Singers and orchestra save this show from being a ring of dire

I sometimes wonder whether Wagner sets some sort of challenge from beyond the grave on the Ring Cycle to test its strength. The challenge being: who can make such a pig’s ear of a production to destroy the magnificence of the music and the impact of the story on audiences.

This time it was down to Richard Jones, helped by Westminster Council and the cold virus, to make the attempt. They nearly succeeded, but thanks to the 91-strong orchestra, quality of singers and, ultimately, Wagner’s score Valkyrie yet again survived.

Illness meant Nicky Spence was not at full strength, that Susan Bickley could not sing the role of Fricka but acted it while one of the Valkyrie women sang it from the wings, and Westminster Council banned the ring of fire that was to conclude the show. Apparently ‘ealth ‘n’ safety discovered the stage and revolve were original and it was too much of a fire risk. Quite why this took so long to establish is one of life’s mysteries – perhaps the revolving HMS Pinafore in the previous show prompted this archaeological discovery.

However, it was the bland Richard Jones production that was the biggest problem with the characters all living in log huts in the forest where gangs of odd jobs fighting one another, and some creatures (no idea what) wandered around to move the set around.

Siegmund and Sieglinde make a fair job of discovering they are brother and sister and committing incest, such is their delight at the discover. Husband Hunding kills the chap, not because he has shagged his wife but as he is a baddie from another gang somewhere in these barren lands. Wotan, the daddy of virtually everyone, is convinced by his wife Fricka to honour marriage vows and not protect the incestuous couple, but another illegitimate daughter Brunnhilde knows her dad better than he knows himself, so tries to save him and then saves the pregnant woman. Wotan must punish her by taking away her immortality and make her vulnerable so a man can claim her. He is persuaded by her to make this only possible by the ultimate hero, by creating the (now non-existent ring of fire). There ends the story.

Matthew Rose and NIcky Spence

NIcky Spence and Emma Bell

Brindley Sherratt, Emma Bell and Nicky Spence

Claire Barnett Jones, Katie Stevenson, Nadine Benjamin, Mari Wyn Williams, Idunnu Munch, Fleur Barron and Kamilla Dunstan

Emma Bell and Rachel Nicholls

The characters are decently directed by Jones but the design by Stewart Laing (could he really only come up with a grey curtain for Act 3?) and ridiculous modern costumes reduced the staging to banality. Odd people with horses’ heads and an old blanket over them make for laughable horses, making the Ride of the Valkyrie look like something out of Play School although fortunately it did not sound that way – eyes closed times I fear.

Musically, the cast overcame such problems with a rich and emotional Sieglinde from Emma Bell and cold or not Nicky Spence captured the strength yet innocence of Siegmund. They were rather overshadowed by the power of the always impressive Brindley Sherratt as Hunding.

The characterisation of Brunnhilde jarred enormously but as a young street kid Rachel Nicholls grabbed our attention with a bright youthful voice, not what we may always expect from the heavy Wagnerian role. She similarly has received great acclaim in the role at the wonderful Longborough Opera, that remarkable home of Wagnerian delight. This is, however, a far vaster space and it will be interesting to see how the singer and the role develop.

Similarly, Matthew Rose was an unexpected revelation as Wotan with a dramatic impact that often is lacking in heavier portrayals.

Obviously, nothing can be said about Susan Bickley as Fricka due to her illness, but the fine mezzo Claire Barnett-Jones displayed confidence in the role sung from the wings.

Not much needs to be said about the unfortunate outfits for the Valkyries and more of those silly panto horses but the singing was sublime – in fact, even the daft jigging around sprite that opened the scene could not detract from the wonder of this act.

Similarly, without the ring of fire not much can be said about the final scene except too ling having to put clips on Brunnhilde so she can (like the dead warriors in earlier scenes) be lifted into  the air. They made the journey all the wall to Valhalla – poor old Brunnhilde is literally left hanging. Her horse Grane is oddly left stranded throughout this concluding scene.

Martyn Brabbins and the orchestra understandably gained the most vocal acclamation at the end of the evening.

It may not be the finest of productions but it brought joy to the heart and, as always, the poignancy of the Wotan and Brunnhilde parting brought a tear to the eye.

Main image: Matthew Rose and Rachel Nicholls

Images: Tristram Kenton

Until Dec 10.

eno.org.uk

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