Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Die Walküre @ Royal Opera House, London

26 September, 4, 18, 28 October 2018

Emily Magee & Stuart Skelton

Emily Magee & Stuart Skelton
(Photo: Bill Cooper)

Keith Warner’s staging of Die Walküre, the second opera in the Royal Opera’s presentation of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, is not consistently strong, but it has its moments. When, as here, these combine with first rate singing, some notable acting and orchestral playing of the highest standard, the results are extremely persuasive.  

As with Warner’s Das Rheingold, a plethora of ideas are to be found within the staging, but here the overall effect is not quite as strong. It seems more natural to pack them into the first opera, which runs at such a pace that the weaker ones are soon forgotten. Here, there is a tendency to dwell on them, which, when they do not work so well, is a problem. Die Walküre is really about the interactions between characters, which can often be served by letting the performers build up rapport naturally, rather than requiring them to fulfil a prescribed set of points. Nevertheless, there are still times when the ideas behind the interactions really hit the mark, and these create some rather special moments.

The basic set remains the same as for Das Rheingold although the varying insertions hand it a very different feel. Act I sees a box-like area suspended above the stage, with a fan whirring around (although not for the entire act) to highlight the metaphorical heat that is inherent in the scenario. The ash tree in Hunding’s house is represented by a metal helix-like construction, hints of which were also seen in the first opera, that envelops the action. When Stuart Skelton’s Siegmund first appears, he seems as agitated as ever and thus a degree more frenetic than the weary, exhausted figure who is normally seen. His interactions with Emily Magee’s Sieglinde are quite controlled by the direction and this makes for some moving movements as she offers him, and then tastes, the mead, because the seeds of their attraction are sown with a quiet, but clear, intensity. However, as their passion blossoms over the act, the actions to convey it do not grow at the same rate and hence feel too stylised.

Nevertheless, the act could hardly be described as underwhelming because the performances of Magee and Skelton are exceptionally strong. Magee’s soprano has a clean, fresh sound, but still possesses enough nuance to make it intriguing as well as beautiful. It is, however, Skelton’s tenor that hits magisterial heights with its sheer expansiveness.

The two smaller principal roles are taken by performers who display brilliant voices and outstanding acting skills. Ain Anger, with his cavernous bass, is luxury casting as Hunding as he perfectly conveys a figure who is a king in his own world and yet only a pawn in the gods’. When he initially suggests Siegmund is welcome it is with the tone of one who asserts his power when he supposedly shows magnanimity. There is also a hint of sarcasm in the manner in which he introduces himself, and then asks his guest if he might deign to volunteer his name.

Nina Stemme & John Lundgren

Nina Stemme & John Lundgren
(Photo: Bill Cooper)

As well as displaying such a rich, full and, in many ways, dark mezzo-soprano, Sarah Connolly also captures the full range of Fricka’s emotions in her confrontation with Wotan as what she sees as her moral duty mixes with basic fear and desperation. This is a domestic quarrel between a husband and wife as much as a philosophical one between gods, and by the time Brünnhilde returns at the end of it Connolly’s expression of proud confidence, because she knows she has ‘won’, is quite devastating.      

Many of the touches work well, even if some are too obscure to be easily grasped. When Wotan in Act II sings of how Alberich has fathered a loveless child to further his aim of winning the ring, Brünnhilde produces a blue wig, thus referencing the moment we saw in Das Rheingold when the dwarf seemingly raped a Nibelung who also donned one. When Wotan claims during his monologue that all he longs for now is the end, the red rope of fate that had run the entire height of the stage until then (including for the whole of Das Rheingold) falls. When later in the act Siegmund and Sieglinde (in the original stage instructions) traverse the rocky pass they cling to it, with what once hung vertically now running horizontally and thus signalling the changing of the world order.

No production today, including Otto Schenk’s 1986 version for the Metropolitan Opera which aimed to follow all of Wagner’s original directions, actually shows Fricka in a chariot pulled by golden rams. This, however, is alluded to through a couch that bears a ram’s horns and legs. Because Siegmund and Sieglinde are defying Fricka’s world order it is only right that they shelter under this couch once it is toppled, and at the end it is appropriated for an entirely different purpose as Brünnhilde is laid to sleep on it on the rock.

The Walküre in Act III seem hampered by having to hold and sway horses’ skulls in a manner that fails to reflect the monumentality of the music. There are a few graphics of horses flying through the air and of a dead mortal ascending to Valhalla, but they feel too faint to give the ‘Ritt der Walküren’ sufficient visual power. Nevertheless, the eight sing very well, and feel a formidable bunch as well as a group of sisters who know each other intimately as they try to protect Brünnhilde without actually defying Wotan. Nina Stemme is positively radiant as the chief god’s favourite daughter and her ‘Hojotohos’ have wonderful polish. She and Skelton deliver the best singing of the evening, and their scene together in Act II is sensitively rendered as Brünnhilde, who had never questioned that the greatest ending for any mortal was to be served mead in Valhalla, has her values shaken to such an extent that she chooses to take Siegmund’s side.

Above all this stands John Lundgren’s Wotan. At the start of Act II he still seems like the god we saw in Das Rheingold, happy to cling to tainted plans in order to prevail as (in this production) the Walküre run around him. This is why his encounter with Fricka feels so important here because, although he has clearly agonised over the thoughts that he subsequently proclaims in his monologue for some time, it is the realisation that he cannot help Siegmund that forces him to challenge who he is as much as how he behaves. Once again, Lundgren asserts his firm, dark and direct bass-baritone to extremely good effect, although by naturally playing to the strengths in his voice his performance of ‘Der Augen leuchtendes Paar’ lacks some of the sensitivity that might really move us. This, however, says something in its own right, because by this point most Wotans have revealed a degree of nobility in accepting that a new order will triumph. In contrast, for this chief god the truth that the future is not really for him feels an exceptionally bitter pill to swallow. Once again, conductor Sir Antonio Pappano delivers a beautiful and rousing account of the score, with the few criticisms that might have been levied against the orchestral performance in Das Rheingold not applying at all in the second instalment of the Ring Cycle.

The Royal Opera House’s production of Die Walküre will be broadcast live to selected cinemas in the UK and worldwide on 28 October, while some cinemas will also show encore screenings over subsequent days. For details of participating venues visit the Royal Opera House Live Cinema Season website.

The Royal Opera House’s current presentation of Der Ring des Nibelungen consists of four full Cycles, which continue until 2 November 2018.

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