Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Valkyrie @ Coliseum, London

8, 11, 15, 18, 22, 26, 29 May, 5 June 2004

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: Grant Smith/ENO)

Many of us tend to think of the valkyries in the plural – chiefly because of “The Ride” – but it’s Die Walküre (singular), and that means the opera is about just one of the nine, Brünnhilde. This production focuses on Brünnhilde from start to finish, more than any other production seen in London in recent decades. She even makes a fleeting, puzzling, and wholly unauthorised appearance at the beginning of Act 1.

At the outset of Act 2 there is affecting knock-about horseplay between Brünnhilde and Wotan; later her face is projected on a gigantic screen occupying half of the stage as she prepares Siegmund for his fate. And at the end of Act 3 her degradation to and in the human condition is pushed to an unbearably harrowing extreme.

There was a smattering of boos – which caused the vast majority of those present to redouble their expressions of positive approbation – when Phyllida Lloyd (Director) and Richard Hudson (Designer) were brought on at the curtain call. Somebody who shouts “Rubbish” would probably be happier in a concert performance – or perhaps he should forgo Wagner altogether and better spend his time running foxes to death. Where do they come from?

Any intelligent person has to admit that there are longueurs in Wagner, that many of the scripted theatrical effects are totally impossible to pull off even with modern technology, and that some of the required props (Wotan’s spear, Nothung, the magic fire, and so forth) do not, cannot, square with any modern production concept.

In the ’70s and ’80s minimalist productions avoided addressing these issues. Now directors and designers have the advantage of the eclectic postmodern approach, choosing to mix up production concepts from many past eras. There is the danger that cohesion will be lost, honesty forfeited; and there were times in this production that I felt too much was ventured, too much risked, but I am forced to admit in retrospect that there is a lively – indeed compelling – integrity to this production, marred only by a handful of stupid and inconsequential details.

Act 1 was quite simply the best Walkyrie first Act I have ever seen. I am not sure that the view of Sieglinde as an hysteric – perfect patient for Sigmund Freud – is justified by the text, but ultimately it works. Many aspects of this production are grounded in the late 19th Century, the time when the traditional understanding of the human predicament was being challenged by Darwin, Marx, Freud – and indeed Wagner.

The set for Act 1 seems to derive from a fin-de-siècle realist painting, probably Flemish; that for Act 2 takes something from Yves Tanguy or Dali, with a little hint at the Chapman Brothers, while the backdrop for Act 3 is pure Magritte (or just clouds, if you’re not tuned in). In Act 1 the room is a metaphor for the mind, functional apparatus moved almost out of sight to the corners. The wall through which Sieglinde and Siegmund appear to connect stands for the prohibition on incest – the whole Act is a study in paced erotic development. The discovery and drawing of Nothung, as if from the body of Sieglinde is an unparalleled coup de theatre and prefigures Siegmund’s impregnation of Sieglinde.

At the outset of Act 2 Wotan carefully arranges a swatch of green (his preferred reference to Act 1) over a desk adjacent to a model of Hunding’s house from Act 1. Phyllida Lloyd seems intent on loading every flagging minute of the score with an image or symbol, which challenges the attention of the viewer – in the intervals members of the audience were discussing the meaning of this or that detail. Teasing it all out would probably occupy a lifetime – such is the nature of myth – and so the Director is to be absolved for one or two misjudgements.

Staging the “Ride” often proves a stumbling block for producers – one recalls all too readily the preposterous excesses of the Walpurgisnacht seen not many years ago at Covent Garden. Tame by comparison, this ENO staging offers us black leather-clad biker-dikes flying kites – sound in conception but perhaps a little under-rehearsed for the first night.

When the wind drops and the kites come tumbling to the ground we see they are the dead bodies of the heroes, though when they are briefly brought back to a kind of life they bear an uncanny resemblance to the warders of a now infamous Iraqi prison; the cell-like doors either side of the stage reinforce this worrying image. What is it all about? – Where are we heading? – Why do the valkyries in prostrating themselves before Wotan take the form of dragonflies or Art Deco car bonnet ornaments? Perseverance to the haunting end of the act and of the opera brings answers to many, though perhaps not all, of these questions.

The ENO orchestra under its charismatic Music Director Paul Daniel again proves that it is the finest orchestra in London. There is also glorious singing from Robert Hayward as Wotan – exquisite phrasing, controlled diction, and body language that reinforced the meaning of the words. Susan Parry, a Marlene Dietrich look-alike, is colder and more workmanlike, when perhaps just a dash of Dietrich’s sultriness would not have come amiss.

Both of the lovers give us passion aplenty. Orla Boylan’s voice soars above the loudest the orchestra can produce but generally retains her beautiful smoothness of texture. Pär Lindskog’s pitch is a little suspect – and some of his vowels stray from the norm – but his voice is open and natural and highly affecting. Siegmund and Sieglinde might have benefited from less enforced slithering on the floor.

Kathleen Broderick, who seems a snip of a girl, is all that one could want in a Brünnhilde: athletic and combative, yet vulnerable (even before that harrowing last half hour); introspective (as befits a manifestation of Wotan’s will), yet accessible and warm; and singing like a nightingale.

No doubt some adjustments and improvements will be made to aspects of this production in the weeks to come, but ENO has in this Walkyrie a triumph to adorn its splendidly refurbished premises.

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