Monday 29 November 2021

The journey begins: Richard Jones and Martyn Brabbins launch a new Ring Cycle at ENO, dramatically anti-heroic yet with strong musical values and some intriguing ideas

Wagner: The Valkyrie - Rachel Nicholls - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Wagner: The Valkyrie - Rachel Nicholls - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)

Wagner The Valkyrie; Rachell Nicholls, Emma Bell, Nicky Spence, Matthew Rose/Tomasz Konieczny, Brindley Sherratt, Susan Bickley, dir: Richard Jones, cond: Martyn Brabbins; English National Opera at the London Coliseum

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 November 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Strong musical values, a largely home-grown cast and some intriguing dramatic ideas make for an interesting start to ENO's new Wagnerian journey

The Bayreuth Festival apart, few opera companies reveal a new Ring Cycle in one fell swoop, instead the cycle tends to be developed over a number of years so that the whole production beds in. This means that the first production in a cycle has to be thought of as not so much a finished product as the beginning of a journey, designer, director and conductor laying out the ground rules.

English National Opera has not had much luck with Ring Cycles in the last few decades. The iconic Ring Cycle of the 1970s, conducted by Reginald Goodall, was ground-breaking but perhaps had a sense of 'follow that!' to it. Not until the 1990s did they plan a new one directed by David Pountney. But this cycle never got beyond a production of The Valkyrie bedevilled by an overly complex set and an ailing Brünnhilde
. Phyllida Lloyd then directed a Ring Cycle in which each of the individual operas were staged, in 2004 and 2005, but the complete cycle never appeared. And so, we are now returning to the Ring again at the London Coliseum, perhaps more in hope than expectation.

We caught Richard Jones' new production of Wagner's The Valkyrie for English National Opera at the London Coliseum on Sunday 28 November 2021. Conducted by Martyn Brabbins, the production featured Rachel Nicholls as Brünnhilde, Emma Bell as Sieglinde, Nicky Spence as Siegmund, Brindley Sherratt as Hunding, and Susan Bickley as Fricka. Matthew Rose was ill and unable to sing Wotan and unfortunately his cover was unavailable as well. Luckily the company had managed to fly Tomasz Konieczny in, so Rose acted the role and Konieczny sang in German from the side of the stage. [Konieczny was Telramund in the Bayreuth Festival's new production of Lohengrin in 2018 and 2019, see Tony's review]

The new Ring Cycle is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, yet Richard Jones' approach seems to deliberately avoid both the technological sophistication and the naturalism for which the previous two Met Rings were notable. In fact, given the sheer sparseness of Stuart Laing's designs, you wonder how the production will sit on the vast open spaces of the Met's stage.

Wagner: The Valkyrie - Nicky Spence, Brindley Sherratt, Emma Bell - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Wagner: The Valkyrie - Nicky Spence, Brindley Sherratt, Emma Bell - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)

Jones and Laing take very spare, stylised approach to the opera and any sense of an heroic, mythic past is generally avoided. There are no moments of great theatrical magic, everything is plain and direct. But the mythical past is not entirely absent, the cast wield spears and swords; there is a sword in the tree in Act One, and in Act Two, Susan Bickley's Fricka points to places on Wotan's spear when elucidating the various contracts that bind him. There is sufficient material here for one to be intrigued as to how Jones will develop it. His previous Ring Cycle, at Covent Garden, was notable both for the fidelity to the score and for the quirky way that Jones implement this fidelity.

With this new Ring Cycle, you can imagine good reasons for this plainness and lack of theatrical dazzle, economy for one, plus the need to create a production that works in two very different theatres, but essentially the production is like this because Jones and Laing wanted it to be. Not everything works, but there were some profoundly strong moments indeed. 

Costumes are modern day, though one does rather sigh at the fact that theatrical design ticks seem to have moved on from great coats to street wear. Wotan's bright red puffa jacket, Brünnhilde's shirt and shorts, the Valkyrie's outfits were all attempts at designer street wear. Unfortunately, if the brands being emulated do not mean anything to you, then the visual imagery simply looks confused. But not unmemorable, Wotan's jacket played a significant role in the drama, even being used as a cradle to suspend Brünnhilde at the end, though it makes him look more like a school teacher or a Dad on the school run than the most senior of the gods.

Wagner: The Valkyrie - Matthew Rose - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Wagner: The Valkyrie - Matthew Rose - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)

The production's overall look was plain, we were in a huge rectangular theatrical space, there was no attempt at naturalism. Within this, there was a hut of Hunding (Brindley Sherratt) and Sieglinde (Emma Bell). Hunding was clearly some sort of 'End of days' freak, holed up with everything they needed (water in containers, endless cans of food, wood for burning). A group of supers, variously hangers on, ravens and more, moved the scenery around. Huts reappeared in Act Two, as Wotan was clearly in a mountain ski lodge. The second half of Act Two played out on an open stage with just stylised trees, and Act Three was empty, bar a circle of gravel. Yet here, it didn't look plain, it looked very strong and Wotan's farewell was one of the production's most powerful images.

The ending has come in for comment because, despite using a fire-pit in Acts One and Two, Westminster City Council forbade its use in Act Three which meant we lacked the illusion of Brünnhilde suspended over fire. A shame, but the final image of her hanging there was disturbing enough.

Nicky Spence and Emma Bell, both making role debuts, created a strong sense of character with Siegmund and Sieglinde, both singers seem born to play the roles and both relished the English text. The result was some powerful drama and fine musical moments. The sheer lack of theatrical dazzle meant that at moments such as 'Du bist der Lenz' we were focused on the music and the drama. Spence's Siegmund was something of a wild man, strong but not good at interacting with people. His scenes with Bell's rather damaged Sieglinde had a deliberately tentative, stilted quality, and their relationship only fully developed from the mid-point in the act. The end of the act sagged, somewhat, dramatically and by the end whilst we were convinced of the pair's childlike attraction to each other (they made convincing siblings), we were not quite convinced that they were going off to have madly passionate sex and conceive Siegfried. 

Brindley Sherratt's Hunding was simply one of the nastiest incarnations of this character that I have come across. Sherratt gave a brilliant, convincing and superbly disturbing portrait and witnessing his treatment of his wife, you understood why Bell's Sieglinde was damaged. It says a lot for the strength of Spence and Bell's performance that Sherratt did not run away with the act, but created a catalyst.

Wagner: The Valkyrie - Emma Bell - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Wagner: The Valkyrie - Emma Bell - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)

Rachel Nicholls' Brünnhilde was very much a tom-boy, we first saw her playing darts and her opening scene with Wotan was full of physical hi-jinks. There was something child-like about her, and this continued into her sisters in Act Three. So much so, that when Wotan suspends Nicholls' Brünnhilde at the very end, it felt like another childish game. What the production also did was to make full use of the fact that, as compared, to Matthew Rose's Wotan, Nicholls is physically slight. There was always something childish and touching in their relationship, including the moment in Act Three when Rose enveloped Nicholls in a final embrace.

Vocally Nicholls was on superb form, making her light, focused instrument work alongside the physical characterisation of Brünnhilde. Musically this was a performance which harked back to an older style of Wagner singing, bright-toned, laser sharp and cutting through the orchestral textures. There was never a moment when the sound did not carry and we were always aware of her shaping the phrases. It wasn't effortless, but the physical requirements of the role were simply there, rather than dominating. She made the Todes Verkundigung in Act Two rather striking, as this woman-child discovered a world view entirely different to her own.

Not for the first time, Fricka was rather glamorous and different to her husband. Susan Bickley leveraged this brilliantly and her scene was simply superb. There was something rather visceral about the way Bickley uses the words and music, making Fricka's long explanations of Wotan's errors all rather engrossing and highly dramatic.

Physically Matthew Rose made a rather young Wotan, not the grizzled veteran that he usually is. There was something inexperienced about him, and Rose's sheer physicality suggested a man who was not yet completely comfortable in his world role. And this physicality was there all the time, not just in his interaction with Brünnhilde. I certainly look forward to hearing Rose in the role.

Tomasz Konieczny gave a superbly vibrant and thrilling account of Wotan's music. Konieczny was a very strong presence and even discreetly stood at the side of the stage, there was a physicality to his performance which drew the eye and ear, even when you knew you should be looking elsewhere. In terms of tone quality, Konieczny had an expressive quality which reminded me a little of Norman Bailey. I now want to see Tomasz Konieczny as Wotan in his own right.

The strongly cast Valkyries, Nadine Benjamin, Mir Wyn Williams, Kamilla Dunstan, Fleur Barron, Jennifer Davis, Idunnu Münch, Claire Barnett-Jones and Katie Stevenson, created youthful characters, their initial entry being notable more for its child-like wonder than warrior-maiden fearsomeness. Their scene, however, was rather dominated by other factors. Each Valkyrie (including Brünnhilde) has a horse companion and these were physically highly active, so much so that they something pulled focus. And the opening of the scene featured another capering character whose exact nature we failed to discern. And at the end of the opera, Brünnhilde is not left alone, her horse Grane remains in the corner leaving you wondering who is going to feed him for the next 20 years!

John Deathridge's new translation attempts neither the poetic nor the demotic approaches of previous translations here, and instead cleaves strongly to Wagner's original words. At times, this can seem somewhat contorted, but then Wagner's original German is like that. All the singers work hard at making the words count, and I can imagine that once Deathridge's translation has bedded in and we are more familiar with it, then it will become an essential part of this Ring Cycle.

In the pit, Martyn Brabbins and the ENO Orchestra gave a fleet account of the score. The prelude to Act One was lithe and dramatic, rather than massive, and throughout the evening you noticed this sense of clarity, so that the Ride of the Valkyries was exciting yet certainly not massive. The result was a performance that flowed, rich with detail.

Wagner: The Valkyrie - Emma Bell & the Valkyries - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Wagner: The Valkyrie - Emma Bell & the Valkyries - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)

It is pleasing to see ENO casting Wagner largely from home grown talent and relief to see an experienced Wagnerian like Rachel Nicholls getting her due. It is also a relief to see the company finding voices that work in this music in the London Coliseum without musical or dramatic compromises. Musically the evening was very strong, thus providing a firm platform for development. Jones and Laing's dramatic and visual ideas are intriguing, and seem to be creating a space from which to develop the Ring Cycle rather than giving us The Valkyrie fully formed. So, there is a lot to appreciate, much to be thankful for and plenty of food for thought when anticipating what Mr Jones, Mr Laing and Herr Wagner will do next.

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