Thursday 25 February 2021

The Ring dance

Wagner: The Ring - ENO - Rita Hunter, Reginald Goodal, Alberto Remedios
Wagner: The Ring - ENO
Rita Hunter, Reginald Goodall, Alberto Remedios
English National Opera (ENO) has announced plans for a new Ring Cycle, beginning this Autumn (2021) with The Valkyrie and proceeding in annual instalments until 2025's Twilight of the Gods. It is a bold move; ENO was planning a new Ring to begin this Spring and when those plans fell foul of the current restrictions, it seemed that the production might suffer from the complexities of planning and budgetary constraints that all Ring cycles seem to suffer, meaning that more Rings are planned than come to full fruition.

The new production will be directed by Richard Jones and conducted by Martyn Brabbins, and will be a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Both Jones and ENO have a fascinating track record with the Ring, both in terms of achievements and in Rings left undone.

Wagner's tetralogy is something that all opera companies aspire to, but the works can overstretch in many ways, yet which achieved the results can be equally life-changing. ENO first performed the Ring in the 1970s directed by Glen Byam Shaw and famously conducted by Reginald Goodall. This was the result of years of careful preparation with singers like Rita Hunter (Brunnhilde), Alberto Remedio (Siegfried and Siegmund) and Norman Bailey (Wotan) being very much nurtured in-house. I saw two of these productions, The Valkyrie and Twighlight of the Gods, with the company on tour in Manchester. The pleasures were mainly musical, the production itself seemed ill-suited for touring and we saw very little of the staging from the Gods in the Opera House in Manchester.

During the 1980s, plans were hatched to start another Ring cycle with David Pountney directing, starting with The Valkyrie. This had a fine cast including Josephine Barstow as Sieglinde and Sarah Walker as Fricka, but the most memorable moment was the opening of Act Three, set in a huge marble war memorial with a series of rotating concentric rings with the Valkyries leaping between them. The complexity of the set, and the limitations of the London Coliseum stage equipment mean that the production could only be coped with by dropping some other performances. Whether logicistical or financial, plans for a complete Ring were dropped. Pountney returned to the Ring in 2017, when he started directing it for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, though plans for the production to be shared with Welsh National Opera seem to have not come to fruition.

ENO's next attempt was somewhat more successful. During the period of the Coliseum's closure for re-building, Paul Daniel led the company in a series of concert performances which led to a staging by Phyllida Lloyd. This successfully worked its way through all four operas on an annual basis, culminating in Twilight of the Gods in 2005, but regime change at the company and budgetary problems meant that Lloyd never got chance to return to the operas and stage a full cycle. Her production was notable for the way it avoided any sense of the mythic, and concentrated on contemporary resonances, and there was also the feeling that some of the dramatic voices were perhaps half a size too small for the wide open spaces of the Coliseum. But then, having heard both Rita Hunter and Gwynneth Jones in their prime as Brunnhilde, I am somewhat spoiled.

When Richard Jones directs ENO's new Ring it will be the director's third go at Wagner's cycle in the UK. He directed Rhinegold (1989) and The Valkyrie (1991) for Scottish Opera, designed by Nigel Lowery and conducted by John Mauceri. These were notable for having role debuts fromJane Eaglen as Brunnhilde and Willard White as Wotan. Funding brought the planned cycled to a halt. Jones would return to the Ring for Covent Garden, whilst Scottish Opera would achieve a complete Ring Cycle directed by Tim Albery in 2003.

The Royal Opera House has had a somewhat patchy relationship with the Ring. The production in the 1970s by Gotz Friedrich was famously expensive and spectacular but the complex hydraulic machine meant that it did not have a long shelf life. An attempt to follow this with a cycle directed by Yuri Lyubimov fell after Das Rheingold, and Gotz Friedrich's Berlin production of the Ring was brought over and re-presented at Covent Garden. Engaging Richard Jones was a bold move and his production, again designed by Nigel Lowery, ran through the 1990s and did reach its conclusion. Jones' approach to the Ring was very musical, you could find everything in the score, but his visual imagery was very non-traditional and did not please everyone. Deborah Polaski was Brunnhilde, Siegfried Jerusalem was Siegfried and John Tomlinson was Wotan and a complete Cycle was achieved in October 1996.

An interesting side-note here is that until the recent re-build, Covent Garden tended to restrict Ring Cycles to October, just before the main season started, as otherwise they would rather over tax the historic theatre's elderly facilities!

It will be interesting to see what Richard Jones comes up with for his return to the Ring in the UK after 20 years, particularly as this is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, presumably to replace the expensive but unloved Robert Lepage production which is 10 years old. But whatever the details, the sheer fact of the company performing the Ring Cycle in the current climate is terrific. I only hope that the chorus gets its own operatic treat as the opera is famously light on chorus work.

Full details from the ENO website.

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