The question of when and where to set Wagner’s Ring is an entirely open one, since like Arthur and Lear, it is everywhere and nowhere. Richard Jones (director) and Stewart Laing (set and costume designer) answer this by locating Act 1 of Valkyrie in a Wickes shed, Act 2 in a Nativity stable, and Act 3 in a forest adapted from Waiting for Godot, which is certainly an everywhere-and-nowhere place.
The concluding ring of fire was cancelled following an oh-no-yer-don’t intervention by Westminster council, but the log fire by which a wounded Siegmund has a nap was a kind of little camping gas stove. The intention of set and costumes (of which more shortly and severally) seems to be to remove all dignity and divinity from the characters and the action, to make impossible any braggadocio. Perhaps the ghosts of Third Reich Bayreuth continue to haunt directors; perhaps there are still those who think the bourgeoisie needs more épater-ing, though I’m pretty sure by now few even Perfect Wagnerites are startled to see valkyries without horny hats.
The ENO orchestra under Martyn Brabbins really got its aggregated teeth into this score, which is easily underestimated if all you know is that bit on Classic FM. For one thing, they really took to heart the importance of how understated and quiet the music is for so long: as in a horror movie, the menace of having a whopping big orchestra playing quietly for most of the evening cannot be overstated. In addition, the no-expense-spared hiring notwithstanding, Wagner is quite happy to leave large numbers of musicians knitting and watching Sky Sports backstage, writing them in when he wants them. Thus an extended passage in which only basses and first timp play is fine with him. He didn’t have to fill in a grant application showing that he’d get his money’s worth from all four harpists.
Rachel Nicholls, in blue and white pyjamas and a breastplate, was Brünnhilde, one of the few sympathetic characters in the Ring. Nicholls is daddy’s girl and wants to do what she’s told, but the doomed twins Sieglinde and Siegmund call on her sympathies, so she breaks ranks. She sang well and deserves better direction.
Matthew Rose, in a check shirt and a red anorak, communicates Wotan’s struggle with conflicting ambitions and desires well. Nightmares about the threat to his family loom in gigantic videos (video designer, Akhila Krishnan) of Alberich coming for him, and the whole evening is full of shadows being cast (lighting designer, Adam Silvermann), many of them intentional.
Nicky Spence rings out like a heroic peal of bells as Siegmund. Emma Bell’s Sieglinde, in jeans and a tee-shirt, was the abused wife from The 39 Steps, welcoming a stranger (here with an industrial-sized jerry of water). Like Brünnhilde, a decent woman surrounded by vile men. The siblings work well together, despite schematic direction which initially has them moving like the figures in a German weather house.
Brindley Sherratt is her husband Hunding, a gangland figure with a dull-threat voice, followed around by three bodyguards and restless pp timp rolls. His domestic violence and coercive control make Wotan look sympathetic by comparison.
Susan Bickley’s Fricka, in a long creamy coat, is rather classier than her lumberjack husband. On the first night she had voice issues so mimed her role while Claire Barnett Jones sang it from the box over the harpists, before recurring as a valkyrie. That this worked better than you might think is a tribute to them both.
Her sisters (Nadine Benjamin, Mari Wyn Williams, Kamilla Dunstan, Fleur Barron, Jennifer Davis, Idunnu Münch, Claire Barnett Jones, Katie Stevenson) were in good voice and huge outward-bound bepocketed jackets. They are the only chorus moment of the show, but manage to be distinct characters. Their horses look like Warhorse rejects. Btw, don’t mind my asking but what was the figure jigging at the start of Act 3: Rossweisse’s naughty little sister or a member of the cast of Riverdance who’d got lost on their way to the Hammersmith Apollo? Mystified.
Small picky point: what is sung and what appears on the surtitles is frequently not the same. This is not as problematic as in bilingually entitled WNO, where things sometimes head in three directions.
As for that opening question of where to set it all, my own suggestion would have been to use the set and costumes from the concurrent HMS Pinafore. Pretty girl wants to get off with handsome youth but is hooked up with overbearing older man: it’s the same plot, just with an awful lot more trombones and tubas. Why not have Wotan and Hunding hotbunking Captain Corcoran and Sir Joseph Porter’s uniforms, and the valkyries borrowing colourful frocks from the latter’s sisters, cousins and aunts? Now I think of it, perhaps that’s where that mystery tap dancer originated.