Last Updated on November 20, 2021
ENO’s The Valkyrie Takes Flight
With their deliciously camp production of HMS Pinafore (see our review) it feels as if English National Opera, the ENO, is back at the top of its game. There is a tangible sense of excitement in the air at the Coliseum on the opening night of Richard Jones’ brand new production of Richard Wagner’s The Valkyrie. It’s the second of the four operas in the composer’s Ring Cycle (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung). Eight-time Olivier Award-winner Jones will be directing all four over the next five years as part of a major co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York so for the Company, it’s a big deal.
It wouldn’t be the ENO if there wasn’t a hint of jeopardy in the mix and before the start of the show the company’s artistic director Annilese Miskimmon popped up to announce that Westminster City Council had banned the use of the fire effect in the finale just the day before; and if that wasn’t enough both Nicky Spence, who was playing Siegmund and Susan Bickley, playing Wotan’s wife Fricka, both had bad colds. Bickley walked through her part with Claire Barnett-Jones, one of The Valkyries, filling in valiantly from a box on the side. But the show must go on and it did and was actually rather splendid. Talking of the boxes it was wonderful to see them stacked up with instruments; for this is Wagner which requires huge orchestral resources. There were four harps in one box, two timpanists in another and a battery of percussion in a third. And that’s before we mention the stierhörner backstage (think trombones) beautifully conducted by assistant conductor Olivia Clarke.
With its story built on the Norse myths and sagas, The Ring Cycle’s narrative is framed around a golden ring with magical powers. It’s been forged by Alberich the dwarf (the Nibelung are a Scandinavian race of dwarfs) from Rhein gold stolen from the Rheinmaidens. Wotan, the king of the Gods, uses the ring to pay the giants Fafner and Fasolt for the building of Valhalla, a giant hall located in Asgard. Alberich places a curse on the ring dooming all who possess or desire it and so the drama plays out. This backstory is laid out in Das Rheingold, the first of the four operas, with the story progressing in The Valkyrie.
The opera opens with one of the most satisfyingly dramatic overtures in the canon. It plays over a storm scene with flashing lights and a 60 bar tremolo that ebbs and flows and then builds into an incessant lower string scalar movement. it presages the emotional turbulence that infuses the piece. At the centre of the opera is the passionate incestuous love affair between twin siblings Siegmund and his sister Sieglinde. They are Wotan’s human children who were separated when young. One day when Wotan, known as Wolf, and Siegmund returned from hunting, he found his wife dead, daughter abducted and their house burnt down.
The designer Stuart Laing has set the production in a mythical Nordic backwoods ‘survivalist’ society where people live in log cabins, wear check shirts, baseball outfits, jeans and windcheaters. It’s the sort of place where men are men, women are downtrodden and sibling incest is not too frowned upon.
At the start of Act 1 Siegmund and Sieglinde meet years later when Siegmund collapses in Sieglinde and her abusive husband Hunding’s forest cabin. Nicky Spence’s Siegmund, calling himself “Woeful”, had been trying to save a girl from a forced marriage and having slaughtered much of her family was escaping from the girl’s clan members. Despite his cold, Spence inhabits one of the key Heldentenor parts with distinction. His voice has the darker tones for this type of Wagnerian role as well as soaring into the heavens when necessary. A nervous Sieglinde tends to the wounded Siegmund with both protagonists aware of their growing mutual attraction and their sense of the other’s true identity. Emma Bell’s performance as the woe begotten heroine was truly affecting. She has an unusually dark timbre to her voice that added to the powerful characterisation of her tragic role.
But the first act was nearly stolen by the peerless Brindley Sherratt singing the part of Hunding. I last saw him delivering a chilling portrayal of the assassin Sparafucile in Rigoletto at the ROH. Sherratt has a threatening physicality and there is a sinister edge to his resonant bass voice. When Hundling returns with a few of his thugs, he establishes his power over Sieglinde by pushing her around much to the unarmed Sigmund’s dismay. Hunding recognises Sigmund as the person who has attacked his kin and promises to fight him in the morning. Sieglinde drugs Hunding’s nighttime drink and he collapses allowing Sigmund to pull out a sword that had been stuck in the ash tree that dominates the first act’s set. The sword named “Nothung” had been thrust into the ash by a disguised Wotan on the night of Sieglinde’s wedding. Overcome by passion Siegmund sings “Winter storms have vanished…spring and love are like brother and sister” creating a rapturous end to the act and to their childhood separation.
Act 2 opens with a scene establishing the intimacy between Wotan and his favourite Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde. In a slightly posher cabin there is plenty of horseplay between the two with Rachel Nicholls bringing her outstanding dramatic soprano voice to the part of Brünnhilde. She plays the role as a lively tomboy, but one with greater emotional intelligence than her conflicted and raging father. Matthew Rose is making his role debut as Wotan and brings an imperious vocal tone and a shambling physicality to the part. He knows the game is up for the Gods of the old order. Wotan instructs Brünnhilde to protect Siegmund from Hunding but has to change his mind after the intervention of his wife Fricka. She sweeps in and in her position as Goddess of Marriage berates her husband for his own licentiousness and for supporting the incestuous lovers.
Wotan bemoans his fate and lack of power to his daughter giving her some insight into his plan to create a hero out of Siegmund who was to have been tasked with retrieving the Ring for his father. Wishing for closure he instructs the astonished Brünnhilde to bring about Siegmund’s death.
Meanwhile, the two lovers have escaped to the forest with Hunding and his men in pursuit. The setting is stark and bare using the size of the Coliseum’s stage to good effect. Sieglinde panics and tells Siegmund to leave her but he is intent on fighting Hunding. Brünnhilde foretells Siegmund’s death and orders him to follow her to Valhalla but he would rather kill himself and his sister-bride rather than submit to Wotan’s demands. Brünnhilde decides to protect Siegmund from Hunding but a furious Wotan appears, breaks Siegmund’s sword into pieces and allows Hunding to kill his son with Wotan finishing off Hunding himself. Brünnhilde and Sieglinde escape with Wotan vowing to punish his errant daughter.
Opening with the iconic Ride of the Valkyrie theme, the final act is the apotheosis of the drama. The ENO’s Music Director Martyn Brabbins was in the pit directing the prize-winning ENO orchestra with verve and energy. The brass including the Wagner horns blazed away when appropriate and the strings brought momentum and passion to the orchestration. Martyn Brabbins allowed the constantly shifting sands of the drama to be well served by the music.
Brünnhilde approaches her sister Valkyries for protection from their father but they are unwilling – The Valkyries are a group of nine powerful women who have the power to decide who should die in battle, with the souls of the departed being transported to the god Wotan’s realm of Valhalla. The scenes with The Valkyries are some of the most spine-tingling in opera and the voices of ENO Harewood Artists Nadine Benjamin, Idunnu Münch, Katie Stevenson and Claire Barnett-Jones (the voice of Fricka) along with Jennifer Davis, Kamilla Dunstan, Fleur Barron and Mari Wyn Williams created a swirling vortex of vocal excitement. Sieglinde is unhappy that Brünnhilde hadn’t let her die but on being told that she is bearing Siegmund’s child, the next-gen hero Siegfried, she escapes. The Valkyries try to protect Brünnhilde from their father but he is determined to punish her. Brünnhilde makes a valiant effort to convince Wotan that her actions were designed to deliver his true intentions but he surrounds her with a ring of fire on a mountain top to be claimed by the next passing hero. These final scenes are hugely powerful and beautifully sung with the powerful bond between the two being reestablished even as he seeks to punish her. Wearing her father’s red jacket, Brünnhilde in deep sleep is suspended in the air by a series of ropes in an arresting final scene. Somehow the lack of pyros didn’t matter anymore.
The Valkyrie – English National Opera – Book here
6 Evening Performances 19 22 25 Nov 01 07 10 Dec
2 Matinee Performances 28 Nov 04 Dec
Running Time 5hrs
English National Opera
St Martin’s Lane,
London WC2N 4ES