ENO Response is a scheme that offers aspiring writers the opportunity to review opera whilst receiving writing advice and feedback from industry mentors.
The ENO brings to life a new, highly anticipated production of the second part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The Valkyrie will be the first performed opera starting a new and complete Ring Cycle series over the next five years. This is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and will mark the first time in over 15 years that the ENO has staged The Ring.
In Wagner’s epic opera The Valkyrie, the seeds of a final apocalypse are sown as the earth is plunged into conflict by the Gods in their search for power. Set against the rich landscape of Norse mythology, a man pursued by unstoppable enemies and a woman in love cause a devastating dispute between an all-powerful father and his rebellious daughter.
ENO has had no editorial input in the reviews. All views are their own.
The Valkyrie marks the first in a new production of the Ring Cycle series taking place over the next five years, in collaboration with the Met in New York. The opening night was not a fortuitous one – the large fire effect designed as the finale (encircling Brunhilde on her rock) was abandoned at the last minute as it threatened the safety of the Coliseum, which I’m sure was a disappointment to the creative team. Susan Bickley had to walk her role as Fricka thanks to a cold and the ENO’s Musical Director Martyn Brabbins had to step in to conduct for famed Wagnerian Anthony Negus (for reasons not yet clear).
As soon as the curtain lifted and the ENO’s full orchestra first rumbled, then crashed into the audience’s consciousness all the above was forgotten. Starlet Nicky Spence and Emma Bell as Siegmund and Sieglinde (the twincestuous siblings) tucked into their meaty roles, growing in strength together through the performance. Brindley Sharratt’s dastardly Hunding was an imposing presence on stage, throwing his wife Sieglinde around. Brünnhilde, played by Rachel Nicholls, dazzled as she expanded from favoured child to woman standing on her own and her ‘War-Father’ Wotan (Matthew Rose) gave a completely commanding performance. Their relationship was artfully untangled in Act III leading to a heartfelt goodbye. Infact, all the cast (almost exclusively from the British Isles) produced exciting performances and anticipation for possible reprisals in the subsequent Ring operas.
This largely homegrown cast makes sense in a post- pandemic, Brexit and COP-26 climate, fostering local talent and reducing travel for international stars: I wonder whether this will be a continuing trend, or whether it has to do with the fact that non-English speaking natives simply don’t like to sing translations. Speaking of, I was not particularly enamoured by John Deathridge’s new translation, not least because the words sung didn’t always match up with what was shown in the surtitles. The aim of a translation is surely to blend in, and this one made itself too obvious for me.
If I’m being honest I didn’t get the creative design. It was paired back and contemporary, but there were lots of cultural references that I couldn’t quite place, for example the Donald Judd style sofa in Valhalla (a log-cabin), or the Irish dancer that opened the third act with the Valkyries and their awkward oversized hobby-horses. Perhaps it will chime better with an American audience, or make sense as part of the larger design of the series.
In short, I loved everything I heard and was confused by much of what I saw. The orchestra provided some of my favourite moments – beautiful deep cello passages and sometimes deeply ominous, sometimes pure and joyful brass and horns. With or without the fire that we have come to expect from ring cycles, a spine-tingling pinnacle was reached – the only difference here being that the fire was solely created by Wagner’s score, rather than by extensive pyrotechnics.
The Valkyrie – ENO response
The second of the four operas that make up The Ring of the Nibelung, The Valkyrie follows a separate narrative from the first, The Rhinegold, carrying through only two characters from it: Wotan, the ruler of the Gods (sung by Matthew Rose), and—in a much smaller role —Fricka, his wife (mimed on the night by Susan Bickley, who had succumbed to a heavy cold; Claire Barnett Jones sang the role, really rather well, from the wings).
The plot revolves around extra-marital and incestuous transgressions, which result in Wotan being trapped by Fricka into destroying his son, Siegmund (sung with impeccable clarity by Nicky Spence, despite also suffering from a heavy cold), who has eloped with his long-lost sister, Sieglinde, wife to Hunding. Wotan despatches his daughter, Brünnhilde, the titular Valkyrie (sung by Rachel Nicholls), to prevent Siegmund defeating Hunding. But instead, Brünnhilde tries to save Siegmund—in vain—and, more successfully, Sieglinde and their unborn child. Her defiance incurs the wrath of Wotan and thus begins a bargaining of punishment between the shunned daughter and her father.
The Valkyrie is, like most ancient mythology, a domestically driven epic, from the outset focussing on the mortal world, in contrast to the divine power-play of The Rhinegold. The Valkyrie is, for much of its length, an opera of duos. As a result, The Ring of the Nibelung is condensed down, and The Valkyrie funnels it ever narrower into what becomes a stark and stripped-back production.
This starkness is mostly represented in the space and staging, rather minimalist and Scandinavian in style. Space is abundant, diminishing the scale of the mortals and creating a vast difference between the setting and the people on stage. In what is a slightly odd infusion of modernity, the characters are clad in parkas (lurid green for the eight other Valkyries); whilst this does not detract from the action, neither does this add anything of note.
For me, this production struggles to reach the heights to which it aspires and remains caged by its domestic mortality. Martyn Brabbins (conductor), saving his 92-strong orchestra, unleashes its full power for the first scene of Act 3. Unfortunately, this power is achieved at the expense of an underwhelming opening and ending. It is a production in need of balance. Whilst the singing is superb, the acting is left wanting, making the true star of the opera the music itself. The orchestra becomes a character in its own right, the plot driver and a helping hand to the Wagner novice. The familiar notes of ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ helps the audience navigate the web of interwoven motifs each connected to particular characters or symbols.
Whilst the storms do not impress and audience attention wavers throughout, the sheer intelligence of Wagner’s score shines through. This is not an opera for the easily deterred, but one that I imagine takes a lifetime of study to appreciate; the ENO has, I believe, only just scratched the surface of its grandeur.
The Valkyrie Review by Maxine Morse
From the orchestra pit we have Ben Hur, Braveheart, The Return of the Jedi and on stage we are submerged in some boggy youth hostel where the ramblers are refreshing themselves with bottled water and tinned meat.
Sieglinde, no good can come from summoning a man, a self-professed loser who resembles your brother, out of your domestic fireplace…
Sieglinde’s (Emma Bell) voice carries the first act, with rich qualities of love, desperation and urgency. Siegmund (Nicky Spence), a malty tenor with befitting melancholy tones, puts on a brave performance while battling a heavy cold. Hunding (Brindley Sheratt) is a man’s man, burly, powerful, intriguing with vocal prowess. It’s a shame he is a bit of a neanderthal wife beater. Why are you in this hippy commune when you could be auditioning for Apocalypse Now?
In Act Two, we meet our flawed gods. The one-eyed Wotan (Matthew Rose) puts on a bravura show but is let down by his red anorak and dodgy glasses. He aimlessly paces about, lacking the menace and grandiose gestures that are required of the leader of the gods. Please give this man a full-length gold cape, or at least a padded metallic coat!
Fricka (Susan Bickley) also unwell, walks her role with conviction, while Claire Barnett-Jones capably sings the part from a side box, her voice bold and colourful as she pleads with Wotan to spare Siegmund who he has condemned to die for incest. The pyjama-ed daughter of Wotan, Brunnhilde (Rachel Nicholls) is lyrical but her vocals are occasionally thin for the size of the auditorium.
The set has some nice touches, the cabin with a large girthed trunk housing the sword “Nothung”, the skeletal trees, the blanket of black ash and the suspended bodies… but it falls short. We need more bodies! More blood! More guts! We want our gods to be gods with authority and majesty! We want to be frightened! The pantomime horses and green waterproofed Valkyries just don’t cut it despite their obvious singing prowess.
Richard Jones’ (Director) modern, minimalist staging is at odds with the demands of the music. Martyn Brabbins proficiently conducts a mammoth orchestra with instruments and musicians flowing from every orifice – the pit, the boxes. The Ride of the Valkyries is a joy to witness; emotional, warlike, musical pyrotechnics at their best.
Westminster Council unhelpfully played the health and safety card and put the kibosh on the fire in the powerful final scene. We are left with the sleeping Brunnhilde suspended from the ceiling, stripped of her god-like powers, without the ring of fire to defend her from being claimed by the first cowardly, namby-pamby man to come across her. Amp up the lights, project flickering flames, “Alexa, play crackling fire sounds”.
The Valkyrie is a performance of parts. Massive colour and drama from the pit, some excellent vocal performances counterbalanced by damp and dreary staging. I am reminded of that urban idiom, “Go big, or go home”.
As a twenty-something person attending ENO’s first staging of Die Walküre, I’m glad director Richard Jones and the entire creative team at the London Coliseum all agreed that if there was a Valkyrie on earth it would be a Billie Eilish lookalike in plated armour. Unlike the other productions so far this season, The Valkyrie, with its accessible English Libretto and pop culture references, truly felt as if it was self-consciously designed for a new generation of opera goers – but did Jones pull it off?
Unfortunately, for the first two acts of the performance, the answer to this languishes somewhere between not-quite and sort-of. Designer Stewart Laing’s decision to include many of the typical apocalypse references most twenty-year olds could recognise from ‘The Walking Dead’ or ‘The Last of Us’ felt a little hit and miss on the operatic stage. However, one could not have asked for a more ominous villain in this apocalypse roulette than Brindley Sherratt as Hunding. His dominating bass practically implored audience members to cower before him. As he terrorised Nicky Spence (Siegmund) and Emma Bell (Sieglinde), their icky incestuous relationship became more forgivable in a world so malevolent.
With the introduction of Matthew Rose (Wotan), Rachel Nicholls (Brünnhilde) and Susan Bickley (Fricka) in Act II, the performance picked up a notch. Unfortunately, in true post-Covid fashion, Bickley was ill, but walked her part, as Claire Barnett-Jones sung Fricka’s part beautifully from offstage. Towards the end of Act II, the apocalyptic intensity was more noticeable as the design became more abstracted, a little less like a videogame and a little more Tim Burton-esque, as twisted trees and falling ash provided the mythologised mountain-ridge backdrop of the Valkyrie’s plight.
Having been pre-warned about the lack of fire in the third Act, perhaps I had readied myself too much for a dud – but the visuals and the performances were some of the most impressive I’ve seen on the ENO stage. Dressed like a stylish bomb disposal squad, the Valkyries accompany their horses through the ash in search of Brünnhilde. Using their battle cry as a form of echolocation, dressed entirely in camo green, one is immediately reminded of ‘Apocalypse Now’, and the formidable power of the Valkyries. The stunning visuals were accompanied by a spectacular throng of Valkyrie cries; conductor Martyn Brabbins and the fabulous ENO Orchestra carried this operatic hit well.
Additionally, Matthew Rose and Rachel Nicholls’ performances reached a sentimental peak in the final Act. In Act II Rose’s mismatched costume made him look about as all powerful as a supply teacher on a school trip to Ben Nevis; but his performance grew with intensity as his voice filled with rage and hurt at Brünnhilde’s betrayal. Nicholls’s previously steely and mighty tone was replaced with one filled with regret and sorrow, as she became bound to her fate. The performances here were enough to negate the absence of the fire and to declare Jones’s interpretation a success. A mixed success, but a success nonetheless.
For The Valkyrie, the ENO went above and beyond in upholding a quality performance, despite some artistic set-backs days prior. (The Westminster council prohibited fire on stage in the finale due to safety hazards- a major plot point in the final act) Having never heard Wagner live, I enjoyed marinating in the music of each act.
The plot of The Valkyrie comes from Norse mythology, with action between Gods and human warriors. In Norse mythology, characters would have worn battle robes, Viking-like helmets with weapons such as hammers and shields. I was anticipating how this would be realized in the production. Opportunities to bring in new audiences familiar with Norse Mythology from Marvel’s popular franchises with movies such as Loki and Thor were missed. Modern takes on Wagner’s Ring Cycle across different opera houses have been removing some mythological elements in modern takes – is this perhaps less effective when conveying a fantasy narrative?
Designer Stewart Laing tentatively depicted some aspects of the fantastical with The Valkyrie’s props- long green spears yet their costumes stuck to modern green uniforms. Some characters began to explore magical elements with black silhouetted costumes, but this still only began to scratch the surface of possibility on stage. Wotan also wore a modern costume, brown corduroy jeans with suspenders and a red jacket. I would have liked to have seen both King Wotan and Goddess Fricka’s costumes reflecting Norse Mythology beyond their weapons. As The Valkyrie is not abundant in plot, mythological costumes may have aided in driving an often-thin narrative.
The staging of The Valkyrie was also extremely sparse. I liked seeing into the lives of the characters in the present moment through their bisected houses. I particularly enjoyed the staging in Act I; the tree growing between the levels of Sieglinda’s home. Like the costumes however, I think Wotan’s house could have been more extravagant. Audiences familiar with Scandinavian architecture, would recognize the dark brown wood designed to imitate a traditional summer house. Maybe Wotan’s home could have mimicked the architecture of a Nordic castle instead of the average Nordic home? Arguably, Sieglinda’s house was grander than King Wotan’s! Yet, I do think there were some advantages to the sparse set too- acting as a blank canvas for Adam Silverman to create atmosphere using extremely subtle changes from warm to cooler lights.
Conductor Martyn Brabbins orchestrated the pit beautifully- at times I felt drawn to watching the Orchestra rather than the stage. It often felt the instruments were playing the musicians, rather than the musicians playing their instruments as each note was executed so naturally. Bass Clarinetist Robert Ault consistently caught my attention due to his ability to cut over thick textures whilst retaining a delicate, modest sound.
When staging The Valkyrie, I can imagine it difficult to do justice to the fantasy engraved into Wagner’s score. It is perhaps better to stick to a minimalist stage at points to draw complete focus to the music itself.
The Valkyrie Review 19/11
‘About as big as it gets’ says Martin Brabbins: ENO Music Director and conductor for this new production of The Valkyrie. When it comes to the orchestra, he’s not wrong: harps and timpani spill out of the pit and up into boxes at the Coliseum. But in every other sense, this new production seems to shy away from bigness. What it gains in contemporaneity and intimacy, it loses (dearly) in awful, moving power.
Stewart Laing, responsible for set and costume design, eschews the horned helmets of operatic cliché for doll house sets and mundane workwear: a little less Nordic myth, a little more Scandi crime drama, or Fargo lost footage. It’s also an effective way of shunting Wagner into the present day; far downstage, Hundig’s house captures a story of homelessness and domestic abuse and, under Richard Jones’ direction, the power dynamics between characters are generally convincing. So much for Act I: big, mythic characters normalised, their human relationships laid bare. It’s engaging, but it feels held back, with sinister stage-hands lurking in the background to suggest a little more otherworldly action on the horizon.
The gods dully arrive, but nothing seems bigger. Instead we have Wotan (Norse god of light, wind and other Big Things, played by Matthew Rose) in corduroy and brogues. Brunnhilde (titular Valkyrie and general Big Deal, played by Rachel Nicholls) arrives in pyjamas and sneakers. Big set piece scenes, like the eventual brawl between Siegmunde and Hundig (Brindley Sherrat), suffer most. Instead of a great tidal clash of opposites, all of the agents circle each other in a muddle, then suddenly Siegmunde is dead. There’s no dialectic struggle and there’s certainly no sense of tragic inevitability, just confusion.
Jones’ direction is generally surer of itself in less busy sequences. Wotan’s Act II monologue can drag, but Jones (with help from Akhila Krishnan’s background video) is able to reframe the action as a compelling moment of father-daughter intimacy. It’s one of many moments where Adam Silverman’s lighting demonstrates a knack for getting inside the heads of characters. That is the defining strength of this production: moments of loneliness and isolation where Silverman is able to cast a psychological state geographically across the stage with an assured combination of suggestive shadow play, quick cuts and spot-work.
Is it enough? A cold has whipped through the cast, so vocal performances will improve in later showings. There are already rich, powerful performances from Rose and Sherratt and the orchestra builds compellingly through each act. But some things will not change. John Deathridge’s translation is prosaic, with a few token topical gestures (Wotan’s ‘das ende’, for example, is rendered as ‘extinction’), and Sarah Fahie’s movement direction leaves characters aimlessly running laps of the stage. It’s safe to say, those hoping for definitive will be disappointed. But Wagner, himself tirelessly inventive, might have appreciated the few exploratory moments of immediacy in this ultimately muddled production.
Matthew Rose makes an impressive debut as Wotan for ENO in Richard Jones’s new Ring Cycle for ENO. In Wagner, there is a temptation to sacrifice beauty of tone and evenness of phrasing to dramatic intensity and volume. Rose takes an unusually bel canto approach, which pays dividends. His musicianly phrasing – combined with the necessary vocal weight, stage presence and dramatic expressiveness – superbly reinforces the thrust of the text, John Deathridge’s new translation helps here and makes the words fresh and resonant (extinction for das Ende). Sometimes it seems to have too many syllables and a very archaic word order, but this is probably also true of Wagner’s German.
Earlier times have seen Wotan as a noble God trying to undo the mess he has created by enabling free human agency, but finding it hard to abandon control. Nowadays he comes across more as a power-seeking chancer, patriarchal bully, and abusive parent. And there is plenty evidence in Wagner’s text for that view. This Wotan is a plaid-shirted American millionaire, who romps with Brunhilde in the luxury log cabin that is Valhalla. He lets her ride him like a horse, which feels queasily inappropriate rather than a mutual in-joke. There is still an attraction between him and his wife Fricka (mimed by an indisposed Susan Bickley and sumptuously voiced from a box on the side of the stage by Clare Burton-Jones). He is almost angry enough to hit his daughter for her disobedience, but doesn’t, and takes no pleasure in punishing her unlike some modern Wotans.
Nicky Spence, despite battling with a cold, is a sympathetic and heroic Siegmund, well up to the challenges of the role. Emma Bell’s intense Sieglinde has many thrilling moments, but also some wobbly ones. Brindley Sherratt’s Hunding is a magnificently sung deeply malevolent survivalist with a liking for rape, holed up in the woods with a feral gang who eat out of tins. Rachel Williams’ pure toned Brunhilde is occasionally drowned by the orchestra, but is a hugely endearing teenager out of her death among these compromised adults.
Richard Jones’s production has an admirable focus on the exchanges between the characters, which is when Martin Brabbins and the ENO orchestra are at their best: ideally the big moments need more energy and glossier strings. The production also has its minor annoyances. Distractions included video projections of Alberich during Wotan’s narrations, regular appearances from Wotan’s ravens, and scene shifters who seemed to be wearing hand grenades like suicide bombers. Stewart Laing’s economical designs were generally effective. But the Valkyries’ horses – in the form of dancers wearing impressive head masks on top of sheets – were misconceived and unconvincing. Westminster City Council unkindly vetoed the magic fire effects at the last minute. This was a shame, but we were warned in advance that we would need to use our imaginations. With this committed cast, we gladly did.
The Valkyrie Review
The ENO’s new production of Wagner’s The Valkyrie is a discordant one. A clunky aesthetic vision meant there was no artistic glue to mesh the elements of the production together leading to a confounding experience.
The Valkyrie, the second of Wagner’s four-part Ring Cycle, is pure fantasy: warring gods, a magic ring, and heroic sacrifices. So director Richard Jones’s decision to give The Valkyrie a modern aesthetic felt misguided. Wotan, the king of the gods and “father of war”, was not adored in a suit of armour. He wore a Canada Goose anorak and has a hipster beard, a look that is more suited to an independent coffee shop in Dalston than Valhalla. The Valkyries would not have looked out of place at Glastonbury in their clunky green rain macs, and Hunding’s hut was straight out of IKEA.
The design choices were probably an honest attempt to ground the opera in contemporary culture and appeal to young audiences. But they were uncomfortably jarring alongside the epic nature of Wagner’s opera, and often to the detriment of the performances. Despite a powerhouse vocal performance, Rachel Nicholls’s Brünnhilde never managed to embody the strength or angst or the titular warrior Valkyrie. This was no fault of her own, it was because she was distractingly dressed like Billie Eilish. Wagner’s Ring Cycle needs to be grounded in a fantasy, not reality. How else can we be asked to believe in a magic sword stuck in a tree or to root for the incestuous Siegmund and Sieglinde? Peppering in elements from contemporary culture to entice young opera goers won’t work with a five-hour long Wagner production. But then again, the ENO’s recent Tiger King inspired “Tiktok Opera” probably won’t either.
The set design added to the smorgasbord of strange creative choices. Log cabins and barren trees were awkwardly trundled onto stage only to then inexplicably disappear. Performers were often left swallowed by the vast empty space that felt more like a rehearsal room than a fantasy realm. For those not versed in Wagner it was often difficult to know where the action was taking place, something exacerbated by performers remaining static. Some sequences, that were heavy on exposition and light on action, quickly became cumbersome.
Fortunately, the conducer Martyn Barbbins and the ENO orchestra saved the day. They confidently navigated the emotional narrative woven into the music and carried the production when the staging failed to deliver. Despite being a problematic figure in the history of opera, Wagner knew how to write gorgeous music. While this production of The Valkyrie might not be Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, it is worth it just for the music.
Carol J Jones
ENO The Valkyrie – Sparks of promise
It’s disheartening whenever someone steps on stage before the first note has been played to talk about health and safety, in this case why there won’t be the iconic ring of fire at the end of Act III. It’s a sign of what’s to come in English National Opera’s promising, if precarious, new Ring cycle, starting with the second opera from the cycle, The Valkyrie.
Originally set in Norse mythology, director Richard Jones and designer Stewart Laing have moved Wagner’s opera of betrayal and inappropriate family relationships to a post-apocalyptic world. Survivalist cabins, barren trees and ash falling from the sky brilliantly encapsulate the “extinction” Wotan fears. This cannot be said for the video projections in Act II, which add nothing to Matthew Roses’ nuanced narration.
There’s an air of excitement with this cast, many making their role debuts. Emma Bell shines as Sieglinde, with a powerful voice that rings out and a transfixing stage presence. Lumberjack clad Matthew Rose excels as Wotan, combining powerhouse vocals with more intimate moments. Rachel Nicholls’ piercing voice helps make for a rebellious Brünnhilde and Brindley Sherratt terrifies as the violent Hunding. The Valkyries, led by a commanding Nadine Benjamin also create an imposing force that cannot be ignored. Nicky Spence and Susan Bickley were still recovering from head colds that had dampened the premiere days earlier, however, Spence’s voice came through to soar in Act II and Bickley’s fearsome Fricka dominated Rose.
Martyn Brabbins leads the full forces of the ENO orchestra, leading to a visual delight of seeing harps and percussion in the boxes. Brabbins captures the full range of Wagner’s orchestration, from the thundering “Ride of the Valkyries” to more delicate, chamber-like passages. While Acts II and III drag at times, Brabbins finds gradations within the score, assisted by the indomitable ENO orchestra.
While the music surmounts expectations, Jones’s direction at times is confusing and pedestrian. For example, there is no explanation for the random tap-dancing sprite in “Ride of the Valkyries”. Another example is the lack of interaction between Rose and Nicholl’s in Act III, who spend most of the act simply standing around.
Some have questioned why Jones, whose infamous 1993 production of the Ring cycle critics have not forgotten, has been allowed another shot at the cycle. But Jones and Laing’s premise of a world clinging to life has promise. One hopes the staging and fire can be fixed to match the vocal performances before it moves to The Met. Imagination only gets you so far.