Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Valkyrie @ Coliseum, London

19 November 2021

A long awaited but disappointing Valkyrie by the ENO

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: ENO)

Well they did it! After surmounting many hurdles the English National Opera finally unveiled their new staging of The Valkyrie on Friday evening, but not without some considerable hiccups. The company’s artistic director Annilese Miskimmon came on stage before the curtain went up to tell us that the fire effect planned for the final act couldn’t go ahead as Westminster Council had discovered it posed a fire hazard due to the composition of building materials discovered under the stage. In addition, the evening’s Siegmund, Nicky Spence, was suffering from a cold, but would gallantly go on as announced. No such luck for the evening’s Fricka, Susan Bickley, who had lost her voice – so we were told she would walk the role while Claire Barnett-Jones (who was already due to sing Rossweisse in the third act) sang it from the side of the stage. These last minute changes inevitably contributed to what turned out to be an uneasy first night, but they alone can’t be blamed for it being a bitterly disappointing evening on so many levels.

This was director Richard Jones’ third stab at Die Walküre and having been taken aback by the theatrical audacity of his stagings for Scottish Opera in 1991 (RJ1) and The Royal Opera in 1994 (RJ2), this latest version paled in comparison to both. With apparently nothing new to say, he resorted to several rehashed ideas from those previous stagings – Wotan’s slow exit at the opera’s close (RJ1), Sieglinde conjuring up Siegmund from the hearth (RJ2) – which given he was working here with a new designer, Stewart Laing (both earlier productions were designed by Nigel Lowery) just seemed lazy. With a cramped, boxed set representing Hunding’s hut in Act I, and a log cabin for Wotan’s abode in Act II, these also looked like replicas, or at least heavily influenced by, their recent La Bohème at Covent Garden.

On the plus side, the relatively light-voiced cast was helped by these designs, as they allowed the voices to project out into the auditorium, but the vast open space of the Coliseum stage, which provided the setting for the last act, proved fatal for singers that were audibly beginning to tire by the end of the evening, as the sound got lost. But what made the whole evening so depressing was the fact that Jones is usually so good at directing singers – insisting upon, and getting, scrupulously detailed and dramatically alert performances from them. But not this time. We were left in the dark as to who these characters were, and what motivated them, which made for a very dull evening.

The addition of Wotan’s ravens spying on the Wälsungs’ union at the close of the first act was a nice touch, especially as they then reappeared to impart this news to Wotan at the start of the second, and we quite liked the pantomime horses – they added a quirky, surreal touch – but that was about it. For an inventive, visionary genius like Jones to deliver such a half-baked staging was a shock – to say we felt short changed would be an understatement.

“…English National Opera finally unveiled their new staging of The Valkyrie on Friday evening, but not without some considerable hiccups”

Maybe if the musical performance had been more accomplished, the staging’s inadequacies would have been less obvious, but despite some valiant playing from the ENO Orchestra, the evening resolutely failed to take wing. The responsibility for that must lie squarely on the shoulders of music director Martyn Brabbins, whose listless conducting resulted in a performance totally bereft of colour, unsteady of pace, and lacking the required drive and volume where required. Act I was sluggish, without any hint of ecstasy and abandon, while Act II lacked forward propulsion. Act III was better, but his glacial conducting meant that it lacked any sense of emotion.

All but one of the singers were making their role debuts. Rachel Nicholls has sung Brünnhilde before, and it showed. Her bright, gutsy soprano rang out thrillingly in her opening ‘Hojotohos’, complete with a fantastic trill, and she went on to reveal a gloriously burnished lower register (the Valkyrie Brünnhilde lies a lot lower in the voice than the following two), particularly vivid and moving in the Todesverkündigung. In the final act it was a shame she began to tire, resulting in her having to snatch too many breaths, but she is a Brünnhilde of enormous promise, which augurs well for the rest of the Cycle.

Matthew Rose was at his best in Wotan’s long second act monologue, colouring the text and displaying the richness and resonance of his fine bass voice, but like Nicholls, he sounded taxed towards the end of the evening – his Farewell was noble and sincere, but ultimately lacked the necessary vocal heft. As his overpowering wife, Barnett-Jones sang gloriously, while Bickley acted it incisively.

Spence’s heroic tenor rang out thrillingly – penetrating cries of ‘Wälse’, yet meltingly beautiful in ‘Winterstürme’ while he went on to match Nicolls’ intensity and ardour in their Act II encounter as she summons him to Valhalla. As his sister and bride, Sieglinde, Emma Bell sounded effortful, where lyricism was required, while Brindley Sherratt thundered effectively as an unusually brutal Hunding. The Valkyries were terrific, if undermined by a leprechaun-like character doing an Irish jig which accompanied the opening scene.

John Deathridge provided the new translation, which places too many syllables in the wrong place, alters note lengths, changes stresses, and translates the originally German far too freely. Here ‘Das Ende’ becomes ‘Extinction’, while there are too many ‘back to front’ examples of sentences to mention. It was one of the worst translations we’d heard at this address in all our years of opera going. Let’s hope the company returns to either Jeremy Sams’ or Andrew Porter’s translations for the rest of the Cycle, as the current one isn’t fit for purpose.

More details of this production can be found here.

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