"The Ride of the Valkyries" is the big hit in The Valkyrie, actually the second opera in the cycle but the curtain-raiser for this collaboration between ENO and the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Big and brassy, this exhilarating gallop contrasts with moments of almost chamber music like delicacy, Martyn Brabbins conducting players who performed both as an ensemble and as characterful soloists
Up on stage it's the much-loved ENO A-team, the cream of British singing. But November is the cruellest month: illness picked on tenor Nicky Spence as Siegmund and mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley as goddess Fricka. The former sang on magnificently through a cold, with only slight signs of wear in the closing pages of his big first act, and with impeccable diction in his unfolding story.
Nicky Spence as Siegmund. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Then, rising star mezzo Claire Barnett-Jones stepped up in one of those career-making moves, singing Fricka from a side box with terrific aplomb and musicality while Bickley walked the role, Barnett-Jones later joining the seven other warrior sisters, the Valkyries of the title, and their steeds.
The three acts of Valkyrie have distinctly different characters. In the first, boy and girl twins separated In childhood meet by chance as adults, fall in love before discovering they are siblings, and on doing so, run away together.
In Act Two, the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde's father, the god of gods Wotan, is upbraided by wife Fricka for allowing this incestuous relationship, and sends his favourite and fearless daughter Brünnhilde to intervene. Father-daughter relationship is somewhat unwholesome in Richard Jones's production. Does incest run in the family?
In the last act, the warrior women Valkyries join the hunt for the couple, but Brünnhilde defies Wotan at great personal cost.
Emma Bell as Sieglinde and Rachel Nicholls as Brünnhilde. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Cue more outstanding singing, from soprano Emma Bell as Sieglinde, bass Brindley Sherratt as her brutish husband, horrid Hunding, Matthew Rose as Wotan, and Rachel Nicholls as Brünnhilde.
Great band, great singing, so far so good. But Wagner's massive undertaking as a composer of opera was what he called Gesamtkunztwerk – an all-embracing total work of art to include not only masses of marvellous music on a hitherto unimaginable scale, but also poetry, visual splendour and movement – opera-plus, if you like.
Jones's laborious production falls down because he is at such pains to make the piece relatable that he strips out the magic. Game of Thrones and Star Wars didn't get this far by being mundane. We know all about gods and monsters: they are like us, only with superpowers and better outfits. It diminishes Wotan to be dressed by designer Stewart Laing as a parking attendant put out by white line infringements. Larging it in a log cabin, his domain is hung with the sort of grey curtains that cover the school gym wall-bars.
Rachel Nicholls as Sieglinde defies Matthew Rose's Wotan. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Pinched sets hem in expansive singers, the lighting is unilluminating, and there are maddening set pieces, notably the laborious hoisting heavenward of the dead by the Valkyries and some Riverdance noodling to the Ride of the Valkyries, as if the dancer had come to the wrong theatre. Meanwhile, what should have been a fiery finale was abandoned at the eleventh hour on first night because of safety concerns, and the Valkyries' chargers totter like pantomime horses on their back hooves.
Those who remember Jones's great service to Wagner with his production of Die Meistersinger in 2015 will be disappointed by the look of this Valkyrie and by its longueurs. But go for the music, and you will still get your money's worth.
The Valkyrie is sung in English with English surtitles. Further performances are on 22, 25, 28 Nov, and 1, 4, 7, 10 Dec. Click here for tickets
|What||The Valkyrie, English National Opera review|
|Where||English National Opera, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4ES | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Embankment (underground)|
19 Nov 21 – 10 Dec 21, eight performances, start times vary. Running time 5hr including two intervals
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|