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The Valkyrie

by on 20 November 2021

Darts in the Ski Lodge

The Valkyrie

by Richard Wagner, libretto translated by John Deathridge

ENO with the Metropolitan Opera, New York, at the Coliseum, until 10 December

Review by Matthew Grierson

Richard Jones’s new staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle begins with a small fire downstage that, given safety concerns about the venerable Coliseum, is the largest conflagration we’re allowed. It’s a slow-burner, and in that respect rather like the opening encounter between separated siblings Siegmund and Sieglinde (Nicky Spence and Emma Bell). The burgeoning relationship could be human and affecting, easing us into the tetralogy after the pandemic rather than blasting us with the bombast that, as a Wagner novice, I’d anticipated. But instead the first act tends to be slow and, peculiarly, quiet.

The tone is also at odds with the sturdy, outdoor aesthetic of our ill-fated protagonists, with their sensible boots, jeans and tees, and the woodshop vibe of Sieglinde and Hunding’s marital home. I say ‘woodshop’, and in fact a huge ash tree grows in the middle of the self-assembly hut and right through the exposed rafters. It’s one way to juxtapose the domestic and mythic aspects of the opera, I suppose; but if this is a show home then I’m not buying.

So physically confined are the cast that they seem in constant danger of stumbling over the tree’s roots, and particularly when Hunding (Brindley Sherratt) and his hunting party turn up it’s difficult to keep track of the action. Despite all the pointing, it’s also impossible to see anything of legendary sword Nothung that is embedded in the trunk until Siegmund hauls it out. Chekhov’s gun this ain’t.

Hunding at least stirs the action from its lethargy, and Sherratt brings a menacing presence and ominous power to the stage. From the way he threateningly handles his wife and bundles her around, it’s clear he’s a wrong un. This in turn makes Sieglinde and Siegmund more sympathetic, and their semiconsciously incestuous relationship a little the less unsavoury. Clad in stained, hi-vis jacket, Hunding returns home to flick on an unforgiving fluorescent strip, marking a contrast between his artificial world and the elemental one of the protagonists – but also shedding light on their secrets.

If the first act is bound up with fire and water, the second is a breath of fresh air. When we first see Brünnhilde she is bouncing on a sofa in a ski lodge playing darts, showcasing performer Rachel Nicholls’ gleeful charisma. Meanwhile Matthew Rose in Helly Hansen as dad-god Wotan is reliably commanding, even when the Valkyrie mischievously, if problematically, straddles her old man to play horsey. (At least he’s a more convincing steed than those Brünnhilde and her sisters have later, which loiter like pantomime attempts at chesspiece knights.)

Rose remains impressive when wracked by doubts in his discussion with wife Fricka. Such is the power of the entire pantheon’s performance that Susan Bickley, suffering from a lost voice, is an equally strong presence as Mrs Wotan, with Claire Barnett-Jones singing for her from the box. Why do the gods have all the good music?

In this context, Wotan’s determination that his children shall exercise free will is of more than just philosophical concern: it is intellectually engaging drama, because we can see how it is affecting him and his family as characters. Indeed, it becomes brutally personal in the third act when the god grapples with Siegmund to ensure Hunding’s sword finds its mark, even if the dispatch itself is abrupt and perfunctory.

Less satisfying, theatrically speaking, is the appearance of Alberich (Jamie Campbell) as a CGI projection on the screen behind Wotan and Brünnhilde. It may be metaphysically witty to have the Nibelung leering down on proceedings and be dismissed in a puff of pixels with a wave of Wotan’s hand. But the technology seems only to have been used because it was there, and I can’t see how, costumed in jacket, tie and jeans, Alberich fits into the overall vision for the piece.

At least that is clearer with Brünnhilde’s sisters. While the titular Valkyrie is brightly clad in après-ski athleisure, the others sport sensible puffer jackets in line with the overall outdoorsy aesthetic. This and their generally wholesome air give the impression that they are enthusiastic Girl Guides on an ambitious expedition to the Arctic rather than angels of death. There is a practical care in the way they hook the victims of battle to the Kirby wires, but rather than being hoisted off to Valhalla the dead warriors dangle before us like trainers flung over telephone lines.

A similar fate awaits Brünnhilde herself, and her final torpor mirrors that of Siegmund and Sieglinde in the opening scene. Indeed, wrapped tenderly by her father in his anorak, she is part Sleeping Beauty, part Red Riding Hood. Low-key and lonely, that final image exemplifies this, at times engaging, at times underpowered, production.

Matthew Grierson
November 2021

Photography © Tristram Kenton

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