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. 

Katie Stevenson, Claire Barnett-Jones, Idunnu Münch, Kamilla Dunstan, Nadine Benjamin (Valkyries)
© Tristram Kenton

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.

Rachel Nicholls (Brünnhilde)
© Tristram Kenton

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.

Matthew Rose (Wotan) and Nicky Spence (Siegmund)
© Tristram Kenton

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.

Rachel Nicholls (Brünnhilde) and Matthew Rose (Wotan)
© Tristram Kenton

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.

Brindley Sherratt (Hunding), Emma Bell (Sieglinde) and Nicky Spence (Siegmund)
© Tristram Kenton

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.

Rachel Nicholls (Brünnhilde) and Matthew Rose (Wotan)
© Tristram Kenton

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.

**111