ENO is initiating its new production of Wagner’s Ring cycle not with the opening instalment, Das Rheingold, but with the second, which tells the story of Wotan, the ruler of the gods, and his disobedient love-child, the eponymous Valkyrie, Brünnhilde. As a strategy to maximise and broaden the audience with the more popular opera – the free-ticket scheme for young people has been a great success – it’s understandable. The main disadvantage is that the full conception of the director, Richard Jones, will not become clear until later.
We will also have to wait to see the climactic fire effect on Brünnhilde’s rock; the planned pyrotechnics had to be cancelled at the last minute on the advice of Westminster City Council. As it stands, however, the staging is full of thought-provoking insights, and there’s some very fine singing and conducting, Martyn Brabbins allowing plenty of space for the orchestral sonorities to unfold.
Stewart Laing’s sets locate the action in a rugged terrain of northerly latitude, with log cabins inhabited by backwoodsmen in contemporary gear. Matthew Rose’s Wotan sports a bright red parka and lumberjack shirt, while Rachel Nicholls looks fetching as a boyish Brünnhilde in a natty faux-medieval outfit.
This Wotan, bespectacled and shambling, is an emotionally stunted ruler of fragile ego humiliated by his domineering consort, Fricka – played by the indisposed Susan Bickley in a regal white trouser suit, but sung superbly from a side box by Claire Barnett-Jones, doubling as the Valkyrie Rossweisse. In furious frustration he lashes out at his daughter. At the beginning of Act 2, Brünnhilde had been riding him playfully like a horse – incestuous longings are never far away in this opera. His subsequent rage at her disobedience, while carrying out his deepest wishes – protecting his son Siegmund in battle – is painful to watch. It also diminishes the character, however, losing sight of his nobility and grandeur. The tendency to rant in Act 3 made Rose sound effortful, though elsewhere there was evidence of an admirable Wotan in the making.
Wotan’s fears are tellingly projected on a screen in the form of Alberich, his rival for world domination, and there are other imaginative touches, such as the trio of figures in ferocious bird-like masks who keep Wotan abreast of events in the mortal world. At the very beginning, in a brilliantly theatrical stroke, Sieglinde (sung confidently with warm tone by Emma Bell) conjures the heroic figure of Siegmund, her brother and now lover, from her imagination. Seeing the way she is brutalised by her husband, Hunding (played and sung with chilling menace by Brindley Sherratt), it is no surprise she desperately seeks escape. Nicky Spence (suffering from a cold) impressed more for the lyricism and intelligence of his singing of Siegmund than for heroic timbre. Nicholls similarly is an affecting Brünnhilde of considerable accomplishment rather than a huge-voiced soprano in the conventional mould.
Both powerful and original was the handling of the murder of Siegmund by Hunding. Here Siegmund sees and recognises his father, Wotan, as the latter betrays him by thrusting him on to Hunding’s spear. Some will find the pantomimic nature of the Valkyries’ horses trivialising, but I found their registering of emotions rather touching.
There’s surprisingly little attempt to evoke spring at its incursion in the first act or any sense of the numinous in Brünnhilde’s Annunciation of Death. But the lighting (by Adam Silverman) was clearly not all going to plan on the first night. Jones’s trademark surreal humour is frequently effective, but the more childish, cartoon-like gesturing could profitably be ditched.
Most of the cast are new to their roles and credit for the meticulous preparation and excellent diction must go in large part to Anthony Negus, working with the cast over a period of months. Negus, who happens to be one of the finest Wagner interpreters in the world today, was scheduled to conduct a single performance before he was unaccountably dropped last week. After an outcry from audience members, who clearly recognise Negus’s talent better than the ENO management, the performance was hurriedly reinstated in the kind of screeching U-turn with which we have become all too familiar.
London Coliseum, to December 10, eno.org