinemas worldwide). Watch this space.
ENO’s The Valkyrie runs at the London Coliseum until 10 December.