Review: The Valkyrie – Liberated women or corpse-choosing vampires?

Wagner believed his operas should be sung in the language of the audience, so “bravo” to English National Opera staging his Ring for the first time in many years, writes Christopher Walker.

It is a bold production of the second episode, Valkyrie, which hits the mark, and contains some first-rate performances.

The meaning of Wagner’s Ring could occupy many column inches, but what comes across clearly in this The Valkyrie is his exploration of the limits of power, and the limitlessness of love.

Wagner certainly knew about love. His scandalous affair with a married younger woman, Cosima, would eventually end in triumphant marriage, but at the time of the premiere prevented him returning to Munich.

The Valkyrie by Richard Wagner – ©Tristram Kenton 

Wagner also knew all about power, living as he did in an age of absolute monarchies. Valkyrie only came to the stage, because his chief sponsor, the mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria, insisted.

It was the intense period of German reunification under the first Kaiser Wilhelm, driven by the Iron Chancellor Bismarck.

The Kaiser came to a later staging and fittingly stumbled on the way in. Whether the king of the Gods, the Ring’s main character Wotan, is based on Ludwig, Bismarck or Wilhelm is a debateable point.

Perhaps a combination of all three. He certainly has the manic rages, the narcissism, and the obsession with power.

He is captured very well here by Matthew Rose, with his big voice and even bigger stature.

Director, Richard Jones, uses this to effect, especially in exploring the father/daughter dynamic with Brunnhilde, head Valkyrie.

The Valkyrie by Richard Wagner – ©Tristram Kenton 

Rachel Nicholls gives a tremendous performance, and works seamlessly with the conductor to achieve that poetic musical symbiosis Wagner desired.

Also excellent are Brunnhilde’s fellow Valkyrie, and some of the most beautiful musical moments come from them singing in perfect harmony. Nadine Benjamin, Mari Wyn Williams, Kamilla Dunstan, Fleur Barron, Jennifer Davis, Idunnu Munch, Claire Barnett Jones, and Katie Stevenson – all excellent.

In Norse legend the Valkyrie were feisty women who chose which warriors died in battle, carrying them off to Valhalla (a sort of heaven).

A stone carving dating to 800AD, shows them as liberated female role models wielding swords and shields.

Others see them as corpse-choosing vampires and this comes across in the crowd-pleasing Ride of the Valkyrie.

Newbies just be warned it’s well into the five-hour performance.

The Valkyrie by Richard Wagner – ©Tristram Kenton 

This scene works well in Stewart Laing’s design. However, most of his concept suggests a lumberjacks’ convention somewhere in the backwoods of middle America.

Complete with fashion mistakes. The Valkyrie wear bright green Parkas and nail varnish, while Wotan has a checked shirt and a red Parka.

Brunnhilde seems to be working from home in her pyjamas. Only Fricka, the excellent Susan Bickley, gets away with a chic costume. She must have a good agent.

One of the most frustrating elements of the design is also the missing ring of fire at the end of the piece, reportedly the fault of Westminster council’s Health & Safety officer.

Akhila Krishnan’s video of Nibelung Alberich proves more could have been done.

Anyway, the traditionalists will squirm, but none of this gets in the way of first-class performances.

Despite, the log cabin, and her jeans, maybe because of them, Emma Bell sings Sieglinde like her life depends on it – which of course it does.

Nicky Spence is a strong Siegmund, and Brindley Sherratt a menacing, powerful, Hunding. Thanks to the top-rate conducting of Martyn Brabbins, the music feels fresh and modern.

This The Valkyrie, even with its design faults, achieves a lot. It is fabulously sung, and is absolutely a must for Wagner fans. If under 21 you can go free.

Tickets at www.eno.org/whats-on/the-valkyrie/

 


 

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