English National Opera embarks on ambitious Ring cycle with scrapie Valkyrie

Boarding at Wagner Ring cycle at such a difficult time is a bold statement of intent. It has been half a century since the English National Opera first climbed this highest peak of opera and now the company is leaving with a new production of The Valkyrie.

Much depends on the success of the project. A few days before the opening performance, news broke that the Metropolitan Opera is planning to present this Ring thus, in order to complete the cycles of the 2026/7 season.

On paper, the ENO range seemed solid. In practice, this first of the four operas turned out to be mixed, the pleasure of seeing the company nurturing a new generation of Wagnerian singers was dispelled by stubborn doubts about the production.

This is potentially a third chance for its director, Richard Jones. His first Ring for Scottish Opera, started in 1989, was dropped halfway. His second, for the Royal Opera in the 1990s, although completed, was much vilified.

Rachel Nicholls as Brünnhilde © Tristram Kenton

For Jones, the Ring has never been to propose a global philosophy, a socialist tract, a vision of the utopian world. He just wants to tell a story. This comes across quite clearly, as Wagner’s narrative is presented without bias or interference, and the characters are boldly drawn (although Hunding really needs to beat his wife whenever she walks past?).

A less welcome constant is Jones’ scattergun joke. He goes after it with a flood of irritating details – pantomime horses pawing the ground, a pixie dancing an Irish jig, a Brünnhilde playing darts. Even admitting that health and safety prohibits the Lodge’s magical fire just before opening night, the sets are cheap and meager. It’s hard to imagine that Valkyrie a storm with the New York public.

At best, the cast rises above these hurdles. In Matthew Rose, ENO has a Wotan who promises to be the highlight of his Ring. He might not yet create an imposing stage presence (the red anorak doesn’t help), but his deep-toned lyrical bass sings with such nobility and beauty that he’s surely a world-class Wagnerian in the making.

Brindley Sherratt is up there too, a complete Hunding, and Nicky Spence’s incisive Siegmund, suffering from a cold here, has the role within reach. Emma Bell sings Sieglinde with romantic warmth, but cloudy and muffled lyrics. Rachel Nicholls, on the other hand, is clear and confident like Brünnhilde, but the voice lacks Wagnerian depth. Fricka was played by the indisposed Susan Bickley while Claire Barnett-Jones sang loudly in a box and the Valkyries Field have a well-cast vocal group.

Like the show as a whole, Martyn Brabbins’ direction comes and goes. The first act ignited, without too much passion or danger, but the last half hour followed the music, as if to make up for lost time. A Ring cycling is a long journey. Overall the way forward is uphill.


As of December 10, eno.org

About Madeline J. Carter

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