Opening night at the English National Opera’s Valkyrie and the auditorium was full. The excitement was palpable and understandable – it was ENO’s first stab at Wagner in fifteen years. I was thrilled to be able to attend such a landmark event and all credit to ENO for going ahead with the Valkyrie project. Wagner operas are a rarity in the UK. For good reason, they are expensive to produce and notoriously long – Valkyrie lasted five hours including intervals.
I settled into my seat and perused the packed auditorium. There was a huge youth presence, many of the ticket holders benefitting from ENO’s discounted seat schemes for their age group.
ENO’s Artistic Director, Annelise Miskimmon, walked on stage. Our Siegmund tonight, Nicky Spence was recovering from the common cold. The formidable Fricka, Wotan’s wife, sung by mezzo soprano, Susan Bickley, had lost her voice and would be performed instead by young Valkyrie, Claire Barnett-Jones. Miskimmon wrapped up her speech with more disconcerting news. There was to be no ring of fire for the finale. No surprises there, the Westminster’s council’s ban had been well publicised in the press.
I spent much of Act 1 fearing for Spence’s voice. Act 1 lagged for me a tad – probably more to do with Wagner’s libretto with much back story, than Spence’s hesitancy.
Act II however took off beautifully for all the singers. A humongous chalet occupied the stage. This was the Valhalla fortress, the abode of chief god Wotan. Susan Bickley as Fricka, walked on set in elegant white coat. As the Goddess of Marriage, she was there to proclaim her horror at Siegmund’s incestuous love for sister, Sieglinde. ‘All that revolts me – you shall now inherit’, she proclaims. In this pivotal scene where Wotan agrees to do away with his own son, Sigmund, the Bickley-Barnett-Jones partnership synchronised well. Bickley displayed her formidable acting skills, whereas Barnett-Jones sung the part from the Royal Box, in her wonderfully expressive mezzo. This was a star turn by Barnett-Jones.
Spence’s voice took off in his scene with stepsister, Brünnhilde. We soon forgot his unconventional union with Sieglinde and concentrated on the intensity of his emotion. Meanwhile Sieglinde, sung by Emma Bell revealed a throaty soprano with Wagnerian heft. Brindley Sherratt, Sieglinde’s brutish husband, had a sturdy bass with dark overtones, which suited his role as the sinister Hunding.
Matthew Rose in the all-important role of Wotan, used the full range of his bass-baritone to emphasise his power and his vulnerability. The scenes with daughter, Brünnhilde, were psychologically complex. I shed a tear towards the end of the opera, when brave Brünnhilde ran into her father’s arms. She looked so tiny wrapped in her father’s ogreish embrace, and so vulnerable.
The lack of Nordic/Teutonic costume on set was difficult to grapple with. Though I had no fixed ideas on wardrobe, I was at first disappointed by the choice of black jeans, black tee shirt for Sieglinde, and lumberjack shirts for Spence and Wotan. The boyish Brünnhilde, in cut off pyjamas with childish knights, made sense, emphasising her valour but also her childlike persona. She was one of the few to wear armour and to display her shield. It was an interesting decision by ENO to keep things simple and contemporary. And it was a good one finally, allowing the audience to fully engage with the psychological drama unravelling on stage.
The themes of love and power, and their conflicting pull, were well developed with each character. When Sieglinde and Siegmund were revealed as lovers, and Sieglinde was made pregnant by Siegmund, I felt a sharp intake of breath from my young neighbour in the dress circle.
Finally- and most importantly, it was Wagner’s rich orchestral score, which enthralled me the most. There is nothing to beat the brooding storm at the beginning of Act one, except The Ride of the Valkyries. The ‘ride’ starts up in the Prelude to Act III, and then layer upon layer of accompaniment build up involving Wagnerian tubas, kettle drums, strings, woodwind, and harps (there are ninety-two musicians in the orchestra) before the Valkyrie sisters produce their unbelievable battle cries. The Valkyrie sisters were quite amazing! Such original writing by Wagner.
This wasn’t a flawless Valkyrie – Matthew Rose, in his Wotan singing debut, did seem to flag after hours of singing, in the final scene, but it was probably more a problem of stage direction. Without the ring of fire to fuel the finale, it was a little sparse and dark on stage.
Wagnerians will certainly enjoy nit-picking away at this production, but I would return tomorrow. I loved it, especially Rachel Nicholls’s subtle but spellbinding evocation of Valkyrian warrior Brünnhilde.
Performances left of The Valkyrie, London Coliseum, Nov 22, 25 at 17.00. Nov 28 at 14.30. Dec 1. 7, 10 at 17.00. Dec 4 at 14.30.