Die Walküre

Anthony Negus
Orchestra of English National Opera
7 December 2021
Coliseum London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegmundNicky Spence
HundingBrindley Sherratt
WotanMatthew Rose
SieglindeEmma Bell
BrünnhildeRachel Nicholls
FrickaSusan Bickley
HelmwigeJennifer Davis
GerhildeNadine Benjamin
OrtlindeMari Wyn Williams
WaltrauteKamilla Dunstan
SiegruneIdunnu Münch
GrimgerdeKatie Stevenson
SchwertleiteFleur Barron
RoßweißeClaire Barnett-Jones

Richard Jones’ second London Ring falters at the first fence

Good news for Wagner traditionalists: breastplates are back in vogue! As are spears, swords and ash trees. Bad news for Wagner traditionalists: this staging is by Richard Jones, so such references should be read ironically. Directors are rarely entrusted with Wagner’s Ring, but to be offered two cycles in the same city these days is unprecedented. Jones begins his English National Opera cycle with The Valkyrie (Rhinegold was a Covid casualty and will appear next season). It’s a stronger production than Jones’ 1994 effort for The Royal Opera, but that set an embarrassingly low bar.

This new staging is announced as a co-production with The Metropolitan Opera, which is junking Robert Lepage’s expensive, sometimes malfunctioning machine. This first part of the tetralogy looks cheap, although it may reassure Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, that Jones will do nothing to “frighten the horses” in New York. Indeed, the valkyries’ steeds are anything but frightening, more comedic, wobbling around in giant headdresses à la 1970s television game show It’s a Knockout. “Hojotoho, here come the Valkyries!”

There are positives. I like the way Jones depicts Siegmund and Sieglinde recognisably as twins, their movements sometimes mirrored. She mouths silent incantations during the stormy prelude as if to summon him up. He appears through the trapdoor into Hunding’s hut (rented, it seems, from Jones’ Covent Garden Bohème). Valhalla is a dark wood log cabin. Both sets help voices project admirably, so it’s disappointing that the wide open stage of Act 3 supports singers least when they are vocally tiring most.

Some of Jones’ characterisations are strong. Rachel Nicholls’ feisty Brünnhilde sports medieval knight pyjamas beneath her breastplate and angrily throws darts, a teenager ripe for rebellion. Nicky Spence’s Siegmund kisses his sword like a football trophy when he draws it from the ash tree. When it is shattered on Wotan’s spear, there’s a look of recognition between father and son, followed by a tender embrace before Hunding stabs his foe from behind. The black ash falling from the sky adds a nice apocalyptic touch.

But there are moments when Jones still seems to be sending up Wagner. What are Hunding and his hounds devouring straight from the tins? Dog food? Wotan’s Act 2 narration is accompanied by video depicting the threat of Alberich. We know it’s Alberich because he has “Nibelung” tattooed across his forehead. By Act 3, Jones runs out of ideas. The Ride of the Valkyries opens risibly with a lone figure tapping out something from Riverdance, and once the other horses have tottered off, poor Grane is left on stage, standing in the corner like a naughty child for the rest of the opera.

Musically, it was never less than adequate. Martyn Brabbins drew fine playing from the orchestra, harps and percussion in the boxes above the pit, but it lacked drive. There were some good vocal performances, although John Deathridge’s new English translation is clunky. Brindley Sherratt’s inky bass made for a menacing Hunding (another thug after his recent ROH Sparafucile) and Claire Barnett-Jones’ luscious mezzo made for an outstanding, incisive Fricka, sung from a box while the ailing Susan Bickley acted the role waspishly. Spence battled heroically with a heavy cold to sing a convincing Siegmund. I’d like to hear him sing it in full health and at full strength. It felt as if Emma Bell was stretched to her limit as Sieglinde, and the Valkyries were a variable bunch, the best being the mezzo contingent of Katie Stevenson, Fleur Barron and Barnett-Jones.

Nicholls’ soprano had pinpoint accuracy and great musicality as Brünnhilde and I enjoyed her spirited approach, but the Coliseum is a big house to fill for such a slender voice. Matthew Rose, costumed like a trainspotter, sang a gripping Act 2 narration, wrapping his warm bass around the text keenly. Both singers flagged in Act 3, just as Jones’ staging ran out of steam. The tenderness of Wotan’s farewell was undermined by Rose having to clip fly wires to Nicholls’ harness so she can float in suspended sleep.

Unfortunately, the planned pyrotechnic display for the Magic Fire had to be scrapped thanks to safety concerns and a late decision by Westminster Council regarding “previously unknown elements in the construction of the stage”. We were encouraged to use our collective imaginations instead, but surely a lighting director could apply an orange filter at this point? Or employ the tiny tray of flames that had already popped up through the trapdoor in both previous acts? A damp squib that summed up much of the evening.

Mark Pullinger | 20 November 2021

The Guardian

Wagner maintained that the kernel of The Ring of the Nibelung lay in the second of the cycle’s four operas, The Valkyrie, in which Wotan, flawed leader of the gods, gives an exhaustive account of the backstory. The reason English National Opera began its five-year Ring adventure here, conducted by Martyn Brabbins and directed by Richard Jones, may be more pragmatic. With human emotion at its heart, The Valkyrie can feel like a self-contained work. It lasts five hours, with two extended (and usefully lucrative) intervals. It’s an event. The cycle’s first opera, Rheingold, is roughly half that length, with no interval.

There was certainly a sense of occasion at the Coliseum last week. Elite Wagnerians – singers, conductors – were out in force to hear what a new generation of British performers could offer in this overwhelming score. The cast, mostly new to their roles, has some of the best British singers: Rachel Nicholls (Brünnhilde), Matthew Rose (Wotan), Nicky Spence (Siegmund), Emma Bell (Sieglinde), Brindley Sherratt (Hunding) and Susan Bickley (Fricka), richly contrasting voices all, from the beauty of Nicholls’s steely, pinpoint accuracy to Bell’s more diffuse warmth, to Sherratt’s snarling, dark-toned heft. Their performances haven’t yet gelled, but the first outing of a new Ring always feels like work in progress, for musicians and production team alike.

This will not comfort a paying audience looking for a fully achieved result and at least a degree of spectacle. The opening night was blighted. The final ring of fire, when the erring Brünnhilde is consigned to a flame-encircled rock, had to be abandoned for safety reasons. With an aerial Brünnhilde wrapped in Wotan’s all-weather red anorak, it had the makings of something interesting, especially with Nicholls’s androgynous, childlike portrayal of the Valkryie.

Spence, surely born for this central role of Siegmund, had a cold, but still sang, and acted, with lyricism, magnetism and tenderness. He alone had impeccable diction. Elsewhere, John Deathridge’s new translation, literary rather than colloquial, was often lost. Bickley, looking a million dollars as the stern goddess of marriage, Fricka – she who puts her foot down at incest – was suffering from an even worse cold than Spence. She walked the part, with one of the collectively impressive gaggle of Valkyries, mezzo-soprano Claire Barnett-Jones, singing from a side box.

You can’t blame an empty stage and a dreary grey curtain; something wasn’t happening in the pit to hold attention Jones goes back a long way with the Ring – from half a cycle with Scottish Opera in the late 1980s to a full production for the Royal Opera House in the 1990s, arguably ahead of its time. Today his latex-clad Rhinemaidens would barely raise an eyebrow. Then, the staging was widely derided as a comic-book insult. Jones’s international reputation now established, ENO has put its faith in him. So too has the Metropolitan Opera, New York, which says it will roll out Jones’s new Ring in 2025, and will present full cycles by the end of the 2026/27 season.

The Met’s last Ring, directed by Robert Lepage, was burdened with immense but ineffectual stage machinery. Here, stage crew dressed as ravens push the scenery as required. Stewart Laing’s designs, with lighting by Adam Silverman and movement by Sarah Fahie, feature a log cabin in a leafless forest, a larger, deluxe hut for Wotan, king of the lumberjacks in red and black checked shirt, echoed in his son Siegmund’s blue version. Menacing vapours, swirling round a world heading for destruction, fall as sooty rain.

The ENO orchestra played with customary expertise, but the opening act, including the turbulent prelude, lacked bite and power. Pacing was problematic throughout, meandering in the long first act, and rushing in Wotan’s Farewell, leaving Rose, a singer capable of immense verbal clarity and insight, having to swallow the text and with it some of the emotional resonance of this huge set piece.

No production can provide adequate stage action to fill the long, overarching exchanges in this opera (and in much of Wagner). You can’t blame an empty stage and a dreary grey curtain; something wasn’t happening in the pit to hold attention. It may yet, when the rattle and tension of a first night give way to greater confidence. I’m not ready, as some already have, to write it off yet. There’s plenty of Jones’s customary perception. Let’s see what happens next. The production runs until 10 December, with the penultimate performance conducted by the distinguished Wagnerian Anthony Negus.

Fiona Maddocks | 27 November 2021


That the ever-decreasing circles of Richard Jones’s first Wagner Ring instalment for English National Opera ended in a no-show for the fire that should have made former Valkyrie supreme Brünnhilde proof against all but a fearless hero – Westminster City Council poured cold water on it before this first night – is in a way the least of it.

An act which has begun so searingly with a first-rate septet of warrior maidens and blazing orchestra under an ever-masterly Martyn Brabbins fizzles into some very choppy singing for the father-daughter confrontation which should make for one of the most moving endings in all opera. There wasn’t much going on here dramatically, either, puzzling from a director who has so many good ideas, executed with varying degrees of success, in the first two acts.

This is Jones’s third Valkyrie in his second-and-a-half Ring cycle – he got no further in a planned Scottish Opera tetralogy – and maybe it’s significant that I can’t remember much about his Royal Opera staging compared to the searing insights of the Rheingold, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung there. Mark Three begins in vintage style with a log cabin of a far-north pioneer, blasted tree rooted as required below the floor of the main room, and Sieglinde incantating the rescuer who will turn out to be her brother Siegmund up from the flaming hearth. It will be contrasted with the more prosperous timbers of a room in Valhalla for the first part of Act Two; though thereafter the lumberjack idea disappears, and the usual brilliant coming-together of a Jones concept surfaces only in the prancing horses – Pullmanesque daemons, perhaps – of the Valkyries. Maybe the fire would have done it. Scene from Act One of ENO ValkyrieThe first voice we hear is Nicky Spence’s, and it’s clear, recent cold notwithstanding, that this is a role he can sing anywhere in the world. The beaten-bronze middle register encases a characterisation alive to every word of the text (though here’s our first stumbling block: John Deathridge’s new translation is banal and clunky, giving no good reason for its replacing the peerless Andrew Porter version which served ENO so well for decades). Jones helps out with the resonant wood of the forwardly placed hut, and after so much was lost in the wide open spaces of Claus Guth’s Royal Opera Jenůfa – where Spence didn’t get a chance to shine in the same way – it’s refreshing to see a director let his singers project downstage (never have the Valkyries sounded so thrillingly present, even if the taking-up of the dead heroes from the battlefield is something we’ve seen before).

The vivid narrative of Siegmund’s unhappy past, where Jones trusts Spence to carry the weight alone, is compounded by the louring presence of Brindley Sherratt’s Hunding and his men with their horse-logo T-shirts, eating out of cans as they listen tensely for the news that this is their deadly enemy. Emma Bell starts out as a sympathetic sister, but the tone is too cloudy, the vocal climaxes rather gusty, when what we really want is a soaring lyric soprano; I’m sure that Brabbins, so sure of pace and balance, would have made sure not to let his orchestra drown a different voice-type. The arrival of spring is one of many peripheral what-wheres, as are the bottle-carrying scene shifters, and the love duet doesn’t really spark, for all the orchestral surging, until the pulling of the sword from the tree. Wotan’s narrtive in The ValkyrieIt’s always an exciting arrival of the other two principals, Wotan and Brünnhilde, as we move to the realm of very flawed gods in Act Two. This one starts well with Wotan rejoicing in the news of his twins’ union from his raven emissaries, and hoydenish, basketball clad, dart-throwing Valkyrie (Rachel Nicholls) in childlike tussles with her dad (Matthew Rose),. Though a voiceless Susan Bickley then had to go through the dramatic paces of wife Fricka’s deadly spoke in the works of Wotan’s plan for his only son Siegmund to be his saviour, it was the third vocal treat of the evening, after Spence and Sherratt, to hear Claire Barnett-Jones – later singing Valkyrie Rossweise – bring lustrous Wagner-mezzo tones to the role from a box at the side.

Rose starts well: the huge bass brings a resonance and a white-note – for which read black-note – colour to key words to convey cosmic grandeur in voice if not in stage presence (those fiddling hands, indicative of a tension which later transmits to the voice, need encasing in gloves: Sherratt would have brought the gravitas in spades). His big narrative works almost as well as Siegmund Spence’s; rarely a one for video work, Jones uses Akhila Krishnan’s projection design to bring us the threat of Nibelung Alberich’s world domination ever closer in select images across a black background. You wish, in fact, that black was the framing for most of the opera; what in designer Stewart Laing’s storyboard images, reproduced in the programme, look like palisades become drab curtains working against the atmosphere of blasted wood and open spaces. Though in principle this Valkyrie would make a striking contrast to the high-tech Robert Lepage Ring at the New York’s Metropolitan Opera, sharing this production, it actually looks cheap, and the costumes don’t help. Valkyries at ENOThough the collective Valkyries scene is one of peerless musical brilliance, inequalities emerge in what should be the central confrontation of the entire Ring, when Brünnhilde tells Siegmund of his war-father’s reversed decision to let him die in battle, and the hero, in refusing to obey her summons to Valhalla and thinking only of his half-demented sister bride, shows her the meaning of real love. Spence is at his very best here, but Nicholls pales in presence and vocal focus, making it an unequal match. And unfortunately that carries through to the opera’s big final scene. Where now we need majestic long lines and some real bel canto to combine with riveting music-theatre, neither of the singers can deliver the goods. Rose reverts to stentorian barking, breaking up each phrase at the mid-point.

Most directors have some new idea up their sleeve for the final passionate reunion of father and daughter – Phyllida Lloyd’s hugely underrated Ring, ENO’s most recent before this and one destined never to have a complete run, was gut-wrenching as well as heartbreaking at this point – but it doesn’t happen here. While Brabbins is nurturing the most veiled, tender-lovely orchestral reprise of Wotan’s farewell, Rose has to attach cords to the sleeping Brünnhilde, allowing her to levitate above a non-existent fire. The end, alas, doesn’t crown the work; we’ll have to wait on a revival, and a different Wotan and Brünnhilde, for that to happen.

David Nice | 20 November 2021

Evening Standard

Tamped down pyrotechnics aside, this new Ring looks promising

Despite a number of illnesses and technical issues, the potential of this new production still shone through

ENO is initiating its new production of Wagner’s Ring cycle not with the opening instalment, Das Rheingold, but with the second, which tells the story of Wotan, the ruler of the gods, and his disobedient love-child, the eponymous Valkyrie, Brünnhilde. As a strategy to maximise and broaden the audience with the more popular opera – the free-ticket scheme for young people has been a great success – it’s understandable. The main disadvantage is that the full conception of the director, Richard Jones, will not become clear until later.

We will also have to wait to see the climactic fire effect on Brünnhilde’s rock; the planned pyrotechnics had to be cancelled at the last minute on the advice of Westminster City Council. As it stands, however, the staging is full of thought-provoking insights, and there’s some very fine singing and conducting, Martyn Brabbins allowing plenty of space for the orchestral sonorities to unfold.

Stewart Laing’s sets locate the action in a rugged terrain of northerly latitude, with log cabins inhabited by backwoodsmen in contemporary gear. Matthew Rose’s Wotan sports a bright red parka and lumberjack shirt, while Rachel Nicholls looks fetching as a boyish Brünnhilde in a natty faux-medieval outfit.

This Wotan, bespectacled and shambling, is an emotionally stunted ruler of fragile ego humiliated by his domineering consort, Fricka – played by the indisposed Susan Bickley in a regal white trouser suit, but sung superbly from a side box by Claire Barnett-Jones, doubling as the Valkyrie Rossweisse. In furious frustration he lashes out at his daughter. At the beginning of Act 2, Brünnhilde had been riding him playfully like a horse – incestuous longings are never far away in this opera. His subsequent rage at her disobedience, while carrying out his deepest wishes – protecting his son Siegmund in battle – is painful to watch. It also diminishes the character, however, losing sight of his nobility and grandeur. The tendency to rant in Act 3 made Rose sound effortful, though elsewhere there was evidence of an admirable Wotan in the making.

Wotan’s fears are tellingly projected on a screen in the form of Alberich, his rival for world domination, and there are other imaginative touches, such as the trio of figures in ferocious bird-like masks who keep Wotan abreast of events in the mortal world. At the very beginning, in a brilliantly theatrical stroke, Sieglinde (sung confidently with warm tone by Emma Bell) conjures the heroic figure of Siegmund, her brother and now lover, from her imagination. Seeing the way she is brutalised by her husband, Hunding (played and sung with chilling menace by Brindley Sherratt), it is no surprise she desperately seeks escape. Nicky Spence (suffering from a cold) impressed more for the lyricism and intelligence of his singing of Siegmund than for heroic timbre. Nicholls similarly is an affecting Brünnhilde of considerable accomplishment rather than a huge-voiced soprano in the conventional mould.

Both powerful and original was the handling of the murder of Siegmund by Hunding. Here Siegmund sees and recognises his father, Wotan, as the latter betrays him by thrusting him on to Hunding’s spear. Some will find the pantomimic nature of the Valkyries’ horses trivialising, but I found their registering of emotions rather touching.

There’s surprisingly little attempt to evoke spring at its incursion in the first act or any sense of the numinous in Brünnhilde’s Annunciation of Death. But the lighting (by Adam Silverman) was clearly not all going to plan on the first night. Jones’s trademark surreal humour is frequently effective, but the more childish, cartoon-like gesturing could profitably be ditched.

Most of the cast are new to their roles and credit for the meticulous preparation and excellent diction must go in large part to Anthony Negus, working with the cast over a period of months. Negus, who happens to be one of the finest Wagner interpreters in the world today, was scheduled to conduct a single performance before he was unaccountably dropped last week. After an outcry from audience members, who clearly recognise Negus’s talent better than the ENO management, the performance was hurriedly reinstated in the kind of screeching U-turn with which we have become all too familiar.

Barry Millington | 22 November 2021

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Media Type/Label
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320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 518 MByte (MP3)
In-house recording
A production by Richard Jones (2020)