English National Opera’s pre-advertising of Wagner’s Ring Cycle made much of drawing in a new audience with references to latter day epics like Lord of the Rings “though with fewer orcs”. The first night gathered a packed house for The Valkyrie – Part 2 of the Ring Cycle and best-known of the four operas. Shortly before opening night Wagner’s final scene of conflagration was given a thumbs down by Westminster City Council on grounds of fire danger towards the 117 year-old building of the Coliseum. Suddenly Wagner’s hugely dramatic grand finale was disallowed.
Apart from Westminster’s throwing of cold water on the circle of fire that guards Brunnhilde on her rock, director Richard Jones had to keep a tight control on finances. Ninety-two members of the ENO Orchestra under music director Martyn Brabbins overflowed from orchestra pit to boxes at the side – harps on one side and percussion on the other.This left not so much cash for scenery.
The opening act could hardly be more spare – a wooden building intersected by crude lopped branches in the middle of an empty stage. This is Hunding’s hut, the scene of the fateful meeting between Hunding’s abused wife Sieglinde (Emma Bell) and the hero Siegmund (Nicky Spence), sacrificial victim in a power struggle amongst the gods. Spence was preceded by a stage apology, though initial problems from a head cold were swiftly dispersed and he regained his clear heroic tone. Bass Brindley Sherratt was a terrifying Hunding, live-wired with violence and contempt for his wife.
The second act is more visually interesting, in a quirky, gothic way, as it comes to the ride of the Valkyries, carrying on horseback the bodies of heroes fallen in battle to Valhalla. Brunnhilde, (Rachell Nicholls) favourite of Wotan’s eight Valkyrie daughters, first seen romping childishly with Matthew Rose’s plaid-shirted Wotan on a day bed, is deputed by her father to protect Siegmund in the forth-coming fight with Hunding. Wotan’s wife furious that Wotan is blessing the incestuous marriage between twin brother and sister – his own illegitimate children sired during his wanderings on earth. A voiceless Susan Bickley walked the part on the night as Fricka, while Harewood Artist Claire Barnett-Jones sang the role from a side box in richly burnished tones that suggest a promising Wagnerian future.
The ending that substituted for the fire wall to imprison Brunnhilde for her flouting of her father’s command was inevitably less spectacular than the circle of fire. Brunnhilde is laid onto a platform with her spear and armour by Wotan and hoisted up on its four corners to be left isolated in mid-air. Jones deals very effectively with the Valkyries’ steeds that hang around the stage in waiting – the actors operating the framework of the hobby-horses have worked on horse communication. It is far from being a definitive production – and the clunky new English translation is inferior to Andrew Porter’s timeless version – but Wagner wins through to another generation.
In repertoire to 10 December.
Conductors: Martyn Brrabbins & Anthony Negus (7 December)
Director: Richard Jones
Designer Stewart Laing
Lighting designer:Adam Silverman
Movement director: Sarah Fahie
Video designer:Akhila Krishnan
Production photo: Marc Brenner