Review: The Valkyrie Lacks Fire... Literally

The Valkyrie, London Coliseum ★★★☆☆

Review: The Valkyrie Lacks Fire... Literally The Valkyrie, London Coliseum 3
Nicky Spence and Emma Bell in a slightly underwhelming performance of The Valkyrie © Tristram Kenton

Will there be a time when staging the works of infamous anti-semite and Hitler favourite Richard Wagner won’t be controversial?

That time is definitely not now but it hasn't stopped the English National Opera ploughing on with their aim to put on all four parts of the German composer's Ring Cycle.

Rachel Nicholls as the eponymous Valkyrie Brunnhilde. © Tristram Kenton

The ENO have eschewed the traditional Ring opener for now and gone straight to the second part, incest drama The Valkyrie (The Rheingold will open in 2022/2023). Directed by Richard Jones with ENO musical director Martyn Brabbins leading the pit, this five-hour opera (including intervals) is for the most part, strikingly uneven, unambitious and underwhelming.

A case in point is the costume and set design where it seems every expense was spared: the cast — from the gods to the henchmen — are dressed in casual wear (plaid shirts, jeans, trainers and so on) while the first and second act are set largely within a small wooden house and a sparse stage-wide log cabin respectively.

The saving graces spring mostly from Wagner's score and plotting which are as heart-stirring as ever. © Tristram Kenton

The English translation by John Deathridge too often mutes the passionate power of the terrible dilemmas facing the central characters and Jones' direction is — until the last act — static to the point of enervating (possibly due to rehearsals being carried out over the last 18 months).

The saving graces here spring mostly from Wagner's score and plotting which are as heart-stirring as ever. The singing is exquisite, especially from Rachel Nicholls as the eponymous Valkyrie Brunnhilde and Matthew Rose's Wotan. In Brabbin's hands, the soul-rending Ride Of The Valkyries is sheer operatic Viagra and his orchestra vivifies a dour second act plagued by overlong duologues. Based on that act alone, one is left wondering how Hitler stayed awake through — never mind adored — Wagner's work.

Matthew Rose with the most amount of flame you'll see. © Tristram Kenton

The third act thankfully turns matters on their head by bringing the standard of stage pizzazz that should have been there from the off. Valkyries and their horses scour the battlefield as heroes are lofted into the air on their journey to Valhalla. Brunnhilde receives her punishment for betraying her father Wotan's commands: being put to sleep on a mountaintop so that any passersby may do with her as they like. At the last moment, Wotan accedes to his daughter's final wish and encircles her in a ring of fire that only the brave can breach. Or that's the idea at least: plans for a fiery finale were doused on the advice of Westminster City Council so (for at least this run), the audience is left to their imagination.

In Jones' hands, The Valkyrie is very much a curate's egg with questionable aesthetic choices and half-hearted direction distracting from the pit's immense contributions and the cast's superb vocal talents.

The Valkyrie, London Coliseum, until 10 December, from £10

Last Updated 22 November 2021

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