United Kingdom Wagner, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie): Soloists, Orchestra of the English National Opera / Martyn Brabbins (conductor). London Coliseum, 19.11.2021. (MB)
Director – Richard Jones
Designer – Stewart Laing
Lighting Designer – Adam Silverman
Movement Director – Sarah Fahie
Video – Akhila Krishnan
Siegmund – Nicky Spence
Sieglinde – Emma Bell
Hunding – Brindley Sherratt
Wotan – Matthew Rose
Brünnhilde – Rachel Nicholls
Fricka – Susan Bickley, Claire Barnett-Jones
Gerhilde – Nadine Benjamin
Ortlinde – Mari Wyn Williams
Waltraute – Kamilla Dunstan
Schwertleite – Fleur Barron
Helmwige – Jennifer Davis
Siegrune – Idunna Münch
Rossweisse – Claire Barnett-Jones
Grimgerde – Katie Stevenson
I wanted so much to like this more than I did. It is not quite ENO’s return to the Coliseum after you-know-what, but in many ways it felt like it. (A Philip Glass revival and a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan will have had their devotees, but they are not my potion of forgetfulness.) Anneliese Miskimmon, ENO’s Artistic Director, could not have been more welcoming in her brief address from the stage before the performance. And what could be a greater declaration of intent for a new era than a new Ring? Perhaps a Schoenberg or, still more so, a Stockhausen series? But even then, the Ring retains for many the status of non plus ultra. Its all-encompassing nature continues to surpass all competitors; no artwork has more to tell us, so it seems, at any juncture in our dubious human development.
No Ring is therefore going to be perfect; even the most exalted performance, let alone staging, will have imperfections. It would be too easy to judge perfection a lesser thing; it is not, necessarily, but it is a different thing — one which Mozart (often) has covered. Yet if a Ring in performance will always fall short, it should not fall so short as Richard Jones’s half-hearted attempt at a production, which detracted all too much from a mixed musical performance laying claim to not inconsiderable virtues. Perhaps more would have been gleaned had we seen Das Rheingold first. Starting with the second instalment is not without precedent, but I remain unconvinced that it is a good idea. Berlin’s Deutsche Oper has had to present Stefan Herheim’s new Ring as and when it can, but that is a different case, planned performances having to be cancelled, given without an audience, and so on. (How I long to see what Herheim has done!) Yet it is difficult to imagine that much light being shed on a Walküre (sorry, Valkyrie, as ENO obstinately continues to refer to it) seemingly without a concept or indeed much of an idea at all. Presumably, money was tight, for what we see is not so much minimalism as people wandering a little lost around a stage that sometimes has scenery and sometimes does not. As in Jones’s recent, wretched La clemenza di Tito for the Royal Opera (review click here), there was a vague look: in this case, noir-ish ‘Scandinavia’, though it would be difficult to say anything more precise than that. ENO’s publicity suggests the idea that this is a family saga: well, sort of, I suppose, but only if that is taken to be the crucible for something greater. Use of video to show Alberich (‘Nibelung’ tattooed on his forehead), Grimhilde, and Hagen when referred to in Wotan’s narration — nothing more, just show them — seemed both patronising and pointless, though perhaps in a greater context it contributes to the banal theme of family feud. The appearance of Hunding’s clan on stage might have contributed further, but ultimately undirected (like so much else), they proved little more than a distraction, the lack of much to distract from notwithstanding.
Maybe the strange claim (Christopher Wintle) that opened one of the programme notes offered a clue to the lack of any exterior, let alone political element: ‘Most of us can agree that The Valkyrie is “about” incest.’ I do not know precisely to whom ‘us’ refers; certainly not to me, anyway. Wagner’s drama is no more ‘“about” incest’ than The Flying Dutchman is ‘about’ sailing. The point of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love is that it breaks the violent, cruel bonds of marriage, family, and custom (which Wagner specifically identified with Fricka); that it leads Siegmund to reject immortality, and thus to put Brünnhilde on her way to doing likewise, to attaining the superior status of ‘purely human’; and precisely that it does not matter whether the Volsung twins are brother and sister, not that it does. Here, occasional straining towards a familial idea, for instance Hunding’s physical brutality to Sieglinde, seemed little more than striving after effect, given a lack of embedding in anything more than an IKEA catalogue. The production team sported more interesting clothes than those given to the cast; maybe they should have swapped.
Or maybe they should have given them to the curious animals that pranced around the stage, Wotan’s ravens (I think) included: more Sesame Street than creatures of the forest. Whether the concept were malevolent or ironic, neither possibility was achieved. For some reason, a lone tap dancer did her stuff during the Ride of the Valkyries, whilst actors in horse costumes struggled around on tip toe. Why on earth Grane, understandably fidgeting, was made to balance in this way through the entirety of the final scene — and not only then — I have no idea; but then I have little idea about anything else either. Inability to set the stage ablaze at the close was attributed to a late intervention from Westminster City Council. Alas, Wotan’s protracted fumbling to attach to Brünnhilde a harness that would awkwardly suspend her above the stage, without the slightest sign of flames that had intermittently flickered earlier, seemed all too apt a metaphor. Quite what the Met, where Jones’s third (!) attempt at the Ring is heading, will make of it is anyone’s guess. It is certainly devoid enough of intellectual content to satisfy Friends of Otto Schenk. But the ‘look’, for that is all it is, and lack of discernible stage action will surely trouble many.
Martyn Brabbins’s conducting was sane, measured, and doubtless sensitive — perhaps too sensitive — to the needs of his singers. Brabbins clearly appreciates the need to think in the broadest terms about Wagner’s structures, yet often seemed to confuse that with maintaining a slow speed throughout, occasionally changing gear when that could not conceivably be maintained any longer. A few understandable fluffs — every performance has them — notwithstanding, the ENO Orchestra played beautifully, if often in strangely subdued fashion, especially in the first act (!) I do not know how long it lasted in actual minutes, but it felt like the longest I had ever heard. By contrast, the third act often seemed rushed, if hardly short. This was clearly a work in progress, but there may be considerably more hope for improvement here than in the staging.
Had it not been for an initial announcement, no one would have known Nicky Spence was suffering from a cold. Siegmund is clearly a role for which he is ready — and for which he has well prepared. There are strength, vulnerability, and many other of the qualities we need, even in so unpromising a setting as this. It was difficult to discern much in the way of chemistry with Emma Bell’s Sieglinde; nor did this seem to be ironic or deconstructive detachment. However, considered on its own terms, her performance also impressed, indicative of a woman bruised yet determined to command her own destiny. Dart-playing Rachel Nicholls, lumbered additionally with a strange skater-girl look, trod a fine, shifting line between Brünnhilde’s youthful impetuosity and the glimmers of something more moving, more human — which is to say she understood what was at stake, even if Jones did not. Matthew Rose, lumbered with, well, being a lumberjack-turned-television-detective, offered a typically detailed and thoughtful performance as Wotan, though the third act did not show him at his strongest. These things vary from night to night. Brindley Sherratt’s focus as Hunding varied too, though at its best it offered something darkly psychopathic. One of the strongest, most committed and sustained performances came from the team of Susan Bickley (finely observed, on stage) and Claire Barnett-Jones (also finely observed and with gleaming tone, from a box above) as Fricka. This, again, was a performance that truly used words, music, and gesture to suggest drama beyond Jones’s imagination.
So too did John Deathridge’s new singing translation. It was in many respects remarkably faithful not only to what Wagner said but, crucially, to what he did not, employing suggestion and ambiguity in the right places. It had an intriguing line too in something akin to Stabreim. Word order and stress played their part, as did various other considerations one might find — with profit — in reading Wagner’s own Opera and Drama. This did not, like many of ENO’s translations, attempt to draw attention to itself, still less to elicit inappropriate laughter; rather it participated in the dramatic effort in a way the singers and orchestra, if hardly the director, did. The sort of people who drone on about ‘the Coli’ and alleged halcyon days of Reginald Goodall will doubtless bemoan the lack of Andrew Porter, but their parochial concerns need not be ours.
‘Mark well my poem,’ wrote Wagner to Liszt in 1853, enclosing a copy of the Ring in verse; ‘it contains the beginning of the world and its end.’ One might argue that beginning(s) and end happen elsewhere in the Ring; but were this the generic television ‘show’ from which Jones & Co. appeared to have taken non-inspiration, it seems doubtful, even in the unlikely event of a decision to renew for another ‘season’, that many viewers would have been remaining. To achieve not only an Annunciation of Death, but an entire Walküre, in which nothing whatsoever seemed to be at stake, was a peculiar, perverse and strangely pointless achievement. Either Jones needs to rethink — the prefix ‘re-’ may be too kind — or ENO should act decisively with courage and substitute another production or concert performances. With Wagner, in Wagner, much is or should be at stake.