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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The Valkyrie, London Coliseum, review: ENO’s Wagnerian spectacle never catches fire

It is high time that the fire was lit under a new full staging of Wagner’s Ring in London: it is five years since Opera North’s semi-staging came to the South Bank, but it is 15 years since the Ring was seen at the Coliseum, and ages since the much-maligned Richard Jones staging at Covent Garden. The fact that it is the same Richard Jones who has been entrusted with this new ENO production will raise some eyebrows, but more to the point on this first night was the intervention of Westminster City Council, who in a last minute health-and-safety crisis prevented the flames that should surround Brünnhilde in the final scene from being lit.

In spite of a valiant effort on the part of all concerned, this lack of fire somehow became a metaphor for the whole show, which in the circumstances resolutely refused to spark into life. The Valkyrie should be the most combustible of all the Ring cycle operas, with a powerful forward momentum in its vivid encounters: in the first act, in the human realm, between Siegmund and Sieglinde, who discover that they are brother and sister, and then in the final act between the gods – father Wotan and daughter Brünnhilde.

Richard Jones’s direction characterises these individual stand-offs with well-observed precision, but the framework of Stewart Laing’s designs is a very dull grey curtain surround, within which neither the cramped mountain hut of Sieglinde and her husband Hunding, nor the rather more expansive Alpine cabin of Wotan and Fricka, do much to animate. Bare trees blown by the wind streak across the stage and through the house where the sword Nothung is hidden, and clouds of black rain pour down on the stage, with Adam Silverman’s lighting creating a dispiriting vision.

It is left to the singers to give life to the concept, and they struggle mightily and sometimes successfully. Emma Bell’s impassioned Sieglinde is very fine, matched by Nicky Spence’s powerfully direct and naïve Siegmund: in their passionate climax at the end of act one, which George Bernard Shaw said should bring the curtain down to cover their modesty, they simply race ecstatically around the stage. Brindley Sherratt as Hunding is brutish and boldly sung, about to have his way with Sieglinde in their upper room before the drugged potion knocks him out.

Rachel Nicholls’s tomboy-ish Brünnhilde, little but fierce, is a really original characterisation which will be fascinating to watch as the cycle develops, brightly and firmly sung with razor-sharp clarity but not always riding over the orchestra. Matthew Rose, a superb singer in lyric repertoire, does not sound a natural Wotan; he adopts a stentorian blankness as he fiercely projects the text in John Deathridge’s admirably clear and communicative new translation. Susan Bickley’s Fricka was a casualty of the flu, but she nobly acted on stage while Claire Barnett-Jones sang with total confidence from a nearby box.

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